Tales of a Fourth Grade Shakespeare (Part 2)

So with the monologues done I asked whether the kids wanted to get up and act with each other, and of course got a rousing response.

A student had asked what Shakespeare’s funniest play was, because it sounded like all he wrote was death and tragedy. So we talked for a bit about Midsummer, and I learned that maybe six kids in the class were part of the Midsummer that I did last year.

So I pulled out as our first scene the opening of Midsummer.  I asked for a volunteer for Hermia, and a boy’s hand shot up.  “Really?” I asked, “You want to play the girl?”  He assured me that he did, and I let him. I explained that this was excellent, because in Shakespeare’s time all the girl roles would have been played by boys anyway.

I got a Theseus, Lysander and Demetrius (we were doing an edited scene with no Helena or Egeus) and I broke it down for them, standing behind the line with my hand over respective heads.  “YOU are Lysander.  YOU are in love with HERMIA over here.” Laughter because it’s both boys.  “YOU are DEMETRIUS, and YOU also love HERMIA.”  More laughter. “Hermia’s father has decided that he wants her to marry Demetrius, but she loves Lysander.  So they’ve come to YOU, THESEUS, who’s the law around these parts.  You get to decide stuff like this, and if you think any heads need to come off, then *eek* off come some heads.”  While they are performing I notice the teacher leans over and whispers something to Hermia, who starts speaking in a squeaky high voice, which gets more laughter from the audience. I immediately grab for my Complete Works with the thought of showing them some of Bottom’s scenes.  But then I decide against it, that I simply do not have the time to change gears like that.  Another case of *I* know what it would sound like in *my* head, but that doesn’t mean it’ll translate to reality.

They enjoy this scene, but there’s not a lot of action to it. This is just the warm up.  I tell them,  “I think it’s time to get out the swords.” 🙂

I’d had no interaction with the teacher at all before coming up with this lesson plan, so I had no idea what she’d say about swords of any kind.  So I went to the local hardware store and picked up some lengths of this foam pipe insulation stuff, cut it in half, then wrapped some duct tape around one end as a handle.  Sure it was pretty floppy for a sword, but it gave them something to brandish and I knew that nobody was going to take it in the eye.

I bring out Gertrude’s bedchamber scene.  One death to start.  I ask who wants to be Queen, and get a volunteer. I ask for a Polonius, saying “You get to die.” Lot of volunteers. I ask for a Hamlet saying, “You get to kill Polonius.”  I actually offer Hamlet here as a prize, letting the teacher pick the student she feels has earned it.

I explain the scene in terms appropriate for this age group and attention span.  “Hamlet’s dad died.  Worse, his mom married his uncle.”  <beat, as that sinks in>  “Yeah, that’s all kinds of messed up. Hamlet’s the prince, and everybody knows, the king dies, the prince becomes king, right? Not so fast, Hamlet. Hamlet’s away at college, so he comes back to collect his crown and guess what? Mom’s already remarried. Worse, she’s remarried her husband’s brother.  Yes, ewww is appropriate here. So Hamlet and Claudius, that’s his name, Claudius, they do not get along at all. In fact, there was just a show at the castle and Hamlet completely ruined it, totally upset Claudius, he stormed out all mad.  So now Gertrude, the queen, your Hamlet’s mom, and your job is to smack some sense into your son. You’re still his mother, and you still expect him to listen to you.  Now you, Polonius, you know that Hamlet’s been acting a little crazy lately” (ASIDE TO AUDIENCE: “He has no idea!”) “and he’s come to the Queen’s room to protect her in case Hamlet does anything strange” (ASIDE TO AUDIENCE: “It’s not going to end well for him!”) “Meanwhile Hamlet, you just don’t really care about any of these people. You’re mad at your mom because she married that guy, and you’re mad at Polonius because he works for that guy, and you’re just in general having a bad day so you don’t really care about what your mom has to say to you.  Ready?  And….action!”

Best scene yet. The chosen Hamlet is the first kid to actually attempt to act.  It’s funny, I’ve written into the stage directions that Gertrude starts sitting, stands up to yell at Hamlet, and then he forces her back down. Hamlet gives her a shove on the shoulder and she flings herself to the ground, I love it. From the ground she yells “Will thou murder me?” Polonius yells “help, help!” and gets run through with a piece of foam pipe insulation.  Great stuff.

For fun we do that scene again with a different set of kids. I encourage them, now that they’ve seen it, to play it differently. Most importantly to play it big and bold.  When you’re angry, be angry like you want to kill somebody. And when you die, give it a minute.  Work the stage.  Most people in Shakespeare who died get a few lines before they go, so work with it.

Well my new Polonius takes that to heart, bursting forth from behind the arras and staggering out into the middle of the classroom before keeling over. This causes the student that he has landed on to start kicking him.  “Don’t kick dead Polonius,” I tell him. But this then gives me an opportunity to talk about exactly how Hamlet defiled Polonius’ body. They all agree that this is both gross and also not nice, and I can see that they start to get a clue about what Hamlet’s all about as I tell them, “Well, that’s kind of the whole point. Hamlet starts out as the good guy, but as the play goes on and the stuff that happens around him it gets darker and darker and he gets crazier and crazier and starts killing people.”

We end on the fight scene from Romeo and Juliet, which gives me a chance to put swords in the hands of four kids at once (Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt, Romeo).  Again I explain the context, how Romeo is only one who knows that he has joined the houses and doesn’t want to fight, and how Tybalt and Mercutio see that as him being a coward and so on.  The best part came when I got to choreograph (for lack of a better word) the fight itself.  “Mercutio, Tybalt, fight!  Have at it!” They start whacking at each other with foam swords.  “Benvolio!  Romeo!  Try to break it up!  Beat down their swords!” Enter more foam, whacking at foam.  “Now, Romeo, get right in Mercutio’s way!  Hold him back, get in the way of his sword!”  Romeo does so. “Tybalt!  You’re the bad guy, take your cheap shot! Mercutio’s arms are held, stick him with your sword!” Cute moment as they all pause and look at me as if to say, “But that’s dirty fighting, his sword’s not up.”  “That’s the whole point, you’re the bad guy, take your cheap shot!  Now, away in triumph!”  For Tybalt’s part he actually did strut away in triumph, gotta love that.

I switch out my cast (since we are running out of time and some kids have not been up yet) and let the scene continue. “Romeo, it’s your fault your best friend is dead. You tried to be the peacekeeper and it didn’t work. Here comes the guy that killed Mercutio, what are you gonna do about it?” My new Romeo ends Tybalt pretty quickly, and Benvolio urges him to flee.

That’s all the time I had, so I had to leave Julius Caesar and Henry V behind. Which I think was the right move, because I am well aware that I am still setting the bar very high at this age (and the kind of time frame we’re talking about). With no rehearsals, prep time or do-overs, it’s a lot to ask to give an nine year old Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral. He’ll be lucky to read through it. I would have loved to give a lesson in how the crowd gets manipulated, but I expect they only would have gotten it from what I said, not from the text.  Same with Henry V.  I get shivers down my spine every time I hear that speech, but I’m well aware that the kids almost certainly will not. At least, not yet.

My goal as always has been to introduce the material and to take the scary edge off.  These kids, at nine or ten years old, have now gotten more Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Midsummer, Taming of the Shrew and even a little Coriolanus. That’s more than most of their fellow students will have by the time they get to high school. If any of them develop an appreciation for the material that makes them want to go experience more?  Mission accomplished.

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