When, and How Much?

Discussion time.  When, in your opinion, should Shakespeare be introduced?  I’m looking for a specific age/grade level.  Along with that, what are your *expectations* of understanding Shakespeare at that age?

Last week the topic came up over that whole darned Cliff Notes thing (yet again) and whether you’re assisting students in their introduction to the material (and thus a good thing), or dumbing it down because you acknowledge that they’ll never understand the real thing (which I don’t think anybody is for 🙂 ).

Long time readers know my answer.  My kids have heard *about* Shakespeare and his stories since they were born. And I  mean that almost literally.  My youngest saw his first production of The Tempest while still in his stroller – we were telling that story long before that. The archives for this blog are loaded with stories of me coming home from work and overhearing my daughter playing games with her Barbies which that day were named Ariel, Miranda and Sycorax.  Over the years my older kids have taken to reading the “for kids” versions of the plays on their own, and I’m not shy about showing them quotes and explaining their meaning.

As for my expectation, well, that’s sort of my motivation for the question. I’m ok with my 5yr old knowing plot and character. He asked for King Lear, for pete’s sake.  *Asked* for it.  So when you show me a 17yr old that has to read Romeo and Juliet and goes running for whatever crutches he can find because he’s already convinced it’s too hard and he’s never going to understand it, I get frustrated.  Had we just brought them up on these stories from a very young age, this wouldn’t happen as often as it does.

There are other problems with expectation when it comes to Shakespeare. Last night a Twitter follower asked me for help with her Hamlet homework.  Her essay question?  

“One critic said, ‘Hamlet himself seems stranded between two worlds, unable to emulate the heroic values of his father, unable to engage with the modern world of diplomacy.’ To what extent does this statement explain why Hamlet is a tragic character?”

Are you kidding me??  What high school student, forced to stay awake long enough to even *read* that question let alone *answer* it, will go through life thinking “Wow, I really got into Hamlet, that was an awesome play.”  These are students who have just been introduced to it, and are at the same time trying to get their heads around that same story and character that, had they lived in my house, they would have learned 10+ years ago. And you’re asking questions like that?! Are you crazy?!

I suppose it has value, but there are times when I simply *loathe* literary analysis of the plays.  I try to go back to what Shakespeare was trying to say, versus what 400 years of critical analysis has read into it, and wonder what we should test kids on.  Tell me what you thought of the play. Tell me how you sympathized with the characters, or did not.  Where did you rage?  Where did you laugh out loud? Why? Which passages do you remember because they resonated with you in just the right way?  How do AC Bradley and TS Eliot change what Hamlet means to you?

Ok, rant over.  Been busy at the day job so I haven’t been posting as often as I should, and wanted to see if I could get some conversation going.

31 thoughts on “When, and How Much?

  1. Well, I can't speak to the "shoulds" of your question. But my personal experience opened the door for my continued love of Shakespeare. I went to a British school abroad, entering in 4th grade. One of our many language oriented classes was Literature (we also studied Grammar, Penmanship, and Writing), in which we read many Shakespeare plays. Together. In the classroom. No dummying down, no Cliff's Notes. Sometimes the teacher would assign roles and we'd read the play as a cast. Other teachers would simply read aloud or ask us to read a scene quietly, then discuss it. I'm sure they picked plays that were better for young audiences (I don't recall reading any of the histories, for example), but I loved the language and the experience. When I returned state-side for 7th grade, I don't recall Shakespeare in the curriculum. But it was there for high school – and I was amazed at the fear with which both students and teachers approached the assigned play. We were fortunate enough to read Romeo and Juliet as our "first" Shakespeare play (earlier classes read Julius Caesar). But even with that very approachable and teen-oriented work, the reputation and fear of Shakespeare as grand literature pretty well ruined the experience for the students. The teacher and I had a good time!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don't have a concrete answer, but I know that my school did Hamlet in 6th grade. Two of the English teachers convinced all the rest of them that we were smart enough to handle it, and everyone looked at them like they were nuts, but the thing was, they were right. We read the play – just the play, no cliffsnotes or modern translations – as a group and we talked about it and acted out scenes and wrote our own versions of the "To Be or Not To Be" speech in small groups. We didn't do any heavy analysis, but we were 11, so we weren't really supposed to. We were just reading the play and learning the story and the characters and the language.

