By Ron Scot Fry
“Do you not educate youth at the charge-house at the top of the mountain?”
-William Shakespeare; Love’s Labours Lost, Act V, Scene ii
I’m nowhere near a mountain right now. I’m sitting precariously on the grassy hillside that serves as backstage, dressing rooms, and greenroom for Optimist Theatre’s “Shakespeare in the Park” in Milwaukee, listening to my colleagues play The Winter’s Tale and using the time before my next entrance to collect a few thoughts on “why Shakespeare matters, especially for kids.” I’m collecting those thoughts because my blog posting on this topic is due tomorrow. Fortunately, I have a favorite among the thousands of excellent reasons that Shakespeare’s body of work matters.
It matters because it’s hard. It’s intimidating. For many, it’s a mountain that looks impossible to climb … until you climb it.
When I’m not working on “Shakespeare in the Park,” a couple of hundred times a year, in more than seventy schools and libraries throughout Wisconsin, I play William Shakespeare in a one-man show called “To Be! Shakespeare Here and Now.” I get to work with students of all abilities, helping them to find the fun and excitement in Shakespeare’s works and eroding their fear. From the brightest AP students to those who struggle hardest to keep afloat, these students have two things in common; Shakespeare isn’t easy, and it feels great when they get it. And they can all get it. Shakespeare is a mountain they can climb.
Like mountain climbing, learning Shakespeare’s work is a challenge that includes its own rewards. Sensing the rhythm of a line of poetry, understanding what motivates a character, and learning old versions of filthy words are scenic vistas along the route. For some students, the reward comes when they insult each other in front of the class using Shakespeare’s language. For some, it comes when they play a scene with a professional actor, even if their role is a dog who does nothing but bark. For some, the reward is being cursed by Macbeth’s witches; for others, it’s understanding that the “question” behind “To be or not to be …” is suicide.
Whatever their rewards along the way, when students reach the summit, they know accomplishment, and they are changed. They are different people. They become members of the summiting club called “People Who Get Shakespeare (PWGS).”
This is where my already clumsy metaphor collapses under it’s own weight. Members of PWGS know that they haven’t really reached a summit, and that they don’t “get” Shakespeare. There is no summit, and really smart people who spend their entire professional lives studying Shakespeare’s work don’t claim to “get” it. As with so many other areas of study (all of them, as far as I know,) the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. But coming to a place where we can enjoy Shakespeare’s works and approach them without fear is an accomplishment for a lot of us, and sometimes those who face the hardest struggle experience the greatest reward.
Optimist Theatre had the great fortune to have a gentleman named David L. Diaz in our audience for The Winter’s Tale last night. David is one of Milwaukee’s most promising boxing contenders. He had a lot of trouble with school and struggled terribly with English. Last night’s Winter’s Tale was his first time seeing Shakespeare’s work. After the play, he sought out a cast member to share his experience. He was ecstatic! He could understand what people were saying. He followed the story, identified with the characters, laughed with the clown, hated the villain, and enjoyed the play. David’s considerable talents may never include Shakespeare scholarship, but he earned his PWGS patch last night. I hoped to see him again.
I can think of no greater gift we can give young people than a great challenge and the tools to meet it. Shakespeare is a great challenge, and those who meet the challenge are better for it. This is why Shakespeare matters.
“Aye, to the proof; as mountains are for winds,
That shake not, though they blow perpetually.”
– William Shakespeare; Taming of the Shrew, Act II, Scene i
Ron Scot Fry is the Artistic Director of Optimist Theatre in Milwaukee. He has four-times been awarded WHC grants for his in-character performance as William Shakespeare in “To Be! Shakespeare Here and Now.” His most recent original work, “Bloody, Filthy Shakespeare,” debuted this past March at Teatro Goldoni in Florence, Italy.