Friday, May 04, 2007

What's So Great About Shakespeare?

"His grasp of the human condition is perhaps unmatched in literature."

Terry W. Glaspey

As a young mother, I wasn't convinced that Shakespeare was worth studying-at least, not by children. After all, his plays had bawdy jokes, frequent love-making and his personal life had some serious flaws. However, over time, as I studied Shakespeare's plays and researched his influence upon the English-speaking world, I began to feel that my children would have quite a gap in their understanding of our world if I neglected Shakespeare. I would have to be careful how I approached it, guarding their little hearts while introducing them to yet another medium that revealed the nature of mankind. Here are...

Some reasons why we study Shakespeare
He is responsible for adding some 2000 words and phrases to the English language-examples include: gloomy, lonely, majestic, reliance, hurry, leapfrog, excellent. Tongue-tied, budge an inch, seen better days, fair play, lord and master, foul play, dead as a doornail, my own flesh and blood, set your teeth on edge, without rhyme or reason, laughing stock, didn't sleep a wink and if the truth were known. (more here)

His plays provide a comprehensive and thoughtful look at the human condition, dealing with the virtues of men as well as their vices- love, faithfulness, greed, honesty, selfishness, mercy, lust, power and justice are just a few. As we study his plays we understand ourselves better.

His inspiration comes from historical events, mythological tales, and Biblical passages. He often refers to Christ, his teachings and other Biblical characters and morals. All of these sources are a vital part of our history.

His plays deal with the consequences of sin and yet Shakespeare is very liberal in showing mercy. I believe this is a VERY important theme in his works. Macbeth, although one of his darkest plays, reveals the power of unconfessed sin and it's ability to destroy not just one, but many lives. It also exposes the dangers of witchcraft.

His plays provide rich fodder for meaningful discussions.

His poetry is profound. Shakespeare and the sonnet go hand in hand.

His plays have intricate plots with many twists and turns, providing an excellent exercise in logic.

They are thoroughly entertaining and stimulate the imagination.

Merchant of Venice The Tempest King Lear
(Click to enlarge)

Shakespeare does misbehave at times, but fortunately, the Elizabethan English veils such innuendos quite well and they go by unnoticed by the children. For this reason, it is better if you do not use modern versions of the plays.

I have been told that not all of his plays are suitable for young people so you will have to be careful and do a little research. If you look at AO's suggestions, you should be safe.

The words 'lovers' and 'love-making' are frequently used but this did not have the same meaning back then as it does today. It referred to the attraction and not the act between two people. I do not let my children read books about boys and girls 'in love' with each other. Shakespeare, however, does not fall in this category because the characters are adults and the stories are often unrealistic and very silly. They cause my children to scoff at the nonsense rather than produce an attraction for the opposite sex.

Shakespeare's plays were obviously not written for young children. However, we all know that most high school-aged students today do not enjoy studying Shakespeare. I believe this is partly due to the difficult language. Teachers immediately expect understanding, enjoyment and analysis to occur in a single lesson. The student did not have enough time to develop an appreciation for the stories. I feel it is a good idea to introduce children to the general stories using expurgated versions adapted especially for the child mind. In this way, the children will have developed an understanding of the stories and an appreciation for them by the time they are old enough to explore the important themes within them in greater detail. If you read early classic children's literature, you will notice that children were introduced to Shakespeare while young using Nesbit's and Lamb's stories. It was common to name a pet after Greek or Shakespearean heroes. Elizabeth Enright's books are a good example of this. Educators and parents evidently recognized the value of introducing the Bard to children. They followed these preparatory steps not only with Shakespeare, but other classic authors as well.

Taming of the Shrew

In our Home
When my children reach 7 or 8 yrs of age, I read aloud  Nesbit's  Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare once a week, taking two weeks per tale. I divide a dry erase board into about 9 large grid squares and draw stick figures of each main character as they are introduced. I write the name of the play in the first box. My children do the same on their clipboards by dividing a piece of paper into squares and copying me. I write the name of each character above each stick figure. My young writers only write the first letter of each person's name in each of their boxes.