    And the most exciting thing about it was that they were stressing the fact that everyone could do it. They mixed up all the classes and put us in small combined groups, so the gifted kids and the regular kids were all mixed up and you were with a bunch of strangers and you had no idea whether anyone in your group was the "smart kid" or the "dumb kid" or anything, because you didn't really know each other yet. So that meant we all just got to dig in and enjoy it, without worrying that we weren't going to get it.

    It didn't seem scary, because when they introduced it, our teachers kind of laughed at the idea that people would think 11-year-olds couldn't do Shakespeare. They reinforced over and over that even though the language is sometimes kind of confusing, it isn't so hard that you can't figure it out, especially because if you get enough of it to understand the characters and the action, then the rest falls into place pretty well. They were so confident that we could do it that we believed them, and it all went off without a hitch. Then when we got to high school, most of the kids I'd known in 6th grade were totally chill with the idea of doing Romeo and Juliet while the kids who'd gone to the other middle school seemed terrified by the proposition. Even though we did more complicated analytical things with the play at age 14 than we had at 11, we still had that thought in the back of our heads that Shakespeare really wasn't so hard, and then for us it mostly wasn't.

    Doing it so young also made for several nice surprises when I did Hamlet again my senior year of high school. 11-year-olds do not notice the dirty jokes and even if they did, they would not understand them. 17-year-olds notice half of them and generally still think the rest are pretty funny once they're pointed out and explained. So even though it was frustrating to be doing the analysis stuff, I still had that feeling like I was discovering a whole new (dirty) play. The analysis meant something to me and it was exciting to notice new things, because I wasn't worried about the basics of the story and the characters, so I could enjoy everything else while the kids who hadn't had Hamlet when they were younger freaked out.

    So I guess the short answer is definitely by middle school. I feel like a lot of understanding Shakespeare is not being afraid of it, because if you're afraid of it you give up too easily and you don't puzzle out the stuff that's hard. If you go into it thinking you can do it, you keep trying until you prove yourself right. Giving kids the real thing and making them believe they can do it, even though it seems like it should be too hard, makes them feel confident and smart and it'll help them when they find more Shakespeare down the road.

  3. Ugh. That is exactly the sort of thing I *cringe* when I realize teachers are inflicting on their students. There are such more fun ways into Shakespeare than that.

    I discovered Shakespeare at 11, and had no trouble whatsoever with Romeo and Juliet then. My younger sister and cousin got it even earlier — my cousin saw me in Two Gents when she was just five, and she stayed engaged and interested in the whole time, and understood the plot just fine. My sister's 3rd-grade teacher introduced them to Shakespeare using some sort-of-comic-book-like adaptations, which gave the outline of the plot and used some of the best/most famous lines to move the story along. I don't remember which or how many they did, but I do recall that Lear was her favorite of them. My sister also got dragged to a lot of Shakespeare pretty young because of my interest in it; she preferred Shakespeare to musicals because she has sensitive hearing, and Shakespeare tended to be a lot less loud and scary for her. Imagine my pride when, as a high-schooler, she started sassing her classmates for reading iambic pentameter with the wrong rhythm!

    So, my answer is, they're never too young to start 'em on it! I know my kids won't be able to escape it. And if you don't tell them it's too hard, they won't think that it is.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I feel that I have to stand up for the anonymous teacher, whose question has elicited such pat (and perversely proud) declarations of contempt from this blog's author and its commentators. The hew and cry of the amateur against the academic has always been "yes, you may study it, its history, its context and its complex tradition, but I love it; therefore my way is better." They thus think the job of the English teacher is to get kids to love Shakespeare, to think that he's cool! Why? Why the f**K should anyone love Shakespeare? Well, once you start answering those questions, guess what? You start sounding like an critic or an academic – because of the beauty of Shakespeare's technical skill, because of he's been a constant source of inspiration for the English literary tradition, because it reflects a powerfully important moment in the development of modern history (i.e. the road to the Enlightenment and away from the Middle Ages). If you tell kids, "Oh, it's just about how you feel and which characters you like," then they might as well be watching "Lost" or reading "The Hunger Games" (neither of which I mean to devalue; I only want to imply that there's no particular reason to prefer Shakespeare to these other forms of entertainment if subjective response is all your looking for). The role of a teacher SHOULD BE to challenge kids to look at something more than their own prejudices and preferences, to think complexly and critically. I feel like the back lash against the essay question quoted in this post is a snide dismissal of having high expectations for high school. Really! Do you think all the privileged WASPy kids that attend Exeter and Andover, and subsequently go on to be the ruling class of America, are ever asked "And how did this make you feeeeeeel?" Hell, no! Learn what intelligent professionals are saying about it and join the conversation. And to any who think that what academics have to say about Shakespeare doesn't matter or isn't important, just ask yourself. Why did Tuscon just ban "The Tempest"?

