~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger
I was lucky enough to greet a group of students participating in the Shakespeare Steps Out program this morning. Two schools joined us at Folger Shakespeare Library for a tour of the building, a discussion of Shakespeare’s times, and a hands-on stage combat workshop. Bringing these children into the library and getting them directly involved with Shakespeare is one of the things Folger does best.
Like many adults, I was introduced to Shakespeare in the classroom. Most of my teachers had us read page after page, trying to make sense of a work of art that was created to be experienced, seen on the stage, and acted out—not read. The words of Shakespeare are literally life-changing, but those words need to jump around, tumble out of the mouths of children and adults, be flung at each other—in other words (no pun intended) to be experienced.
The groups today experienced Shakespeare in a way that few adults are willing to experience Shakespeare. Boys and girls allowed us to dress them in costumes that are representative of what wealthy folks would have worn in Shakespeare’s time. They willingly participated in a discussion of how they know the portrait hanging in the Founders’ Room must be Queen Elizabeth based on the clues they could see (a face they have seen in other portraits, her jeweled gown, the richness of the fabric on her dress). They spotted characters from plays they had studied (yes, these fourth graders were familiar with several plays) in the stained glass windows. In other words, they experienced the time.
As we toured the building, we took advantage of the gorgeous weather to stroll along the front of Folger to experience the marvelous bas reliefs sculpted by John Gregory. They eagerly spotted the knives in Julius Caesar and mentioned how much they had enjoyed the stabbing scene when they had attended the play. They were thrilled to see the depiction of Bottom with the ass’s head, as they had discussed the story of that play just that morning. We worked through the reliefs, pointing out images and what they meant in the world of the play. The kids took turns reading the play’s title and acting out the scene on their own. Again, they were experiencing the work.
At the end of the morning, the kids very politely thanked me for the time we had spent together. But I think I am the one who should be grateful—grateful for a generation of children who are able to be enchanted by the works of Shakespeare, led by the diligent effort of teachers going far beyond the basics to bring the world of Shakespeare to these young minds. So I thank you—“with all my heart, good youth.”
Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine.