Teaching Shakespeare To Children

Sep 23, 2011
Title page of the First Folio, by William Shak...

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This guest post was written by Cindy Rollins. ---
What do you think of when you hear the name Shakespeare?
A surprising number of people have fiercely negative reactions, perhaps thinking of their bohemian English teacher sweeping across the room quoting the tragic Ophelia, “"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.” What possible benefit could a modern student derive from that nonsense? Or maybe you are among the few people left who realize there is some value in reading Shakespeare but between your own confusion and your student’s despair you can never quite pull it off. Or maybe you are intimidated by the teacher down the hall or the mom next door, dressing in Elizabethan clothes with a whole van full of internet sites and handouts ready to tackle the Bard. Who has the time?
Is Shakespeare nonsense? Is he too confusing for our students to understand? Does teaching Shakespeare require a degree in English Literature and a lot of expensive resources? Those are the questions. For purely utilitarian reasons we could screw our courage to the sticking place.  Knowledge of Shakespeare comes in handy.  His plays are almost as good as Latin for increasing vocabulary, having added or recorded for the first time over 2000 words to the English lexicon-words including accommodation, apostrophe, assassination, dexterously, dislocate, frugal, indistinguishable, misanthrope, obscene, pedant, premeditated, reliance, and submerged. He also coined such sayings as:  “Teeth set on edge”, “give the Devil his due”, “budge an inch” ,“green-eyed monster”, “cold comfort”,  “fair play”, and “stood on ceremony”.  Whether you have read any of Shakespeare’s plays or not there is a good chance you quoted him today. After all he is so cliché.
Christians might content themselves with the idea that he makes over 1000 Biblical references in the plays. (Cain and Abel alone referenced more than 25 times.)  Many of the biblical allusions in the plays seem almost breathed out of the heart of William Shakespeare which gives us hope that the man was perhaps a Christian.
My own college boys tell me they are thankful that they can allude to passages from the plays in their college papers and class discussions. It gives them brownie points with professors. Even modern professors are bound to be impressed when you understand that the title of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury refers to Macbeth.
Being familiar with quotes, plots and storylines from Shakespeare can give our students a cultural edge, a lifeline of connections, a key to knowledge unequaled by any other English author. Utilitarian purposes abound, but we need hardly stop there when we have a much better reason within our grasp.
Charlotte Mason says,” To become intimate with Shakespeare in this way is a great enrichment of mind and instruction of conscience. Then, by degrees, as we go on reading this world – teacher, lines of insight and beauty take possession of us, and unconsciously mould our judgments of men and things and of the great issues of life.”  (Charlotte Mason, Ourselves, Book 2, page 72) There’s the rub: the instruction of conscience and the molding of our judgments- truth, beauty and yes, goodness, all within the canon of the plays of William Shakespeare.  
Many years ago, after being inspired by the schools depicted in Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children Sake-English cottage schools based on the ideas of Charlotte Mason- I desired to begin reading the plays to my own children. Macaulay described her own young daughters’ experiences reading Shakespeare at a small London school:
“Shakespeare became a friend whose writing was much loved. The children would argue about the actual characters; for instance, whether Hermione was right or wrong, and what the old shepherd was actually up to (they were enjoying The Winter’s Tale). The children read, every Friday, part of a Shakespeare play, each taking a different part. This from age nine! Once a year they would act one of the plays in the garden. In this way, they would enjoy three Shakespeare plays a year. “
  As inspiring as that one little paragraph was, year after year went by and my own fear and intimidation kept me from starting what seemed a major project complicated by my own ignorance.
One summers day, in a moment of sheer hope, I picked up A Midsummer Nights Dream, gathered the children around, teenager to baby, and began reading Act I, Scene I. We read one scene a day.  By reading a tiny bit each day we were able to stop periodically and try to figure out what was going on. We discussed words and meanings and intonations, but for the most part we just read the play.  What really sealed the deal was, during the last scene when Bottom and the craftsmen perform the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, the children laughed. Belly laughs.  We never looked back.
One of my own philosophies of teaching is to keep it simple. I have found that the more complicated my lesson plans the less likely they are to happen. The Play’s the thing that will win the hearts of our students not the lesson plan.
My general procedure for reading Shakespeare is to read aloud a synopsis of the play from either Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare or Edith Nesbit’s Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare.  We then read the play, scene by scene, one scene a day or less. I usually just read all the parts stopping to discuss as needed. Every once in a while I have had different children read different parts but that works better with plays we already know well. It would also work well with older students. One year we performed an abridged version of The Merchant of Venice with other families after reading the play in its entirety. This was a huge success. Finding a quality abridgement (using the original lines not just the story lines of the play) for classroom performances may create great memories for your students.  The goal with Shakespeare as with the Bible is to move the student away from abridgements and into the real thing as young as possible. In family setting this is quite natural but I would say that 10 year old students can begin to understand the real plays with careful selection and short readings.
We also try to memorize some piece from the play we are working on.  Some of our favorites: The St Crispin Day’s Speech from Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” and Portia’s lovely sonnet from The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
We watch a video production of the play or even two different productions (one before our reading and one after).  The videos have been hit and miss ranging from the glorious Richard Burton as Petruchio to the dreadfully realistic King Lear which shows a hobbit without clothes or eyes. I tried the idea, one year, of just watching the plays and not reading them out loud but I found the plays did not work their way into our mortal coil without the readings.
My children have not all been enthusiastic Shakespeareans. They often groan and question why we read some of the plays but there is a method to my madness. I always tell new students of the Bard that if they do not like Shakespeare that is fine but it is the height of ignorance to conclude that it is the Bard's fault rather than something lacking within themselves. Harsh, I know.
In the last couple of years I have collected one resource that has greatly helped my understanding of the plays:  Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare in Two Volumes. If I read through this book a little ahead of our readings, I can add interesting historical remarks such as who Hotspur was or what it meant that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. After a really confusing day's reading I can pull out Asimov and straighten myself out.  It is pricey because it is out of print, but I highly recommend it if you plan to discuss the plays with your students. Another book which is more useful for the teacher than the student is Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech which will aid you in pointing out various schemes and tropes in a natural manner as you read.
True, my own love of Shakespeare aids me in persevering year after year but even with that love I had a hard time getting the horse out of the gate in those early years as my oldest son was almost past his salad days. But it turns out that reading Shakespeare is not so hard after all. It is already divided up into small chunks. All you need is a few minutes each day and before you know it your children will be all grown up and you will regularly be making jokes with phrases like "get thee to a nunnery.” The beauty of building a family or classroom culture around Shakespeare is that it is something that can still be shared with a wide, though shrinking, host of other people. It is lighting a small candle in the darkness of cultural decay and looking out to see other candles twinkling all around. (This article contains at least 10 Shakespearean references. Can you find them?)
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Cindy Rollins

