Should Schools Perform Shakespeare if They're Not Learning Shakespeare?

  • Arianna Engnell

Shakespeare wrote (avoiding the conspiracy theories) some of the best-known literature in the world in an unbelievable way. His words operate as a director's guide for the actor, which makes both the actor's and director's job easier, in theory. The actor's experience is easier if they know how to tackle the Shakespearean language. The poetics are far more complex than people might think with prose, in-verse, and blank verse scansion and all the poetics and imagery of his style. I am thankful to my high school directors who encouraged the understanding of the Shakespearean language. I pose this question with a challenge: are Shakespearean plays worth it if you will not show your kids how to do them?

Is it worth having middle schoolers and high schoolers do Shakespeare shows when they are not introduced to the opportunity of doing the scansion and leaning into poetry correctly? There is more to Shakespeare than just understanding what you are saying, and many grade school productions have shown just how few kids understand what they're saying.

Understanding what Shakespeare is communicating is incredibly important. Some kids need help because a lack of understanding can also be seen in the modern plays in which they also act. I propose that if you choose to do a Shakespearean show, invest your time in helping them understand the language and teach them how to do scansion. Send them home before auditions or after the read-through to watch John Barton's series "Playing Shakespeare." It is perfect for the modern kid to watch someone show them how it is supposed to be done instead of reading or hearing how it is done. I completely understand how you might think that most of your kids will not do anything that requires more work. Too many kids? Introduce them to Barton on YouTube. You will have at least one who rises to the occasion to better their understanding (that kid will mostly be the one who pursues theatre as a career). Teach and encourage for that kid.

If you decide not to, I'll ask, again, is it worth it? Is it worth it to your kids to do a show they do not understand and probably detest out of the frustration as a result? That is one of the most common denominators of why people dislike Shakespeare: lack of understanding. Is it worth it to your audiences who will most likely struggle to follow along?

A lot of kids do not even realize the poetics that make up Shakespearean language and would most likely jump at bettering their understanding. I think it is far more difficult for kids to adopt the beauty and format of scansion after doing multiple Shakespeare shows in their regular cadence. It is easier for someone who has never done Shakespeare before to jump in when they have a good teacher. I had one in my Acting Shakespeare class, but wow, were my bad habits incredibly challenging to break.

Finding the balance of naturalism and the heightened language is why there are so few great Shakespearean actors. I think audiences would have a better time watching a high school or middle school production if it was led by a "bad" actor who understands what they were saying and the poetics than a usually good actor who has no understanding of what they are saying. The tempo of the show will be a whole lot longer with someone who does not understand. The plot, like David Mamet, would fiercely declare, is far more important than the characters. I'll reiterate: if you do not have the time to help your kids, have them watch the Barton videos or pick a different play. To flip the age-old actor question on you, what is your motivation to do Shakespeare?

(I did my best to avoid making a pun out of one of Shakespeare's famous lines.)