Public Speaking: Shakespeare Untangled, Only Slightly Mangled

Our local Homeschool Theater Company will be producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare.  Auditions are being held and the Happymess Kids, and others, are busy practicing, rehearsing and memorizing.

This unabridged, original language version will be performed with a cast of 24 students, ages ranging from 8-18.  No mean feat.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grow

We like to practice public speaking outdoors where loud, confident voices can shout to the treetops.

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:

 

Our homespun Happymess public speaking program consists of repeated practice in reading complicated, often strident, historic addresses and rehearsing literary monologues and soliloquies.

On of our favorites, for this exercise, is Socrates’ speech to the Athenians upon being condemned to death for speaking the truth:

In the next place, I desire to predict to you who have condemned me, what will be your fate: for I am now in that condition in which men most frequently prophesy, namely, when they are about to die. I say then to you, O Athenians, who have condemned me to death, that immediately after my death a punishment will overtake you, far more severe, by Jupiter, than that which you have inflicted on me. For you have done this thinking you should be freed from the necessity of giving an account of your life. The very contrary however, as I affirm, will happen to you. Your accusers will be more numerous, whom I have now restrained, tho you did not perceive it; and they will be more severe, inasmuch as they are younger and you will be more indignant. For, if you think that by putting men to death you will restrain any one from upbraiding you because you do not live well, you are much mistaken; for this method of escape is neither possible nor honorable, but that other is most honorable and most easy, not to put a check upon others, but for a man to take heed to himself, how he may be most perfect. Having predicted thus much to those of you who have condemned me, I take my leave of you.

This speech, once the words can be pronounced, can only be said loudly and forcefully.  Socrates is unapologetic and accusatory.  Our young public speakers learn to belt out his defense at top decibel. No room for stage fright here.

In fact, when Athena was interviewed after working as a reporter on closed circuit TV for Destination Imagination they asked her, “How did you get so good at public speaking?” to which she answered, “My mother had me stand on a rock in the backyard and shout Socrates’ death speech repeatedly across the yard.”  I wonder what the neighbors were thinking?

Another great public address we have used is that of Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro”, 1852.

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just. 

This can only be said unapologetically with force and conviction.

We like to place the “speaker” about 60 feet from the “audience”. This encourages audible, self-assured voices that be clearly heard at a reasonable distance. We emphasize speaking S-L-O-W-L-Y and         C-L-E-A-R-L-Y. In this case, Bounce is practicing the part of Oberon for his Midsummer Night’s Dream audition.

There sleeps Titania some time of the night,

Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

 

Happymess kids are dancing around Truth as he attempts to memorize his speech and rise above the distractions created by several bouncing brothers.  They are deliberately trying to confuse Truth as he valiantly recites his piece despite their best efforts at confusion.  Ultimately, this builds confidence, as Truth knows nothing can come between him and his chosen piece of recitation.  Plus, everyone has a lot of fun in the process.

And there the snake throws her enameled skin,

Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in. (2.1.249)

We will be studying Midsummer Night’s Dream on several levels, increasing the difficulty as the children become more familiar with the unusual language.

So, how do we get the kids to learn all this stuff?  We start slowly.  Bruce Coville has written a wonderful series of Shakespearean children’s books.  Each book is based upon a different play and closely follows the plot line while interspersing original text in the adapted and simplified version.  The illustrations, by Dennis Nolan, are truly fanciful and capture the magic of the original plays.  These books make Shakespeare accessible to any reader.

We will eventually read and study the original play using the Oxford Student Shakespeare edition.  This series is annotated throughout with stage notes, explanations of character attitudes, vocabulary definitions and explanations of references to other texts (Biblical, historical, etc.)

Many of the children, at the auditions, are quite young but have already performed several times with this theater company.  They were readily able to cope with the difficult language.  Their prior experience was apparent and impressive.  The directors have really had a positive impact on this homegrown troupe.

Rehearsal of this play, which will take months, will certainly build public speaking skills, emotional emphasis, and clarity of speech.   As are great historical speeches, Shakespearean language is at first incomprehensible.  It is a great surprise and joy to the students as they begin to untangle complex language and interweaving plot lines and discover that they can finally understand, enjoy and begin to “own” these words for themselves.

 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.        As You Like It, William Shakespeare   

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is practicing public speaking skills through reciting Shakespeare in the backyard with the sun shining, the dog barking and the boys joyfully bouncing about. 

3 Responses

  1. This is awesome. I wish you all the best. I know the play will be fantastic!

  2. “See the man with the stage fright, just standing up there to give it all his might, he got caught in the spot light, but when he gets to the end he wants to start all over again! One of my favorite lines from the BAND

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