recess radio program

4/21/05
Happy Birthday to the Bard
    by John Cech

We know very little about the life of one of the world's best known authors, William Shakespeare, which is perhaps why the controversy continues about whether or not the historical Shakespeare, who was born in Stratford-on-Avon on April 23rd, 1564 and died in Stratford on April 23rd, 1616, was really the creator of the 36 plays and 154 sonnets that carry his name.

In the end, of course, the works will remain; and elementary school children, teenagers, and college students will still have to struggle to memorize soliloquies and scenes from his plays and to try to puzzle out their elusive meanings. And now even babies may one day be wondering, if they watch or listen to the Baby Einstein Baby Shakespeare video, if Shakespeare was a man or the green puppet who presents the "world of poetry"on the tape.

A good way of introducing Shakespeare to older young people is through some of the books that retell Shakespeare's plays as stories. The late British author, Leon Garfield, has two volumes -- Shakespeare Stories and Shakespeare Stories II -- that provide adaptations of twenty-four plays in a prose style that manages to sound both modern and Elizabethan. Garfield is respectful of the complexities of the originals; and his novelist's eye for plot helps him to capture their dramatic essences in a relatively few pages -- especially with the help of the superb illustrations of Michael Foreman.

Then there's Lois Burdett, a Canadian teacher whose Shakespeare Can Be Fun Series, takes things a little bit further, compressing and rewriting the plays in the form of rhymed couplets that are illustrated by her second and third-grade classes. She's redone a bunch of the more popular plays in this way, as well as publishing A Child's Portrait of Shakespeare. Some may well feel that, despite the Bard's warning in his famous epitaph, these books are truly disturbing his bones -- still, they have become very popular, along with Cas Foster's Sixty Minute Shakespeare series for middle school readers and amateur directors.

Still, there's that controversy. For a refreshing take on the question of who wrote Shakespeare, you might want to try Norma Howe 's novel, The Blue Avenger Cracks the Code, about a 16-year-old intellectual action hero who decides to solve that riddle, for once and for all. Will he decipher Francis Bacon's Bi-Lateral Cipher -- ah, that is the question.

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Copyright 2005 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."