Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tales of a Fourth Grade Shakespeare (Part 1)

So this time I got to return to the fourth grade for a rare "Part 2" lecture on Shakespeare.  I first visited my daughter's class back in February, and they were by far the best grade level I've yet dealt with. Just the right combination of academics, attention span and politeness. Too young and it's too hard for them to understand the material and/or pay attention when other kids are reading.  Too old and it's harder to keep their attention, they want to show how cool they are by ignoring the speaker.

What to do now that I've run through my usual array of props and biographical stories?  Performance!

I brought with me a selection of monologues (Midsummer, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Coriolanus, Hamlet, etc...) but more importantly some scenes to act (opening of Midsummer, Gertrude's bedchamber, Romeo/Tybalt/Mercutio fight, Brutus/Antony speak at Caesar's funeral, etc...) and some props -- my Yorick skull (of course), but also some homemade swords I made from foam pipe insulation.

So, the kids remember me and are happy to dig back into Shakespeare. I'm pleasantly surprised by the reaction I get.  They are embarking on a school play (not Shakespeare) and the whole reason I'm here is to encourage them to get up out of their seats and practice reading a script in front of an audience.

I take volunteers.  We start with the opening to Romeo and Juliet, since I figure they'll all recognize it (and they do). Of course, after the student reads it, I ask who understands it and nobody does.  They get that there's two families that don't like each other and that a boy and girl fall in love, but they could just as easily be getting that from their knowledge of the play. So I read it again to them, explaining that this is a gigantic spoiler, that right here in the first lines of the play Shakespeare has already told us that they're going to die. They find that quite curious.

Then I let somebody try Hamlet's Yorick speech.  I set the stage for when and why this speech occurs, but it's obvious that at this age they're going to be more impressed with "The gravedigger is getting rid of the old bones to make room for new ones" than any sort of existential crisis poor Yorick is going through.  So I let the next student start the speech, but then I stop him and break out the skull for him to talk to.

Again, at the end, nobody really *gets* it.  I ask if they recognize anything. I read "borne me on his back a thousand times" and ask if anybody knows what that means. I tell them that there's pretty good odds that some of them have done this recently.  One kid ventures, "piggy back rides?" and I tell him, "EXACTLY!" and go on to talk about growing up prince and having your own personal clown to play with.

I let one of the girls try Kate's speech from the end of Taming of the Shrew. Again, the fun for me is in setting up the scene.  "Ok, you're Kate, and you're a shrew.  Know what a shrew is? Not a very nice girl. All the boys don't want to have anything to do with her, which is fine with her because she doesn't want anything to do with them either! But her father is trying to marry her off, and she's having none of it. Every boy that he brings into the house, she throws things at him until he runs away. Until along comes this new guy, Petruchio, who says he loves a challenge and marries her anyway. Because that's how it worked back them, you as the girl didn't get to say who you wanted to marry. If your dad says you're marrying this guy, well, you married that guy.  The whole play is about these two fighting over who is going to back down first.  But at the very end a funny thing happens. They're at a wedding, and there's three husbands hanging out at a table comparing who has the best wife. So the first husband tells a servant, 'Go tell my wife to come here, I need her.' Servant leaves, comes back, says 'Your wife says what do you need?' and the whole wedding says OOOOOO!!!!!!  So the second husband says I'll show you how its done, tells the servant, 'Go in the other room and tell my wife I order her to come.'  Servant leaves, comes back, says 'Your wife says that if you need her you should go to the other room where she is.' Wedding is all OOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!  Finally Petruchio, who married Kate the shrew, says to the servant, 'Go and ask my wife to please come here.' Servant leaves, and in comes Kate, dragging the other two wives with her by the ear.  This is the speech that she gives them on how a wife is supposed to act."

She delivers the monologue and I tell them a little bit about the ending, using the expression "she's got him wrapped around her little finger" until I discover that they don't know what that means. Oh, well.

At this point the teacher fires up the projector to share a video I brought. I'd come with Coriolanus' "Common cry of curs" speech, but I thought it would be fun to show a video of this speech being performed, and then let them have a go at it.  (I also brought Henry V, but this one was shorter so I started here). Funny thing, though, is that I tried to grab Ralph Fiennes' version (since I own that one on DVD), but late last night I realize that I'd actually downloaded Tom Hiddleston's version!

So I put the speech in context.  I say, "Who here knows Captain America?"  Every hand shoots up.  "Ok, now imagine Captain America a few thousand years ago. Here's this super soldier standing at the front of the Roman Army, leading all the charges into battle, singlehandedly crushing every enemy.  Literally, the battle starts, he runs ahead, and by the time the rest of the army shows up, the enemy is already defeated.  That's this dude Coriolanus. Well, the politicians start thinking, what do you do with a war hero? You make him into a politician.  Only the problem is, he doesn't want to be a politician. He hates the idea. Doesn't like hanging out with regular people. He wants to be out there on the battlefield. And his political enemies know this.  The tide turns on him, and before he knows what's happening, the people that he's spent his life defending are now demanding that he be the one who is banished from the city!  This is what he has to say to them in return..."  *play*

After the speech I ask, "Did that guy look familiar at all?"

One kid's hand shoots up.  "Is that Ralph Fiennes?"  He even pronounced in "Ray".  Well, I suppose "Rayf" is probably more accurate.

I give him a double take.  "No, but nice pull! How did you guess that?  Ralph Fiennes actually did another movie version of Coriolanus, that I almost brought. But no, this is not Ralph Fiennes' version."  I'm still not sure how the kid had that name ready.  He obviously didn't know the movie, because he would have known that this is not him. But he must also have known that it existed.  Not too many people see "Ralph" and know to pronounce it.

The kids eventually figure out that it is Loki from the Avengers movie and that same kid says, "Tom Hiddle...something."

I get the feeling that I'm losing them with the monologues. The hands are still shooting up to come up to the front of the class and read something, which is good, and I have a whole bunch more to choose from ... but I realize that when one kid is reading and not really understanding what they're saying, there's 20 kids trying not to be bored.  I've tried to tell them to move around and to emote a bit, but it's not working.  They need some stage directions.

Time to bring out the swordplay.

To be continued!

And now, a break for our fundraiser.  This year, Shakespeare is Universal is looking to prove that Shakespeare makes life better by donating money to support cancer research. Last year's shirt was a big success and we're looking forward to shattering our previous goal, all in the name of charity. Please take a moment, visit the site and see if I can't convince you to show the world your love for Shakespeare and support a great cause.  Not for you? Fair enough - but that's what those Share buttons are for!  Don't leave without telling your friends and family. Surely you know somebody that would love one of our limited edition shirts.  Available this year in multiple styles including long sleeve, v-neck and women's styles. Multiple colors available!

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