Tag Archives: Shakespeare

A Summer’s Night Shakespearean Dream.

Dogberry painted by Marks

Do events ever happen to you and you feel as if you’ve dreamed it?  Well, that happened to me the other night.  Will (the fourteen year old) and I are doing an exploration of Shakespeare and comedy this summer.  Firstly, we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” to compare and contrast them.  We have watched David Tennant and Catherine Tate at the Wyndham Theatre  ( Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare) and also watched Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s film version. (Shakespeare – Sexy Or Strangely Funny?)  The other night we went to see an outdoor professional production – or so we thought before we went.

Beatrice

Over the years, I have been to many glorious outdoor theatre productions.  I thought I was going to something similar.  At this point I must say that I think there are times when I am a bit dense.  In the past, all the ones I have been to have been in the grounds of stately homes.  This one was in the grounds of a school but me being me; I simply thought that it was a way of getting people to watch more  theatre.

I had bought my tickets over the internet not chancing buying at the gate, in case of large crowds and a sell out.  My suspicion was aroused when I was given the shooting arrow eyeball look for buying tickets over the internet.  Four ladies, positioned like sentries, guarded the table that held the cash box.  There was a certain amount of disdain in the chief’s voice as she said “so you’ve been on the internet for your tickets.”  All their eyes were on us and I began to feel like a pervert to say the least for buying my tickets in that manner.

Benedick played by Garrick

Once we were inside and passed the bouncers, I was beginning to see what we had actually come to.  We were on a school playing field, the stage was a small platform which resembled a sheep pen but could have been set up for a hanging gallows and there were about sixty people sitting around it eating from their Tupperware boxes.  We set up our chairs and Will mentioned that this really was like going to a performance from the past.

Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful to him at their wedding.

I bought a programme from one of the actors and Will and I settled down to look at it.  Instantly, we were approached by a white haired, extremely well spoken lady.  She asked me if she might look at my programme.  So I handed it to her.  She then says “You don’t mind if I go off with it, do you?”  Will and I stared open mouthed as she sauntered off to her seat and started reading our programme.

Ellen Terry’s Beatrice will never be forgotten.

In front of us was an elderly man and his wife tucking into their picnic.  A hairy, round man in an Hawaiian shirt approached the elderly couple.  “George, you need to go up there and thank the town council, the Lions and the Ladies Guild.  Oh and tell them where the toilets are.”  George put his sandwich quickly into his Tupperware box and shouted “What?”  Hawaiian shirt then replied, “You’re the chairman – you have to go up and make a speech.”  George shouted “What do I have to say?”  After a lot of whating and  whoing – it was then suggested that George wrote his speech down.  At this point, I was beginning to wonder if that was part of the entertainment.  George frantically scribbled on his scrap of paper and Hawaiian shirt kept repeating town council, The Lions and toilets.

The actors announced that the play was about to start and Hawaiian shirt bustled back to his seat.  George looked flummoxed, he half stood up, hesitated and then landed heavily back into his seat.  I wondered if his moment of glory had passed.  White haired lady rushed over and handed me back my programme.

This version of the play was set in World War II with Beatrice and Hero as land girls and Dogberry and Verges as the Home Watch.  Incidentally, Beatrice and Hero doubled up as Dogberry and Verges with strong Welsh accents.  The play started and the audience had to sing “We’ll Meet Again.”  Well actually, “Much Ado About Nothing” didn’t start, it was a sub play which was about Land Girls waiting for Harold to come home from the war.  The sub play was performed intermittently in “Much Ado About Nothing” to give the actors time to change as there was a lot of doubling up going on.  It was a bit like having advertisements whilst watching the television.

Dogberry and Verges.

“Much Ado About Nothing” began and my heart sank as I watched Beatrice and Benedick in their movements.  For those who don’t know, to get a play ready for performance, the movements of the actors have to be worked out.  This is called “blocking”.  There was an obvious choreographed blocking sequence which was meant to look comical but it simply wasn’t rehearsed enough and it looked like a clumsy rehearsal.  Other times, actors were standing like spare parts waiting for their turn to speak.  Beatrice is one of my favourite Shakespearean characters but this one thought she was playing a principal boy in a pantomime.  All the way through the play, I expected her to heartily slap her thigh.

