The play's the thing: Can young children be wowed by Shakespeare?

The RSC wants primary school children to become fans of Shakespeare. Could A Midsummer Night's Dream really thrill an eight-year-old? Caitlin Davies finds out
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Should children be introduced to Shakespeare at the tender age of four? Or should we wait until they are eight, or even better, the teenage years, when they are able to understand some of the 17th-century language better? This is a fraught issue, on which opinion is divided, but the Royal Shakespeare Company has grabbed the bull by the horns and says that you can't be exposed to the Bard too young.

To promote its case, the RSC has just held a "Stand up for Shakespeare" school assemblies' week. Across the country, RSC big name actors took part, and primary schools were given a DVD of animated editions of Shakespeare's tales in which they meet his star-crossed lovers, witches and fairies.

This is part of a campaign begun last year to improve the teaching, learning and performance of Shakespeare in schools. As many as 10,000 people have now signed up to the RCS's online "Stand up for Shakespeare" manifesto, which will be used to lobby for a national adoption of new approaches in the classroom.

"We're not saying analyse the text at a young age," says Jacqui O'Hanlon, RSC education director. "We're saying act it out, see performances, explore. And we're happy that so many thousands of people have said yes to this."

Start a child young enough, the RSC believes, and they will become Shakespeare lovers for life. Critics, however, say that it could equally put them off for ever.

At the moment Shakespeare is the only writer that is a compulsory part of the curriculum from the age of 13. But the RSC wants to get to children before they're intimidated by the language. And it's Shakespearean language that is the real sticking point.

When my eight-year-old daughter Ruby came in from school with a copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, my heart sank. Isn't that the play about mistaken identities? It would be too difficult, I thought, even though it was an abridged version. How was I going to explain "beseech", "entreat" and "abjure" – and that was just in the opening speech. But Ruby was not to be put off. She had chosen the book at her school library because it had a rabbit on the cover. Confusing as she found it at first, she was determined to stick with it.

The RSC approves. "Your daughter is the perfect age to start Shakespeare," says O'Hanlon. "Eight-year-olds still have their natural playfulness, they want to solve problems and they're learning new vocabulary every day, anyway."

The critics, however, find the idea of teaching Shakespeare to primary school children "utterly preposterous".

"If you teach a play to a class of 30 one or two might appreciate it but for the rest it would be torture," says Brandon Robshaw, a lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College in London. "Shakespeare certainly shouldn't be taught in primary schools. What would you tell them about Othello, that this is a play about a man who murdered his wife because he thought she'd been to bed with another man?"

According to Robshaw, young children are not capable of appreciating 17th-century language. He remembers that from his own experience at 11 when he was forced to study Henry V, and he argues that Shakespeare should be a choice a student makes at AS level.

But drama teacher Sarah Sawyer, from Ricard's Lodge School in Wimbledon, believes that teaching Shakespeare to youngsters is "fab". To her, the issues in his plays are timeless and she wouldn't have a problem teaching Othello because "it's about betrayal and children know about betrayal."

She teaches a "page to the stage" approach, choosing key scenes rather than tackling a whole play. It is methods such as these – putting aside the desks and getting dramatic – that Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director, is so in favour of. Never, says Boyd, think that children are too young or too stupid to study Shakespeare. His first experience with the Bard was at eight when he read a comic-style version of Hamlet with the original text. He enjoyed the "weird and spooky" language, and insists a young child will get a sense of pride at being able to deal with the vocabulary.

So, I wondered, if I took my eight-year-old to a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, what would she get out of it? "She will get a clarity of story telling,"promises Boyd, "the enjoyment of a good story, playfulness, humour and magic."

With this in mind we set off to the Novello Theatre in London's West End to see Gregory Doran's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed by the world's best Shakespearean actors at the RSC. A bonus is that she will meet Bottom and Titiana in their dressing rooms beforehand.

This is billed as a show that's suitable for all, but it's also three hours long. We could go to the cinema for half the time and a fraction of the cost. As we settle in our seats and the lights dim, I promise Ruby ice cream if she can make it to the interval. Five minutes into the show she whispers, "Mum! I can't understand anything." "I know," I whisper back, "Nor can I." "No," she hisses, "I said I CAN understand everything!"

In the end no bribery is needed. A Midsummer Night's Dream is silly, confusing and rude – and she loves it. She howls with laughter at the Wall in his red underpants, giggles at Flute's farting and Bottom's donkey head, gasps as Titania rises into the air on a very visible hoist. She does, however, ask some sharp questions about the language. What are "bosoms", she inquires, and why is Lysander holding his crotch.

It is the words that grab her most. When the fairy tells Puck, "Those be rubies, fairy favours, / In those freckles live their savours", she sits up straight.

And when the interval comes, there's no question of leaving. "This is better than Mother Goose," she says, "Tomorrow I'm going to write my own play but with Shakespeare's words." Ruby can't wait to get to school and tell everyone she went backstage and met Bottom.

Clarity of story telling? I'm not sure about that. But Boyd is right; children do get a sense of pride when they grasp the meaning, drama and humour of 400-year-old poetry. And once Ruby comes to study the Bard formally, when she has to pick apart rhyming couplets and write essays on the theme of unrequited love, she will remember underpants, flying fairies and the donkey head.