Many young people assume Shakespearean plays are boring, unfamiliar, and difficult to understand. However, when teenagers are exposed to Shakespeare’s works in interesting, interactive ways, they may find that his works are still accessible and relatable to the youth of today. Themes in his plays are still prevalent in high schools everywhere: betrayal, corruption, love, jealousy, and prejudice, to name a few. Your average teenager may relate to the reckless, brash Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet, or the witty, strong Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. These concepts and characters are universal and can be applied to any situation.
Understanding Shakespeare and being able to perform it well is an important skill to utilize, especially as an actor. Next year, Atholton High School is going to be putting on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, an incredible show about monsters, spirits, magic, and a shipwreck. Some students are discouraged by the thought of performing Shakespeare, but the theatre department is looking forward to putting on a wonderful show. Admittedly, the idea of being part of a Shakespearean show for the first time is initially daunting, but once someone is exposed to it in a way that does not confuse and bore them, they may find that they have an interest in Shakespeare after all. Many view Shakespeare as pretentious — something only for conceited, highly educated adults. This myth should not be perpetuated. Theatre is for all to enjoy, and distancing young people from classical theatre by performing it in strictly traditional settings creates a wall between youth and Shakespearean scholars.
Connecting modern culture with works of the past is important, and helps the general community to connect with and understand Shakespeare. One example of a theatre group which does this is the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. According to their website, they strive to create “shows that [allow] audiences to connect to classic works in whole new ways – ways that are fresh, innovative and sustainable.” They add relevant music and current humor without changing the text itself, ultimately creating amazing productions that anyone can understand and enjoy.
CSC also runs a program for teenagers called the Chesapeake Shakespeare Corps. During the summer, high school students rehearse three different Shakespeare plays while learning techniques from professional actors. The program accepts all applicants, and casting is random, so anyone can participate. These productions are focused on building strong themes and modern connections. Past shows have included a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost with a steampunk theme, as well as a production of A Winter’s Tale with rivaling “frat houses” (Bohemia Kappa Delta and Alpha Beta Sicilia) rather than kingdoms. There’s nothing wrong with performing Shakespeare in sunglasses and shorts rather than in traditional attire. All the performers put in huge amounts of effort when creating and working on these shows. In general, theatre is a good outlet for teens to express themselves, and in this program, they are exposed to a positive, supportive community while learning a lot about Shakespeare. It is an amazing experience that many may not have been exposed to if they had not been open to working with Shakespeare.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, a famous British theatre company, also aims to make Shakespeare’s works relevant for children. Jacqui O’Hanlon, the education director of RSC, said, “We’re not saying analyse the text at a young age. We’re saying act it out, see performances, explore. And we’re happy that so many thousands of people have said yes to this.”
It is incredible that theatre companies like CSC and RSC can create such an accessible community for teenagers to participate in. Their innovative performances have impacted many young people’s lives and will continue to do so for a long time.
There is no right age to introduce someone to Shakespeare; the magic of theatre should be accessible to children, teenagers, and adults. It is wonderful that so many theatre professionals are able to reach out to young people through their performances. If performed right, even if you don’t understand every word of the text, anyone can learn to love Shakespeare.