The interval arrived and the white haired lady rushed up to my seat and asked “You don’t mind if I take your programme again, do you?” and off she went with it.  This time she was standing behind the audience talking to another elderly lady and wafting my programme about proprietorially.

George rushed for the stage and very politely asked the audience not to use the trees or the grass as there were toilets in the school.  I think that was meant to be a joke.

In the past, I had always sought out very good productions for us to watch.  However, to help Will’s critical skills, I had told him that we will be going to all sorts of productions as I feel that it is as helpful to see bad productions as it is good ones.  I always feel it is helpful for children to go to live theatre if it is at all possible.  They have to study plays at school and it is a whole lot easier to write critical essays about drama if the teenager has been to quite a few performances to make it real for them.

Will’s eyes were wide during the performance.  He is very serious about both Shakespeare and acting.  His first words when we came out were “I thought we were going to a professional performance.”  It wasn’t irony; he thought that I had forgotten to tell him that we were going to an amateur performance.  He was happy to be there because he said that he had learned something very important.  He is appearing in a comedy on Saturday night and had been worrying about his comic timing.  He could see how off the actors were in their timing and that made him realise that he doesn’t need to worry about his comic timing because he obviously understands it.

Beatrice and Benedick from yesteryear.

The play did not get any better in the second half but I am glad I went.  There was a certain charm to sitting in the field watching the actors in the play and the people in the audience.  I never did discover what George was chairman of, but to be honest, none of it seemed real – it was more like a dream.  Maybe I went to see the wrong play.

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Shakespeare, Sexy Or Strangely Funny?

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

 

Shakespeare – Sexy or Strangely Funny?

 

This summer Will (the teenager) and I are exploring Shakespeare and comedy.  Initially, we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” to discover how widely interpreted the comedy can be by the director and actors.  Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed not read.   The audiences were  the ordinary folks of the day, mostly.  I often think that objective has been lost.  I think all too often now, Shakespeare’s plays, for many people, are thought of as something which the kids do at school. Unfortunately, if we don’t demonstrate to teenagers and children that this is not so, that they are to be performed and watched with pleasure, even if we don’t have to, this notion will be perpetual.  (For those of you who are not fans of Shakespeare, I am not only referring to his plays, I also include plays by Marlowe,  Johnson, Aphra Behn and all the other wonderful playwrights from around the world of yesteryear.  It is our heritage.)

 

The first viewing was of a filmed version of a performance at the Wyndham Theatre starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate.  This version was hilariously funny using visual action to elevate the humour in the text.  For more on that read “Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare – David Tennant and Catherine Tate”, under “Shakespeare Diary on this site.

 

The second version is the film starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.  This is made as a film in that the setting is an integral part of the whole performance.  Branagh’s version is mainly a love story as opposed to the one starring Tennant which is mainly a comedy.  Comedy in Branagh’s version is kept to Dogberry and Verges – the constable in charge of the watch and his deputy.  It is in keeping with much of Shakespearean comedythat the laughs come from the lower classes.  Well, that is how it is supposed to work out.Cover of "Much Ado About Nothing (1993) (...

 

I have seen Branagh’s version four times before I watched it with Will.  It is set in the beautiful countryside of Tuscany, Italy.  We see a large Tuscan home surrounded by lush gardens.  Girls in long, white, floating dresses languish around the garden and there is Tudor music playing accompanied by the sound of Hey Nonny Nonny.  The setting is a typical pastoral idyll.  It is a spectacle – there can be no other word for it.  Next, the men arrive.  We see young, handsome soldiers all in smart uniforms arriving in a perfect line on their horses.  They have got long boots on with tight trousers and buttoned jackets.  The whole scene is one of distinction between the sexes.  The ladies are at home waiting for the men to return and looking soft, gentle and dreamy.  The men ride in and look masculine and sexy.  Before I continue, I have to say that I have never been a floating, feminine, dreamy sort of girl.  My grandfather taught me to get a sneaky left hook in at the age of five and I can write feminist essays which will make the eyes run.  However, I have always thought that those men riding on their horses looked deliciously sexy and have always been transported by the whole scene.

I relished being transported to 16th century Tuscany and waited eagerly for the men to arrive on their horses.  They arrived, dismounted and marched up to the house in a line.  Will hooted with laughter.  He stood up and puts his hands on his hips imitating them.  He said “we are devilishly manly with our tight trousers and long boots.”   I wanted to shove the Crunchie I was eating up his left nostril.  I could see exactly what he meant but didn’t really want to.

