What's So Great about Shakespeare?

"His grasp of the human condition is perhaps unmatched in literature."

Terry W. Glaspey

As a young mother, I wasn't convinced that Shakespeare was worth studying-at least, not by children. After all, his plays had bawdy jokes, frequent love-making and his personal life had some serious flaws. However, over time, as I studied Shakespeare's plays and researched his influence upon the English-speaking world, I began to feel that my children would have quite a gap in their understanding of our world if I neglected Shakespeare. I would have to be careful how I approached it, guarding their little hearts while introducing them to yet another medium that revealed the nature of mankind. Here are...

Some reasons why we study Shakespeare
He is responsible for adding some 2000 words and phrases to the English language-examples include: gloomy, lonely, majestic, reliance, hurry, leapfrog, excellent. Tongue-tied, budge an inch, seen better days, fair play, lord and master, foul play, dead as a doornail, my own flesh and blood, set your teeth on edge, without rhyme or reason, laughing stock, didn't sleep a wink and if the truth were known. (more here)

His plays provide a comprehensive and thoughtful look at the human condition, dealing with the virtues of men as well as their vices- love, faithfulness, greed, honesty, selfishness, mercy, lust, power and justice are just a few. As we study his plays we understand ourselves better.

His inspiration comes from historical events, mythological tales, and Biblical passages. He often refers to Christ, his teachings and other Biblical characters and morals. All of these sources are a vital part of our history.

His plays deal with the consequences of sin and yet Shakespeare is very liberal in showing mercy. I believe this is a VERY important theme in his works. Macbeth, although one of his darkest plays, reveals the power of unconfessed sin and it's ability to destroy not just one, but many lives. It also exposes the dangers of witchcraft.

His plays provide rich fodder for meaningful discussions.

His poetry is profound. Shakespeare and the sonnet go hand in hand.

His plays have intricate plots with many twists and turns, providing an excellent exercise in logic.

They are thoroughly entertaining and stimulate the imagination.

Merchant of Venice The Tempest King Lear
(Click to enlarge)

Shakespeare does misbehave at times, but fortunately, the Elizabethan English veils such innuendos quite well and they go by unnoticed by the children. For this reason, it is better if you do not use modern versions of the plays.

Not all of his plays are suitable for young people so you will have to be careful and do a little research. Some plays that we avoid are Pericles, Timon, Titus, Croilus and Cressida. We only read a few histories. (Henry V is a favorite of ours)

The words 'lovers' and 'love-making' are frequently used but this did not have the same meaning back then as it does today. It referred to the attraction and not the act between two people. I do not let my children read books about boys and girls 'in love' with each other. Shakespeare, however, does not fall in this category because the characters are adults and the stories are often unrealistic and very silly. They cause my children to scoff at the nonsense rather than produce an attraction for the opposite sex.

Shakespeare's plays were obviously not written for young children. However, we all know that most high school-aged students today do not enjoy studying Shakespeare. I believe this is partly due to the difficult language. Teachers immediately expect understanding, enjoyment and analysis to occur in a single lesson. The student did not have enough time to develop an appreciation for the stories. I feel it is a good idea to introduce children to the general stories using expurgated versions adapted especially for the child mind. In this way, the children will have developed an understanding of the stories and an appreciation for them by the time they are old enough to explore the important themes within them in greater detail. If you read early classic children's literature, you will notice that children were introduced to Shakespeare while young using Nesbit's and Lamb's stories. It was common to name a pet after Greek or Shakespearean heroes. Elizabeth Enright's books are a good example of this. Educators and parents evidently recognized the value of introducing the Bard to children. They followed these preparatory steps not only with Shakespeare, but other classic authors as well.

Taming of the Shrew

In our Home
When my children reach 7 or 8 yrs of age, I read aloud  Nesbit's  Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare once a week, taking two weeks per tale. I divide a dry erase board into about 9 large grid squares and draw stick figures of each main character as they are introduced. I write the name of the play in the first box. My children do the same on their clipboards by dividing a piece of paper into squares and copying me. I write the name of each character above each stick figure. My young writers only write the first letter of each person's name in each of their boxes.

Often, for a creative narration, the children retell the story (just part of it) using paper dolls or popsicle sticks with the figures puttied onto them. Here is another idea.

We also read Shakespeare, Bard of Avon together. This is a wonderful, simple, yet thorough introduction to his life and works.

As we continue the book in third grade, they make a drawn narration of the tale and label it. We watch Shakespeare's Animated Tales too, but only AFTER we have finished the story.

We usually act out a Shakespeare play once a year as well and invite our close friends and family to watch the production. Our family has made some beautiful memories this way.

Approximately ten or eleven years of age, my children watch the play online. With their own personal copies of the play in book form open in front them, they follow along. I try to make sure that at least two children are doing this together to make it more fun. My daughters love to watch these plays (if link doesn't work try here) and laugh over the numerous jokes housed in archaic language. This takes twelve weeks to finish as I only allow about 15 minutes per week for this. We don't analyze, just enjoy and of course, spontaneous natural discussions occur too. They usually narrate to me afterwards.

By high school, my children are thoroughly acquainted with several Shakespearean plays and enjoy reading and talking about them. They are now ready for the next step, which involves analysis. Each student on her own reads and studies the plays in Brightest Heaven of Invention and then watches some of the movies that the author recommends. This is done slowly over several years.

Notice that I am not the main teacher for most of this. After careful research and listening to the advice of people I respect, I find sources I feel that I can trust and am allowing them to do the bulk of the teaching. I simply provide the resources and gently guide occasional discussions. My children are mostly self taught.

Hamlet.................. Cymbeline .................. As You Like It ............... Richard III

Recommended Resources
http://www.berith.org/hsres/shak/shak01.html Why study Shakespeare?
http://cla.calpoly.edu/~smarx/courses/510F99/510Cal.html A Biblical online Shakespeare Course
http://absoluteshakespeare.com/index.htm Absolute Shakespeare- Summaries, quotes, biography, plays and more.
http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/ Spark notes- good summaries
http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/shake.htm Complete plays, free
http://karenswhimsy.com/shakespearesplays.shtm Colorful Illustrations

"Shakespeare was as great a philosopher as he was a poet. That's what he set out to teach us in every line. His characters 'Leontes,' 'Othello,' 'Lear,' 'Prospero,' 'Brutus,' demonstrate the same thing: that a man's reason will try to bring infallible proofs to any notion that a person decides to take up. There's no shortcut and no way around it, the art of life takes a long time to learn."
Charlotte Mason

*article edited Feb 2010