Often, for a creative narration, the children retell the story (just part of it) using paper dolls or popsicle sticks with the figures puttied onto them. Here is another idea.

We also read Shakespeare, Bard of Avon together. This is a wonderful, simple, yet thorough introduction to his life and works.

As we continue the book in third grade, they make a drawn narration of the tale and label it. We watch Shakespeare: The Animated Tales too, but only AFTER we have finished the story.

We usually act out a Shakespeare play once a year as well and invite our close friends and family to watch the production. Our family has made some beautiful memories this way.

Approximately ten or eleven years of age, my children watch the play online. With their own personal copies of the play in book form open in front them, they follow along. I try to make sure that at least two children are doing this together to make it more fun. My daughters love to watch these plays (if link doesn't work try here) and laugh over the numerous jokes housed in archaic language. This takes twelve weeks to finish as I only allow about 15 minutes per week for this. We don't analyze, just enjoy and of course, spontaneous natural discussions occur too. They usually narrate to me afterwards.

By high school, my children are thoroughly acquainted with several Shakespearean plays and enjoy reading and talking about them. They are now ready for the next step, which involves analysis. Each student on her own reads and studies the plays in Brightest Heaven of Invention and then watches some of the movies that the author recommends. This is done slowly over several years.

Notice that I am not the main teacher for most of this. After careful research and listening to the advice of people I respect, I find sources I feel that I can trust and am allowing them to do the bulk of the teaching. I simply provide the resources and gently guide occasional discussions. My children are mostly self taught.

Hamlet.................. Cymbeline .................. As You Like It ............... Richard III

Recommended Resources Why study Shakespeare? A Biblical online Shakespeare Course Absolute Shakespeare- Summaries, quotes, biography, plays and more. Spark notes- good summaries Complete plays, free Colorful Illustrations

"Shakespeare was as great a philosopher as he was a poet. That's what he set out to teach us in every line. His characters 'Leontes,' 'Othello,' 'Lear,' 'Prospero,' 'Brutus,' demonstrate the same thing: that a man's reason will try to bring infallible proofs to any notion that a person decides to take up. There's no shortcut and no way around it, the art of life takes a long time to learn."
Charlotte Mason

*article edited Feb 2010


  1. Oh what wonderful insight, encouragement and resources you have provided here! This is something I've been struggling with, espeically with my oldest, who, as you may remember, didn't come home to be self taught until 5th grade. She is definitely getting a late start.


  2. Thanks,Kim.

    There are still errors in this post and the formatting is off but I need to spend some time with my kids. I'll try to make repairs later today.

  3. Betty4.5.07

    Wow! Linda! What a valuable post! THis is the most useful information I have seen on Shakespeare! This is just what I needed to jumpstart our study!

    I ordered this Shakespear collection a few months ago and I'm now ready to start. Scroll down to September 21 entry. I emailed them to see if they are still offering this incredible resource, so I'll let you know.

    Thank you so much! We are grieved and praying for the spiritual events of Turkey recently.

    Sending warmest wishes across the seas (it's already hot and humid here),

  4. Anonymous4.5.07

    Wow, what a wonderful post. Thank you so much for the direction and insight. I have been wondering how to study Shakespeare at an 8 year olds level. I am hoping, that since I have always been intimidated by Shakespeare that I can learn to enjoy it right along with him.


  5. Hi Linda,
    Thank you for the detailed post! I am so happy! Since we are getting ready for Year one this is perfect timing.
    Have a great day,

  6. Dawne4.5.07

    Dear Linda,

    Your blog is such an encouragement to me! What a great mentor I have found in you. =o)

    We are starting Year 1 this fall, and the legwork you've done and posted on your blog, such as this one regarding Shakespeare and children, will be of such use to many.

    thank you!