 

His main criticism however, was the way Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro was depicted.  (Don John is the villain behind the plot when Hero is set up to look as though she is unfaithful to Claudio before their wedding.)  Will, rightly felt that the depiction was too much of a stereotypical villain to be believed.  We had a strike of lightening at one point before he entered a room.  Will was waiting for his villainess laugh – it came, although it wasn’t too cackling.  He felt as if the Don John in the performance at the Wyndham theatre was far superior.  He was slightly camp and not too obvious.  Villains of that nature work far better as they are far more likely to fool us.

DOHN JOHN

DOHN JOHN (Photo credit: URBAN ARTefakte)

If any readers of this have got teenagers, I would recommend that you try doing this yourself as an experiment.  It doesn’t have to be this particular play – it could be any.  Get your teenager to watch two or three different versions.  You will be amazed at how it helps their critical skills.  It is far easier to form a critical opinion of something if you have something else to compare it with.

 

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Turning Teenagers On To Shakespeare – David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

English: Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Strat...

English: Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Will (the fourteen year old) and I are exploring comedy in Shakespeare this summer.  To begin with we are watching three different versions of “Much Ado About Nothing.” We viewed the one which was staged at the Wyndham Theatre last July on Digital Theatre, a few days ago.

David Tennant at Stratford upon Avon. This ima...

David Tennant at Stratford upon Avon. This image has been cropped from the original image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The title of this post is Turning Teenagers Onto Shakespeare.  The reason for the title is that I believe that this version of “Much Ado About Nothing”, will get your teenager loving Shakespeare.  It might not seem important for teenagers to enjoy Shakespeare but it is on the curriculum and studying something which you enjoy is a whole lot better than having to put up with a subject which you detest.  I highly recommend buying a download of this and watching it with your teenager.  It is excellent. I have no association with Digital Theatre whatsoever, this post is written purely from the Loony Literature point of view of encouraging others to enjoy literature.  In this post I explain why I believe teenagers will enjoy it.

Catherine Tate 2006

Catherine Tate 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why would teenagers like this version of “Much Ado About Nothing”?  For a start, David Tennant plays Benedick and Catherine Tate is Beatrice.  At first glance, this can seem like a couple of very popular television actors from Doctor Who being hired to draw the crowds in.  However, I have to say that David Tennant is an accomplished Shakespearean actor. (His Hamlet is inspirational.)  He is so loved by the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) that £5,000 has been raised so that one of the seats in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon is to be named after him.   Catherine Tate has done a fair bit of theatre also and has appeared in Goldoni’s “A Servant to Two Masters”, for the RSC.

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about love winning out in the end.  When we add that its main theme is deception then it starts to sound interesting.  This interpretation is set in 1980’s Gibraltar.  Most of the chaps are navy officers and are in a post Falklands party mood.  The plot is set around two couples. We have Hero and Claudio who are getting married but there is skulduggery afoot and Claudio is wrongly led to believe that Hero has been unfaithful to him. He makes a public spectacle of her at their wedding.   Also, we have Beatrice and Benedick who seem to be constantly sparring.  Benedick’s navy chums decide to bamboozle the pair of them into falling in love.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing (Photo credit: psd)

Josie Rourke directed this and she deserves the heartiest slap on the back for getting it right.  By this, I mean taking the text and utilising it fully to demonstrate how approachable and contemporary Shakespeare can be.   Tennant is a master of comedy.  He gets covered in paint whilst eavesdropping which sounds rather clownish.  It isn’t.  It is done so well that we can’t help but hoot with laughter.  In Benedick’s monologues, there are moments when Tennant’s  whole persona cries out that he is having the time of his life and that is infectious – we as an audience feel that way too.

David Garrick (another David) as Benedick in 1770.

Catherine Tate plays Beatrice as a “don’t mess with me” type of gal.  I loved it.  The reason for this is that today’s girls will be able to identify with her.  It is often hard for teenagers  (I am speaking here as an ex teenager) to get to grips with the way women have been forced to be historically.  As a teenager, I would often have problems truly sympathising, let alone empathising,  with women in literature for the way in which they acted.  I wanted them to speak out and to act more.  I could turn blue at times urging some of them on to get more agency.   Sometimes I found them impossible to identify with.  It was only through years of both literary study and historical study that I could come to understand them and their motives.  So watching Tate as Beatrice truly felt like a breakthrough in getting  more teenage girls to identify with Shakespeare’s female characters.

