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.
*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: