Academic Goals When Studying Shakespeare….

academic-goals-for-shakespeareThe title of this post, as you see, is ‘Academic Goals When Studying Shakespeare….”

The ellipses are there for a reason. The rest of that sentence is ‘have I none.’

There are worthy academic goals for Shakespeare study. There is a time and a place for studying setting, symbolism, metaphor, vocabulary, iambic pentameter, , dramatic tropes, Elizabethan Theatre, and more. But none of that matters if your kids hate Shakespeare or think that because they may have read a play or two, they have ‘done Shakespeare’ and can now check it off the box and never look at anything by him again.

I don’t have academic goals when we read (or watch) Shakespeare. I have human goals.  Academics are humans, too, of course and I love them and if I had other lives to use, I’d be an academic in one of them.  This isn’t an insult. But academics are specialists, and the nature of specialized studies is that they are not for every one. The goals I have for studying Shakespeare are goals for everybody.

The first is enjoyment. I just wanted my kids to like it and not feel like Shakespeare is only for specialists and  far beyond their ken. They don’t even have to like all the plays. I’m okay if they never love Othello (or even Hamlet.  Wait, no.  On second thought, they must like Hamlet).

That brings me to my second goal. I want them to be aware of what it is they don’t like. It’s fine to dislike Othello because it’s depressing and you don’t like tragedy or brutality. It’s okay to find Romeo and Juliet likewise too depressing, and to find Romeo sappy. I just didn’t want my kids to not like ‘Shakespeare’  merely because they totally couldn’t understand anything about it.

Literary criticism has an important place in Shakespearean studies, but that place is at the end of the line, *after* one already understand the gist of several of the plays and has some liking for at least some of them. My plain opinion is that literary scholars and literary critic type studies pushed on students too soon just plain sucks all the joy out of good things and leaves us with the impression that the plays are dry and dull and hard and only for experts to really understand.  The literary criticism stuff is only dry and dull and hard when you’re trying to use it with literature you don’t already like and know something about.

Shakespeare did not write for literary critics. He wrote for an audience so he could make money so he could live to write some more. He wrote to be performed, to entertain, and maybe to get a message out, but more probably just to entertain some more. He was incredibly gifted, and his works have depth and shape and some of the best vocabulary and dialogue you’ll ever read or hear, but we should *not* be intimidated by all the time the experts have spent turning his works inside out, upside down, and sideways.

We all live in a structure of some sort.  We can enjoy and appreciate our structures without understanding much about the wiring, the construction, and the architecture.  Now, our appreciation could often be deepened by understanding those things (or maybe not, in some cases!).  But for most of us, the things we want to know about first when looking at a new house are the obvious- bedrooms, bathrooms, age, floor plan, does it have a dishwasher- that kind of thing.   Shakespeare is similar- we want to know the obvious first.  Maybe later we’ll work on more, but it’s okay if we don’t.

We (mostly) did not make a study of Shakespeare a formal thing at our house. We just did it. In fact, it’s so informal, that I once discovered  that my children don’t even know it’s ‘school.’ We checked out the movie Henry V (to be honest, my eldest did. I wasn’t ready to leave the comedies yet) yesterday and the 8 y.o. asked if we could watch it while we ate lunch- we often watched ‘school’ videos during lunch so as to save time. My two teens turned to her and told her that Henry V wasn’t *school,* so of course we couldn’t watch it before the rest of the day’s work was finished! Heh, heh. I let it pass=)

What we did do- as I mentioned in a previous post- make sure you know the basic storyline, the plot.   I would guess that the first thing to
‘study’ would be the basic storyline. What is happening, what is the

Perhaps introduce a few characters.  Some people do paper dolls of the characters in a Shakespeare play.  I sometimes had the girls draw and cut out the main characters and then we’d write down a few identifying facts about them on the back, and use them as book marks when we read through the story in Lamb’s or Nesbit’s guides. Now, you can do this with real paper dolls you can print out or purchase from publishing companies, and they will look better. But I found my children actually remembered more and got more out of it if they were the ones choosing the details about the characters (this was true for timelines as well). If you want some standardization, use index cards or envelopes, so all the figures are roughly the same scale. But let the kids choose what they want to represent each different character. This itself is a form of narration, reviewing details of the tale in the mind.

After narration, talk about them, naturally, the same way you talk about books and movies with your friends and peers.  Ponder.  Wonder.
Why does Prince John act the way he does in Much Ado? What’s exactly is his beef with the world? Why doesn’t Margaret just speak up and tell the world it was not Hero speaking to Borachio,  it was her?  How could she let her mistress get in so much trouble for what she did?
Why might two people like Benedick and Beatrice, who have been insulting each other left and right, fall in love so precipitously? Is that believable? Why, why not?

I don’t think it has to be a formal thing, and I don’t think you have to know the answers. I imagine that the scholars don’t all agree on them, so there’s no reason
to panic if we don’t. I don’t think you need to make up a formal list of questions, either (although you can, it’s not a *bad* thing), just wonder out loud about anything you really do wonder about, if that makes sense.

We talk about what our favourite parts were and why, what our favourite lines were, and why, and who our favourite characters were and why, and what we didn’t like and why not. We do this the same way we do it about a game we played or a meal we ate or a book we read or a movie we saw.

One of my favourite things about Shakespeare is that he’s so very, very
quotable. Pick one or two lines you really like, and find an opportunity to quote them.

While watching Twelfth Night I noticed some spiritual application in one part of the story line. I shared that with my children, not to “teach” them, but because I thought it was neat and wanted to share. I don’t remember anymore what it was, so don’t ask. But I don’t think it matters what it was. What counted is that they saw their mother make a spiritual application from an Elizabethan comedy. Maybe they’ll be encouraged to make their own, or to share the ones they already made.

I have a Complete Works of Shakespeare that has a handful of footnotes explaining a few of the more obscure lines. I used it once or twice when I was confused about the meaning of something- I’d use google today (we didn’t have the internet until we’d been homeschooling for ten years). I shared that with the kids. They asked me what a few words meant, we looked them up together. We read part of the scripts aloud and discussed them over lunch.

There is more to a serious, in depth, study of Shakespeare later if that’s the level your students reach. I’m sure I did it in college. But I don’t remember it. The only thing I remember from college is writing a very long and very involved term paper on the identity of “the dark lady” in the sonnets. I stayed up two nights running, made myself sick, got a decent grade, and I don’t even remember who I said she was! None of it soaked in or made any meaningful impact on me. I did not leave either my college or my high school class with a love of Shakespeare. I didn’t even leave them with a minor liking for him, let alone the slightest idea about the majority of his plays and their storyline! In my high school class I largely blame my teacher. In college, that fault is probably more mine, and also part of the prejudice I brought to class based on my high school experience.

Shakespeare wrote to entertain, his plays are to be seen and heard, laughed or cried over, quoted and remembered. IMHO, if we don’t first approach him from that perspective and just enjoy him and understand the basic storyline, then we’ll never be able to get to the meatier stuff, and the meatier stuff, also IMHO, isn’t worth it if we don’t get any joy out of the plays themselves.

In short, Just let yourself enjoy Shakespeare, and you might find, as I did, that by simply enjoying him, you gain more than you ever would by ‘studying.’

For further reading on introducting your family to Shakespeare:

For simple help on putting together a printable script with assigned parts for your family, see here.

Shakespeare with young children?  See here.

Shakespeare with gradeschool and up?  See here.

Appropriate academic goals when studying Shakespeare, see here.

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