When we are in our teens, because of raging hormones, we can often feel truly unattractive.  It seems as if everybody in the world is fancied by someone, except us.  We turn to fiction and film and often it is the handsomest, bravest hero who gets the chocolate box looking girl.  It can be soul destroying and do nothing for our confidence.  This performance of Much Ado About Nothing is the champion of the plain best friend.  Benedick dresses in drag and gets covered in paint –he certainly is no-one’s dark, silent hero.  Beatrice dresses as a man for a party and ends up flying in the air with the grace of a fairy elephant.  She is no gorgeous femme fatale or pale interesting type.  Yet she gets the boy.  The message is simply be yourself, no matter how clumsy and plain you feel , one day, someone will love you for you.  What teenager could resist that?

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Newton Free Library)

 

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Why It Is Good To Perform Shakespeare As Terribly As Possible!

A circa 1884 poster for William Shakespeare's ...

A circa 1884 poster for William Shakespeare's Richard III, starring Thos. W. Keene. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before you decide you have never heard as much rubbish in your life – lend me your ear and I will explain.  I am positive that children can really enjoy Shakespeare if they are primed properly for it before they are thrown head first into the text in their teens.  Acting out monologues can be a useful starting point.  However, to get our wisdom across we have to have laughter and lots of it.  If we tell children they have to do it badly, they lose all their fear – they cannot get it wrong.  As confidence affects every decision we make, trying to be good at something as odd as Shakespeare when you are ten means that you want to disappear.  When you are told you have to be as terrible as possible at it, it doesn’t matter if your peers laugh at you – they is what they are supposed to do.  The bigger the laughs, the more successful you are.

Okay, so that deals with the confidence factor, now we can move onto actually teaching them something about the monologue and how it is meant to be performed.  I have added a Loony Literature video here to demonstrate what I am talking about.  The main actor is fourteen years old and is auditioning for Richard III.  The young actor in question is extremely serious about acting and can do a very convincing Richard III.  So much so, that when he performed the same monologue for a LAMDA exam, he got a distinction.  However, do you think he enjoyed filming this?  Indeed he did, he was in his element and he’s fourteen.  Younger children, therefore, will positively love being told to do something badly.

You can use the video to demonstrate how utterly badly it can be done.  Ask your child or group what is wrong with the way Horace Gaup is standing and delivering the text.  In fact, you can be sure that they will want to have a go too after seeing that!   If the children are particularly enjoying themselves, you could film it.  Playing it back would cause more hilarity and enhance discussion greatly.

Once the terrible deed has been done and the young thespians have done their worst, you can talk about the way they moved and held themselves.  We can ask them what they think is wrong with it.  How could they do it better?

We can talk about the manner of the delivery – would it be better if it was louder, quieter, slower or speeded up.  Why would that sound better?

We can talk about what the text means and what is the best way to say it – for instance when Richard III is saying that he is so deformed dogs bark at him – what sort of voice would he say that in?  He would he be feeling whilst saying those words?

I hope this is helpful,l but above all I hope that you have as much fun as we had whilst making the video.  Happy acting.

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Inspiration and Us – Childhood Books – Shakespeare’s Stories.

 

Touchstone the Jester from “As You Like It.

Inspiration and us – that’s the name of a new category for the blog.  The reason I am calling it inspiration and us, instead of inspiration and me is because I want you to think about how our lives and our children’s lives inspire us.  I would also be extremely grateful to hear of your inspirational experiences.

 

As a child, I had many books which I loved but as this is about what inspires us, I shall be mentioning the main sources of inspiration.  One of my favourite books was one which was passed onto me.  I regret to say that I have no idea where it came from.  It was a big book which had many stories in it.  My favourites were some of the stories from Shakespeare’s plays.  They were the plays written in story form with some illustrations.  I read them over and over.  One which sticks in my mind is As You Like It.   It was pure escapism.  The idea of people running away from their everyday lives and living in a forest, appealed to me greatly.  As a child, I loved the idea of dressing up and being in disguise.  Subsequently, when Rosalind dressed up as a boy and pretended to be Ganymede, I was in the story with them.  This is a story which explores sibling rivalry, romance, has a wrestling match and a court jester named Touchstone.  I am proof that the story appeals to children.  If the play had been thrown at me at the age of nine, I would have been put off by its beautiful, poetic language.  However, I was lucky enough to have the plays as stories first and so Shakespeare‘s work was adored by me even before I had read a play or a sonnet.

