william-shakespeare-drawing

I thought it might be helpful to hear how another homeschooling family “does Shakespeare.”  Whenever I have the kids read plays of any sort, I don’t actually just hand them the play.  Instead, everyone who is sufficiently literate takes a part (or several) in the play, and we more or less act out the parts while sitting comfortably on our family room sofas.  If I had more ambition and/or ability, we might add costumes and staging, but, well, I don’t.  More power to you if you have the energy and ingenuity to do just that.  We usually also include watching some production of the play as well.  I have gone back and forth in the case of Shakespeare as to whether it is better to do our reading first or see a good production first, but we usually read first and then see a movie or (if possible) stage production after doing our reading.  The reason to do it that way is so that the children’s interpretation of the play isn’t skewed by the director’s.  On the other hand, seeing it first would probably make the whole thing a little easier to understand, so I can see it both ways.

We recently read Romeo and Juliet out loud together.  Now, while most of the kids really enjoy doing this, one of them would prefer to have his teeth pulled.  I still have him take parts, but I tend to give him fewer and smaller parts.  One of my daughters, on the other hand, would take every major part if I would let her.  In fact, the tragedy became quite comical at times when she played both Lady Capulet and Juliet’s nurse having conversations together.  At other times, we discovered we had to do some quick rearranging of parts so as to avoid exactly that, which also became comedic at times as we each tried to remember which parts we were supposed to be playing.

After we read it together, we watched the Zeffirelli production in movie form.  Be forewarned that it does have one quite explicit scene the morning after their wedding.  If I had watched it ahead of time, I would have fast-forwarded through that bit or had the kids close their eyes and just listen to the dialogue for that bit.  That reminds me that it is a very good idea to do just that–watch it ahead of time.  After we went through Hamlet a couple years ago, I made the mistake of watching the Kenneth Branagh version with everyone without watching it in advance.  It made the scene I just referred to in Romeo and Juliet look like nothing at all in comparison!  I was horrified.  We ended up turning it off.  I frequently remind the children that one can’t “unsee” something.  In that case, it was definitely all my fault.

If you have a smaller family, you might consider getting together with some other families to do this so that each person can take fewer parts.  We kept a list of each person’s parts in the books with us, but even with 5 readers (yours truly plus four of the children), it was sometimes difficult to remember who was who.

We usually allow a week for each act of a Shakespeare play, but it could certainly be done in a lot less time if needed–an act each day, for example, would have the whole play done in a week.  Don’t forget to include time for explaining what’s going on as well as the undercurrents and themes.  I tend to do this as it comes up rather than trying to make sense of everything ahead of time, but a good plot summary can easily be found on the internet to help with this.  If you don’t know what a word or concept means, don’t be afraid of saying you don’t know and finding out together.  I think it’s really good for our children to see that we don’t know everything, that there is always more to learn, and that it’s possible to find the answer.  Regarding reading plot summaries, I would say don’t spoil the ending by reading the whole plot ahead of time if your children don’t know it when you start, but going over the last act that you read after reading it might be good as a means of summarizing what just happened.

At what age might you consider beginning to read Shakespeare this way?  I would say by the time your oldest is in high school at the very latest, and about age 10-12 at the very youngest.  In the case of the younger set, choose your plays carefully as some of the innuendos are really pretty dreadful in fact, but (happily) much of that may go over their heads.

Why do it at all?  Shakespeare’s understanding of the human person is pretty much unsurpassed even 500 years later, and these plays remain iconic in our culture as well they should.  It is both an opportunity to have your children enter into our culture and an opportunity to help them pass it on to the next generation.  Both are extremely important, especially in a world where timeless culture is so often superseded by the momentary diversions of what is new and different.