I admit, I’m one of the nerds who loves Shakespeare. I was introduced to the Bard in Jr. High in a drama class, and was asked to compete in a Shakespeare Festival performing a soliloquy from King Lear. While I’m sure my performance was sadly lacking, I was able to watch performances by some very talented students, and I was hooked.
In high school I had excellent English teachers (Thank you Miss Irwin) who furthered my appreciation. Then, the summer after high school, I had the good fortune to travel and study in Europe. During that summer I visited Stratford (Shakespeare’s home town) studied Hamlet at Cambridge, and saw several productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was glorious and I was officially a fan.
Perhaps your experience with Shakespeare was a little less positive, and frankly, if you never have to read or see another play you’ll be perfectly content. You are certainly not alone
But, as Hamlet would say, “There’s the rub.” You’re homeschooling now. You’re responsible for your child’s education…and Shakespeare seems to be on everyone’s list of subjects that should be tackled. But why? Perhaps if you understand why Shakespeare and why a play, you’ll be motivated to give it another chance. And, at the end of this article, I’ll link you to a few excellent resources to help you in your endeavor.
Shakespeare deals with enduring themes that remain relevant to every new generation of readers. The emotions and situations that are explored are at once familiar and recognizable across time and cultures.
If you are human, the characters, plots, and themes are relevant. The plays explore family relationships, love, power, morality, politics, wealth, and death. Emotions such as hate, anger, despair, jealousy, courage, and wonder are examined and expressed with passion and empathy,
Shakespeare constantly examines the gap between our public appearance and our private lives, a tension that resonates with all of us. He shows the struggle between being an individual and being part of a society, and, while reading the plays, we question our own moral choices and the far reaching effect that they have on those around us.
Shakespeare is a master of words. His mastery grows out of his own fascination with language and sense of fun in discovering new ways to express common ideas. Shakespeare plays with language, stretching and exploring both the power and the limitations of words. When he can’t come up with the right word, he invents one.
Through these plays we can study and learn from a master. (Okay, it’s Shakespeare, he might be considered the master of the English language.) Observing the details, the richness, the inventiveness, the sheer genius of his writing, we can enter into a relationship with Shakespeare himself and learn from him.
Studying his plays provides students with rich models to imitate. He gives us freedom to explore and be inventive with language ourselves. As students come to appreciate the tools he uses to draw the audience in, they gain insights that will help them as writers, speakers, readers, and listeners.
Shakespeare imparts all sorts of knowledge! While we might expect to expand our vocabulary while reading Shakespeare, his plays also encourage us to explore unexpected areas of knowledge.
The Roman and history plays drive students to understand the historical context in which they are placed, and to discover how much of each ‘history’ play is actually history. They also provide a different perspective of history. Instead of the usual summary of a textbook, Shakespeare’s plays bring the characters of history to life, exposing their flaws, doubts, and strengths so that we gain insights into the inner lives of legendary figures.
Reading The Tempest can provide the motivation to research colonization in the Americas or the growth of Renaissance science and literature. The Merchant of Venice provokes discussions of anti-semitism, and Othello explores issues of race. In each instance, our students knowledge base grows, often in unexpected directions.
Shakespeare breaks us from our prison of seeing the world through a single point of view. This is huge. In ways we cannot fully comprehend, we are imprisoned in our own context. We naturally view the world from our own experiences, culture, and world view.
A play can take us out of ourselves and allow us to experience the world from another’s viewpoint. It opens the door to a world we would never normally enter. Shakespeare invites students to imaginatively inhabit another’s world, and to learn from those encounters.
All reading of good literature does this, but it is slightly different when varying points of view are offered in the form of a play. I hope that as you study Shakespeare you will be able to go to a few productions. Plays are meant to be seen, not read, and there is a personal element to viewing a play live as opposed to a movie. There is a connection between the actors and the audience that provides an added dimension.
Studying Shakespeare allows students to explore human feelings in a safe context. Emotions are powerful, often overwhelming. Learning to confront and control emotions, and to develop self confidence with regards to managing in a healthy way, our emotions are a large part of growing up.
Re-enacting scenes from Shakespeare gives students a safe place to confront a wide variety of emotions. Experiencing the emotions of a character gives insight into how to confront and control their own emotions. It can also lead to greater understanding and empathy.
Many actors have expressed the fact that playing out their characters feelings provides the actor with mental, physical, and emotional release. Basically, students can develop knowledge and understanding of their own heart as they ‘play’ with the plays.
Every student is entitled to make the acquaintance of genius. Shakespeare remains a genius of outstanding significance in the development of English language, literature and drama.
Over the next 2 weeks I’ll be posting several more Shakespeare posts, and I’ll provide the links here as they are posted.
One of them will cover background information about Shakespeare’s England, one will have a fun Shakespeare exercise to have your students do, and lastly there will be a post about my favorite resources for teaching Shakespeare.