Shakespeare for Kids: the Puzzles

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.

4 thoughts on “Shakespeare for Kids: the Puzzles

  1. What an excellent post on a rainy Tuesday (yes, it’s raining here as well). And what a relief that they enjoyed Shakespeare (why is that such a relief? But it is). I’ll check out the show, for sure.

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  2. Thanks for reminding me about Slings and Arrows, one of the best shows I have ever seen. Time to rewatch.
    What I remember getting me into Shakespeare as a kid was being asked to translate the Balcony Scene into “modern” language, and what fun that was to have Romeo say, “Hey! Shh!” instead of “But soft!” and how I realized that you could do pretty much anything with language. However, full disclosure: my father was an English prof who left Swift lying around the house, not on purpose, but just because.

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  3. I love love love Slings and Arrows.
    I just finished directing a 45 min. production of The Tempest with only preK-2nd graders. All Shakespeare’s language (and a narrator). It sounds nuts, but it worked. And some professional Shakespeare people have said that in fact early is better because you get them before they can get intimidated by the language.
    There are many children’s versions of Shakespeare, but we love the Bruce Coville picture book ones the best. They’re beautiful. Also, the BBC’s animated tales versions, which you can easily find on Youtube.

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  4. I understand what you mean about wanting them to edify themselves; I so want them to love many of the same things I love, but I don’t want to be the parent who has to pounce on every “teachable moment” until there are no regular moments left. How lovely that they had such a great time with Shakespeare–and how reassuring to know that their exposure to it in school doesn’t have to be painful. The more I read and learn, the more I realize how truly wonderful many classic stories are (not just in a hifalutin’ “I want to be a person who read that” way, but funny and exciting and interesting–who knew?) and I want my kids to discover those things too. I certainly hope I can ride the fine line that lets them without forcing them!

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