Starting with Shakespeare Part One

How now, Spirit! Wither wander you?

How now, Spirit! Wither wander you?

First, my usual caveat: I’m not an expert in anything. I’m just a mom with five kids, a couple of English degrees, and a very, very little experience teaching college level English. This blog is my chronicle not of what has been proven to work but of what I’m currently trying. These are more akin to lab reports than to published peer-reviewed articles. But since there’s been curiosity from various quarters about how I’m introducing my kids to Shakespeare, I’ve daringly decided to tell you what I’ve tried. With a little of my thoughts about the why, but again keeping in mind that this is only my speculation and ongoing experimentation, not the result of some kind of expertise or a time-tested method.

I’ve been sharing pretty freely bits and pieces of our Shakespeare enthusiasm both here and on Facebook. A friend over there has asked:

How did you first introduce the girls to Shakespeare? I want to even though we have a lot on our plate, but I need a gentle entry so that they see the joy and fun without being daunted by the language and heaviness.

This is the beginning of a blog series that will attempt to answer that question. It’s going to be a long answer because the short answer is: it’s complicated. And I’m trying to unravel a web one strand at a time. Be patient with me, dear readers, as I spend far too much time making a simple thing more complicated than it need be. (And spend an entire blog post not even remotely answering the question, just looking at some assumptions and principles before we dive into lists of books and links to videos.)

Anyway, as I said, we’ve been “doing Shakespeare” pretty intensely the last few weeks and Bella has decided she “loves Shakespeare!” And the other three big kids are all more or less on board too. They’re having fun and acting out plays and drawing paper dolls and even three year old Anthony is paying enough attention to be able to identify Bottom from a picture. Although this may seem a bit over the top and intimidating– I can already hear the objections: Does anyone really do you need to teach Shakespeare to third graders and first graders and preschoolers?* Still, keep in mind one thing: we haven’t actually read any Shakespeare. Only a few selected speeches. We haven’t even watched a whole play, just selected scenes.

Shakespeare gets this reputation for being really hard for a good reason. Reading the plays is hard. I love them, love them, love them but they can be tough going. I think one problem is we seem to think we need to read them to enjoy them. We don’t. These plays are best enjoyed in performance. And yet, there’s a trick there because walking cold into a Shakespeare performance might well leave many people feeling overwhelmed and bewildered. Shakespeare is heavy or can seem that way. Still, the other problem as I see it is that we seem to think we need to understand the language to enjoy them. We don’t. Not fully.

And about that… The language is difficult, yes, but these plays were written for the common man. The only reason it’s hard is because the language has changed over the past four hundred odd years. But the plays themselves are not hard to understand. And in some ways I suspect young children have an advantage over high school students: they encounter words they don’t know all the time. They are used to not being competent at language. So they are much less frustrated by the difficulty than older students, who have achieved some sense of mastery of the language. And they are much more delighted to just listen to the sound, the rhythm, the music of good verse without being frustrated by their lack of understanding.

Still, the language can indeed be a barrier to understanding. So the first step should be just enjoying the stories.

Or maybe the first step should be enjoying the language for itself without needing to decode it to appreciate the story?

Do you see where I’m going here?

I don’t think there’s a proper way to go about introducing kids to Shakespeare or one proper place to dive in. I think you can start with the stories as stories and you can also start with the speeches as poetical music, pleasing to the ear and the tongue long before the mind fully comprehends it. We’ve done a little of both.

Also, we’ve got a third approach going: we can look at the plays as historical artifacts and read Shakespeare’s biography as a historical figure, and think about the Globe as a real place and the plays as being performed in a historical context. In light of the recent discussions about history for very young children, this is probably shaky ground. But I’ve got a history geek on my hands so this is also a part of our approach.

On the advice of a very wise friend, I’m going to make this a blog series instead of a mega post. Many small bite-sized chunks will make light work, right?

And I’ve got to go to bed soon.

Stay tuned for my next installment: enjoying Shakespeare’s stories.

Sophie made Oberon and Titania paper dolls. With plenty of attendant fairies.

Sophie’s Oberon and Titania paper dolls. With plenty of attendant fairies.

*And yes, let me be perfectly clear: there is absolutely no need to do any of this. Your third grader does not need to know who Shakespeare is. Knowledge is not an arms race. If you don’t want to do Shakespeare, don’t do Shakespeare. If it would frustrate you, stop, don’t do it. If you don’t already love the plays or at least long to know more for your own knowledge and pleasure, it poetry and drama aren’t your thing, then please for the love of all that is holy– especially for the love of yourself and of your children– please don’t try to force your kids to enjoy Shakespeare. Let them do what they love when they are young. Life is too short and childhood is really too short. Kids should be playing, not working.

Shakespeare is fun for me. That’s why I majored in English and got a MA in English and taught English literature for a pittance at the local state college. And I’m evidently really good at communicating the fun to my kids. They’re enjoying it. But I had no idea if that would be the case when I started out with a pile of books from the library. I was fully prepared for all of those books to go back unread. Because I want this to be fun for my kids. If they weren’t enjoying it I’d stop and do something else. We’ve only gone on as long as we have because they keep asking for more, begging for more, demanding more.

I fully believe that there’s nothing remarkable in that and that other moms can make this work– even those who have never studied Shakespeare, even those who’ve never gone to college– and that there are other kids out there who will love Shakespeare too, which is why I’m bothering to write about it. But I don’t think it’s for everyone and I don’t want to make more work for anyone or to make anyone feel inadequate or guilty or stupid if Shakespeare isn’t their bag or if their kids don’t take to it.

