Michael Rosen and Shakespeare for children

Michael Rosen

I recently spent a day at the Cambridge Shakespeare Conference, its theme Shakespeare: sources and adaptations.  It opened with a thought-provoking lecture by Michael Rosen, Children’s Laureate 2007-2009 and Shakespeare enthusiast. To an audience who needed no convincing of the importance of Shakespeare or poetry he asked two big questions “How do you familiarise young people with Shakespeare?” and “How do you transmit ideas about poetry?

He suggested that childrens’ authors “talk to the child we were”, but how many of us really remember what turned us on to Shakespeare or poetry? And seeing how much the world has changed since any of us were children, how can we help today’s children to get as much as we all do from Shakespeare?

 As Children’s Laureate his job was “to rush about being enthusiastic” and he treated us to a description of some of the methods he’s used in the past to enthuse children about Shakespeare as well as making some suggestions for things people might try.

 His most compelling anecdote, and the one which I think we all sympathised with, was the story of the school he visited expecting to run a session with 15-16 year olds, only to find that the children were only 11. He had selected a scene that he thought teenagers would respond to, the scene in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is rejected by her parents because she refuses to marry the man they choose for her. With no opportunity to rethink, he carried on regardless, getting the children to break up into groups to interpret part of the scene. He was astonished by the strength of the emotional response of the children. The moral, I think, is that we should not patronise younger children by assuming that they can’t get anything from Shakespeare just because they don’t understand every word.

Among his other suggestions was one which has become very popular: looking at the play from the point of view of one of the characters in it, as Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead does. An example of this was seen during the conference when Tim Crouch’s one man play I Caliban was performed by Jimmy Whiteaker. Tim Crouch has made a bit of a career of these plays which “involve the audience in a direct way and focus on telling the story of each play through the eyes of a character who watches the main action from the sidelines”. He’s also written and performed I Banquo, I Peaseblossom and I Malvolio, the last of which is currently touring. Also part of the conference was a rehearsed reading of a new play by Rory Stallibrass, Mamillius, based on the character in The Winter’s Tale.

Active participation is the thread that runs through much of the educational work currently being done on Shakespeare, like the RSC’s Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign.

Alternative approaches that particularly appeal to younger people came in for discussion in the Shakespeare in Unconventional Media session, not part of the formal education strand. Why not try to involve young people using communication methods they already use, like Facebook and Twitter?  Alicia Williams’ paper tackled these ideas, and she kindly gave me a copy of her paper which I hope she doesn’t mind me referring to.

 Her paper looked at two projects based, again, on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. One, called Live Music, encouraged people to contribute via Facebook to an animated film. Those taking part could download storyboards and designs, and all the shots submitted were visible for voting and review before being incorporated into the final 6-minute film.

 The second example was the RSC’s Such Tweet Sorrow which depended on six actors adopting online personas from the play, sending tweets based on daily guidance documents supplied to them. Each of the personas received and acted on tweets from their followers. Juliet, not surprisingly the most popular of the personas, built up over four and a half thousand followers in the course of the project. It’ll be interesting to see how projects using social media continue to develop over the next few years, involving more and more participants in imaginative ways.

 For my own full engagement with Shakespeare I have to thank my English teacher, Miss Jones, who set my first A level essay question, “What expectations does the first scene of Hamlet raise in the audience?” This question made me look really hard at the words on the page and use my own imagination to create a performance based on what Shakespeare wrote.  It was a great gift and one I’m still grateful for. A few years later I was lucky enough to see some brilliant productions of Shakespeare that lived up to the performances I’d imagined in my “mind’s eye”, performed by actors who spoke Shakespeare’s words superlatively.

 I know I’ve been fortunate, and I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who would like to share their special Shakespeare moments.

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7 Responses to Michael Rosen and Shakespeare for children

  1. Marcus Moore says:

    Two Shakespeare productions that meant a lot to me. From my teenage years…


    …and a small-scale community theatre company’s celebration of The Dream in a local park. The young man playing Theseus, Oberon and Bottom was a former pupil of mine whose dyslexia made school difficult, but he took to Shakespeare like the proverbial duck to water:


    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’ve heard of several people with dyslexia who have enjoyed getting to know Shakespeare!

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  3. I suggest that you publicise your blog for the benefit of schools by compiling an e-mailing list and directing your link for the attention of the English/History departments- not only ( I should hope!) for the benefit of private schools but those in the state sector too. Your blog would undoubtedly be useful to 14-16 years olds preparing for their GCSE’s.

  4. Andrew Cowie says:

    I saw Tim Crouch’s Young People’s Shakespeare production of The Taming Of The Shrew for the RSC at The Swan Theatre yesterday and I can recommend it for both young people and adults. I think shortening the plays helps young people engage with them (The Shrew is cut to one hour, 20 minutes which, to be honest, works for me too!) but apart from that I think the qualities that work for adults also work for young people; clearly spoken lines, an attractive and entertaining cast and a witty and inventive production.

  5. Mila says:

    Interesting article…I’ve just started blogging about my experience of introducing our children to Shakespeare and other drama (www.minorcritics.com). We were lucky because we live in New York so we could start taking them along to informal open air performances in Central Park by the New York Classical Theater Company, who specialize in open air productions that moving location in the park from scene to scene. So adults can follow all of it, while our young kids and others could dip in and out, and race to the next scene, gradually spending more time in than out. So by the time he was seven, my son could genuinely declare “I LO-OVE Shakespeare” on his way to the park. And we’d give them a run down on the basic story in advance too. So hats off to the NYCTC.

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