Why Shakespeare never gets old

The Yale Shakespeare Complete Works, 2005

A friend of mine came over tonight because she’s about to teach Shakespeare for the first time, and she needed some help. I have been totally geeking out all evening! Shakespeare’s going to turn 453 this month, but he never gets old to me.

This afternoon, I went through all my Shakespeare curriculum and relived the joy of teaching the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon to kids and teenagers! My friend will be teaching Romeo and Juliet, which is a good place to begin. (Who doesn’t love that storyline? All that dueling, dying, romancing! Some of the most famous sonnets of all time.) I’m so happy paging through the notes on the Globe Theater, the worksheets on analyzing and writing sonnets, the funny exercises on writing your own Shakespearean insults.

Without meaning to, I launched into an excited soliloquy of my own on Shakespeare’s accomplishments and how to teach them:

  • the most-read author in all history after the Bible
  • wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets
  • wrote, produced, and starred in his own plays at his own theater
  • invented the modern theater
  • coined over 1700 new words for the English language (many which we use today)

No Fear Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet– side-by-side Shakespearean and Modern English texts

After I gave her 2 binders of notes and worksheets, 2 curriculum guides, and a copy of the book, I took her to my costume collection. Our costumes have survived 3 boys and a dozen years of English classes, so some of my gear is wearing out. We managed to rustle up a collection of hats, swords, wigs, and masks for her students to wear while they are acting out the play in class.

Because they must act it out. That’s when Shakespeare comes alive. When you’re seeing it produced in front of you, you recognize the wit, the brilliance, the beauty of perfectly-coined phrases, and the genius of Shakespeare’s grasp on humanity.  It’s why kids should read Shakespeare and why they should be taught in such a way that they fall in love with his plays.

There are so many reasons I’m obsessed with Shakespeare. I grew up going to college performances with my English-professor mother. I love the language, plot, characters, poetry. But most of all I love that Shakespeare understood people, and that people never change. He knew they would be entertained by seeing themselves in his characters, whatever their age or vocation. He understood the circle of life–the circle which makes us all equals and all mortals:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 5)

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