A blog where families who love and live the Catholic Faith can share, encourage and support each other.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Shakespeare: To Teach or Not to Teach, That is the Question.

By Sue Elvis
While we wait for new articles to flood in, I will share an updated version of an article I originally wrote for KIT

With her hands on her hips and her eyes flashing, Imogen swung round to face Callum: “Thou liest, thou shag-ear’d villain!”

The reply came swiftly”. What, you egg? Young fry of treachery.”

“Surely that’s not Shakespeare,” I interjected.

“Oh yes, it’s from Macbeth”, Callum assured me.

“Shag ear’d villain?” We all laughed and the angry feelings dissipated instantly. There is one very strict rule in our home: name-calling is not allowed…unless of course you use a quote from Shakespeare!

We are all probably familiar with Shakespeare from our school days. My own memories are not very favourable. I can remember the teacher announcing that we would be going on a school excursion to see a film version of Hamlet. My first thought was: I hope I will be able to understand what is going on. Words I would have associated with Shakespeare include boring, difficult and irrelevant. Despite my unhappy association with Shakespeare, I felt I should introduce my own children to this playwright. The idea that an education without Shakespeare is an incomplete education, had been drummed into me. I thought that we should at least give Shakespeare “a go”.

With my own children, Shakespeare is one of the highlights of the week. Whenever we are reading a play and I call a halt for the day, they start to wheedle, “A bit more Mum…please!!” I know you all think I’m exaggerating. But no, not even the promise of lunch will resign them to closing their books quietly. (This is all true. Just ask my children.) I am sure many of you have discovered the wonderful treasures of Shakespeare’s plays. But for those who are a bit hesitant at tackling what has sometimes been labelled boring and difficult, I will share a few of our experiences.

Why should we study Shakespeare (apart from the reason it looks impressive on our records)? Firstly, each play is highly entertaining. They are full of interesting and complex characters whose speeches are full of rich and diverse language. Children have a natural ability to memorise and Shakespeare’s plays are stuffed full of quotes worth remembering. I never ask our children to memorise particular lines; they naturally store away what strikes them as witty, clever, thought provoking etc. I am sure all of us are well acquainted with many Shakespearean quotes: “To be or not to be, that is the question” or “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” or “Alas, poor  Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”. Or even, “Get thee to a nunnery”. (Particularly useful for a Catholic daughter.) But these quotes are only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of lesser-known but even more interesting lines. Every time we read a play, we discover something new. It’s a little like becoming increasingly familiar with a piece of music. Some Shakespearean quotes are so familiar that they are part of our everyday English usage.  A list of the more famous quotations from each play can be downloaded from the Internet.

I remember reading a review of a book  that explored the question: Was Shakespeare a secret Catholic? I never read the book so I cannot tell you much. However, Shakespeare lived in Protestant Elizabethan times when it was dangerous to be openly Catholic. The author of this particular book says that by examining Shakespeare’s plays, we can see that he was a true Catholic. Even without the benefit of such a book, Shakespeare’s plays have generated much discussion on moral and spiritual issues. His characters are a complex mix of vice and virtue. They have their weaknesses and strengths which come to light as we see them deal with the twists and turns of each play’s plot. Before we started reading Romeo and Juliet, we believed it to be the greatest love story ever told, a romance that ended in sorrow. Well, this play is a romantic tragedy but we learnt so much more as we read, discussed and re-read the play. At first, we dismissed the play as soppy but now we regard it as one of our favourites of all the Shakespearean plays with which we are familiar. There were plenty of issues to discuss: the meaning of true love, mortal sin and suicide, praying for the dead and forgiveness were only a few of our discussion topics. Currently, we are studying Hamlet and the issues of revenge, forgiveness, purgatory and confession have surfaced.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays are historical. When we read Julius Caesar, we also read Plutarch’s Lives which Shakespeare had used as a starting point for his drama. We did other research too to find out how accurate Shakespeare’s portrayal of Julius was.

You may be looking for the chance to discuss the vices and virtues of man and spiritual issues. Perhaps you’d like to find out more about characters in history, or experience the beauty of the English language. Maybe you just want to be entertained by a good story. These are some very good reasons why you should consider studying Shakespeare.