  5. perA very interesting question. Of course, as you have outlined, Shakespeare can be ‘introduced’ to children at any age at some level. Educators, though, have to think about when his work is introduced in the classroom. Here, again, it can be at any level. Because there is so much to a Shakespeare text, so many possibilities for exploration, there are innumerable entry points. One could work on the story, the relationships between the characters, the language, the ideas, or combinations of them all. You mention King Lear and suggest that it’s almost absurd to think about it in terms of a little child. But, it is, after all, a story about families and the relationships between parents and their children. What could be a more sympathetic facet of life for a child? That story is an ideal point of identification with a rich opportunity for discussion. And in Macbeth, the murder of a child at the centre of the text, for example, is a shocking and memorable moment that will always have a profound effect on children.
    Something Shakespeare offers is a language that can be felt in the mouth. Constructions like ‘blood will have blood,’ ‘ make thick my blood’ and ‘oh, horror, horror, horror’ have a heavy roundness that children will enjoy the taste of and, their interest aroused, they can be led to further exploration. The lightness of pieces like ‘be’t to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire, to ride on the curled clouds’ have a different but equally strong taste.
    Careful consideration of what children’s concerns are will allow the thoughtful teacher to enter any Shakespeare text with children, and where it goes from there will depend on the children’s responses. Yes, forget about academic examinations of the texts and take the children into the text from where they are as children: the play will open itself to human beings of any age.

  6. As I ranted yesterday, I'm tired of the pedestal. I'm tired of hearing people complain that the original text is "too hard" for anyone. I'm tired of students complaining to the twitterverse and the heavens themselves that they "h8 Shakespere". And I don't blame the teachers, I blame the education system.

    I agree with JM – the texts aren't to be READ, they're to be PLAYED (hope that's an ok summary, JM), and as long as teachers approach the subject with trepidation their students will learn to be afraid of it more than they will learn to like it. Learning Shakespeare does build confidence in younger students, it gives them something to be proud to know.

    I started with Shakespeare on my own around 8 with the Animated Tales, and read R&J when my dance studio did an abridged 'West Side Story' the following year. I didn't get any Shakespeare in school until 9th grade (R&J), and was promised more in later years (Hamlet and Macbeth), but they changed the courses in my school so much that that never happened. In college it was all about the academia of the plays, and I missed playing around with it.

    How early? As early as possible. How much? As much as possible. It's not going to stick with every single kid right away, but the younger they are the less afraid they are of new things, and less afraid to try. The older they get the more afraid they are of being wrong, of looking uncool, or of trying something different from their norm.

  7. Although it is great "Literature", the academics are only the fortunate by-products of what it truly is: Dramatic Art. As long as we approach it strictly from the standpoint of an "English Class", thus necessitating an age group's ability to comprehend it as such, we miss the boat. As we too often see from the reactions of many, many students, *later* is never late enough anyway.
    Approached as dramatic art, it is never too soon to broach the subject.

    PS. Although I do love to investigate it as much as possible, and I do believe it to be worthwhile because of its possible insight, in the end, analysis is only opinion. It over-complicates, as you've said. The answer to the essay question resides, very simply, in the dramatics of the TEXT; what the characters (actors) SAY.
    –"But break my Heart, for I must hold my tongue."
    –"The Time is out of joint: Oh cursed spite,
    That ever I was borne to set it right."

    NOW we're in HAMLET'S mind, not someone else's.

