Shakespeare for all ages and stages

The following material was first published on 9.30.2006.

A few years ago, L. wrote to ask for advice about teaching her children Shakespeare. "I will be learning right alongside my children. In your opinion, what is the best way to do this?"

I've answered this question before, several times, on home education message boards. But I was also able to find a version of my answer in the email archives: Several years ago, MDH wrote, "I have a ten-year-old daughter. [...] Do you have any recommendations for the first work for her to read?"

My reply (reworked for inclusion here) offered recommendations and briefly described our approach.

The best way to do this
One thing I've pounded home, here and elsewhere, is that the introduction to Shakespeare should be as much like Shakespeare's intended experience as possible -- that is, his plays were meant to be seen and heard, not read. (I heartily disagree with our dear Mr. Bloom on this point, by the way. And that's okay.)

In keeping with the idea of meeting Shakespeare on his own terms, then, a live performance is generally superior to a film. The Misses M-mv met the bard in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V ("O Kate! Nice customs curtsey to great kings"), but they fell in love with him (yes, at six and eight) during a Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A rappin' Puck. A show-stealing Bottom. The grace and wonder of that stage. The fact that the actors met the audience in the lobby. They became hooked -- for life.

But if a live performance isn't possible...

Or if you think your students are not quite ready for the experience...

Branagh's Henry V is a terrific place to which to begin because, well, quite simply, it's easy to follow and exceptionally well done. The plot is uncomplicated, so one can focus on the language, which is exquisite. At the gates of Harfleur, most of us experience (or have already experienced) an "Ah-ha!" moment of the most wondrous sort: I get this! This is amazing! What's next? Shakespeare is great!

Other film intro possibilities
Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is an adequate introduction. A Midsummer Night's Dream featuring Kevin Kline isn't bad. As an introduction, though, Much Ado about Nothing is better, in my humble opinion. Again, the Branagh production. A mild caution: There is the briefest of nudity in the opening sequence and sexuality is openly (though discreetly, if that's possible) expressed during the scenes in which Claudio is duped into thinking Hero is impure. And speaking of caution, mild or otherwise: The battle violence in Branagh's Henry V may be unsuitable for some young people. You know your child better than I do.

My son's first film adaptation was actually Julius Caesar, with Jason Robbards as Brutus. He adored it. Our experience became the stuff of an article I sold, but this play probably isn't the best way to begin for most people. Besides, my son was already hooked: The year before he had attended a CST production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (a different production than the Misses).

Another possibility would be Twelfth Night, with the incomparable Ben Kingsley as Feste.

Now, then.

When the children were young, we would, prior to watching a live or filmed performance, read aloud from an abridgment (e.g., Charles and Mary Lamb, E. Nesbitt, Beverly Birch, Bruce Coville, Adam McKeown -- the latter two being particular favorites here). That gave us the basic plot and, often, the key subplots. As far as I'm concerned, this method works well for adults, too. There is no reason why someone late to the table should miss this meal. I would add only that older students and adults will likely appreciate a more detailed synopsis of the play prior to watching, this in addition to an engaging retelling/abridgment. We heartily recommend Shakespeare A to Z; The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More.

Then we watch -- sometimes more than one performance, often more than once.

And then we read the unabridged play to the accompaniment of a quality audio production. Oh, how well we respond to the language when our reading is aided by the audio!

Naxos, Caedmon, and Arkangel are all quality sources for audio productions. Now, despite my unabashed lust for The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare, our absolute favorite audio productions are Naxos (King Lear, King Richard III, and The Tempest), Caedmon (Twelfth Night), and BBC Radio Presents (Hamlet). Check with your librarian to see what you can borrow before making an audio purchase. In fact, your library may also have many of the film adaptations I've recommended.

So -- retelling, watching, reading while listening. As often as you need and/or like.

Why our English teachers did this in reverse order remains a mystery, no?

Other ideas for teaching Shakespeare
Use their toys.
The Misses M-mv were onto something when their Ken nodded to Barbie and assured her that nice customs curtsey to great kings. Using Barbies or Little Ponies or puppets or whatever to illustrate plot twists or illuminate intent... well, that's just child-like genius at work. Harness it to help your young viewers understand the intricacies of A Midsummer Night's Dream or the intrigue of Hamlet.

Keep a chapbook.
My students and I keep chapbooks devoted to our Shakespeare studies. We copy passages that "speak" to us and share our entries. How fascinating to see what someone else deems worthy of preservation.

Learn the language, naturally.

