Use the force of Will-power

Roz Symon

Primary teachers are discovering that even the youngest children respond with enthusiasm to Shakespeare and greet his language without fear. Roz Symon reports.

I was quite surprised when I found out Sumeira was doing Shakespeare and thought she would find it hard to understand and hate it but I was wrong. She absolutely loves it."

This is a typical response from parents of children at a Glasgow primary school where 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds are studying a wide selection of Shakespeare's plays.

While secondary pupils generally wait until Year 9 before studying Shakespeare, progressive primary school teachers all over the country are discovering that even their youngest children are gaining great confidence and delight from far earlier introductions: 37 rich and universally pertinent stories are there to be appropriated.

But where to begin? It helps to have a clear idea of what you want your class to achieve. This may be a simple understanding of a play's storyline, of characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Even at key stage 3 it seems few teachers are tackling texts whole. The emphasis is on stimulation of appetite. The days of allocating parts and reading round the class are, mercifully, passing. Shakespeare at school can be synonymous with pleasure.

Last term at Norbury Manor Primary in south London, a group of seven- to 11-year-olds confirmed beliefs that not only is Shakespeare accessible to everyone but that his plays can cause children of all abilities and backgrounds "to contribute and be creative together", as one parent put it. Seeking help from dedicated teachers prepared to relinquish two evenings a week for a term and a half, they formed their own extra-curricular production club to direct, design and perform a music-full, choreographed version of The Tempest, based on the animated cartoon.

The deputy head at Scotchman Middle School in Bradford, Alex Fellowes - featured in a recent article by Kevin Berry (TES September 1) - was a child spellbound when his father told him Shakespeare's tales. He now uses them as a learning experience throughout the curriculum. Scotchman's pupils predominantly come from Asian families. In response to what Alex Fellowes calls negative and patronising statements that they should be reading stories from their own culture, he reiterates his fervent belief that all children are entitled to the great literature of all countries and highlights how analogous, for example, are Romeo and Juliet, Hir and Ranja.

And so he starts by telling a story. Plot fixed, he goes on to focus on key scenes, establishing an understanding of situation and emotions, encouraging children to improvise using a variety of registers - English, Shakespeare and their mother tongue. At Scotchman this will be Urdu or Punjabi, elsewhere Gaelic, Mandarin Chinese, Welsh, or perhaps a dialect, such as Scouse.

Heywood School pupils (in the Forest of Dean) who were engaged in a two-term, cross-curricular "Will-power" project based on A Midsummer Night's Dream sought help from older members of their families and communities when translating the dialogue of the Mechanicals into their own, alas, fast-disappearing Forest di alect.

When performing their version of the Dream, Scotchman pupils spoke English during the Athenian palace scenes and Punjabi in the forest - mistaken identity and a second language greatly enhancing their largely Asian audience's enjoyment of the play. For The Winter's Tale performers spoke English in Sicily, Punjabi in Bohemia and set the sheep-shearing scene - when Perdita and Florizel, disguised, are discovered by an irate Polixenes - at a Punjabi wedding. In this way they are able to make a text their own and when that happens, the ground is ripe for detailed analysis and exploration.

With older or more able pupils ambitious teachers may launch straight into the text. Wayne F Hill's and Cynthia J Ottchen's book Shakespeare's Insults - Educating Your Wit (published by Main -Sail Press, Cambridge) is a highly entertaining introduction to Shakespeare's language. Liberties should be taken and experiments with register encouraged. Kathy Galloway, assessing her 11-year-old daughter's introduction to Shakespeare, spoke of the confidence and knowledge her daughter had gained "but most of all I think she has enjoyed the language. It has been a delight to hear her insult her brothers in rolling Shakespearean phrases!" Although A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest always prove popular introductions, some teachers have successfully begun with less obvious choices such as The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet.

The latter, with its straightforward narrative, contains elements which even very young children understand: everyday things such as love and friendship, gangs and fighting, arranged marriages and families who don't get on. Brainstorm what the children already know. They will come up with parallel stories from popular culture and romances from all over the world.

With younger children, it can help to establish the world of the play: a Verona street, teeming with Capulets, Montagues, masquers, watchmen, servants and others low on the list of dramatis personae. The class can then move on to create, in groups, "statues" which encapsulate key words or themes: families, hatred, young love, quarrel, friendship and death. Encourage the class to sequence their pictures in any order, so telling their own stories.

Another useful way in to the play is via the Chorus. Tried and tested uses of the opening sonnet include making tableaux of the main events to give a mimed summary of the action or cutting it into couplets, shuffling the pieces and getting students to reassemble the narrative in a logical order.

With older or more ambitious pupils you might hand out descriptions of the central characters using extracts from the text. For example, describing Romeo: "Away from light steals home my heavy son And private in his chamber pens himself" (Lady Montague); "Madman! Lover!" (Mercutio); "They stumble that run fast", (Friar Laurence). Ask pupils to discuss what kind of person would say such things and what sort of person such extracts describe.

I'm convinced that no one is too young for Shakespeare. A final word from two 12-year-olds.

Josef: "What I like about Shakespeare is his language. It is as if you're learning a new one, stepping into another dimension." Punam: "I love Shakespeare because it's dramatic and powerful. The language itself is beautiful. Some of his plays are humorous, others serious, but I enjoy them all. At first they were hard to understand but now the language comes naturally."

Roz Symon leads Shakespeare workshops throughout the country for all ages

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