  8. Anon & Cass,

    SO TRUE about the mindset. It's key that they KNOW they can do it. I know they can, and I've never been proven wrong! I make sure that *they know this* going in. Case in point–

    In a student/faculty video conference at the end of one of my joint residencies at two middle schools, one of the students said it all without prompting: "Now we know that Shakespeare is for *us* too." Another said: "We want to do a whole play" (i.e. perform it). The rest agreed, wholeheartedly. In their continued amazement, there was much head-nodding from the faculty.

    Since then, the two districts have received a mandate to teach the arts in some form. I've recently been invited to co-write the program–for Shakespeare, believe it or not!– as a continuing English/Drama element of the curriculum in these two districts.

    From day one these students were literally on their feet with a new found confidence thanks to Shakespeare. It built from there –and everyone else couldn't help but listen. The Bard marches on!

  9. My 'snide dismissal' of the essay question comes from frustration with a system that has us, at one end, reducing Shakespeare down to 7 minute animated movies where Romeo says cringe-worthy things like "OMG let's totes get married," while on the other end you have examples like the cited essay question.

    I find those two things mutually incompatible. If you want to have high expectations and have a teenager be able to answer that question, great. BUT if you just introduced the material a week ago, and you expect the kids to grasp this new language so deeply that they not only understand the plot, AND the poetry, AND the thematics enough so that they can write their own critical analysis? I think those expectations are unreasonable, and you've got a market for "Totes Shakespeare" that backs up my point. No kid who is capable of doing critical analysis of Hamlet needs or wants those films. So why do they exist? If the gap is truly that big where some kids are capable of that level analysis while other kids, of the same age and in the same class, are dependent on "dumbed down" versions, then hasn't something gone wrong somewhere?

  10. Notice if you will, outraged "Anonymous", that I wrote: "As long as we approach it strictly from the standpoint of an "English Class", thus necessitating an age group's ability to comprehend it as such, we miss the boat."

    The operative word is "strictly".

    The operative question was "when" students should be exposed to Shakespeare. The "how" becomes important vis a vis the when.

    And by the by, referring to all of those "commentators", who might disagree with any process of academia, as "amateurs", is at once disingenuous, and a gross assumption. You know not to whom you speak–anonymously–but then again, neither do I.

    But I do happen to know what many "intelligent professionals" have to say about it. I happen to have worked with quite a sum of them. Browbeating students from on high with their golden effusions isn't the only way to get a point across. We have far too much proof of that.
    Ask any of your "ruling class" friends how much of a damn they give about whether or not Hamlet is Oedipus.

    In attempts to shore up the bulwarks against some imaginary enemy of intelligence and its pursuit, you are the one who ends "the conversation" you would seemingly so fervently encourage others to join.

  11. @CGriff,
    They aren't called 'Players' for nothin'. 🙂

  12. Having read the other comments, I already know my opinion is not the popular one here.

    Here are my basic positions on the related subjects:

    1) Shakespeare was written for adults. It can be scary, violent, and sexy. Themes include politics, mortality, suicide, revenge, rape, marriage, war, and religion. The humor in Shakespeare can be clownish, but it is also often bawdy, or based on sarcasm/satire that relies on an adult understanding of the world. Romeo and Juliet is about teenagers, but not for teenagers.

    2) Art, in order to be fully effective, must address a full spectrum of human experience. Children deserve art that addresses their own range of experiences. I do not believe that children's art should be only funny, only end happily, and never be scary. In most cases I think children's films, books, and music underestimate children and do them a disservice by leaving out the “bad parts” of life.

    3) Though children's emotions are the same as adults', they are triggered and experienced differently. They are scared by different things than adults, and different things make them happy or sad. This is why I believe powerful art can and should be created for children specifically, and they should not just be exposed to the same art as adults with the "grown-up" bits left out or changed.

    4) Each child is completely different as to how quickly and in which areas they will mature first, and they also have wildly varying tastes just as adults do. In an above comment, Duane says, "If the gap is truly that big where some kids are capable of [high level] analysis while other kids, of the same age and in the same class, are dependent on "dumbed down" versions, then hasn't something gone wrong somewhere?" I don't think so. I think what has gone wrong is expecting that because kids are the same age they are capable of and interested in the same things.


