Some people might wonder why we, as Christians, share Shakespeare’s plays with our children, when lots of other Christian homeschoolers avoid his plays like the plague.
First, let me start with a quote from Reverend Ralph Allan Smith (who has a much better article about why to read Shakespeare!). “Next to the Bible, he [Shakespeare] is perhaps the most important textbook for Christian young people who are seeking wisdom to live for the glory of God.” I agree with these words.
Reading Shakespeare gives us the opportunity to live lives that are not our own and to experience and ponder the consequences of different choices – the good, the bad and the ugly. This experience is available in a lot of quality, older literature, but never so much as in Shakespeare’s stories. Children need this experience of examining the sinful choices of others in light of God’s truth and wisdom, as much as they need to be familiar with good choices.
Shakespeare’s writing also presents us with a realistic image of fallen humanity and it’s not often a pretty picture. Each character struggles with sin in the same way that we do and, at the end of most plays, the characters are judged accordingly. Too often the characters I’ve found in Christian children’s literature are simply too ‘good’ to be relatable and able to teach. Near perfect characters suggest to children that, in comparison, they are failures in their walk with Christ.
Shakespeare sets a high standard of literature for his readers, a standard not seen in modern books and rarely in books marketed for teens and young adults. The vocabulary is impressive. Shakespeare created numerous words and expressions that we still use today. The written expression is beautiful. The language is lofty, much like the language of the King James Bible which was written around the same time. (There’s even a pondering among scholars that Shakespeare may have been involved in its writing). Certainly, Shakespeare was a favoured writer in the court of King James at that time.
Finally, God’s truth, beauty and wisdom can be found in books other than the Bible and Christian literature. Even pagan literature can contain God’s truth; the pagans just didn’t realise the value of what they held. It’s not unlike when a baby gets hold of a book and mistakes it for a chew thing or a place to draw. Their use of it doesn’t depreciate the value of the book in the right hands. We just have to take it back from them. Augustine referred to this as ‘plundering the Egyptians’. Christians can find things of value in books that are written by non-Christians. Shakespeare, however, was a practising Christian who knew his Bible better than most people. Did you know that Shakespeare’s plays contain at least 1200 Biblical references and that many people believe it’s more than double that number?
Sadly, most people have only experienced Shakespeare’s plays in the classroom where they are too often torn apart and analysed piece by painful piece. Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be experienced at the theatre. If you’ve avoided his plays because you didn’t enjoy them at school, then you need to attend a family oriented performance of one of his plays. Shakespeare’s plots are brilliant.
Winston Churchill said “The Bible and Shakespeare stand alone on the highest platform”. I agree with Winston, as I agree with a number of America’s founding fathers. “Jefferson was more struck by the moral truths he found in Shakespeare’s plays than by their linguistic skill. These plays, he was convinced, like all the great works of fiction, help “fix us in the principles and practices of virtue” and in “an abhorrence” of vice”. Many a great Christian man read and loved Shakespeare.
If I was only permitted to own two books (heaven forbid!!), then I would definitely choose the Bible and a complete volume of Shakespeare’s writings.