During a particularly bad Idaho winter in 1996, my 10 year old niece visited me for the weekend. She accompanied me to a meeting of my Shakespearean troupe, Stage of Fools. Only one other brave soul dared to trek through the snow to rehearse that day, so we abandoned our show and read a scene that allowed my niece to play along. We chose the Lady Macduff murder scene…what 10 year old doesn’t love to die a dramatic death?
We started our exploration of the text by reading through the scene. I was amazed at how quickly she picked up the language. There were only a few words that she needed help defining, and after the second reading, she fully understood the action of the scene. This is when the fun began…we got the scene up on its feet. With every reading, she became more and more animated and died with dramatic flourish. It made me wish that she lived closer so that she could join the Stage of Fools!
I could have performed the scene with her all night, but the weather made me nervous, so we donned our winter wear to make the slow trip home. Before leaving the theatre, she asked me if she could borrow Macbeth for the week and give it back when I visited her the following weekend. Of course, I said yes.
The next weekend, I attended her 11th birthday party. To my surprise, she and her friends took turns enacting the scene for our entertainment during the party. It turns out that she had read the entire play that week and taken the script to school so that she and her friends could practice during recess. As you might imagine, I was one proud aunt.
A few years later, I was able to take her to the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was a very special trip for us. Today, she is an adult who still has a passion for Shakespeare. In fact, she has our favorite quote tattooed down the back of her leg, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Over the years, as the owner of the Shakespeare High website, I’ve been asked by parents and educators how soon we can expose our children to Shakespeare. I always cite this anecdote as evidence that young children are more than capable of reading, understanding, enjoying, and embracing Shakespeare’s language. While attending the “Shakespeare for All” workshop at the 2012 NCTE conference, Folger educators shared that “cognitive psychology tells us that adolescents have a harder time with language acquisition and dialect differences. Start with grades 3-6 because they are ready.” By introducing our younger students to Shakespeare’s language in small chunks, they will soon be ready to tackle a full play, and 9th grade teachers will no longer hear moans and groans when they introduce Romeo and Juliet for the first time.
Although I don’t teach elementary school, I enjoyed learning about the performance-based methods used when teaching Shakespeare to younger children. If I didn’t live in the “other” Washington, I would attend the Folger Shakespeare Library Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom June 24-26, 2013. The conference theme is Sharing Our Stories. I’m thankful that I was able to share my niece’s story with you and hope you will share your stories with me by leaving a comment below.
Amy Ulen is a TSI 1996 Alumni. After 20 years of teaching English and theatre, she moved into technology education. She created the Shakespeare High website and eventually plans on updating it again. She continues her passion for incorporating technology into the study of Shakespeare both online and in face-to-face workshops.