A great pleasure of the past few years has been watching, on a friend's recommendation, Slings and Arrows, a Canadian (gentle) satire about a Shakespeare Festival—its egocentric actors, mad directors, plus a ghost. I urge you all to rent it or buy it or magically get it onto your viewing screen somehow or other. It's the sort of show where the overwhelming response (at least on my part) is utter delight.
My husband and I got so into it, that when we'd watched all the seasons through (only three!) we did something we never do: we watched the "extras" section on the DVD.
The woman who created the show, Susan Coyne, is almost ridiculously accomplished: she created the series, she's written several books, she acted in the series, she's translated Chekhov—on and on until you are quite overwhelmed. She was interviewed in this little side section, and one of the things she said (I'm paraphrasing here) was "I think we don't teach Shakespeare to our children early enough. The language is so wonderful, it's so much fun." And I thought, "She's probably right, ah well, if we lived in Canada we'd be better people," and then more or less forgot about it.
It's not that I disagree with her. And it's not that I don't want to expose my kids to Shakespeare. I guess I more wanted to be the kind of person whose kids were somehow effortlessly exposed to Shakespeare without my having to consciously do anything about it. Because, somehow, consciously doing something about it made me too aware of myself as the kind of asshole who is constantly edifying her kids, instead of letting them, I don't know, edify themselves? Writing this I can see none of my actions or thoughts make any kind of sense, but maybe that's just the way of a rainy Tuesday morning. Or being me.
At any rate, Shakespeare managed to show up once or twice in spite of my inner conflict—in an anthology of poems for children (Puck's speech), as a reference in Gilbert & Sullivan, as a reference in the Bone books and just about everything else (Diana encountered much of Hamlet's To be or not to be soliloquy in Calvin and Hobbes). But the lovely reading aloud of Shakespeare I envisioned from hearing Susan Coyne's rapturous memory of her childhood? Not so much of that.
And then we got to 6th grade. And here he is. And my hesitation became a little clearer to me: I wanted (so much!) for my kids to go crazy for Shakespeare, and what if I forced it? What if it didn't work out? What if (gasp!) they didn't like each other?
But it's been wonderful. Crazy and fun, with people acting in Cymbeline (!) and then, the puzzles: the whole class split into tables, and each table got a sonnet cut into pieces. They had to try to reassemble it the way they thought it ought to go.
They had fun. They read the sonnets. It was wonderful.
I can't tell you how much I was dreading middle school, and then here, in the middle of it, something amazing.
And so what is my point? I don't know: that you should watch the show. That Shakespeare will find you even if you are weak and imperfect. That cutting the poems up and putting them together is an excellent way to have fun with a bunch of 11-year olds. That there are all sorts of joys to discover.