He'll be 446 years old on April 23rd, so...
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bard?
Some Thoughts on Introducing Your Kids to Shakespeare
when you're not sure you WANT to teach Shakespeare
I must confess, right up front… When I was younger, I wouldn’t touch Shakespeare with a ten foot pole. I suspect some of you can relate.
His plays and sonnets just seemed too complex and creaky for my tastes, and I just couldn’t get past the olde English and my high school experience of “read this or else fail this class” …
Well, to be fair, I must admit I never even gave his work a chance. I just avoided him whenever possible.
It wasn’t until we actually started thinking about this project last spring that I, a 50 year old geezer, actually started LISTENING to some of the vintage dramatizations of his plays we had collected for our Shakespeare For The Ears collection. And you know what? I actually “got it”. They were downright good. In fact, I really started enjoying them once I got used to them and “into” the proper frame of mind. Even our kids have even been enjoying them... (from the comedies "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a favorite even to the creepy ones like Macbeth).
I think learning to enjoy and appreciate Shakespeare is kind of like “training your palate” when trying a new food… you have to take a few small bites and train your palate a little at a time… and after a while, you find yourself accustomed to, and even enjoying that new “taste”. Better late than never, huh?
Well, we decided to ask our readers at our HomeschoolRadioShows.com their thoughts and opinions on teaching William Shakespeare, his plays, and sonnets to their students and got a lot of interesting answers. One of the questions we asked was:
“What specifically is the biggest obstacle you have in studying Shakespeare in your homeschool?”
We got many, many answers to this, but they all pretty much boiled down to the following four categories. Maybe these concerns are on your mind, too. Our answers and suggestions follow each:
#1: SHAKESPEARE IS TOO HARD TO UNDERSTAND
Many folks feel that figuring out Shakespeare is just plain too hard to do. Here are some of their comments:- Our problem is understanding the old English - since we don’t use it much in today’s society old English is difficult for us to understand.Answer: Yes, we’ve read in many places that it is best to start kids in on Shakespeare around age 9. Before that, his plays and sonnets in their original form are just too difficult for younger children to understand. However, E. Nesbit’s “Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare” book was written specifically as a “Home Study Course” for younger readers (and now listeners also, as our newly recorded audiobook version of this classic book is included in our collection). It boils down the complex plays into understandable stories, while preserving some of the beautiful language of Shakespeare. It is a great way to give your kids just a “taste” of the real thing and train their “palates” for more.
- Making Shakespeare understandable & accessable. Plays are too long, too dense to follow.
- Right now I think my kids are too young (oldest is 8) .
- I, personally, always found the plays hard to follow, but I think that is easily solved by doing an overview and a brief “telling” of the story before you begin so that people know what to expect. A follow up performance, if possible, is always a bonus.
- If we use the original text (vs. Ch. & Mary Lamb books, etc.) it seems we are “dissecting” every sentence and explaining what is meant in each. This makes it slow, but when we stick with it, it begins to “click”. It’s almost like learning a foreign language and suddenly beginning to understand bits and pieces and longer conversations. Of course, the older the kids are, the better their understanding and the stronger their interest.
- we’re just now doing Lamb’s Shakespeare but the most trouble we have is with anything long. The thing that has been a life-saver with all of our harder to follow books is the audio-books! On our way to lessons and such we’ll pop one in and we’ve all gotten into those books better than we ever had trying to read at home with the toddler interupting and the kids wiggling.
#2: I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HIM
More than one person commented:
- I’ve never studied him much myself, so I really don’t know much about him. I’d have to do research or find resources that explained him & his work.
Answer: You and me both. That is one reason we have gone overboard in throwing in a huge pile of additional resources, ebooks, teaching suggestions and links you can use to make not only Shakespeare’s works come to life, but also his life and times as well in our Shakespeare for the Ears collection. (The program “Interview with Shakespeare” in our new collection is an especially fun audio that will help with this, wherein a reporter interviews not only Shakespeare, but also some of his contemporaries and critics.) Even so, it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to “teach Shakespeare”. We’ve got all sorts of terrific resources here to help you out, but it does take some effort - and enthusiasm - on your part to bring it all together and shepherd your kids through this study.
#3: SHAKESPEARE IS MEANT TO BE PERFORMED/HEARD, NOT READ
Some folks told us they thought Shakespeare is meant to be seen live in a performance, and not heard or read. Here are a few of those comments:- We’ve not studied Shakespeare as of yet but I am worried that because it was not presented in a way that allowed me to enjoy it, I will pass that lack of enjoyment onto my children.
- Listening is much easier than reading. Audio versions of stories are good. Recordings are more effective than reading to children, especially in our situation. Recordings allow you to stop-repeat-start without tripping over words and without the dry-mouth that can come from reading to children who always look uninterested. PS: He does listen & learn. This is why we so appreciate your ministry.
