For many, the Shakespearean experience begins and ends with a fleeting glimpse of Hamlet or Macbeth in high school. The bard seems firmly relegated to academe, his eloquent writings reserved for the scholarly and learned elite - much to the relief of those of us who struggle to distinguish a thee from a thou.
Well, the pupils at Clemens Crossing Elementary School have news for you - Shakespeare is for kids, too.
Last week, a troupe of fourth- and fifth-graders performed a 20-minute portion of A Midsummer Night's Dream in its original language at Folger Shakespeare Library Theatre in Washington as part of the 23rd Emily Jordan Folger Children's Shakespeare Festival.
"It was a wonderful experience for the kids," said Stephanie Gurwitz, who directed the after-school program. Clemens Crossing, in Columbia, was one of 24 schools represented during the four-day event.
This was the fourth performance of Midsummer for the young actors this spring - last month they performed twice at the school, and participated in the Baltimore Children's Shakespeare and Drama Festival at Center Stage in Baltimore.
Annual Shakespeare performances have become something of an institution at Clemens Crossing, implemented by former Assistant Principal Tony Yount. This year, with Yount retired, the PTA stepped in and sponsored the program so the show could go on.
"The kids wanted it. The kids wanted to do Shakespeare," said Gurwitz, whose son, Solomon Zurier, a fifth-grader, was one of this year's 50 cast members. "They had seen [Shakespeare] performed in third and fourth grade, so it was familiar to them."
The real surprise is not just that they want to perform Shakespeare; it's that the youngsters understand - and enjoy - the stories.
"Shakespeare is written on lots of different levels," Gurwitz said. She and her assistant directors, Jane Kolodner and Cheryl Gramling, spent considerable time explaining the text to the children, line by line. "They didn't know what all the words meant. But they definitely have a feel for the play," Gurwitz said.
Gurwitz dismisses the notion that Shakespeare is over the children's heads. "The earlier they're exposed to it, the better," she said.
Janet Field-Pickering, head of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library, agrees.
"We think there are a lot of adults and adolescents who have a fear of Shakespeare," she said. "Children are not as afraid of Shakespeare as adults are. They think it's cool and interesting."
Field-Pickering believes that young children are comfortable with Shakespeare because they are not intimidated by the Elizabethan verbiage. "We've discovered that children are so used to acquiring language as they go along - they have to figure out new words every day - they don't seem to worry about it. They're still firmly in the process of learning new words," she said. "Older children worry that they won't get it right."
An increasing number of elementary schools are taking on Shakespeare, Field-Pickering said. Still, getting Shakespeare into the elementary school curriculum can be a tough sell.
"Sometimes school systems think that if they'll be studying it in high school, they shouldn't do it in fifth grade," Field-Pickering said. "But their response to Hamlet in fifth grade is going to be much different than in high school."
She believes that exposure to Shakespeare at an early age, through reading and performances, sets the stage for a greater understanding of literature in the future.
Shakespeare is not required reading in Howard County's public elementary schools, although teachers could feasibly incorporate the classic works into lesson plans to teach established objectives, said Ann Mintz, elementary language arts coordinator.
For Christopher Arnold, 11, the Clemens Crossing productions have sparked an interest in reading Shakespeare and learning about Elizabethan times. "Sometimes I like to read the books and then I understand [the plays] even more," said Christopher, who played the part of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, in this year's production. "I did the part of the play first, and then I read the book on my own."
Christopher's mother, Gianna Arnold, said that the plays have cultivated in her son a fondness for Shakespeare's works. "It's opened his eyes to Shakespeare."