 

illustration of William Shakespeare reciting h...

illustration of William Shakespeare reciting his play Hamlet to his family. His wife, Anne Hathaway, is sitting in the chair on the right; his son Hamnet is behind him on the left; his two daughters Susanna and Judith are on the right and left of him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

So how has this childhood book inspired me?  First of all, I think the greatest proof is that my son is called Will after Shakespeare.  Incidentally, one of his main ambitions is to play Hamlet at the Globe Theatre.  He has never had Literature forced fed to him.  I was worried that I would do that so I have always been careful and introduced it as the fun, mad and exciting subject that it is.

 

My educational route would suggest that Shakespeare’s stories also inspired me as I have an Honours Degree in Literature and an M.A. in Creative Writing.  However, I think that the most telling aspect of it is in my writing.  In my children’s book Will Blyton and The Stinking Shadow, I have a small boy trapped in a stone called Hamnet.  He has had a curse put on him by the powerful magician Corspehound.  Not only is Hamnet trapped in the stone but the curse is on his tongue.  He can only insult people.  Hamnet is actually Shakespeare’s son who died at the age of eleven.  The Bubonic Plague was rife at the time.  Little is known about Hamnet and so I wanted to keep his memory alive by re-writing his story.  Instead of perishing before his young life had really begun, I have him living on as a huger than life character.

 

An illustration of an undertaker during the Bu...

An illustration of an undertaker during the Bubonic plague. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I have already written about introducing children to Shakespeare by using insults.  Children love language if they allowed to be playful with it – this is why they love insults – they are naughty and delicious.  This was part of my enjoyment when reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my story book.  There was great emphasis on the argument between Hermia and Helena.  It is Midsummer, they are lost in the forest, it is a time of misrule and chaos and they are arguing over men.  Hermia calls Helena – “You juggler! You canker-blossom!” (The Arden Shakespeare – Act III, Scene II Line 282)  Later in the heated argument, Hermia also calls Helena “Thou painted maypole.” (The Arden Shakespeare – Act III, Scene II, Line 296) The enjoyment of the insults as a child turned to inspiration as an adult.  In Will Blyton and The Stinking Shadow, Hamnet is a master of insults; most of them are aimed at Will.  The first thing he ever says to him is “thine intestines wilt be mine.”  This is quickly followed by “thou wilt regret this warty nose.”

 

Washington Allston's 1818 painting Hermia and ...

Washington Allston's 1818 painting Hermia and Helena. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

We cannot change our own childhoods.  However, we can be inspired by what was thrown at us and mould it.  As writers, we can turn our experiences into what we want them to be.  Although we cannot change our own childhoods, we can guide our children’s inspiration and education.  Catch them early on with Shakespeare in the form of his stories.  Talk to them about the funny characters like Bottom, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who gets the head of an ass for a time.  If you missed out on Shakespeare first time around – you might be surprised at what you find.  Who knows, you or your children might end up being so inspired that you write a book too.

 

Emil Orlik: Actor Hans Wassmann as Nick Bottom...

Emil Orlik: Actor Hans Wassmann as Nick Bottom in Shakespeare's A Midsummernight's Dream, 1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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How Dare You Think You Will Enjoy Great Literature!

The theme in my life this week has been self -esteem, or rather lack of it.  It seems that there is an epidemic going on.  I don’t know whether it is always there or I am noticing it more since I am on the last legs of Mulgrave Castle, a romantic mystery which has self- esteem as its theme.   Of course, lack of self -esteem comes in many guises.  The one I want to focus upon in this article is how other people can make you believe that you do not have the right to enjoy great literature.

Menabilly. Hidden by the woodland, Menabilly w...