- Read a volume of “stories from Shakespeare” to get familar with the plot and then read a play. Some plays are more accessible thatn others. Make sure you use a volume that provides some commentary so you can understand some of those metaphors. It is also helpful to have different people read different parts
- Please watch live plays (or videos) and then read the plays/listen to them with your children. Put a play down for a year and then re-read. New things jump out each time we work with the Bard.
- Try to read or watch different versions of a play to gain a better understanding.
Answer: Absolutely, Shakespeare was meant to be experienced, seen and heard instead of read. He was a playwright, not a book author. Actually, I think that is one reason I had such a difficult time “warming up” to Shakespeare in public school — all we ever did was try to “read” him. I never did actually see him performed until many years later. Our approach in putting together this collection was to try to present these stories in a variety of ways… in print (ebook), in audio, and then in dramatized abridged form… all to make it as accessible as possible.
We’d suggest taking one play at a time. Pick the play you want to cover. Start with the “Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare” audiobook we've included in our collection. Listen to the story being told, have the kids color the accompanying coloring pages while they are listening. Then a couple days later, read to them the same story from the Lamb’s “Tales of Shakespeare”, which is provided in ebook form. Ask the kids questions about the story (a study guide to the comedies with discussion questions is included in our new collection), let it simmer for a while. Then, the next week or so, try listening to the hour long dramatization of the same story. Feel free to start & stop it as you go to clarify what is going on. Your students should be able to pick up on the story pretty easily using this method. Then, the next week, pick another play and go through the whole process over again!
#4: “PG” CONTENT OF HIS PLAYS
Some parents and teachers voiced some concern over the themes and content of Shakespeare's works. Here are some of those comments:- Our biggest obstacle, honestly, is not the Elizabethan language, nor even his long windedness, although that was tough for our children, for us the biggest obstacle honestly is some of the content such as romance and violence. We are a very conservative homeschooling family and we avoid such content matter with our children. We have touched on Shakespeare using The Lambs book for children and in that we did only read a few of the plays. So thats our opinion on the “big bad bard.”
- We try to read only books that have good morals - while Shakspere does have good morals - we try to teach Christian morals. I’m not sure if Shakespeare can provide what we are trying to instill in our children.
Answer: Yes, Shakespeare’s plays are what they are, no denying that. For whatever literary merit they hold, the complete plays do venture into occasional bawdy themes and violence which can be difficult for Christian families to address when studying these. And, while Shakespeare does indeed contain a great deal of good morals, he did not (at least as far as we have been able to determine) write from a Christian perspective. So the question then is, what do we then do with this body of work? Do we ignore it because of its faults, do we dive right in and look at it warts and all, the good and the not-so-good, or do try to glean what we can out of the most important body of work in Western Literature?
Well, we strongly encourage you to follow your heart in this matter, and if you believe Shakespeare is wrong for your family, then by all means pass this body of literature by. But personally, we would come down on the side of winnowing and gleaning. Shakespeare is just too important a part of our history and too much an influence on all literature that came after him to dismiss out of hand.
Frankly, I am GLAD to have these versions of these plays that have been “edited” and “toned down” for a family audience. You can be selective about the plays you cover, as well. The “Great Plays” dramatizations which originally were broadcast in the late 1930s that are included in our collection are hour long versions that retain Shakespeare’s language and plot, but cut back on most, if not all, of the objectionable material. Our audiobook “Beautiful Stories From Shakespeare” most definitely removes the bawdy and more violent parts of the story for the sake of younger readers/listeners. There is time enough later on to take in Shakespeare as originally written and performed. For our purposes, the abridged versions are just fine, and are suitable for family listening.
Hope this helps you a bit in planning whether or not to tackle the Bard in YOUR homeschool or not! Click here to check out our Shakespeare for the Ears collection
What those who ARE familiar with Shakespeare Have to Say
Another question in our survey asked families that are already familiar with the works of Shakespeare WHY they enjoyed them so. Here’s a representative sample of the replies we received… could these be YOUR family’s testimonials once YOU “get into” Shakespeare?
Comments:- They are beautiful, complex, sometimes hilarious, sometimes creepy views into the human heart and mind. Taken together I think his works tell the story of the human heart in its struggles, loves, and tragedies.
- Admittedly, I havve never been one to ‘read’ Shakespeare in the traditional sense. Even in High School I would find a friend to read aloud with or read it aloud to myself using different voices. He wrote for performance and the sound to the ears, not a dry textbook writing. In college I had friends with Shakespeare-phobia. We overcame by doing a quick research on the timeperiod of the setting then would gather in someone’s room to read aloud. Even those who didn’t become fans understood.
- The stories are wonderful, full of suspense. The story is always a surprise.
- So many words, phrases & situations in other literature are based on Shakespeare. I love that my kids get to be a part of the culture of the English language. I also like that hearing Shakespearian English gives them a clue about how language changes over time and about how sentences can be structured in unusual ways.
