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Performing Shakespeare for kids

Violence, Kids, and Shakespeare – It’s all good…

I was chatting with another mom the other day about telling bedtime stories to kids. Her five-year-old son had asked her to tell him a story about knights with swords. Before she knew it, she found she was telling him the story of Hamlet. She went on to describe the panic she felt when she realized that there was a lot about Hamlet that maybe wasn’t so child-friendly. Infidelity? Check. Insanity? Check. Fighting, poison, murder? Check. Check. Check. So, that raises the question: how appropriate are Shakespeare’s plays for kids, anyway?

If you’ve ever taught our plays, you’ll notice that kids go crazy over death scenes. They love swordplay and dying as dramatically as possible onstage. So…is this something parents should be worried about? (Now mind you, we DON’T do Titus, so don’t worry about that!)

Turns out there is a lot of research about video game violence and kids, but not so much about “playing with swords” or “kids playing murderous villains.”

Lisa Zamosky’s article on WebMD has this to offer about kids playing violent games:

“Play has been linked to social and cognitive development. Through imaginary games, children learn how to control impulses, delay gratification, think symbolically, and view things from another’s perspective. Play also allows children to act out their fears and aspirations.”

I also ran across a lovely article written by Janet Field-Pickering, who is the Head of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Although she was addressing exposing children to the language of Shakespeare, not the violence, I thought her sentiment was fitting:

“Children learn through playing. They learn how to interact with other people; they learn to collaborate; they learn to express themselves through language and movement.”

The key word in both of the quotes above is ‘play.’ Don’t forget, they are reading and performing ‘plays.’

Do kids need to be exposed to all of humanity’s darkness? No, of course not. Do we put in every mention of sex, drugs and rock and roll, er, I mean Baroque, mentioned in these plays? Nope. Actually, we do gloss over much of the more adult situations in the stories, not only for propriety’s sake but for time’s sake as well.

The bottom line is that kids are smart. They understand that it’s make-believe. They get that all the dying and murder and violence is part of the story, and by acting these things out, they are learning to make sense (or make fun) of the world around them…both the world on the page and the world beneath their feet.

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By Khara Oliver

first fell in love with Shakespeare in 8th grade after reading Hamlet, and she has been an avid fan ever since. She studied Shakespeare’s works in Stratford-upon-Avon, and graduated with a degree in English from UCLA. Khara is lucky to have a terrific career and a charmed life on the Central Coast of CA, but what she cherishes most is time spent with her husband and children. She is delighted to have this chance to help kids foster their own appreciation of Shakespeare in a way that is educational, entertaining, and most importantly, fun!