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I wanted to start Shakespeare with my 1st grader, but I wasn't sure where to begin. You've laid out some great ideas here! I especially love the white board with the grid and the characters! Wonderful idea!

    Thank you so much for your insight; it is always so helpful,

    Blessings to you and your family,


  8. What perfect timing--we're just coming up on Shakespeare's time in our history studies (VP). Thanks so much. I know this was a lot of work, as I just did a Musical Time Periods post for the Carnival of HS earlier this week. Whew!

  9. Thank you for such a helpful post. We are just nearing the end of year 1 and your site has been a great blessing to me.

    Our library does not have Edith Nesbit's book, but it does have Lamb's, Tales from Shakespeare. I was just wondering about the difference between these two and why you prefer Nesbit for the early years and Lamb later?



  10. So glad you found some ideas, ladies. Thanks for the feedback.

    Rachel, Nesbit's version is a little simpler and thus shorter. The differences aren't great. You could easily use Lamb's as a substitute. Some folks actually prefer Lamb's because the details help to clarify some things that are not explained in Nesbit's.

  11. Wow! Thanks!! I have been a long time lover of Shakespeare, I had an awsome Drama teacher in high school who taught us to understand, and it also deepened my understanding and love of the scriptures. I thought I had to wait until my little ones were older, how exciting knowing I can start now!! Thank you!

  12. Hi Linda,
    Hope you are well. I just wanted to say thanks for including the pdf music and artist flash cards in your delicious finds - they are great.
    Have a great week.

  13. Danna,
    Please share on your blog sometime some spiritual insights your gained from Shakespeare. I think that would be so helpful for many.

    Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedules to comment, ladies.

    I have the hardest time opening your blog and commenting. There are always too many connections. I'll try again later. Glad the links were helpful. I only pass along links that I really like.

  14. Linda,

    Thank you, once again, for an excellent & insightful post. I glean so much from your thought-provoking articles. Learning has once again become a joy for me, as I guide my own in a rich education.


  15. We like Shakespeare!
    I had NEVER read any of his works before homeschooling.
    We read Bard of Avon also.
    I liked the last two pages, where it tells of all the popular quotes that we get from Shakespeare.
    I also like the books by Bruce Coville.

  16. Mme Labonté11.5.07

    Thank you so much for your recommendations. I've been wondering what to do with Shakespeare. I'm always so encouraged after reading your blog. Thank you for sharing what you're learning!

    Mme Labonté

  17. I think it's great that you are encouraging Shakespeare! I love him. Just this week I recieved an email from one of the homeschool yahoo groups I belong to. They were calling for homeschoolers to get together and perform this summer. As I kept reading I was surprised (but not too surprised) to see that they had edited the play to reflect a Christian bias! Edit Shakespeare?! Say it isn't so! There were a flood of emails from mothers who were thankfully appalled!

  18. Traci,
    I laughed when you said you were surprised, but not too surprised. I understand that statement. ;)

  19. Thanks for the very refreshing site. May I have permission to use your Shakespeare thoughts in my small homeschool co-op play? I will be needing to make 10 copies.

  20. Yes, Pam, you may use the article. I do ask that each copy have my name and a link to my website.

  21. Anonymous30.6.10

    Thank you for the explanation, I am a college student and never felt like I understood why Shakespeare was that amazing! Well now I have a start, this post makes me want to read more of his works thanks.

  22. Anonymous1.3.12

    Commenting 5 years after the original comment should not make my input less relevant.

    I think any Shakespeare play should be readily available to any person out there. Even a bloody play like Titus Andronicus (often deraded for its simplistic plot) contains a wealth of information and insight valuable to any humanbeing (whether he/she be a child or an adult).

    The best play to get to know Shakespeare with is probably Macbeth, though any play (as you so rightly phrased) provides an excellent exercise in logic.