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Upper Elementary Drama: The Heartbeat of Shakespeare

To Shakespeare, or not to Shakespeare, that is the question. In my opinion, the answer is always, “Absolutely Shakespeare!”

There tends to be a preconceived notion that Shakespeare is too intellectual to be enjoyable. His plays are bogged down with outdated words that makes them too intimidating to even think about picking up. But, if you’ve ever described yourself as “lonely” or you’ve ever “elbowed” someone, or found something “lackluster,” then you’re already more familiar with the Bard’s language than you may have guessed.

Back in September on the first day of Upper Elementary Drama, I asked the students how many lines of Shakespeare they thought they could memorize before the end of the class. One? Many hands shot up confidently. Two? A few hands went down, but still most kept their hands raised. Three? A brave handful kept them raised high. Four? A few wavered looking around the room to see what their friends were doing. Only a couple of hands remained up. I told the class they would leave with six lines of text by the time the class ended. Then I taught them Shakespeare’s heartbeat:

Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, and as a general rule of thumb you can break his lines up into ten syllables with a strong pulse consisting of five unstressed and stressed beats;

dee DUM / dee DUM / dee DUM / dee DUM / dee DUM.

oh BRAVE new WORLD that HAS such PEO-ple IN’T

You can literally take those words above and tap your hand against your heart like a pulse as you speak the beats. Go ahead and give it a try.

Once the class got comfortable with the heartbeat, we talked about the obvious elephant in the room: Who goes around talking like that? So we started walking around the stage and breathing life into the words like we meant them, finding our own rhythms and stresses. “Oh brave new world, that has such people in’t!” Suddenly, Shakespeare’s words sounded natural.

We stopped and I asked who wanted to try speaking the words solo in front of the class. Hands shot up, and we began. A few minutes later I said, “congratulations, you’ve got one line of Shakespeare memorized.” Then we moved on to a longer passage following the same practice.

Eight weeks later as I am writing this blog post, the class has memorized far more than six lines of Shakespeare. More importantly, they are unpacking his poetic language and finding great meaning and emotion in it as they bring three different Shakespeare plays to life on stage with their voices, their bodies, and their understanding of the text. Everyone is working extremely hard. I think all 27 Upper Elementary students will tell you that yes, absolutely Shakespeare is wordy and difficult. But he is also rewarding, and a whole lot of fun if you are willing to do a little work!

We look forward to sharing our work with Lower Elementary students and teachers on the morning of November 20th and with family and friends on the evening of November 21st.

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