Now that I have convinced you that you should make Shakespeare part of your curriculum, where should you start? First, you will need to choose a play. (There are 37 to choose from!) The first Shakespeare play we ever read was Midsummer Night’s Dream. I vaguely recollected that this play was a comedy and I was hoping it would not require too much intellectual input from me to explain it. Well, it turned out to be a good choice: all the children loved it.

Once we have decided on a play, we all need a copy of the script. We have collected various second-hand editions of The Complete Works of Shakespeare which is an economic way to read all the plays. However, these volumes don’t have footnotes so for some of the plays, I have also bought a new single play edition (just for Mum). We have also discovered that all of Shakespeare’s plays are available on the Internet as free ebooks.

A good place to start a study of Shakespeare is a children’s version. Mary and Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare re-tells many of Shakespeare’s plays in more simple everyday language. This is perfect for younger children or as an introduction for older children. Similarly, E. Nesbit’s Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare can be used in the same way. Both books are available free online.Then there are the Leon Garfield’s audio CDs or Shakespeare BBC Animated Tales (available on Youtube).

Before we begin reading the play, I like to do a little research. Using the Internet, I find a scene-by-scene summary of the play which we can refer to as we are reading.

Time to begin. I read the summary of Act 1 Scene 1 aloud and then after a little discussion over who will be which character, we are off. We all know how rich the language of Shakespeare is. Sometimes, his use of words is so delightful. At other times, it is difficult to decipher just what he is trying to say. This is where a book with good footnotes comes into play. A Shakespearean glossary can also be a useful tool. I used to worry about understanding every word in every line, but this approach soon bogged us down and our reading would lose momentum. Now, we aim for a general understanding of each scene. We linger over any lines we especially like. At the end of each scene, we might change characters so that everyone has an equal chance at reading aloud.

When we reach the end of a play we all look forward to watching a  DVD version. We have located a number of plays in the classics section of our local video stores. Sometimes a number of different productions are available. You may want to check the viewing rating before choosing what to watch. Our favourite production so far is definitely Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. It is a beautiful film despite one inappropriate scene, and we never get tired of watching it.  I found out that the BBC has made films of all Shakespeare’s plays and we invested in the complete set which is a real treasure. Our library also has recordings of a number of plays on CD. It is important to give the children a chance to hear professional Shakespearean actors in order to hear the beauty of the language. It can be quite a contrast to our stumbling efforts!

You could leave the study of your chosen play there, or you may like the challenge of acting all or part of it out. Probably one or two scenes will be adequate for budding first time Shakespearean actors. My children attempted to act out the play-within-the-play from Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the children adapted the play making it less complicated and combining roles to correspond with the number of available actors. The result was hilarious.

If you are not already a Shakespeare fan, you may be thinking how difficult it all sounds. You could start small by perhaps reading the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare or listening to a Leon Garfield audio CD of the play. Then if all goes well, choose a play and start reading. Don’t worry about understanding everything the first time. Just aim for a taste of the play and return to it again and again. Each time you dip into a play you will become more and more familiar with the characters, the plot, the language and the themes presented. Start a Shakespeare DVD collection. Soon your children will be enjoying Shakespeare too and making his language part of their own. But whatever you do, never suggest that Shakespeare is boring or difficult. It’s not!

Please share my stories on my blog Sue Elvis Writes


  1. This is exactly how I was going to teach Shakespeare, now its up to me to get my self organised.

  2. My girls have been in a Shaeksepare class for 4 years- each year, they work on a play from October to march (they have done- The tempest, merry wives of Windsor, Taming of the shrew and macbeth) This is a great way to learn Shakespeare, so I encourage anyone wanting to learn to at least read it aloud

  3. Thank you for your comment, priest's wife. I bet your girls have a wonderful time with their Shakespeare class. Every year, at a homeschooling camp the teenagers get a chance to perform a shortened version of a play. They have 4 days to learn lines, make props etc. Yes, reading the words or performing them brings the plays alive. Everyone, both performers and audience, enjoys the Shakespeare immensely.