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How Shakespeare helps children – and adults

Recently, on a Facebook group called ‘Fans of Shakespeare’ Alexandeer Kuskis shared a post called ‘How Music and Shakespeare turned around a failing school’ (See the original article:  How Music and Shakespeare turned around a failing school).  It brought an instantaneous comment from me:
“Yes! In Venezuela, ‘Sisetma’ has done wonders with kids through Classical Music, and I’ve seen children from 8 – 15 respond magnificently to Shakespeare.”

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In this post, I’d like to give a more considered response to why I think Shakespeare can be so enriching  for children. My view is similar to, but differs from that of the article quoted above, is not based on any academic research, but on practical experience over 10 years of working with children in community theatre promenade productions of Shakespeare.

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During one of these productions, I remember hearing the artistic directorr of the Royal Shakespeare Company saying on the radio that ‘of course it is impossible to get children to engage with Shakespeare, these days’. We didn’t seem to have that problem and I wondered why. Since then, I’ve puzzled over the problem, and come up with a few clues as to why.

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In 2012, the group put on a production of Twelfth Night. In the auditions to select the cast for the play, a new actress to the group, a 15-year-old girl, Caitlin, gave a very strong reading for the role of Viola. After some heartache over the risk we were taking with the production, we offered her the role. She went on to give an outstanding performance as Viola, helping to gain the production a 4-* review from Joyce McMillan, the doyenne of Scottish theatre critics, and Caitlin was awarded Joyce’s citation as “Performer of the week”.

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Over the coming years, we got to know the actress and her family quite well as she performed regularly in our annual Shakespeare productions. Talking to her mother one day, she told me that, when Caitlin was quite a small child, her mother, instead of watching children’s TV (which the mother found excruciatingly boring) with Caitlin, watched Shakespeare productions. This was my first clue.

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The next clue was how the other children in our productions behaved. Every year we would have 30 or so children, as well as the adult cast,  involved in the production. The rehearsals and the productions took place in the grounds of a C16 country house – once a hunting lodge for the kings of Scotland.  A large part of the reason why the productions were so popular with the local children, was not Shakespeare, but the opportunity to play together, largely  unsupervised, in the grounds of this house. But they learned their Shakespeare, almost unconsciously. Mostly they were playing spear-carriers or other extras, with maybe one or two of the better actors getting a line or two, and all the children involved in one scene, especially designed for them, and usually not having much to do with Shakespeare.

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Despite this limited involvement with Shakespeare’s play,  many of them ended up knowing loads of the lines in that play, which they seemed to assimilate sub-consciously. I remember, in Othello, I played the Duke of Venice, with an 11-year-old boy as my attendant. Although by that time I was beginning to have trouble remembering my lines, it never affected my performance. My attendant knew the whole scene off by heart, and so could discretely prompt me. He also knew the lines  of all the other scenes in which he appeared.

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Towards the end of rehearsals, the adult players and the children would rehearse together. The youngest age we would allow children to take part was usually about eight. In our production of King Lear,  I remember a host of eight-year-olds, gathering at each run-through, to watch mad Lear and blind Gloucester playing Act 4 Scene 5 (See Mad Lear meets blind Gloucester). They seemed particularly fascinated to see the two adult men crying together towards the end of the scene. And they watched it again and again, night after night.

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A major clue came from reading  The Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim, In this book (to quote Wikipedia), ‘Bettelheim presents a case that fairy tales help children solve certain existential problems such [as] separation anxiety, oedipal conflict, and sibling rivalries. The extreme violence and ugly emotions of many fairy tales serve to deflect what may well be going on in the child’s mind anyway.’ I don’t need to point out that Shakespeare’s plays are filled with extreme violence and ugly emotions – as well as comedy and more positive emotions – in fact pretty much the complete range of emotions that a human being feels.

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The Uses of Enchantment was reinforced by Iron John: A Book About Men, by Robert Bly, which explores in detail the influence of one fairy tale on the author, who also makes the point that fairy / folk tales seem to go back a long time; and that fairy / folk tales performed the same function as psycho-analysis, before that was invented. 

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But how does this relate to Shakespeare, and the child actors at the community theatre group in the Scottish Borders?

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My next clue comes from a Michael Woods television series, In Search of Shakespeare. In that series, Michael Woods tells us (on the basis of what evidence, I know not), that Shakespeare’s mother told him lots of fairy / folk tales (as did Goethe’s mother, apparently). Whatever the evidence for this, it is obvious that Shakespeare’s plays use motifs from folk tales, and have a similar enchantment on the audience that we associate with fairy / folk tales. Perhaps Shakespeare’s plays are Early Modern English equivalents of folk tales.

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If this idea, that Shakespeare’s plays have a similar affect on an adult or child  audience as fairy / folk tales is to have any value, we should be able to predict some outcomes from it:

  • Perhaps the most important is, that we shouldn’t ask children to ‘study’ Shakespeare. As the article on Music and Shakespeare in school outlined at the beginning of this post says, with relation to music: “the “Kodály approach,  involves teaching children to learn, subconsciously at first.”  Caitlin, with her mother, and the other children at our rehearsals, were experiencing  Shakespeare’s stories subconsciously and repetitively,  as we experience fairy / folk tales.
  • It also explains why play-reading is so attractive.
    • When we watch a Shakespeare production, we experience  Shakespeare’s stories subconsciously.
    • When we act in a Shakespeare play, we no longer experience the story, but replace it with a deeper understanding of a character.
    • Play-reading, particularly when parts are allocated randomly, just before the play-reading, so the players don’t focus too much on their characters, deepens the experience of the story because we are active participants in the telling of the story.

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Let’s Play!

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

 

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2 Responses to "How Shakespeare helps children – and adults"

  • Richard Forsyth
    October 12, 2017 - 4:48 pm Reply

    Fiona Morris commented on PlayersShakespeare.com’s Facebook page:

    That’s a great article Richard, I think you are making some excellent points. Force-feeding Shakespeare to children in school, as a text to read and criticise, can be at best (unless the teacher is pretty inspired) a chore and at worst a total turn off. But they do seem to absorb it naturally if given the chance. I remember the RSC voice coach over the weekend of Twelfth Night talking about how he learned to ‘talk Shakespeare’, almost like learning another language, as a child when his parents were keen amateur actors and I think that a lot of S@T children do the same. And you have brought back many happy memories!

  • Richard Forsyth
    October 13, 2017 - 7:40 am Reply

    Natasha Ready commented on Players-Shakespeare.com’s Facebook page:

    Our school library had a complete Shakespeare amongst fairytales. Opening it could be a lucky dip, but so were the fairy tales & no one got scolded for using a Shakespearean insult – the victim was encouraged to look it up and answer back…

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