    So what does it all add up to? I don't think children should be exposed to Shakespeare until they are ready for the real thing, and the whole thing. If you have to change the ending, or leave parts out, then just wait. If you aren't ready to talk about Gloucester, don't give your kids Lear. You can always say "Well the Shakespeare play is grown-up and scary and has a sad ending. But did you know that the story is based on a very old fairy tale, even older than Shakespeare? Let me tell you that one."

    Some people will be "ready" for Shakespeare earlier than others. In my opinion, high school is generally too early. In college if you are studying drama or literature then I think it's necessary to get some exposure to Shakespeare. Beyond that I don't think it has much place in the education system at all.

    If we insist on forcing Shakespeare into the classroom, the result will always be a few kids who take to it and like it, and a lot of them who hate it. Is that worth it? I don't know. But I definitely think it's wrong to say that the ones who don't like it just didn't get enough of it early enough.

    No matter how much we hate to admit it, Shakespeare is archaic. And even modern poetry, can be difficult and is not for everyone. Personally I don't like opera, even though I know the stories and the music, and I recognize that some of it is truly great art.

    Art is like that. My uncle comes to visit in NYC and refuses to see MOMA. Picasso couldn't even draw a face right, he says. That's fine. He loves jazz and a great guitar solo can make him cry. My Aunt thinks jazz is just noise, but she loves Picasso. That's also just fine.

    I hope my kids love Shakespeare when they grow up, but they definitely won't be coming to see daddy starring in Macbeth while they are still children. When they learn Shakespeare in high school I will be able to help them understand it, but I won't be able to control whether they like it. They deserve to discover that for themselves.

  13. I understand your thoughts, CRS, but I can't help but think the following:

    1) You wouldn't hand a geometry book to someone in college without them having had math classes throughout elementary school and expect them to understand and like it. Nor would you only expect mathematicians and engineers to take math because it's part of their profession.

    2) Shakespeare's not just about drama and literature for people who want to study drama and literature. It's the human experience, cultural history, and dramatic voice that touches everyone.

    3) Kids who are not taught correctly are not going to like Shakespeare. And they don't need to learn a whole play to have learned Shakespeare. Bits of language, scenes, etc are all going to serve as the groundwork for what they will continue to study.

    4) Yes. Everyone has their own tastes, and not every kid (or adult) will go about their lives liking Shakespeare. But for the future of his works, kids can be exposed to them in the ways we've mentioned and enjoy them.

    5) Shakespeare's works were written to make money from an Elizabethan audience of anyone who could afford to pay. They weren't meant to endure, but endure they have because of their universal appeal and relatability. Shakespeare's for anyone, these days. Why would you need to read a whole play to enjoy the mechanicals in Midsummer? Why do you need to know the whole story to understand the emotions Macbeth deals with? Yeah – adults might relate MORE, but as Michael Boyd, RSC Artistic Director, said, "Shakespeare's work is a comprehensive world in which to explore the anxieties of growing up." Not just for those of us who already have.

  14. CRS, yours may not be the most popular opinion, but I for one agree wholeheartedly.
    In order to get the most out of Shakespeare, a reader has to bring something to Shakespeare. That is to say, personal experience(s).
    Adolescence is plenty soon enough.
    Lest we forget, context is paramount. Ask any teacher and he or she will tell you, with high school students "Romeo & Juliet" plays much better than does "King Lear."
    p.s. I must say, to me, "Lear" grows more fascinating by the day.

  15. CGriff, I would love to be in that elementary-school classroom when the teacher walks the students through the play-within-the-play in "Midsummer Night's Dream" and the Rude Mechanicals get to the part about the wall. Sorry, it's not for kids. Adolescence is soon enough. If Shakespeare is taught well in high school, there is the potential it will last a lifetime.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I feel that students should ne taught Shakespeare at a young age, around 3rdand grade maybe 8 or so. I think this because children should be introduced and well informed on classic literature,so in the future they will have a better understanding. One I didn't have until I reached highschool

  17. Nick: "I would love to be in that elementary-school classroom when the teacher walks the students through the play-within-the-play in "Midsummer Night's Dream" and the Rude Mechanicals get to the part about the wall."

    I have been. I'm not speaking from a delusional fantasy about a world that loves Shakespeare. I see hundreds of elementary students enjoy Shakespeare every year. I've seen ESL students have a blast with Richard III and The Tempest. I've seen students with learning disabilities throw themselves into Shakespeare with reckless abandon. Elementary students are ready for Shakespeare – even just enough snippets to lay the groundwork for the future of their education.