Cindy Rollins

Cindy Rollins is a homeschooling mom of 9 (8 boys and 1 girl) who attended Stetson University and Toccoa Falls College.She is a freelance writer with monthly columns in the Chattanooga Esprit and Knoxville Smoke Signals. For many years now she has blogged through her efforts to  homeschool under the classical principles of Charlotte Mason at Ordo-Amoris.  She continues to follow her heart's desire to encourage and serve homeschooling moms with a special concern for those raising sons. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband Tim and however many children happen to be home.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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Cindy, I have a question for you. I have often read about people reading Shakespeare to other people, but I've never been able to figure out the mechanics of it, so I've never tried it. How do the listeners know which character is speaking? Do you read the character's name before each line? You know that our family is not suffering from Shakespeare deficiency, but I'd still like to know how to do this.

Over the years I have come up with a sort of system. If the scene is short or just between two characters I may just change my voice to indicate a change of character. I guess I always modulate my voice somewhat to reflect who is speaking, even though I am not a great one for doing voices. All my accents sound Scottish. Most of the time I just read the name of the character without modulation and then begin their part all in the flow of the thing. Does that makes sense? The name of the character is just said in a deadpan voice as if it were outside the thing, which it is. I have been doing it this way for years and while not ideal, perhaps, because they are plays meant to be acted, it does help that by the time we are reading the play we have already watched at least one production of it so the children already have a voice in mind and some idea of who is speaking.

I do believe that having the a group read through the plays is a positive experience BUT my main concern is that the plays get read in the first place and the less complicated we make it the more likely that is happen and I do want people to feel that it is really as easy as just having a few minutes each day to read.
Also I am dealing with a family setting and it can be complicated to assign parts because often a child will need to read several parts and some children are more able to do this than others and by the time we add in all that confusion time has gone by and the scene begins to become disjointed. In a classroom with plenty of strong readers that would not be the case.

(PS I would love for you to write a guest post to my own blog about your own experiences teaching Shakespeare to classes.)

Thank you for the helpful post! Which play would you suggest to read first with 8 and 5 year old girls?

You could just try writing as if you were talking, like me. It seems to work out ok :) But I feel strongly that you have much to offer and we are missing out on it and I would love for you to share about your classes because I do think it would be helpful.

I agree that The Taming of the Shrew is an easier play along with A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night or A Comedy of Errors.

Thanks, Cindy, that's helpful. I have read a couple of plays to my younger children (way back in the day, before they were old enough to beg to read parts), but there were only two of them, so I could have them sit on either side of me and follow the script, and there was no confusion. I've always wondered how to manage with a larger crowd, because of course you're right that assigning parts can get too complicated to work very well. As for your blog, well . . . I was about to say that you know I'm not shy, but then I realised that's not quite true; I am a little shy, and when I stop to think before I speak (which I don't do often enough), I'm not sure I have much to say that's worth hearing. But if you really think someone else might benefit from something I wrote, I could give it a shot.

Ginger, fwiw I think my younger two (one boy, one girl) were close to those ages when we read The Taming of the Shrew, and they just loved it. I tried Macbeth that year, too, and it went okay, but wasn't quite as big a hit. I never bothered using Lamb or any of the other synopses first, but I did make sure they understood what was going on as we read - probably it helped, though, that they'd been hearing the KJV since before they were born, so the language was not strange to them.