I spent a semester studying Shakespeare in college with a professor who’d just written his dissertation on Shakespeare. It was heaven as far as I was concerned. But I’m sure there are many very smart people for whom it would have been hell.

Do what works for you and your family. Have fun. Learning should be joyful– not always easy, but joyful. If it’s not, try something else for a while. Shakespeare will still be here some other day, some other season.

Other posts in the series:

Starting Shakespeare Part 2: Stories Retold for Children

Starting Shakespeare Part 3: Shakespeare and His World

Starting Shakespeare Part 4: Trippingly on the Tongue

12 Responses to Starting with Shakespeare Part One

  1. Ellie September 26, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Lovely, Melanie, looking forward to more! 🙂

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 26, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

      Thank you. It was all I could do not to stay up all night writing the rest of it.

  2. Jenny September 26, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    For some reason, it doesn’t want me to post this, but I’m trying to say:

    This is great!

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 26, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

      Thanks. I feel like I rambled a lot and didn’t say much. I didn’t even get to the links!

  3. Heather September 26, 2014 at 10:30 pm #

    I’m *so* looking forward to this! I was an English major, like you, but Shakespeare was one of the weaker parts of my major: my favorite professor was going to teach it and then left for another college before the fall semester. =( I have been reading & listening to it for fun myself, but want to have a better mastery of it before I try to present it to my boys!

    I also really enjoyed the long history discussion! Thank you for all this wonderful food for thought as I get ready for kindergarten. =)

  4. M. E. September 27, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    Hello –
    Must say this topic really resonates for me on so many levels & in so many ways. I too studied Shakespeare in college (& still have my “Complete Works of Shakespeare” tome from those days here at home). Was blessed to have an excellent professor who love teaching us, but I still somehow had the idea, until my own children came along, that the Bard was highbrow and above us common people.
    My children taught me how wrong I was!
    When they were about Bella’s age(8-10) they saw a TV movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while visiting their grandparents.
    Later they related bits of what they watched, including that Puck, in this particular telling, rode a bicycle (?!).
    They were so fascinated & had all kinds of questions about it. So I found an illustrated story-version of the tale & we all read it together.
    And what to my wondering eyes (& ears) should appear but the sight & sound of children dissolving into fits of laughter over hearing & seeing how “Bottom” turns into an “ass!”
    And then I realized – this guy Shakespeare really was a genius – he wrote for absolutely everybody, big people & little ones, too.
    I mean, we all know how much little boys in particular, love a good bathroom joke, right? What better bathroom joke could there be than someone named Bottom (of all things!) getting his head turned into an “ass” by a mischievous fairy?
    Seriously, that was quite an awakening for me! And I was thrilled when a production of the play came to a nearby college – I couldn’t get my children there fast enough!
    The play was all in Old English & I worried the kids would not understand & be bored.
    Well, I was wrong again. Even though they didn’t understand all the words, the acting was so good it swept us all along & amazingly, they “got” everything that happened.
    I live how Melanie’s children are making paper dolls, with fairies, so they can reenact scenes! That’s a wonderful idea!
    There’s a lovely book out now, called How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare, that I think would be helpful to anyone wanting to try.
    Also, I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a great play to start with your children, because it appeals to both girls (queens & kings & fairies) and boys (as I already mentioned).
    As John Paul II said, Be Not Afraid! Put Out Into The Deep!
    Take his advice & apply it to introducing your children to Shakespeare – I doubt you’ll be disappointed!
    Many Blessings on your journey with Shakespeare!

    • Melanie Bettinelli September 28, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

      M.E., I love what you describe, the organic way in which the learning came together from the television performance to questions to reading the story to live performance. That’s exactly what I mean that there isn’t just one possible starting point. Any of those could be the point of first contact. It seems to me the role of the teacher is to keep building and building to add depth and structure so they can get more and more into it as their interests and abilities allow.

      Again, you’re anticipating my blog posts.:) I’ve got one on How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare in the works. Dom gave me a copy for my birthday.

      My kids hadn’t made the Bottom ass connection, because I think they only know ass as meaning donkey and not ass meaning bottom. I do tend to shy away from the bathroom humor, though of course they do not. Trying to think how to expand their vocabulary in a way that doesn’t leave me hearing them say the word ass all the time.

  5. M. E. September 28, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    Hi Melanie,
    The last sentence in your reply gave me quite a giggle.
    Know what you mean about not encouraging the children’s use of certain language.
    I just recall how astonished I was that they even made the connection between the two words, but at least one child could make somewhat sophisticated connections between words and their multiple meanings fairly early on.
    As an example, one of mine made a joke at about four about how “light bulbs are bright, but not as bright as Albert Einstein” & I guess it shows what a word geek I am that it made us both laugh.
    Anyway, one reason it’s great to have lovely new resources like How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare is that you can just steer them towards learning the beautiful poetry in Shakespeare & hopefully be able to avoid the bathroom humor altogether!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. - The Wine-Dark Sea - September 27, 2014

    […] attempt to answer the question of how to introduce young children to Shakespeare. Please do read Part One where I give all my caveats and explain my rationale for introducing Shakespeare to young children. […]

  2. Starting Shakespeare Part 4: Trippingly on the Tongue - The Wine-Dark Sea - October 17, 2014

    […] Starting with Shakespeare Part One […]

  3. Starting Shakespeare Part 3: Shakespeare and His World - The Wine-Dark Sea - October 17, 2014

    […] Starting with Shakespeare Part 1 […]

  4. Much Ado about Nothing, Watching the Shakespeare's Globe Production - The Wine-Dark Sea - January 12, 2015

    […] Starting with Shakespeare Part One […]

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