We’re right in the middle of Shakespeare Week, running from 16-22 March. There have been Shakespeare weeks before, but last year, in 2014, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust embarked on a mission to give primary school children a great first encounter with Shakespeare. Jacqueline Green, Head of Learning and Participation, explains “We chose to engage with primary-school aged children as it is at that age that we are most open to new experiences and we describe it as a celebration because, for us, the key to sustaining a life-long interest is enjoyment.” As Tranio puts it in The Taming of the Shrew:
No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en;
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.
The SBT’s role was to coordinate events run by schools and organisations around the country, hosting a dedicated website on which events were posted and where online resources could be posted. It was aimed squarely at primary school children, and it’s been a great success, reaching half a million of them at over 2,500 schools in its first year. In 2015, 7087 primary schools are signed up.
Lyn Gardner of the Guardian has just asked “Are children are well-school’d in the Bard?” (Judging from the responses to her article, the answer is, mostly, no). Too many children are bored, or worse, made to feel stupid by not understanding or enjoying Shakespeare. Reading round the class is unanimously given the thumbs down, but people who get to love Shakespeare at school often credit an enthusiastic teacher.
The great pity is that if children have a negative experience at school, the feeling remains with them for the rest of their lives, and as one respondee put it, “Shakespeare only gets better as you get older”. After people have left school they may be lucky enough to encounter a good production of a play that will awaken their interest in Shakespeare, and this article in the Daily Telegraph suggests where to see performances this week. The live relays of productions to cinemas take Shakespeare to audiences who might never go to a theatre, and the online MOOC courses can provide an easy, free alternative way of thinking about the man and his work.
All the more reason, then to be pleased that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have this year expanded their reach beyond the schools and into libraries. Libraries welcome people of all ages and backgrounds to go in by themselves or as a family, providing a pleasant, safe and free environment. They might read a book, borrow a DVD or find out about a club or event they would enjoy. Jacqueline Green again: “What more natural partner could there be for a project that aspires to reach out to everyone than public and school libraries? They are at the heart of every community and the portal to so many journeys of discovery. The Society of Chief Librarians lent their support to Shakespeare Week from day one so we are particularly delighted to be working with them, the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians, the Reading Agency and CILIP to bring Shakespeare vividly to life in communities nationwide.”
On holiday a couple of weeks ago I found that libraries in Cumbria, although not putting on events, are promoting the week by a series of displays drawing attention to items available to borrow. You can find how libraries up and down the country are responding to Shakespeare Week by looking at the interactive map or the list on the website. They all look enjoyable, many promoting their collections or offering reading activities and discussion. Here are a few examples:
- In North Yorkshire, at Thirsk Library, they are encouraging children to contribute to a comic strip version of Hamlet throughout March.
- Essex Libraries are running drop-in events at several of their branches including a short film about Shakespeare as a young boy.
- There’s a coffee morning at Wombourne Library, Near Dudley, this morning, 18 March on the subject of Shakespeare, aimed at adults as well as children
- On Saturday 21 March at Manchester Central Library there is an opportunity to follow a murder mystery trail Murder Most Foul, with clues to examine and suspects to interrogate
- At Grimsby Library on Saturday morning Shakespeare Chatterbooks will feature reading, crafts and quizzes for 6-11 year olds and their families.
- You can follow the Shakespeare Trail at St Thomas Library, Exeter.
- Lots of activities are taking place in libraries on Merseyside, for example there are quizzes for adults and children at Parr Library all week.
In Stratford of course the houses associated with Shakespeare are all bursting with activities (see the events list), and many other places are staging events: at an interactive recital at Tatton Park in Cheshire on Saturday morning participants can hear Elizabethan songs, take part in a jig, and look at the sort of musical instruments used at the time. On Sunday morning in Basing House, Basingstoke, a professional storyteller will be staging “a fully interactive re-telling of The Tempest”. There’s still time to take part so check out what’s going on locally, especially at your own public library.