THE language that came out of the mouths of 15 high school students was a 16th-century vocabulary feast for 20th-century ears.
"Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me," cried sophomore Mary Grace Timmins, alias Cleopatra for a brief few minutes as she took the stage to recite a monologue from William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." "Now no more the juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip: yare, yare, good Iras; quick..."
At the end "Cleopatra," clad in black jeans and top, fell gently to the stage after applying an asp to her arm.
In the auditorium of the Rivers School in Weston, Mass., Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Henry V, and other characters from the Bard's plays came to life during the state semifinals of the 1993 national Shakespeare competition Jan. 30.
The contest drew 15 sophomores, juniors, and seniors from public and private high schools in mainly eastern Massachusetts. Each performed a monologue from a Shakespeare play and also a sonnet. Judges, who evaluated the students' use of voice and body, understanding of the pieces, and overall impact, picked six finalists. Those students performed at the finals in Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 7.
The winner, Amy Montminy, from Westford (Mass.) Academy, also won the Boston contest last year. Now she heads to the national competition in New York City April 23, Shakespeare's 429th birthday. The national winner receives a two-week study tour in Great Britain.
The Shakespeare competition is an annual event that started in 1983 with 500 students in New York City. It now includes 7,500 participants from 48 communities across the United States.
The acting and recitation contest is sponsored by the English-Speaking Union. Based in New York City, the E-SU is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the comprehension and use of English among all people around the world. (See the related story on this page). The Shakespeare contest is one of its programs to accomplish this goal.
The competition "is a wonderful experience for kids," says Richard Bradley, president of the E-SU's Boston branch. "They become acquainted with the master's genius.... And it provides an opportunity that has no financial strings. Anyone can do it."
Schools first hold their own competitions and then pick a winner to appear in the semifinals. The E-SU encourages schools to hold in-house contests during classes rather than after-school hours, so that they can include more students.
While the students represented in the semifinals here this year all hailed from suburban schools and were mostly girls, Mr. Bradley says past contests have drawn a number of talented inner-city youths. Even this crop of budding performers had its share of diversity.
Take Brendon Bates. Mr. Bates, a junior at the Rivers School, is captain of the football team, wrestles, and plays lacrosse. The average person might not expect a muscular "jock" who sports a closely cropped crewcut to stand on stage and belt out a Shakespeare monologue.
"There's a lot of stereotyping," Bates acknowledges. "If you do one thing, people think you can't do another," he says, referring to his involvement in sports. "But I've always been interested in drama. Shakespeare is a difficult subject for me, but it's fun; his tragedies, his sonnets interest me."
His monologue was from "Henry V," when the king exhorts his troops prior to battle. "It was kind of a pump-up speech. I could relate to it," says Bates, one of six finalists.
MS. TIMMINS, a sophomore at Tantasqua High School in Sturbridge, Mass., says, "This is a great emotional release to have people see, hear, and feel what's in you. ... I love the language."
Vera Slipp, Timmins's English teacher, is a Shakespeare aficionado. She launches into her own short soliloquy of why she believes it is important to teach his works. Shakespeare's writings provide "much vocabulary development. It's fantastic because you're looking at the spoken word, which you never get from movies or TV," she explains.
Ms. Slipp started a Shakespeare competition at Tantasqua Junior High School a number of years ago. Although it started with only a handful of kids, "now I have 40 trying out ... it's a prestigious thing," she says.
Nevertheless, "Shakespeare is a hard sell," says John Heavey, drama teacher at the Rivers School and director of the competition. "We're seeing a resistance to Shakespeare. Kids who aren't being sold on him aren't going to get involved on their own.... It's too bad that many teachers get put off by Shakespeare. Many have the idea that it's only for intellectuals. That's ridiculous. Anyone can enjoy it."
Of 140 schools in eastern Massachusetts, 70 have entered the competition over the past eight years, Mr. Heavey says. Some schools get involved one year and don't apply the next. This year, about 30 schools registered, but only 15 showed up. "My goal is to get more schools in consistently," he says. "There's a lot in Shakespeare that can be done by adolescents. ... On a basic level it builds self-esteem and confidence. And it breaks down barriers. Students no longer see Shakespeare as a strange guy with a
strange language in his own universe."
"I think it's a good language," says Paul Lithotomos, who chose his monologue from "Romeo and Juliet" because "I like romantic plays.
"The language is made in a poetic way. You have to feel the words coming out of you and you have to be really passionate," says the sophomore from Watertown High School in Watertown, Mass., who says he spent a week practicing in front of a mirror.