Shakespeare in eleven steps

1. Begin early.
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.

3. Watch.
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.

5. Read.
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.

10. Memorize.
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.

11. Enjoy!
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...

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And last year...
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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.


Sara said...

Thank you for pushing Shakespeare with kids. I took your many posts about this to heart and did a bit of Shakespeare with my 9 and 6 year old homeschooled kids this year, and they loved it! We'll be coming back again many times as the years go on and they are ready for more.

Gail said...

Thanks for making this a blog post. I saw the forum post you made recently, but didn't have time to do more than skim -- this format is much easier for me to read, ponder, and, frankly, find again later.

I appreciate the resource list in particular. My kids act in youth theater Shakespeare, and we're always looking for more resources to help with understanding and depth.

Andrea said...

Thank you for the encouragement, resources and sharing your Shakespeare life. We are making a start, albeit feeble. To listen to an audio version, where would you search first? My kids are 6, 9 and 11. Is there free Shakespeare audio out there that is decent?

Anonymous said...

I am in shock. I remember when you all went and saw Midsummer Night's Dream with the fantastic Puck. Were the girls really so young?

Now they're 15 and 17? Really? I can't believe it!

Now that I think back on it, I was on the WTM boards in 1999. (14 years!!)


Hillary H. (from WTM and the No Harm Done blog)

It's been wonderful to "watch" your children grow up -virtually. I've loved reading of their adventures.

I thank you for telling of your experiences with them and Mr. Shakespeare. I've been imitating you for years now (at least 9 years, apparently) and I have 3 boys who enjoy Shakespeare and are not afraid of him. I have one even begging to see a local production of "Titus Andronicus," for Heaven's sake! :)

Thank you, MFS, for sharing your wisdom and experiences over the years! :)

Anonymous said...

The illustrations are fantastic! When I first saw the bottom one, I had to look again to find out where I might find those the book that has them. I hope your Misses will keep up the beautiful work.

Anonymous said...

Amazing work. You have specialized an element of your learning and lifestyle with such a valuable choice. (to think you could have been passionate about so many lesser things!) I love this example. Your love of birds/birding seems specialized to a degree, but on a different level. Your advice is great, although I admit I feel limited because I personally haven't studied WS or developed a great love and understanding so it's a little like the blind leading the blind.