Shakespeare Festival Presents Elizabethan Culture

By Anna Truong ’16 & Nahian Chowdhury ’16
James Madison’s Shakespeare Festival, held on May 22, transported attendees back into Elizabethan times.
The Shakespeare Festival was originally an annual event, held at John Dewey High School, from the mid 90s until 2005, when Dewey stopped hosting it. This year’s Festival at Madison was the first one in 10 years.
“This year, Madison High School is trying to revive the Shakespeare Festival tradition,” said Ms. Sharon Teger, who arranges the Midwood representatives for the festival. “So this is the first year that it will be done since it stopped, 10 years ago at Dewey High School.”
The original festival was performance based, where schools had 5-10 minutes to perform a skit from a Shakespearean work of literature.
This year’s Shakespeare Festival gave attention to Elizabethan culture, including Elizabethan weaponry, torture, artwork, the differences between the life of rich, poor and the diseased, Elizabethan women and fashion, in addition to the performances.
“I thought the Shakespeare Festival was interesting,” said Arianne Jean-Francois ‘16. “There were a series of different events meant to interest the viewers and most were interesting.”
Participating schools had their own tables to display student artwork, posters, clothing, and foods pertaining to the Elizabethan era, and many students came to the festival dressed in handmade Elizabethan attire.
“This is an extraordinary event. This all talks about coming together and Shakespeare talks about coming together a lot,” said Mr. Phil Weinberg, Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at the New York City Department of Education. “He talks about harmony in many of his plays. I would say today is full of the working effort of everyone.”
Clarinets, trumpets and french horns sounded as attendees entered through the doors of Madison. Upon arrival, guests were greeted with a welcome ceremony featuring the James Madison Concert Band.  
“The welcome ceremony made for a very interesting opening and made us feel like we were off to start a great afternoon,” said Francois.
Guests were led to tables set up near the auditorium, where they were given name tags featuring a Shakespearean character of their choice, a schedule for the festival, and pencils with quotes from famous Shakespeare plays. “O Romeo, O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” and “To be or not to be, that is the question,” were just some of the quotes.
After an opening statement was given by Ms. Jodie Cohen, Madison’s principal, the guests proceeded to walk around the auditorium and experience Elizabethan life. They were able to see student artwork, eat Elizabethan food made by the students, and partake in trivia games.
Later, the guests were able enjoy the various performances presented by different schools. Some performances were Elizabethan Dancing, A Modernized Boxing Match From Twelfth Night, An Age-Old Debate: Should Shakespeare be Taught in Schools? and The Willow Song.
“The students put a lot of effort into memorizing lines, dances, and creating posters,” said Francois. “There were a lot of desserts and everyone agreed that they were amazing. The costumes were well put together also.”
Elizabethan Dancing, one of the first acts, started off with male students, dressed in formal attire and female students, dressed in Elizabethan dresses, facing each other in two separate lines. Recorder music started to play and the performance began. The performance consisted of many turns, twirls, and hand interactions between the females and males.
Next, An Age-Old Debate: Should Shakespeare be Taught in Schools? caused commotion in the audience. Students who opposed and supported having Shakespeare in the curriculum had a lot to say.
One student from the audience said, “Shakespeare should not be taught in school because I would not want to raise my daughter thinking that it is all right for her to have sexual intercourse with a man much older than her.”
Mariam Qayyum ‘16 disagreed by saying, “I think Shakespeare should be taught in school so kids are able to compare their time with the past and see how it changed. Shakespeare doesn’t always have to be considered boring. It’s very helpful.”
Francois added, “Shakespeare provides a good basis for grammar and reading comprehension.”
The intense debate was then followed by The Willow Song, which was performed by 3 female students from Madison. The Willow Song is a famous song from Shakespeare’s Othello, and it foreshadows the death of a main character. The soothing sound of the guitar and the student’s voices got a standing ovation from the audience and was performed again because of the wonderful reception.
Madison will be hosting The Shakespeare Festival again next year, most likely the Friday before Memorial Day.
“I would go back next year to see them improve in their stage techniques and even better performances,” said Francois.
Ms. Teger said, “I have to say, I really enjoyed the festival. I really liked the variety and mix of cultural aspects of Shakespeare’s time. When you stepped into that auditorium, you were stepping into Shakespeare’s world.”
The differences between the festival held at Dewey and that at Madison, according to Ms.Teger, are for the best.
“When the Shakespeare Festival was held at Dewey, it was all based on performance,” she said. “While I think that’s great, there are students who love Shakespeare but don’t want to get up and perform. It allowed students to participate without performing. It was very inclusive. They could just as much be a part of it but be able to do so by doing what they felt comfortable doing.”
Ms.Teger highly encourages exposure to Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture.
“I really believe that in one of the greatest cities in the world, students should not be graduating from a New York City public school without studying Shakespeare,” she said.
Ms.Teger said the initial reaction students have about Shakespeare is one of fear and dismay.
“When students hear that they’re reading Shakespeare they often think, ‘This is hard,’ or ‘This is going to be so boring,’ but really, that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” she said.  
She also added that Shakespeare has a lot more in common with modern society than people usually think.
“Themes that are found in Elizabethan society are universal. Jealousy, love and betrayal can be found in literature by Shakespeare and these are the things that also touch our lives in 2015,” she said. “There are many many life lesson that can be learned by studying works of Shakespeare.”
This year, there were not as many Midwood representatives as expected, however, Ms.Teger hopes that next year interest for Shakespeare will grow among the Hornets and that there will be a greater Midwood presence at the festival.
“It’s not just about reading a play,” said Ms.Teger. “It’s much more than that.”

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