By the Pricking of My Thumbs…

January 13, 2010 @ 9:07 pm | Filed under:

The Shakespeare Club kids didn’t know what was coming. Banquo had just been murdered, and now Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were entertaining the nobles at a feast, and we turned a page and the kids saw the words ENTER BANQUO’S GHOST.

“No way!!!!” broke out from almost every member of the reading circle in unison.

If William Shakespeare could have seen their reaction, it would have made his day.

I love our Shakespeare Club. Sarah and others have asked me several times to elaborate on the format a little, so here you go. We have a group of about a dozen kids ages 10-14, more or less. My Beanie is the youngest member, at on-the-brink-of-nine. This is our third year, our third play. The group has grown both in age range and number since our beginning (though we dearly miss a few members whose schedules precluded their participation this year).

Unlike Alice‘s group, which was our inspiration, we haven’t yet performed a whole play. The kids think this might be the year—they are really, really enjoying Macbeth, and nearly every turn of the page has them bubbling over with questions and ideas about how to stage it. How will we do the ghost? How will we make the spirits appear out of the witches’ cauldron?

We started as a reading group—I had in mind to invite a few of Jane’s friends to join us for a read-through of Midsummer Night’s Dream. We met every other week and slowly read the play aloud, pausing often to work out the meaning of the complicated language. I used the wonderful book One Day in Elizabethan England as an ice-breaker—what a fabulous book that is, full of rich, comical, grandiloquent, irresistible language.

“…you eat rather pinglingly, having only: a sip of soup, a snip of snipe, a smidgeon of stag, a munch of mutton, a bite of boar, a pinch of pheasant, and a little lark.”

What a feast of phrases to whet one’s appetite for Shakespeare!

By the time we finished reading Midsummer Night’s Dream that first year (it took us from September to Christmas, meeting twice a month), the kids were clamoring to perform scenes for their parents. And so during the next several months, while our main focus shifted to the Journey North Mystery Class, we squeezed in rehearsals of a few key scenes from the play. One of the families hosted the performance early that summer. The kids made the costumes and backdrops themselves, very simply. They were charming. We invited friends and family to the show and it was a grand success.

Last year we repeated the experience with Taming of the Shrew. More kids this time, and longer scenes. Lots of fiery language and comedy flying around the room. The arrival of several babies in our group of families changed up our winter and spring schedules quite a bit, so instead of an early-summer performance, we took a long break and then had a one-week “Shakespeare camp” in August. Each morning, we warmed up with some rousing theater games—so much fun—and then rehearsed our scenes. At the end of the week, we scheduled a performance. I think we squeezed in a dress rehearsal about a week after the camp, before the big night. Once again, the kids made their own costumes, and our set was minimal. We celebrated the fine performance with a potluck feast—each dish inspired by a line or character in the play, as demonstrated so magically in Alice Gunther’s book, Haystack Full of Needles.

And this year: Macbeth. The boys were rather adamant about wanting a tragedy this time. Give us blood and guts! All right, says I, I’ll see your blood and guts and raise you ghosts and witches. Heh.

Once again, we’ve followed the same basic format: from September through January, we’ve met roughly twice a month for our group read-through. My role as leader of the club is to help the kids unpack the language. We stop as often as we need to, every speech, or every few lines even, to “translate” the text, as it were. We talk about the themes and motifs. The kids have animated discussions about the characters’ motivations. This play has afforded us many excellent examples of dramatic irony. I think my favorite part of the club is listening to the kids discuss the “what and why.” Today, when they were all so bowled over by the arrival of Banquo’s ghost, it was all I could do not to whoop. It is so exciting for me to see them get so excited!

They seem very eager, this year, to stage the whole play. We’ll finish our read-through next time we meet, and then we’ll start rehearsing, I guess. Truth be told, I am not much of a director. I started out as a theater major in college, but I was more the onstage type. But I can help the kids figure out what the heck they’re saying, and why. I can’t wait to see their reaction to Birnam Wood’s approach on Dunsinane Hill, next time we meet.

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16 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sarah says:

    This is wonderful! How great that you have such engaged and excited participants! Thank you so much for detailing it all for us … can you stand one more exclamation mark?


  2. Carlie says:

    Yay! The theatre minor in me is just thrilled the moment of the ghost surprise. So wonderful to see that fresh engaging with the text! Can’t wait till my kids are old enough for Shakespeare. (they are 3 and 1 now)I do love Hamlet.

