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.
What makes Shakespeare the greatest writer of the English language? It’s not the stories, though they are wonderful– but the poetry that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare, right? The language itself is heady, a heavenly banquet of words.
Yes, I do know that people do read and perform his plays in lots of other languages. And I’m sure they tell the stories well and maybe even capture some of the poetry as best they can. I’ve never read Shakespeare translated into a foreign language, but we’ve been reading the plays translated into prose and as lovely as they are, the Lamb and Coville and Nesbit and McCraughean versions all lack something of the magic. Though they are best when they lift the language right from Shakespeare.
So how do you get your kids to experience that beauty when they are too young to really watch and enjoy a whole play?
If you’re like me and you’ve got bunches of Shakespearean phrases rattling around in your head, you’re golden. I just started letting them out. And my kids began to latch on to some of them and to ask for more. But what if you aren’t like me and haven’t got any favorite passages from Shakespeare?
Well it just so happens there’s a lovely book that was published just recently that’s chock full of everything you need to start memorizing Shakespeare with your kids. How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig.
Note that with. Memorizing Shakespeare isn’t something you inflict on children. It’s something you do with them. Fun for the whole family.
Here’s what I’ve been doing with all poetry to be memorized, not just Shakespeare but anything I want to get by heart with the kids. I pick something I don’t know myself and I work on memorizing it when the kids are around. I write out a fair copy and then tape it to the cupboard door in the kitchen where I do most of the prep work. I do follow the formula suggested in Teach Your Kids: read the first phrase. Recite it over and over. Three times. Six times. Then go on to the next phrase: read it, repeat it over and over. Then say the first and second phrases together a few times. Go on to the third. Keep adding a new phrase. Each time I start at the beginning. Recite from the start as far as I can. When I get stuck, start there with the repetition.
I don’t make my kids memorize. I don’t make them recite. It’s totally optional. All I do is memorize poetry that I like and do it in front of them, modeling the behavior. And they join in. I do occasionally invite them to join in. Sometimes I might ask them if they want to recite. But if they say no, I don’t make a big deal of it. Maybe that won’t work for everyone’s kids. But it’s what I do and I’m not sure I’m all that interested in forcing them it they aren’t buying in. Maybe at some point I’ll make memorization mandatory. For now, it’s all fun and games.
So that’s part of my strategy. Just enjoy the language. Make it my own. The other part is to enjoy listening to really good actors make it come alive.
In How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare Ken Ludwig chooses 25 passages for parents and children to memorize. Though they aren’t the 25 passages I’d pick necessarily, they are good ones.
The book is laid out in a pleasing conversational way though it sometimes seems to address the lowest common denominator, assuming the reader is the most resistant and least knowledgeable. As a Shakespeare aficionado I found that expectation a little tedious at times, and was tempted to put down the book since I’m not the anticipated audience. But that would have been a mistake. The book really is worth it if you keep on going. It’s chock full of all sorts of lovely things in addition to the memorization passages. Summaries of the plays, commentaries on the plays, discussions of context and history and biography, epigrams, interpretation, definitions of words. It’s hard to convey how very rich and thick this book it. It’s really a delight even of, like me, you might not plan to follow its plan precisely. I might even venture to opine that if you’re going to buy only one book for Shakespeare study, this should be it. It’s a treasure trove.
That said, I’ve only read the first five chapters and skimmed bits and pieces of others. I will read the whole thing soon, but because I’m already in the middle of doing my own Shakespeare thing, I initially felt the book was getting in the way. I thought that I might read it later after we’ve sort of moved on from this particular Shakespeare moment, thinking it could help jumpstart a new Shakespeare moment when we have lost our initial head of steam. Though now that I’m casting about for our next memorization project, I’m finding myself tempted to go ahead and jump in with the phrases from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My kids love playing that story and having more phrases at hand to speak might well appeal to Bella right now.
Anyway, because the book and I weren’t 100% sympatico, I’ve been doing this my own way to start. (Always my own way. This is why I homeschool and this is why I don’t buy a box curriculum. I like to tinker.) I started with some passages I already know and have already been reciting with the kids. So they have some familiarity with most of what we’ve watched and some excitement of recognition. But you could just as easily start with the performance and move on to the memory work. It goes either way.
One of our first passages was the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Henry V is one of my favorite plays and that speech is one of the best. And Dom happens to agree with me. We’d already had this little family tradition of listening to the speech on the actual feast of St Crispin. And I’ve got much of it memorized of course and like to rattle it off. So they’ve heard it, seen it, know it. But it’s always good to listen again.
Other favorites of mine are the Prologue to Henry V: O, for a Muse of Fire! That would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. This one I’ve recited until Bella has memorized it too. I’ve heard her declaim it in the aisle at the grocery store, while waiting in a public bathroom, while wandering about the house. Ben and Sophie have picked up on it too and had fun playing with the words: “O for a Muse of horses!” and “O for a Muse of ice cream.” From Sophie, who can recite it properly but likes to riff. And from Ben, my favorite: “O for a Muse of fiery burps.” You know Shakespeare is working his magic when children feel free to play with the language like that.
The Branagh version:
The Olivier version:
We also watched bits of the Branagh/Thompson version of Much Ado about Nothing, which I love, but I’m not going to link to clips because none of the clips was really great enough to highlight. I need to hunt a bit more to find better ones.
I also love the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet (we watched a clip from Shakespeare in Love that shows the stuttering tailor delivering it along with backstage action and shots of a crowded Globe theater.) Other passages that we’ve read or I’ve quote often enough for them to have picked up lines from but which we have not watched include: The Balcony Scene. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the meeting between Puck and the Fairy. MacBeth: Out, out brief candle. These are the bits I memorized for school way back when that have stuck with me.
Tonight Ben was complaining about his pajamas being damp. There’s a damp spot here and one here, he whined. Dom, quick witted, quipped: Out, out, damp spot! Bella giggled and cried: “MacBeth!”
Finally, when we were watching the documentary on the Globe Theater it included many clips from a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Bella thought they were funny and when I discovered that the performance was available on DVD she begged and begged me to get it. I was having a hard time deciding which Shakespeare’s Globe dvd to buy and even though I know Merry Wives is hardly the ideal play to begin with, what with the theme of adultery and all (not people committing adultery in face but Falstaff trying to entice the two women to commit adultery and their resisting him and making a mockery of him.) Still, after some internal debate I decided to go for it. The production was wonderful. The children loved it and have sat through the whole performance twice.
I’m not sure how much they got much of it, but they loved the experience and it’s left them with a happy glow and made me eager to buy more videos. Since, alas, they aren’t available at our library nor are any of the current releases playing in any theaters in my state. Do check out the Shakespeare’s Globe page (http://onscreen.shakespearesglobe.com) to see if there are any performances in your area. The tickets are a little pricey, but I hear it’s really worth it.
Here’s a list of the Shakespeare’s Globe productions I’ve found listed on Amazon. I haven’t seen them, but I know the production values are quite high. Shakespeare performed on the stage of the rebuilt Globe Theater with period costumes shot in high definition. It’s so worth it.
See the other posts in this series: