Sword fights and sad tales? Must be Shakespeare

For kids: Every spring, students get to participate in a festival honoring the world's most influential playwright and poet.

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Drumbeats and tambourines echoed off the high-rise buildings and into the bright May sky, as excited students waved school banners through the air and chanted, "Will Power, Will Power – Shakespeare!"

It's the 23rd annual Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival, a day that honors the most influential playwright and poet who ever lived.

As the marchers paraded proudly through the streets of Denver in colorful costumes – elegant gowns, velvet vests, feathered caps, and even some fairy wings – they cheered, whistled, and whooped as observers poured out of nearby downtown offices to smile and wave.

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During his lifetime (1564-1616), William Shakespeare wrote about 37 plays and 154 sonnets (poems made up of 21 lines) – as well as several longer poems.

Plays of his that you might have heard of include "Romeo and Juliet," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Hamlet," and "As You Like It."

Some people find Shakespeare's language difficult to understand because it's old-fashioned. For example, his characters use the words "thee" and "thou" to address one another. Have you heard anyone use those words in conversation lately?

But it may surprise you to know that Shakespeare invented many words we still use today – such as amazement, lonely, and misplaced. (See box on next page for more.)

His works have continued to be loved and appreciated for nearly 400 years – by people old and young – as evidenced by the festival in Denver.

"I was told that it would never work, that kids would never want to do Shakespeare," says Joe Craft, founder of the event. But it did work, and kids do want to do Shakespeare.

"We started with 400 students from eight schools in 1985," Craft continues. "We've grown to 4,000 students from 88 schools."

Madison Rykman, a student at the Denver School of the Arts, explained people's love of Shakespeare's works when she spoke at the festival's opening ceremony.

"William Shakespeare continues to provoke, enthrall, and inspire us even today," she said. "Not just because of his beautiful language, but because he connects with the human experience, with all of us, in a way that few other playwrights have."

Stephanie Hobbs, a teacher at Barrett Elementary, has been bringing students to the Shakespeare festival for 16 years. "The plays are universal," she explains. "That's what these kids see. They have fights now, they had fights then. They fell in love then, they fall in love now. Once [students] get past the language, they see things [in the plays] that they're doing every day of their lives."

Shakespeare wrote "All the world's a stage," and the streets of Denver became the stages for the students as they took their places at 11 outdoor locations.

There gentlemen engaged in sword fights, ladies told sad tales of broken hearts, noblemen shouted out joyful expressions of love, and fairies played tricks on people – as students performed short scenes from Shakespeare's plays.

Some were funny, some were sad, but each scene was alive with energy and excitement.

The stages were named after theaters that existed in Shakespeare's day – such as the Rose, Blackfriars, and the Globe.

Students had to project their voices over the sounds of noisy traffic from nearby streets, airplanes flying overhead, and crowds of people passing by. But these students were up to the challenge.

Still, it wasn't always easy, especially when adding the difficulties of acting. "It's hard getting the expression right," says Deja, who's in fifth grade at Teller Elementary. She performed in scenes from "Romeo and Juliet."

"Like when we were in the scene where Tybalt and Mercutio die," she explains. "We had to act all sad and stuff, but you're not really sad."

The challenges didn't dissuade students from participating – in fact, they seemed to add to the excitement and gave the kids the feeling that they had accomplished something.

Many students return to the festival every year, choosing to perform different scenes each time and taking on new characters, with new lines to memorize.

These kids love the fact that they are helping to keep Shakespeare's works alive.

"It's great to have a day to contribute to all that Shakespeare did," says Gaby, a seventh-grader at Moore Middle School who has been to the festival twice.

Learning to understand the language is well worth the time and effort, according to Alayah, a fifth-grader at Barrett Elementary.

She began rehearsing with her classmates five months before the festival.

"We read the lines, and at first we didn't understand," she says. "But then when you actually read it, you get interested in it and then you understand."

"It's amazing how quickly the students pick up on the language," says Teller Elementary teacher Joy Urbach. "I have parents who are often pretty surprised [at that and] tell me, 'I read that in high school, and I didn't understand it.' But these kids do. They get up on stage, and they really do know what they're saying."

She says she already has students asking what play they can do next year.

Did you quote Shakespeare today?

You've quoted Shakespeare if you've said any of these expressions:

It's all Greek to me.

I'll not budge an inch.

One fell swoop.

Too much of a good thing.

In the mind's eye.

Break the ice.

Have you heard these famous Shakespeare quotes?

"Parting is such sweet sorrow." – "Romeo and Juliet"

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." – "As You Like It"

"The play's the thing." – "Hamlet"

"I will wear my heart upon my sleeve." – "Othello"

"What's done cannot be undone." – "Macbeth"

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." – "Twelfth Night"

Shakespeare in love – with words

Here are a few words people say Shakespeare may have invented:

Accommodation

Bump (as a noun)

Countless

Critical

Dwindle

Eventful

Eyeball

Laughable

Majestic

Radiance

Weird

Shakespeare also combined words to form new ones, such as these:

Bedroom

Elbowroom

Fancy-free

Housekeeping

Leapfrog

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