  3. Emily says:

    Oh, yes, stage Macbeth! It is his shortest tragedy, after all, and then you get to have someone memorize “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, and someone be Lady Macbeth! I would’ve loved to play Lady Macbeth when I was a kid! (OK, I still would like to play her…)

  4. Penny in VT says:

    Thank you for sharing this Lissa, I hope to start something like like with my eldest next fall.

    FYI, there are several well priced copies of One Day in Elizabethan England at Allibris right now (minus the one that I just bought – yay).

    And, the soup was awesome.

    It’s all SO good!

  5. MelanieB says:

    Oh what fun! Some friends of mine used to host a Shakespeare reading group the year after I graduated college. But it was more of a sipping wine and nibbling cheese sort of affair. I miss it greatly. But yours sound more fun. We never did performances.

  6. Alice Gunther says:

    Another fantastic post, and on my favorite subject too! So much fun. (And thank you for all the mentions!)

  7. Hannah says:

    The fact that these kids are so enthused about Shakespeare at their age may speak to his universality, but I think it speaks much louder to your ability to be inspiring.

  8. Margaret Ann Abrahams says:

    Love the idea of this Shakespeare Club. What lucky kids.

  9. Lenetta @ Nettacow says:

    I’ve been intrigued by Shakespeare Clubs since reading Alice’s book. :>) This post just reminds me that it IS do-able, and I look forward to my little one getting old enough. I linked to this on my weekly roundup, the post is under my name. Thanks!

  10. Beth says:

    This post arrived in my reader at just the right time. Next week we are starting up our own Shakespeare reading club, there will be only four of us, but it is a start. Thanks for the great post!

  11. Kay says:

    Shapespeare Yes What a wonderful post and I agree. My kids love Shakespeare and at 15 and 11 have little trouble understanding the language.
    This year we have just finished Hamlet (loved it) especially after Richard III!! ghost are great!
    We are now reading Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (oh, my:) and will finish up with his 15 Minute Hamlet. Delightful. Tragedy is fun, language unique.

    Reading with our Classic Book Club

    Huckleberry FinnMark Twain
    Animal Farm George Orwell
    Red Badge of Courage Stephan Crane

    October 23, 2009 Hound of the Baskervilles
    (or other Sherlock Holmes) Sir Arthur Conan Boyle

    November 20, 2009 To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

    December 18, 2009 Brave New World Aldous Huxley

    January 29, 2010 Hamlet William Shakespeare
    15 min Hamlet Tom Stoppard
    Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Tom Stoppard

    February 26, 2010 Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut

    March 26, 2010 Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

    April 23, 2010 Last of the Mohicans James Fenimore Cooper

    May 21, 2010 The House of the Seven Gables Nathaniel Hawthorne

  12. Melissa Wiley says:

    Kay! GREAT LIST!! I want to join!

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    BTW, I see you’ve got Slaughterhouse Five coming up next month. Have you seen Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to his family after his escape?

  14. Kay says:

    Oh my. Post posted before I was finished cropping and writing.
    Thanks for the inspiration. Your posts keep me fired up and always learning.
    Hoping to give some of the energy back:)

    The end of the post is our booklist for this year. Love the conversations from the group of 12 -15 kids ages 11 through 18.
    Love most of the books (Brave New World was not easy on my mind – I flip flopped often on whether to keep reading. My 15 year old son guided me through it:) Mom, it is only a book you know.


    Younger kids sometimes read the same books as the older kids sometimes not.
    Their list this year is
    Ravenmaster’s Secret Elvira Woodruff
    Island of the Blue Dolphins Scott O’ Dell
    Pushcart Wars Jean Merrill
    Witch of Blackbird Pond Elizabeth George Speare
    The Sherwood Ring Elizabeth Maria Pope
    The Incredible Journey Sheila Burnford
    The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
    Hamlet William Shakespeare
    15 min Hamlet Tom Stoppard
    Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Tom Stoppard
    The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett
    The Sisters Grimm Michael Buckley
    Journal of Helen Keller Helen Keller
    Swiss Family Robinson Johann David Wyss

  15. Jessica Snell says:

    I love what we’re reading now with the kids (McCloskey! Ingalls Wilder!), but this shows me just how much more I have to look forward to.

  16. Kay says:

    Thanks for the Vonnegut trail…. You’ve gotten ahead of me with your posts in the last few days. I’m catching up today.
    Love your ideas on how to keep it organized.