“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Who wants their kids to understand Shakespeare? I see those hands! Now who wants to teach it? I don’t blame you, if not. The language is heady. The words are old fashioned. Teaching Shakespeare can seem intimidating. But it is quite a bit simpler than you may be anticipating, and actually a whole lot of fun.
But appreciating history’s greatest playwright is not something to just check off the list to complete a classical education. Shakespeare has earned the world’s respect and his place in history (conspiracy theories aside) because his themes, his writing, and his characters are relatable and enduring. He understands people on a deep and timeless level. His points were perfect then and they still apply now. Literature can speak to us in a way that a direct lecture or sermon cannot.
In A Brave, New World, John is educated solely on a collection of Shakespeare’s work. His understanding is far beyond the scientifically and socially engineered people who are supposed to be perfect. John grows up in poverty and dysfunction but is better equipped for the complexity of life, because of Shakespeare, than the masses that can only cope by using Soma, a drug. Though the “Savage” cannot survive in their artificial world, Huxley makes a strong point about the power of Shakespeare to inform and educate the young mind.
If the greatest writers and poet that wrote in English admire his genius, we should take notice. Shakespeare was lauded by John Milton. William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and T. S. Eliot, among many others. He is the poet’s poet, the playwright’s playwright, and the writer’s writer.
So, how then do we teach Shakespeare to our children? Because, I have already told you not to read it to them! These are my tips, having raised teens that perform his soliloquys for auditions and freak out at their dad when he starts talking in the middle of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.
First, understand that Shakespeare is meant to be seen on stage, not read. I always have kids act out some of the great scenes: Hamlet at Yorick’s grave, Fluellen’s “Alexander the Pig” scene from Henry V, Brutus and Marc Anthony’s speeches after the stabbing in Julius Caesar, and the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Some ideas and double meanings just click when you hear intonation and see characters in motion.
You have to hear some of the language of the Bard to appreciate it. The alliteration is practically poetry. “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me.” Read that line from Macbeth out loud now. Shakespeare paces and emphasizes his characters’ speech with lines like these, lines that must be heard to be understood.
Watch movie versions of the plays. Sometimes multiple versions are available. Watch them all! Then compare the versions. A favorite always emerges. Sometimes the older ones are the better ones, but sometimes they are not.
Watch live stage plays. Many municipalities have free events in parks and amphitheathers where Shakespeare is acted out. See a college, or even high school production. When you see a production is coming to your town, start by reading a paraphrased story version for kids. Then act out the best scenes from an original or a modern version of the play.
See if your kids can condense a Shakespeare play to one or two minutes. That demonstrates real understanding of the play and it is hilarious to perform for friends and family. My daughter and her friend did this for our co-op Renaissance fair. It was a hit.
Second, to cultivate a love of Shakespeare, use great resources. No Fear Shakespeare puts the original language and a modern paraphrase side by side. We read the original language and stopped to check out the modern version when something was unclear or the word was archaic and we didn’t know what it meant. Eventually my kids grew out of the modern version and prefer reading the original language (which is the goal).
The very best book to help you understand Shakespeare is this one:
|Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays
By Peter J. Leithart
I credit Peter Leithart for finally teaching me to understand the rich depth of Shakespeare. His insight is invaluable. Work through his featured six plays and you will be ready to understand, analyze, and interpret Shakespeare like a pro. This book was better than any college course I ever took.
If you have elementary aged children The Shakespeare Lady is where you want to start (https://www.yourshakespearelady.com/). Amanda Murray is a Shakespearean actor, turned author and homeschool mom. She understands the plays and really teaches you and your kids to appreciate them, even creating cool games to familiarize your family with characters and plots. Just browsing her site is a fun education, filled with videos and quotes, not to mention lapbooking, coloring pages, and craft projects to go with her curriculum. She makes it affordable, too.
If your kids burn quickly through all that fun, Dover Publications has exciting Bard themed goodies like Shakespeare play paper dolls and coloring books: https://store.doverpublications.com/0486413306.html. My kids liked to color while they were listening to the Charles and Mary Lamb paraphrased story versions.
So don’t make your kids read Shakespeare – make them act it out. Or do dramatic readings to them, using accents and funny voices. I think the Bard would be shaking his head to see school children laboring over his works, reading them silently to themselves. He wrote them to be acted. Please do his plays justice by at least reading the best scenes out loud.
I would love to hear your best Shakespeare appreciation moments with your kids. If your kids balk at all this high culture, just tell them, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it!”
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