- great one-liners - great imagery
- lots of biblical allusions and Christian themes that generate some great discussions
- “in medias res” beginnings captivate the audience immediately — no slow starts
- I love how his writings show that there truly isn’t anything new under the sun. People still do the same kind of trechery as they did then.
- I enjoy his play with words, his wit. I also enjoy the tragedies which explore the deeper things of humanity; death, meaning, etc. I love the comedies for their fun and for the more humorous look at human foibles. I love the historical plays for the way they bring people from history to life and help cement the events in your memory. Also, as someone who was involved in theater in my younger days, I can tell you, Shakespeare is a blast to act out! There’s lots of fun, physical comedy and action to protray as well as the emotional/relational parts that make for an blissfully exhausting experience.
- I’m intrigued with the Olde English and how he breathes personality and passion into what is often portrayed as dusty old history. The way he frames life is interesting to consider.
- Shakespeare has really interesting plot twists, a lot of great humor, and beautiful poetic language. He makes you think about important issues, such as the effects of bitterness and suspicion in an individual’s life. He also has contributed so much to the English language, and is so often quoted and alluded to that a familiarity with his works greatly expands one’s understanding of other literature and the multitude of other places where one may run into references to his works.
- We try to help the children see the interweaving of the stories. We make diagrams for this, act things out, and talk about character qualities. We read the Lois Burdett storybooks (they are excellent), as well as Lamb and Nesbitt. We also read directly from the plays and sonnets themselves. My husband also has challenged the kids to find “Shakespeare in everyday life”- when we hear or see something that is from Shakespeare, the first one to identify it gets a milkshake with Dad. This is a pretty popular contest, but right now, Mom wins a lot of these :) . We have identified Shakespeare lines and titles on Sesame St., in everyday words (did you know he first used these words in print: alligator, auspicious, frugal, gloomy, puke, zany, eyeball etc.), and on radio and in other books!
- His sense of humor, and his sense of God.
- They are so true to life and can be very funny.
- I love the fact that what was funny or interesting or scary then is usually funny or interesting or scary now
- this literature has stood the test of time and is so lively and so wise… I think it is really important that we train our brains to make an effort - rather than just appreciate what comes easily… how much of what is popular now will be popular 400 years from today? Thanks for doing this!
- I like the fun way he uses words and phrases for humor, as well as the moral lessons
- What adventure! What intrigue! What romance! - Great sense of humor.
- Once you figure out the language barrier, lol….they are really wonderful stories and an added bonus is that we’ve discovered that his stories and/or ideas/concepts seem to be a part of “everyday life” and we didn’t even realize that it came from Shakespeare. He’s everywhere, lol.
- His plays describe humans and their strengths and weaknesses so well in a friendly context. He also believes showing mercy is so important and this is very prevalent throughout his plays. Some favorites are Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, A Comedy of Errors, All’s Well that ends Well, Measure for Measure, The Tempest
- The fantastic use of the English language, which is something that is slowly dying with all the “on-tap” entertainment today. Also the plots are very creative, and of historical value.
- I am like you, I thought I didn’t like him, but helped a homebound student in 10th grade by doing a table read and found out I love the plays contrary to my old high school impression. I find reading Shakespeare as a play really helped. (I also was able to go to Stratfod-upon-Avon and see one of his plays about 12 years ago and then took my young kids to a summer production last year) I think seeing a hearing his plays, or watching or listening is the best way to get to like them. Everything you said about aquired taste is sooo true.
- His ability to really, really know humankind. His quick wit. His ability to articulate difficult feelings and thoughts.
- I love the style of writing from that time period. The language seemed to have more life than most of the passionless dribble put out today. (Although it can be a bit of overkill at times!!) I also like the simple fact that authors of yore used proper grammar and sentences longer that 5-7 words.
- Shakespeare’s characters are genuine. There’s nothing fake about them at all. Evil or good, they’re completely believable. Putting the Old English aside, his plays are very easy to follow. The action and direction the story goes makes sense.
- I was an English major in college and was influenced greatly to appreciate Shakespeare by a particular professor. She presented Shakespeare as he was in his day: (not to diminish “the bard” but) he was a bit like the Stephen Spielberg of his day. He didn’t write only for the “upper crust,” (as we tend to think of his work) rather, his audience came from all walks of life. Today his language sounds aristocratic to us, but in his own day he was understandable (and wonderfully skilled at his craft!) to the masses.
- the rich language…there are levels of understanding that make it interesting to people of various ages
- The layers of it. We have a blast trying to figure out what he means in his sonnets and we really enjoy the plays
- The writing style. The language is beautiful! And I enjoy the way that complicated issues are handled with honesty, not portraying characters in static, typed modes. The characters are shown in their full complexity, and at times in full pain, without sacrificing moral choice as a reality.
- Poetry…Poetry….poetry…. He has a wonderful way with words that speaks to the soul.
May you persevere and find similar riches in the writings of William Shakespeare as you learn more about his works!
Back to our Shakespeare for the Ears collection!