Menabilly. Hidden by the woodland, Menabilly was the home of Daphne du Maurier, and the inspiration for Manderley in "Rebecca". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lack of self-esteem is universal, so much so that writers like Daphne Du Maurier have used it as a plot device.   In Rebecca, the main character who tellingly is never named, cannot believe that she has been rescued from being a paid companion by the older, attractive, handsome Maxim de Winter.  The whole of this wonderful, psychological drama hangs on the fact that the new Mrs de Winter has low self -esteem.  In fiction, that is fine.  In reality, it is not.  In Rebecca, we see obnoxious characters like Mrs Van Hopper chiselling away at her paid companion’s sense of self to make sure that she stays underfoot.  In reality, I get told by people how, when they were children,  grown-ups told them that writers like Shakespeare and Dickens were too difficult for them.  Let me catch my breath a moment whilst I let out an exasperated sigh.

Title page of the First Folio, by William shag...

Title page of the First Folio, by William shagsper, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabeth Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2018031&iid=1071364&srchtype= (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have said it before and I will say it again – most people, if properly introduced and grounded in Literature will enjoy it at some level.  A case, in hand, I took a lesson about “The Laboratory”, a poem by Victorian writer Robert Browning to a mixed group of adults.  In the audience were three male fire fighters, two of whom were positive Victorian poetry was most definitely not for them.   After the lesson, the two fire fighters who were sure that they would just switch off from this stuffy old nonsense, said that they had actually enjoyed it.  The general consensus of the group was that if they had had that lesson whilst at school, they would all see Literature differently.  I was lucky that I had great English teachers.  As the years have gone by, it has slowly dawned on me how many people either were not taught writers like Shakespeare or it was offered in an unhelpful way.  This leads me to ask – why is there a sense of elitism with writers like Shakespeare?  After all, let’s think back, Shakespeare wrote and performed his plays mostly for the Joe Bloggs and Fanny Rumble’s of the sixteenth century.  Okay, so he performed in front of Elizabeth I, but mostly it was in front of ordinary people like me.  So, I say to you, whoever you may be, LITERATURE IS FOR YOU.

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Introducing children to Shakespeare by using insults.

Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three suited, hundred pound, filthy, worsted stocking knave…” (King Lear)  I hope, dear reader, you don’t think I am referring to you.   Perish the thought, no, I simply wanted to grab your swan-like neck and swing it in my direction.  I don’t want to insult you but I do want to talk about insults and how they can be used to help children be comfortable with Shakespeare’s plays.

 Children love Shakespeare if they are introduced to his works properly.  Unfortunately, what should be an exciting journey with The Bard often becomes painful, embarrassing and boring.  I say painful, embarrassing and boring because if the background work is not done, Shakespeare’s language can seem unapproachable.  It then becomes embarrassing because the learner feels stupid.  We all know that feeling when something seems to be definitely “not for us”, we cut off and it becomes boring.  I am a great believer, therefore, of priming children with Shakespeare’s works well before they reach the teenage years.  Children who have been introduced to the stories   (it is important that children know what is happening in story form well in advance of reading a full blown play) and aspects of the language are ready to read one of Shakespeare’s plays.  It is thoughtless to expect teenagers who haven’t grown up in a literary atmosphere or a book loving household to embrace a sixteenth century play without any former grounding.  Fundamentally, I cannot stress the importance of introducing children to Shakespeare in a child friendly manner.

This is where insults are invaluable.  I first came across this exercise whilst doing a day long workshop with The Royal Shakespeare Company.  It was used as a warming up exercise to allow everyone to relax and clear out those dreadful inhibitions we can suffer from.  Everyone is given a piece of card with an insult written on it.  It can be something like this quotation from King Lear:

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

Elizabethan music can be played whilst everyone swiftly marches or skips around the room.  When the music stops you turn to the nearest person to you and shout your insult out at the top of your voice.  They then shout their insult back at you.  The next time, it can be whispered in a sly manner. In essence, the insults can be said in many different ways e.g. angrily or with uncontrollable laughter. It is a very good drama exercise. The insult cards can then be changed around.  Incidentally, children, teenagers and adults love this as they are actually allowed to use insults without getting into trouble – it has that naughty, delicious edge to it which allows us to let off steam and then gives us the desire to learn.  It also gives Shakespeare a bit of street cred before he gets the label of boring.

As children love to be creative, I have added an activity so that they can create the insults themselves.

Activity

They need to take an insult from the first two sections below (both of these are adjectives) and then add it to the third section which is a noun.  Add ‘thou’ at the beginning and you have a lovely Shakespearean insult.

Section 1 – base, proud, shallow, beggarly, bawdy, filthy, coward, paunchy, gorbellied, puking, droning, dankish.

