One day we stumbled upon a picture of William Shakespeare in a story about England. One student asked me about Shakespeare, and I told him he was one of my favorite authors. He then asked the one dreaded question that has destroyed countless philosophies, doctrines, and regimes – not to mention curriculums: “Why?” And so began what I call The Great Digression that would forever change the way I approached education; I spoke of the characters, the puns, colorful language – of murders, heroic triumphs, witches, fairies and pithy insults. The students wanted more. I shared a few of Mercutio’s lines from “Romeo and Juliet,” and their eyes cleared up. I completely missed the objectives in the day’s reading lesson in a story about a boy who decides to sell oranges from his grandfather’s orchard.
A couple of students came back and asked what it would take for them to perform “Romeo and Juliet.” I laughed, but I knew they were serious. I told them I would have to do some digging. I flipped through a couple of resource magazines and discovered an elementary version of the play. A week or two later, the much reduced script of “Romeo and Juliet” arrived in the mail. I asked the principal if it would be okay to perform this play with my students, and he mentioned that “Romeo and Juliet” might not be “culturally relevant” to these kids. I pointed out that something about Shakespeare seemed to resound in my students’ hearts. Not wishing to discourage me, he approved the idea, perhaps recognizing that this class had chased last year’s teacher into an early retirement, and anything that inspired them surely must be a good thing. Goodbye lamb book, hello Shakespeare.
So we set to work. We divided up the parts, and my young students leaped onto that tricky, tongue-wrenching terrain known as Shakespearean English. They fired off their thous, woos, and come hithers. Gradually, they began to discover the beauty in Shakespeare’s poetry, and laugh at the rich, quirky characters. Across my walls were posted sections from the scripts, and the students sometimes missed gym in favor of working on our play. Two cousins played the part of Romeo and Juliet, and the student who was always out in the hall because of troublemaking became Mercutio. He never sat out in the hall again, and when he “caught” his first seal, a huge rite-of-passage for a young boy, he stated that he had “wooed” it.
On performance night, outfitted in the gaudiest costumes Value Village could muster, this little class of fifth- and sixth-graders shined. The parents, elders, and curious community members nodded and laughed with approval. Shakespeare entered the hearts of these young people, who, if you believed the cultural pundits, would never have related to the stories told by a crudgy, 400-year-old Englishmen. Shakespeare was right, the skeptics wrong, and even before our performance he had proven to be one of the most enduring and transcultural of artists –inspiring people in China, Russia, the Middle East – why his play Macbeth was adapted by the Tlingit in Southeast Alaska. Only the Bible has been translated into more languages. President Lincoln kept a copy of Shakespeare’s works on his desk, and we know he was no slouch. Shakespeare proves that imagination can tie us together as human beings.
We went on to perform Macbeth, using ketchup for the bloody murder scene, and The Tempest where an old wooden skiff filled in for the shipwreck scene. And through it all I watched some very young people drawn into the Bard’s orbit, as if by a spell. If you were to ask me why, I would have to reduce everything to two reasons:
Shakespeare’s language and his three-dimensional characters are mesmerizing, and through magic touch the common core of who we are as humans. The character Hamlet has haunted me my entire life. I have watched and read the play at least 30 times, and each time I journey through the words, I am drawn to some different discovery. Recently, I have pondered the way Hamlet apologizes to Laertes right before their famous duel with these words:
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o'er the house
And hurt my brother.
How gracious, how beautiful.
This year as we produce the Tempest, the same hidden treasures abound. During class, when I am making an important point about a character, I will often look at the class and exclaim Prospero’s warning to Miranda: “Dost thou attend me.” And my class, like Miranda, responds: “Sir, Most heedfully.”
Even Trinculo, the fool, can be profound. In Act II, Scene II, when he is examining what he thinks is a dead monster fish, but in reality is Caliban, he pierces the heart of modern men with these words:
When they will not give a doit (dollar) to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.
He’s absolutely right. How many of us would spend money on cheap entertainment, cage fighting in Anchorage comes to mind, rather than to help out a homeless person? Wow! His words sometimes force us to consider the absurdity of ourselves.
And then there is Prospero, an enraged aristocrat, who slowly learns the importance of patience, mercy, and forgiveness. He realizes that to be vengeful is to slowly poison your heart and soul, and he sees the light in Act V when he says:
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gaitist my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance:
But Prospero also enchants us, forces us to consider what is important in life. So much of what we consider essential, is really not. Every material thing on this earth will ultimately wither and perish as he points out:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Soon our revels – this play -- will be ended, but one thing will endure: Shakespeare has ignited something deep in our students with beautiful words spoken by some of the most intriguing characters who have ever graced the stage. Where will these words take our students? Has Shakespeare permeated their hearts and minds? I do believe, they would answer, “Most heedfully.” Indeed.