Shakespeare in the primary classroom

Can primary pupils cope with Shakespeare? The simple answer is yes. They are fascinated by codes, and the code of Shakespeare’s language presents them with problems which they love to solve.

I worked with small groups looking at the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

You will need to do a fair amount of text work with the children, as well as explaining the context of the Prologue. You can watch a very exciting YouTube version of this.

(There are a number of guns in this short video. I think it would be acceptable for years five and six, but please use your own judgement). The film really gives an exciting backdrop to the Prologue and will make children want to find out more about Shakespeare.

Possible activities

You might want to work towards a written modern translation of the Prologue or you might just wish to bring this out in discussion. Perhaps the best way to treat this is to move the tables and chairs out of the way and explore it through drama. Get the children into the ‘two foes’, let’s see the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ and their parents’ strife. You could ask individuals or groups to memorise certain lines or phrases. You could have a series of narrators. You could take a short phrase and see how many ways you could deliver it. Work towards a whole class performance of this prologue. Think about anger, mystery, outrage, anticipation. Film it yourself and let the children watch themselves.

Another passage which children will enjoy is a speech by Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (II, vii). Here is the whole thing.

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. 

Watch a video performance of this speech here.

Possible activities

Allocate one ‘age’ to each group. Ask them to prepare a performance, look up any strange words, include drama if possible or mime. Ask them to find pictures on the internet to illustrate their age. Perhaps they could make a powerpoint of the words, accompanied by their own images. Film the final performance.

If you have other passages of Shakespeare which primary children have enjoyed, I would be very interested to hear about them.

Poet Brian Moses kindly contacted us to suggest using the opening of Macbeth. What fun children could have with the vocabulary spoken by the three witches. I used this with a small drama group and asked the non-speakers to make sound effects to accompany the words. The actors made spooky swirling motions with their bodies and adopted suitable gnarled voices. Great fun! Get the children to learn this by heart and put their scripts away.

ACT I  SCENE I  A desert place.
[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First Witch When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch That will be ere the set of sun. 5
First Witch Where the place?
Second Witch Upon the heath.
Third Witch There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch I come, graymalkin!
Second Witch Paddock calls. 10
Third Witch Anon!
ALL Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.




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