    I know not everyone gets to see what I see, so it's difficult to understand my fervor in this regard. But the fun stuff – Midsummer, Tempest, Macbeth, R&J, etc – kids "get" and love doing.

    No one's saying they have to know the cannon by age 13 to "know" Shakespeare. But like anything you learn you have to lay some foundation. You paint after learning about color. You play music after learning notes. You read after learning letters, and you do math after learning to count.

    And yeah – I've seen enough little Walls and Lions to last a lifetime, but that play-within-a-play gets me every single time.

  18. You make a strong case CG. I'm going to crash the next school board meeting and see if I can get the ball rolling.

  19. Sounds good, JM. What say we give the kids a crack at "The Tempest" and do something outlandish like cast a boy in the role of Prospero?

  20. It's going to be an uphill battle, CG. Shakespeare is at risk in high school here, much less at the elementary level. Sad, but true.

  21. One more thing, CG. By "here," I mean Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
    p.s. Don't get me wrong. It's a great place to live, except that we are not eligible to win prizes from the Shakespeare Geek. Which isn't going to strengthen my case with the school board.

  22. I hear that. At least you do have the 'Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan' Festival in the summers, which offers incentives for families attending matinee performances.


    A little to the east in Winnipeg, there's Shakespeare in the Ruins (http://www.shakespeareintheruins.com/) which has some education programs and resources.

    And to the west in Edmonton, the Free Will Shakespeare Festival (though a summer festival) has family friendly performances and a camp program for students

    Though this database isn't perfectly up-to-date, it's a good indication of where Shakespeare Festivals (and potentially education programs) are located:

  23. Agreed, JM. The role of Prospero goes to a boy, and we push the envelope further by casting one of the girls as Calibana.

  24. Nick Miliokas wrote: "CGriff, I would love to be in that elementary-school classroom when the teacher walks the students through the play-within-the-play in "Midsummer Night's Dream" and the Rude Mechanicals get to the part about the wall. Sorry, it's not for kids."

    –Not a problem Nick. One, most adults have to have the " bawdy jokes" explained to them. Two, when your teacher has adapted the play to suit the context, such problems have no chance of occurring. It's all good clean raucous fun. The richness of Shakespeare assures that there's plenty there without the off color stuff.

    I wish you *could have* been there. 🙂

  25. Nick, LOL

    Absolutely. In my book, it goes without saying that "The Un-Adaptables" are much better left Un-touched for the time being. 🙂

  26. "What say we give the kids a crack at "The Tempest" and do something outlandish like cast a boy in the role of Prospero?"

    –And cut against the grain of the current 'popular notion'? I'm aghast, Nick! 😉
    What say we do it anyway?

    PS. It's very sad that Shakespeare is getting the ax. It has already happened in some high schools in Australia. Speaking of trending popularity, they've supplanted Macbeth with The Matrix movie. I feel that this is a main reason why it's so important to try and keep the *relevance* alive by introducing it earlier and establishing familiarity and a lack of fear of the material before it's too late.

  27. CGriff,
    You do indeed make a great case. I echo your thoughts. Well done, to say the least.

  28. I am totally unable to say when I first encountered Shakespeare. It was fairly early though. By about age 9 I had seen The Tempest, Midsummer, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, although I'd only SORT OF gotten them. (I loved Midsummer!) And I had heard of many of the plays.
    As for in schools, I think middle school is a good time to start. My school puts on a student production of a Shakespeare play every year and I love it. We use a cut-down, hour-long version of the play. The years alternate between tragedies and comedies. Anybody in 4th-8th grade can participate, and we audition for roles. It becomes a social event and a fun game for everybody involved, which is really great. Fourth graders who are new to the plays have to earn their rep through small parts and eventually turn into "big" 8th-graders who get the lead roles. We get really in-character: in R and J two years ago, I hated anybody who played a Montague. And it you ever need proof that kids can read Shakespeare– by performance day we know every plot twist, character and quote; we really understand and also enjoy the play. It also means that the more serious actors have chances to improve their drama skills. These school plays have been really great for me and I'm now really into theater and Shakespeare. But I'm in 8th grade now, so this (Hamlet) is my last one!

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