This year, we have begun reading Shakespeare.
It was an area that daunted me as I did not enjoy my Shakespearean experiences at school. English classes seemed to drag on as our teachers dissected the plays into unrecognisable pieces, then expected us to extract meaning from the play so that we could share such learning in essays. None of my teachers were successful in developing in me a desire to know and love Shakespeare’s works. I don’t think they tried. They were too busy performing autopsies and preparing us to write about our findings, so that we could be graded. I think that’s where they made their fatal mistake. A great story shares wisdom, truth and beauty. It’s not something you can go in with a scalpel to extract. You first have to enter the story and open your heart, ready for the author to deposit his gifts.
The only time I enjoyed Shakespeare was when we had the opportunity to view snippets of the plays performed on stage. This occurred only once but it left an indelible mark on my memory and heart. When Shakespeare was performed, it came alive in my heart and I fell straight into the story. With the actions and body language of the performers, language was no longer a barrier to the story. All of your senses are engaged; not merely your eyes trying to wrangle with the old English in the script.
Based on my dreadful Shakespearean past, I drew these two insights into the plan I had for my own children’s experiences . First, I wanted them to engage in the story, and then I wanted them to experience the play in its intended form. Yes we would read the play as well, but it would be supported by our enjoyment of the story and a desire to receive even more from the text. And so began our journey into Shakespeare’s world this year.
We started with the play, “The Tempest”, as I had heard from others’ experiences that it was a good choice of play to begin with, particularly for boys. There’s nothing too inappropriate (a few interesting comments here and there but most kids won’t notice them), and there’s a good mix of tragedy, comedy, and romance, flavoured with a liberal dose of the mystical. I found it ironic, and somewhat amusing, that our ‘first’ play was in fact Shakespeare’s ‘last’ play. But there’s some kind of uncanny order in such a thing, don’t you think.
Once our play was selected, we began reading children’s versions of the story. My plan was to familiarise the children with the storyline of the play by reading multiple versions of the story, generally from simplest to more elaborate. We didn’t read them all at once, but over a period of time, in order to build on and reinforce our memory of the story . We were also able to discuss the author’s inclusions and exclusions as we became more acquainted with the original storyline. By building incrementally, I was also able to control the children’s exposure to the Shakespearean language. As the books increased in complexity (often corresponding to the age of publication), more and more original text was utilised in the adaptations. This allowed us to wonder and delight at the unusual tongue of the past, without snuffing out the life of the story for the children. My boys spent days on end finding reasons to use, “You malignant thing!”, and “Prithee, peace!” in their daily language.
I’ve heard it said that the only time the movie should be seen before reading the book, is in the case of Shakespeare. This makes sense to me, as I think the children need to be able to visualise the story before they can dig into the language of the original play. I actually found a set of dvds that contained animated versions of Shakespeare’s plays for children. We watched the animated “Tempest” well before we attempted a movie of the play. I’ll admit I was a little anxious about sharing the ‘proper’ movie with the boys, as it would be the first time they were exposed to the depth of the language, which, up until that point, I’d sheltered them from. But I needn’t have worried. Although this was their first exposure to Shakespeare, they were intrigued by the language. They particularly enjoyed the scene where Trinculo meets Caliban and declares, “What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish. He smells like a fish, a very ancient and fish-like smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-john.” I suppose you had to be there. 🙂
After the movie, we began reading the play using a book called, “No Fear Shakespeare” which has the original language on the left hand side of the book and the modern translation (sometimes a little crass) on the right. Each day we bit off a little bit of Shakespeare and just read it aloud. Text I thought the boys would understand, I asked them to narrate back what was said. At points where I was floundering, I consulted the modern translation and gave the boys a little explanation. As the days wore on, I realised that I was quickly falling into the ways of my school teachers, ‘dissecting’ the language, trying to pinpoint each ingredient rather than enjoying the whole. I had to make a point of deciding what exactly my goal was in reading the play. It wasn’t to check my children’s understanding of the language, it was to expose them to Shakespeare (not Tracey). I had to realise that my children (and myself) would not wholly understand all we heard or read in just one reading. As novices, we would come away with a novice’s understanding, and that is not to be scoffed at. Currently, we’re half way through the play and I’m going to switch to listening to experts read the play aloud to us. Plus, this way I can’t be tempted to interrupt and ‘teach’. The Arkangel recordings come highly recommended so I’m going to purchase “The Tempest” and we’ll continue this way.
The culmination of our first Shakespearean journey, was a performance of “The Tempest” by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble at the Roma Street Parklands’ Amphitheatre. This was definitely the highlight. My boys aren’t ones to splash praise around too liberally. Most performances we see get an “It was okay” as their review. But “The Tempest” got an “It was good!”. That’s a rave review from them. And it was wonderful. We sat on the stage surrounding the actors, who performed both onstage and out on the amphitheatre’s tiered seating. Once again, Caliban was a favourite, particularly when Trinculo ‘creeps under his [Caliban’s] gaberdine’ and declares “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”. This scene, the way it was executed, was hilarious.
Having seen the play, I’m now more inclined to try our hand at memorising significant verses. Previously, I’d thought it ‘nice’ but rather pointless to use our time this way. But now I have a renewed interesting in trying it. I’d love to have snippets of this language in my repertoire and want to store it in my children as well. I’m not sure how we’ll go. But I suspect the best thing for a good goal is to give it a try, which is also what I have done with our Shakespeare journey.
Leading up to our Shakespeare journey, I thought I was being overly optimistic. Others thought the same I’m sure. I mean, Shakespeare is commonly only taught in the upper grades of secondary school. But I knew I wanted to have the time to share lots of the great plays with the boys and that meant starting early. Plus, the earlier we feed on tough language, the easier it will be to read even tougher language later on. That’s my theory anyway. So I jumped in to give it a go, and having (almost) completed one leg of the this journey, I’m very pleased with the results so far.
My plan, for the near future, is to ask the boys to write about the story. With a decent amount of experience behind them, and a beginning enjoyment of the author and his play, I suspect the boys will have something of interest to share from their journey. And it won’t be what I’ve told them to think, it’ll be what Shakespeare wrote on their hearts.