Monday, October 15, 2012

His First Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Saturday we took N. to a student production of The Comedy of Errors at the arts conservatory in our city; it was his first Shakespeare play (not counting the opera version of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai that he saw last spring).  Since so much of the play depends on the physical humor of mistaken identities, it was fairly easy for N. to follow the plot and he really enjoyed it.  The students did not communicate the meanings of play's language particularly well, so I was relieved that the action was nonetheless clear to N. 

Tim wanted N. to experience The Comedy of Errors without any preconceptions so he deliberately did not give him any preparation other than to tell him that it involved two sets of twins.  I can't say I agreed with this approach; I would have read N. Charles and Mary Lamb's retelling of the plot, at the very least.  But Tim was sure that N. would get the basic gist of this relatively simple play and he wasn't wrong.  Still, our opinions of the value of Shakespearean retellings differ.  Tim thinks that a student should read the original Shakespearean text and only the original (putting aside the vexed question of which text counts as the original in the case of some plays!), and not until she is ready to really engage with its complexity (he has resisted reading Shakespeare with the older homeschooled children he tutors until they are into their teens).  I think that the retellings can whet a child's appetite for Shakespeare and are therefore valuable.  Of course they may be sometimes slightly inaccurate, and they certainly emphasize plot at the expense of other facets of the texts.  Nonetheless, the long use of retellings since the early nineteenth century suggests their efficacy. 

Such are the arguments of a two-literature-Ph.D.-household.  Internet: buttress my cause!  Tell me why you use retellings of Shakespeare with your children.
"Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak..."  --The Comedy of Errors


Momand Kiddo said...

Introducing children (and adults, for that matter) to the plot of a Shakespeare text before they see it on stage is incredibly valuable. I could probably write an essay on this subject and there are a lot of people who would argue that Shakespeare's plays are meant to be "seen and not read." While that is obviously true, knowing the plot and the characters ahead of time can really free up a child (or adult) from feeling overwhelmed by the unfamiliar language. I don't really think children suffer from the same kind of preconceptions about performance that adults do (and I also think preconceptions are actually not all that dangerous).

Comedy of Errors was a great choice for a first Shakespeare play!

Oh, and Shakespeare's original audience would have also been familiar with the plot/characters before they went to the theater, too.

That's my PhD-in-Dramatic Arts two cents.:)

Alice@Supratentorial said...

Coming from a non-PhD in anything...I use retellings for Shakespeare as well because I think kids can enjoy the plays at a much younger age if they have some idea of the story/characters before hand. I look at it like teaching science. I don't teach chemistry and immediately introduce quantum mechanics. The idea of an atom with a nucleus and orbiting electrons is somewhat simplified but it gets the main idea across until they can understand the more complex models. I use the correct terms but just made simpler, in the same way a good retelling of Shakespeare uses his language but made simpler and more accessible.

Fanny Harville said...

You both make many great points! I think the idea that the plays are meant to be seen was partly behind Tim's desire not to tell N. much about it beforehand. But it's an excellent point about the familiarity Shakespeare's audiences would have already had about many of the stories on which the plays are based.

Also, Alice, I like your chemistry analogy!

I do kind of see Tim's point, however, when I imagine someone reading a children's version of a Jane Austen novel (I don't know if such things exist). That would seem so very wrong to me! :)

Momand Kiddo said...

I keep thinking about this question and perhaps a good alternative would be to familiarize the child with the story without the aid of a book. I'm thinking of how Shakespeare's audience would have originally heard rather than read the stories -- from their parents, or from storytellers, etc.

It's such a good question and one I always had to address when my students said they didn't want to read the play before a performance even though it was assigned that way!

Fanny Harville said...

Again, a good point: if we are taking the original conditions of production as some kind of guide for the "right" way to experience Shakespeare, telling the child the outlines of the story might approximate the previous knowledge the original audience would bring to the theater.

On the other hand, of course it is ridiculous to try to recreate those original conditions. We could never do it, and we aren't Early Modern people.

I generally think that the more you know about something, the richer your encounter with it is. This is why your students had to read the play before seeing the performance!

Megan said...

Hmm, well, D's introduction to The Bard was watching the Reduced Shakespeare Company at age 4 (perhaps we should not mention this to Tim!). We had kid versions of Shakespeare around when he was little, so I assume we probably read them. We also read portions of the actual texts starting when he was 4 or 5. I have no idea how much he understood at that age, but he liked the words. So I guess the moral is that you can do everything wrong and still end up with a 14-year-old who likes Shakespeare.

Fanny Harville said...

Megan, it sounds to me like you did everything RIGHT, not wrong!