Shakespeare's inspiration

"Hmm, now that's a good idea..."

I've got a new program, Shakespeare's Inspiration, in which I tell versions of the stories William Shakespeare drew upon for three of his plays. That's right, his ideas were not entirely his own. Are anybody's, even the Bard's? He drew upon folktales and existing books to create some of the world's best plays.

I'm having so much fun with this program, I can hardly stand it!

I began working on this using Patrick Ryan's Shakespeare's Storybook. Pat's collection pairs seven plays with versions of the stories that inspired them. Since his versions didn't completely resonate with me (they're good, just didn't suit me), I dove headfirst into the source notes, emerging with three stories for three plays: the English folktale "Cap O'Rushes" for King Lear, the Irish folktale "The Haughty Princess" for Taming of the Shrew and "Amleth" from Book 3 and 4 of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus for Hamlet. I'm hoping to add Romeo and Juliet to the mix. My goal is to get the students interested in the story so they can enjoy the play even more.

First, I explain why Shakespeare is important (at the excellent suggestion of Sharon Benson). Here's the nutshell: 

Shakespeare’s plays have lasted over four hundred years because he tells great stories, with strong characters, clearly showing universal human strengths and weaknesses. He does this with beautiful, interesting, often funny language.

Then I give a brief synopsis of King Lear, before telling "Cap O'Rushes" (known also as "Like Meat Loves Salt."). Though it doesn't end tragically, as King Lear does, the beginning is very much the opening of the play. It's fun to see the students realize that it is also a Cinderella variant.

I do the same with the other two plays, telling the synopsis, then the base story. The story of Amleth, taken from the 13th century Danish history, is the most intense. As a story of revenge, it's also the most violent, which is why this program isn't for younger kids. The students listen in profound quiet, taking in the images in all three stories. 

Then we have a question and answer period at the end. It's important for the students to have that reflection time, even just a couple of minutes.

I've prepared a study guide for the program, so teachers will have ideas for extending my storytelling. 

I told all three stories together last summer and have told them in bits since then. Two weeks ago, I performed the whole show four times in one day, for sixth grade classes (11-12 year olds) in Salina, KS. It went well! Here's a response from Debbie Webb, the teacher who arranged the school visit: 

[...Priscilla's] stories pull in her audience through voice and actions. She brought Shakespeare to a level the students could understand, and they were taken aback at how his stories were a part of their lives today. She enriched the lives of my students and left them wanting more. I, the teacher, can’t wait for Romeo and Juliet to blossom and be told.