Why Shakespeare?

By Hannah Bramsen

Upper School Humanities, Class 8 homeroom, and Middle School Shakespeare director

As spring slowly approaches, and students begin to feel the February blues, there is one thing that has faithfully brightened up the middle school atmosphere: the Shakespeare play. Rumors begin to flurry around as to what play it will be, and then, after it is announced, everyone begins to set their hearts on the part that would be just right for them. Simultaneously, when I tell friends outside of Clapham that I am directing a middle school Shakespeare play, I get a number of reactions ranging from pity to astonishment, and sometimes to genuine excitement. These varied reactions of both my students and friends have prompted me to seriously ask the question: why do we do Shakespeare?

It is not uncommon for a middle school to tackle a play, and the general benefits that come from doing theatre are well known. To list just a few of them, putting on a play builds confidence, allows students to look at the world through different eyes, teaches life skills like public speaking, good posture, and responsibility, and last but not least, simply fosters wholesome imaginative fun. All these things are true and wonderful things, but I believe that they can be accomplished as easily through a production of Beauty and the Beast, as they can through Julius Caesar. So the question remains: why do we at Clapham School choose to tackle the difficult language and mature themes encompassed in a Shakespeare play?

The answer to this question lies at the heart of our curriculum. Charlotte Mason writes, “To introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom…to lay before them a feast exquisitely served.” For many, Shakespeare represents the zenith of the western tradition of literature, a true feast, and it is no coincidence that time for the play is slotted into our schedule as “the last literature text.” But, still, you might ask: why can’t you just read the play? I think the idea of just “reading the play” is one of the main reasons why many students do not think of Shakespeare fondly. The truth is that plays were not meant to be read silently and then discussed. They were meant to be seen and heard. Therefore, to fully introduce a student to Shakespeare, to allow them to partake in the feast awaiting us in his language, and his exploration of human nature, students need to perform the play. They need to invest the time and energy into being the characters, see the bright costumes, think about the sound and lighting effects, and discover the often subtle humor for themselves through imagining what the character would be doing physically while speaking these lines. Only then does Shakespearean language, written in difficult iambic pentameter, cease to be frightening, and only then do the themes become apparent and relevant to students’ lives. In many theatre programs around today there is a tendency to choose easy or simple plays because we are afraid of what our children can handle. But at Clapham, Charlotte Mason has encouraged us to move away from this predigested, squeaky clean method of teaching. Rather, we choose to present a rich, if not difficult, text to our students, fully confident that they are capable of doing something wonderful with the story. And they always rise to the occasion.

There is one final reason I must mention regarding why we read and perform Shakespeare at Clapham. In many schools theatre takes place as an extracurricular activity, often with the prerequisite that participating students possess natural acting ability or talent. At Clapham, Shakespeare rehearsal happens during the school day, and we require every single middle school student to participate both on stage and off. Our decision to make Shakespeare co-curricular is grounded in Charlotte Mason’s belief that a liberal, life-giving education is not for a selected few. Shakespeare is not for the elite or only for the theatrically gifted. Rather, it is for all of our students, despite the fact that many of them will never participate in a play again after middle school, because they can take this experience with them throughout their lives. Not simply the aforementioned skills, but also the memories and rare recognition that Shakespeare does not need to be watered down for the masses, but rather that his plays are a rich feast just waiting for those ready and willing to sit down and enjoy.