Family M-mv memorizes wide swaths of Shakespeare through repeated viewings and readings (i.e., "listenings"). Obviously, too, the nature of a family-centered learning project (as opposed to a more conventional learning environment) allows for many, many everyday conversations that are colored by bardolatry. Well, what we use, we own. It's really that simple.

And, as I've written before, Shakespeare need not be hard at all, Fintan.

"It just isn't important in today's society."
L. wrote, "Also, why do you think it is important to read Shakespeare? I have been told by a few folks (homeschoolers!) that it just isn't important in today's society. I disagree, but can't really articulate why. My 'gut instinct' just isn't enough of a reason."

Well, actually, "gut instinct" may be plenty of reason, but I can see why one might think this an inadequate response in conversation. As I wrote to L., though, I honestly don't know what to say to folks who could, in seriousness, maintain that Shakespeare -- the inventor of the human -- is unimportant. Nothing I said, however well articulated or carefully stated, would deter them from that (misinformed) position. And, as I grow older, I find that I'm less and less inclined to fight against such ignorance. A bemused sigh and furrowed brow might be all you can offer when confronted with -- well, I typed such fools but realized that some of you might find that too harsh and dismissive, so I'll go with people who hold that view.

Heh, heh, heh.

1. The introduction to Shakespeare should be as much like Shakespeare's intended experience as possible -- that is, his plays were meant to be seen and heard, not read.

2. A live performance is generally superior to a film, but if that is not possible or practical, a quality film will work.

3. To prepare for a live or filmed performance, read an abridgment.

4. Then watch -- more than once, if practical; more than one production, if possible.

5. After that, read the unabridged play to the accompaniment of a quality audio production.

6. Read abridgment. Watch production. Read while listening to audio accompaniment.Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Read. Think. Learn. Discuss.

7. Other ideas include using toys to simplify plots, keeping a chapbook, and natural memorization through regular use of the language.

8. This method works well for adults, too. There is no reason why someone late to the table should miss this meal.

It's incomplete, but the following list represents books titles that have been helpful in my own studies. These are the books to turn to -- after the abridgment and the performance and the reading/listening. (The ol' M-mv mantra: Wash. Rinse. Repeat.) I've boldfaced those I keep close.

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (Volumes One and Two).
Barton, John. Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z; The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More.
Brown, Ivor. Shakespeare.
Burgess, Anthony. Shakespeare.
Carter, Avis Murton. One Day in Shakespeare’s England.
Chrisp, Peter. Welcome to the Globe! The Story of Shakespeare’s Theater.
Crowl, Samuel. Shakespeare at the Cineplex: The Kenneth Branagh Era.
Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard.
Fallon, Robert Thomas. A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare.
Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare, After All.
Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Volumes One and Two).
Gollub, Herman. Me and Shakespeare: Adventures with the Bard.
Green, John and Paul Negri. Great Scenes from Shakespeare’s Plays.
Greer, Germaine. Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction.
Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary.
Lomonico, Michael. The Shakespeare Book of Lists.
Morley, Jacqueline. Shakespeare’s Theater (part of the Inside Story series).
Norwich, John Julius. Shakespeare’s Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337–1485.
O’Dell, Leslie. Shakespearean Language: A Guide for Actors and Students.
— . Shakespearean Characterization: A Guide for Actors and Students.
O’Toole, Fintan. Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life.
** Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings; History, Chronicle, and Drama.
Silverbush, Rhona and Sami Plotkin. Speak the Speech! Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated.
Smith, Bob. Hamlet’s Dresser.
Stanley, Diane, and Peter Vennema. Bard of Avalon: The Story of William Shakespeare.
Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare.
** We also recommend The Teaching Company's courses Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, taught by Saccio. Skip the DVDs; opt for the CDs. Unlike Shakespeare, Saccio is meant to be heard, not seen. Heh, heh, heh.


Anne said...

Thanks for not "simply bowing out of the entire enterprise". I like reading here.

Sara said...

My six year old daughter borrowed an audio CD of Shakespeare stories (the BBC's "As You Like It" stories from Shakespeare) and really fell in love with it. Now, I'm not sure how to follow up on that since she's so young - thanks for a few ideas here!

Fanny Harville said...

What an incredibly helpful guide to what can seem like a daunting undertaking. Thanks for reposting this.

ChristineMM said...

Thank you for republishing this. I needed to hear this again.

I am sorry to see you are taking down your archives. I was looking for a post on my blog and came across a post in which I linked back to a book you had discussed and I said I wanted to read the book. When I tried to read your old post yesterday it was one that is gone.

I am mourning the loss of your archives.

I hope you and your family are well. Thank you for all your past and present blogging. I hope your online presence does not disappear forever.