Section 2  worsted-stocking, pigeon-egg,  boil-brained, onion-eyed, elf-skinned, trunk-inheriting, clapper-clawed, milk-livered, lily-livered, doghearted, hundred-pound.

Section 3 knave, rogue, bladder, bugbear, pribbling, flap-dragon, boar-pig, barnacle, apple-john, maggot-pie, coxcomb.

For instance – Thou filthy, boil-brained boar-pig.

For any children who particularly enjoy the insults, I love Elizabethan insults so much that I have them all the way through my book Will Blyton and The Stinking Shadow.  Will finds Hamnet, a small boy trapped in a stone, who unfortunately hurls insults every time he opens his mouth.  He is, of course, from the Elizabethan period and has had a curse put upon him by the evil, Elizabethan magician Corpsehound.  His outrageous insults get Will into trouble everywhere he goes.

“Leave me be, thou fetid, old skanky breath,” says Hamnet.

 

So thou base, clapper-clawed rogue – I’m sorry it’s become a habit.  What I really mean is “until we meet again, dear reader.”

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My Frankenstein Journey – A Creative Writing Journal.

Or

How I ended up with a Loony Literature Laboratory.


It all started in an ordinary college on a dreary day with a group of firemen. In fact, there were only three firemen and one firewoman, all the rest were teachers of various subjects.  I was sprouting off about The Laboratory by Robert Browning.  Some people hear the words ‘Victorian poetry’ and dash for the exit. I needed, therefore, to demonstrate how exciting my subject is.  Luckily, people amongst the group commented that normally they would have dismissed a dusty, Victorian poem but I had made it exciting and approachable.  Mission accomplished maybe, but it wasn’t that which sent me on my Frankenstein journey.  It was the question “Your enthusiasm is energising, where does it come from?”

As a child, I was given a book of Shakespeare’s plays written as stories.  I was totally mesmerised with characters disguising themselves in the woods in As You Like It.   Midsummer Night’s Dream enchanted me when Tatiana, the Queen of the Fairies, fell in love with Bottom who had grown an asses head.  I read those stories, over and over.   When, as a teenager, I came to study Shakespeare, I was prepared for it.  I knew the stories so the language wasn’t as difficult as it was for others who were new to The Bard.

Although many people, these days, still love Shakespeare, the Brontes and Henry James, there are those who dismiss them as boring and unapproachable.  I wonder if it is because they are not given them in small, fun like chunks when they are developing their reading tastes.  As I adore children’s expressions when I am telling them stories or about characters, I wondered if I could possibly switch a few of them onto great literature.

I thought I would begin with Frankenstein as it obviously has monster appeal.  My idea was to take the part of the text where Frankenstein makes the monster come alive and turn it into a monologue.  I thought that my fourteen year old, acting son could perform the monologues for nine to eleven year olds and then we could use it as a springboard to write something as a group.

Whilst I was thinking about a creative writing workshop to put together, I decided to read more about Mary Shelley’s (the author of Frankenstein) life.  The book I wanted had to be ordered from The British Library.  When it arrived I could not put it down.  It was better than any page turner.  I don’t want to give anything away because I think readers should discover this astonishing story for themselves.  However, the fact that Mary and her husband, Percy Shelley had to run away to Italy to get free from Percy’s debtor’s filtered through into my subconscious.

Percy Bysshe Shelley imbibed his radical philo...

Percy Bysshe Shelley imbibed his radical philosophy from William Godwin’s Political Justice. (Amelia Curran, 1819) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have very strong views on the power of the subconscious – I think it must be all the essays I wrote from a psychoanalytical angle as a student of Literature.  I sometimes get friends emailing, especially ones working on essays and dissertations, the emails often have one sentence in them.  “HELP – I’VE GOT WRITER’S BLOCK!”  I always tell people that the subconscious hasn’t catalogued all the ideas or research they have shoved there.  Once the subconscious knows what to send you, all the words will come tumbling out.

Portrait of Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My subconscious sent me the comic character of Mary Shelley.  There was a voice in my head which sprouted words and I could see myself in my mind’s eye using somebody else’s mannerisms and voice.  I had a fictional Mary Shelley and the beginning of a play for children.  All I knew was that Mary and Percy were running away from their debtors to Italy.  My Frankenstein journey had begun.

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