The Misses M-mv (now fifteen and seventeen) 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.
(On the other hand, their older brother met and became hooked on Will during the same CST production (staged a few years earlier) of Dream but didn't fall in love until a few months later, when he watched Julius Caesar, with Jason Robbards as Brutus and Charlton Heston as Mark Antony.)
2. Provide an adequate introduction.
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 they grew older, they appreciated a more detailed synopsis of the play prior to watching. For this, we heartily recommend Boyce's Shakespeare A to Z; The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More.
Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels; that is, his works were meant to be seen and heard, not read -- at least not at first. While I prefer live theater, that's more easily said than done for some folks, given travel, time, and/or budgetary considerations. In my experience, then, a well regarded film is preferable to an amateur-ish "Shakespeare in the Park" production. Bad theater, no matter how well intentioned, is just bad theater.
4. And watch again.
A different production. A live performance and a film. Two different films. Whatever arrangement works.
We read the unabridged play to the accompaniment of a quality audio production. The Arkangel recordings are excellent, but a few of our favorite audio productions include Naxos (King Lear, King Richard III, and The Tempest), Caedmon (Twelfth Night), and BBC Radio Presents (Hamlet).
6. Read closely.
Not younger students necessarily, but older students, yes. After reading / listening to the the play, dive in -- deeply. Get in the text. Swim around. Read aloud to one another. Revisit passages that were memorable in performance. Review speeches that others have deemed noteworthy and discover why.
7. Keep a commonplace book.
We copy passages that "speak" to us and share our entries. How fascinating to see what someone else deems worthy of preservation.
8. Supplement and discuss.
Don't overdo this with younger students, but take it as far as their abilities and interests allow with older and/or advanced students. Among our favorite resources:
■ Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (Volumes One and Two).
■ 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.
■ Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard.
■ Goddard, Harold C. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Volumes One and Two).
■ Lomonico, Michael. The Shakespeare Book of Lists.
■ O’Toole, Fintan. Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life.
■ Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (The Teaching Company).
■ --. Shakespeare. The Word and the Action. (The Teaching Company.)
9. Review, revisit, reread.
Return to the plays again and again. And again. You will discover something new on every viewing and every reading.
For most plays, I ask the Misses to choose a passage for memorization, but we have memorized wide swaths of Shakespeare over the last decade simply through repeated viewings and readings / "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. What we use, we own. It's really that simple.
Don't be afraid to have fun! Enjoy!
The Misses M-mv were onto something all those years ago, 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.
And your older students? Well, the Misses also illustrated the works, another way to come to grips with the plays and to make them their own. Even as they grew older, they continued to find value in marrying their love of art and their love of Shakespeare.
For example, eight years ago...
And last year...
From Harold Bloom:
Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us....________________________
What we've covered in the last few years:
Academic year 2009-2010
■ Julius Caesar
■ Much Ado about Nothing
■ Romeo and Juliet *
■ As You Like It *
■ The Tempest *
Academic year 2010-2011
■ Twelfth Night
■ Romeo and Juliet (review / revisit) *
■ Henry V
■ Macbeth *
■ The Merchant of Venice *
■ A Midsummer Night's Dream
■ The Winter's Tale *
Academic year 2011-2012
■ Henry IV, Part I
■ Henry IV, Part II
■ The Tempest (review/revisit)
■ The Taming of the Shrew *
■ A Midsummer Night’s Dream (review / revisit) *
■ Timon of Athens *
■ Othello *
Academic year 2012-2013
■ Hamlet *
■ Henry V
■ Julius Caesar (review / revisit / reread) *
■ Measure for Measure
■ Othello (review) *
■ Henry VIII *
■ Richard III
■ Much Ado about Nothing (review / revisit / reread)
■ Macbeth (review / revisit / reread) *
■ The Comedy of Errors *
Academic year 2013-2014
■ King Lear
■ Hamlet (review / revisit / reread)
■ Henry V (review / revisit) *
■ The Merry Wives of Windsor *
The rest of 2013-2014 is TBD.
* Studies include seeing a live performance.