Shakespeare formation

This image was taken ten years ago, nearly to the day.

From Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998):

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….

My immersion in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project prompted me to revisit old posts about introducing Shakespeare to younger readers. Of course, so much of what we did in our family-centered learning project brought me to Shakespeare. In other words, what works for young readers works for oldsters, too.

1. Begin early.
My daughters (now nineteen and twenty-one) 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 were hooked.

(Their older brother met and became hooked on Will during an earlier staging of the same CST production  of Dream but didn’t fall in love until he watched Julius Caesar, with Jason Robbards as Brutus and Charlton Heston as Mark Antony. “Would he were fatter!”)

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). 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 turned to 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, 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 ability and interest allow with older and/or advanced students. A few oft-consulted 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 asked my students 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!
My daughters 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. My daughters 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.

One thought on “Shakespeare formation

  1. Oh my! My sons’ love of Shakespeare began with the Branagh Henry V movie as well. It sparked all kinds of imaginative play, endless random quotes, costumes, and an award-winning illustrated home made book by my middle son, then 8. We watch it together each year, albeit vicariously now as they are all adults, on St. Crispin’s Day.

    From that viewing, Shakespeare in print, on stage, and on the screen has played a big role in all our lives. Such happy memories. Thank you.


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