My daughter’s third grade class is performing 12th Night and this has raised a lot of questions in the parent community. Does it make sense to expose eight and nine year olds to Shakespeare? Some adults I know can’t handle it. Heck, I majored in English, studied Shakespeare, and yet it takes my ear 10 to 15 minutes of a performance to adjust to the vocabulary and syntax of Elizabethan English. For a titanically abridged (30-45 minute) production delivered by third graders who are sweating bullets just trying to remember what they’re supposed to say – much less convey meaning – it can be a challenge for an audience. Of course we the parents love it regardless because it’s our little darlings but are we doing them any favors putting them through this?
At our school there is the additional question of the English Language Learners (ELL) from China and Ethiopia who don’t have the cultural background in a European institution like Shakespeare.
Do third-graders get anything out of learning a few new terrifically arcane words? Is the stress and anxiety of performing fortifying to their little psyches? Would they relate better to something more culturally relevant to them – High School Musical perhaps? Or, considering the bawdy humor of 12th Night, Mama Mia?
Speaking of the bawdy humor of 12th Night – an aside – some of the parents got together and staged a reading of our adaptation (along with dramaturgical deconstruction and a comparison with the original text.) Turns out cutting it down to 30 minutes was easy because that’s all that’s left of the play after you take out all the sex jokes. Oh Shakespeare, you naughty boy!
So where do I come down on this argument? Ultimately I’m for it. Of course, my wife majored in theater direction in college and I had the aforementioned Shakespearean education; so we are more than happy to flog our children with it. But beyond that we see it as an opportunity to stretch the kids, get them out of their comfort zone and let them know there’s something more to the world. I’m guessing that, to some extent, this is the teacher’s motivation as well.
The performance went off without a hitch. The kids would stride on to stage, take up an action stance with feet spread wide and churn through their lines. Sebastian and Antonio would come on and pose (inadvertently) like two depression era newsboys. I wanted them to start doing teeny tiny Edward G. Robinson impersonations, “… the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours, see? Rico shall crave of you your leave that I may bear my evils alone, see?” It works perfectly.