There may be no other playwright in history who's been more widely chronicled, studied and analyzed by scholars and critics.
But for Phillis Baumann's fourth and fifth graders, the appeal of William Shakespeare is decidedly less cerebral.
First, no one can dish out the digs quite like the Bard. Being in a Shakespeare play means getting to throw around juicy jibes like boil-brained or urchin-snouted. Maggot pie. Canker blossom. Beslubbering. Who can beat that?
And then there are the malevolent plots, scheming characters, grand sword fights and grisly murder scenes. Never mind the von Trapps or that goody two-shoes Little Orphan Annie. Shakespeare's got it going on -- just ask Baumann's students at Morrell Park Elementary and Middle School, who took part in the 10th annual Baltimore Student Shakespeare Festival this past week.
Held over two days at Center Stage, the event brought together about 600 students from a dozen public and private schools in the Baltimore area to perform abbreviated versions of Shakespeare plays. Baumann's class did "Macbeth," a weighty work for a group of grade schoolers, and one their teacher eased them into gently.
Baumann attended training through the Baltimore Shakespeare Partnership, an initiative offering programs including seminars on how to introduce Shakespeare to children. One method is to grab their attention through the playwright's inventive use of language, an approach that's clearly been successful with Baumann's class.
"I like Shakespeare because he expressed what he wanted to express in his own words without using other people's words," 11-year-old Justin Myers says.
"We learned to go back to the old times and talk like they talked and all," says Kirstin Grimes, 12.
For Paul Mox, 11, Shakespeare offered a fascinating glimpse into history. To 9-year-old Sophia Mavronis, transforming her petite, fair-haired self into a menacing, ugly witch was the best part.
And in this poor Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, escapism goes a long way. When your parents are addicted or absent, when you live with grandparents or other family members, when you go to school hungry and go home to chaos, you might just want to step into a world that's easier than your own.
"It's a fun escape," Baumann says. "It gives them a chance to be someone else."
The Bard as balm
Sixth grader Cassandra Werner hadn't heard of Shakespeare until Baumann encouraged her to perform at the festival a few years ago. She's since been in two Shakespeare plays, an experience that provided a way to work through the sometimes challenging situation of living with two deaf parents and a brother who's autistic. Werner played Juliet in one of Baumann's productions, and says she used the scene in which Juliet is forbidden to see Romeo to work through her own issues.
"If I had problems, I'd just let it all out in that part," she says. "It helps."
A few miles away, at Booker T. Washington Middle School, Shakespeare holds a different sort of appeal for the seventh and eighth graders who performed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the festival. Teacher Kate Thompson says by middle school age, students can appreciate the personal melodramas played out in Shakespeare's tales.
"They like the fact that it's all one big soap opera," Thompson says. "I think they can really relate to the characters and the confusion of one loving one and that one loving someone else. The emotions are just over the top, and they like that."
Thompson says despite their antiquity, Shakespeare's plays resonate more strongly for today's youths than many contemporary works written specifically for them. "They're pretty corny, a lot of them, and they're not realistic to [kids]," she says. "There's a real lack of stuff they're going to buy into."
The very outdatedness of Shakespeare's writing, Thompson says, offers an advantage in itself -- since it's unlike any culture in America today, it's not race- specific. And to Thompson's students who performed in the festival, all of whom are African-American, that's no small deal.
"They don't look at it and think only white characters would fit into it," she says.
Maureen O'Neill is the coordinator of the Baltimore Shakespeare Partnership, an initiative started about 10 years ago to provide quality drama education, Shakespeare or otherwise, to students in the city and environs. O'Neill says work done through the partnership, funded by a variety of agencies, has helped bridge differences in a city where racial tensions are constantly on simmer.
This is the third year of the partnership's summer camp, where children spend four weeks putting together a Shakespeare production. Students from more than 30 public and private schools in the Baltimore area have attended the camps, and O'Neill says by working together on an artistic endeavor, children find a common ground that transcends neighborhood, race and social standing.
"I think drama is one of the most potent ways for students, especially students from different backgrounds, to come together and engage each other," she says. "There are so many problems right now with kids not being able to talk to each other and resorting to violence. The kids at the summer camp have said it's the only place they can go where they're immediately accepted by kids who are different from them."
And in performing Shakespeare, O'Neill says, children have the chance to explore an emotional range many adults don't give them credit for. "I feel it's so important not to water down the type of artistic expression children participate in," she says. "They're experiencing the exact same emotions adults are experiencing. They're just experiencing them on a different developmental level."
O'Neill attributes Shakespeare's longevity to the timeless, archetypal themes contained in his plays -- unrequited love, the rise and fall of rulers, good versus evil. Some may see Shakespeare's works as too gory for children, but O'Neill says the violence in plays such as "Julius Caesar" offers a way for children to address the issue in their own lives, albeit at a safe distance.
"[That way] it's not scratching at a deep wound," she says.
Timeless and timely
The Baltimore children's festival is testament to the timelessness of the English poet and playwright, whose works continue to capture thespians and audiences alike centuries after his death in 1616. Students in this year's festival performed what O'Neill says are the perennial favorites -- "Romeo and Juliet," "Twelfth Night," "Macbeth," "Hamlet," "The Tempest," "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"There's quite a range," O'Neill says, "but I don't believe we've had 'Titus Andronicus.' It's really bloody. Somebody's head ends up baked in a pie."
Baumann and others say as cuts to arts instruction have increased, initiatives such as the children's Shakespeare festival are more important than ever. A 1998 survey showed half of Baltimore's 123 elementary schools have no choral music programs, and only 16 offer instrumental music programs. Baumann says her school, which had its own orchestra for 17 years, no longer offers any music or drama instruction.
"They've really cut the arts out of the schools," she says. "There's nothing in Baltimore City schools unless the teachers do it on their lunchtime."
A master plan drafted by the city school board last year proposes spending $30 million on arts education programs in the 2001-2002 school year. In the meantime, the Baltimore Shakespeare Partnership is there to help boost arts education wherever possible.
"Teachers are under so much pressure, and it's very difficult for them to take advantage of opportunities such as this," O'Neill says. "We've sort of tried to help fill in the gaps."
And, perchance, helped a few kids to dream.