I have been a lover of Shakespeare’s plays since the moment my high school teacher made me memorize Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot” speech.
Back in those days, our class would go through the play – or parts of a play – from a giant anthology of “good English selections”, and the exposure to Shakespeare usually meant a line-by-line read-aloud where that funny boy Tommy would pronounce characters’ names like “Fleents” instead of “Flee-ahns”, or “Sigh-wurd” instead of “See-wird”, and we’d all titter when Sally would get tongue-tied over a couple of lines like:
The rest is labour, which is not used for you:
I’ll be myself the harbinger and make joyful
The hearing of my wife with your approach.
When I later became a teacher of high school English, I pretty much followed the same pattern. There was one exception, though. We did act out quite a lot of the scenes, and I was very detailed in explaining in plain terms what was happening, but the general format was the same – real Shakespeare in real language, unadulterated.
Fast-forward more than twenty years, to when I was introducing my own homeschooled children to Shakespeare. The occasion was a production by our local theatre – yes, the esteemed and world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company was within a 30-minute drive from my house. My husband and I had bought tickets for The Tempest, this time to include our 6-year-old daughter as a treat for her birthday.
It turned out that I had neither the time nor the heart to plough through a Shakespeare text with her, but I knew she needed to have the general gist of what was going on before we took her to the play. Otherwise, she would be asking a hundred question – loudly, in that little-child-voice. It was more for self-preservation of my dignity, probably, than her own knowledge.
Anyway, I found a brief summary that we read together. I also found a BBC DVD at the library (the one with Roddy McDowell as Ariel – very good, though filmed in that soap-opera-looking resolution that makes it hard to take seriously these days). With no preparation than this, we trotted off to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Little did I know that this production would turn out to be my favorite of all time. Patrick Stewart was playing the lead role of Prospero. The setting was an Arctic wasteland as opposed to the usual Pacific-island-paradise. The comedic characters, Trinculo and Stephano, managed to boot the bottle of booze off the stage – it seemed an accident and took some time in retrieving it from the audience, but was a scene that has stuck in my daughter’s mind a decade on.
When we got home, she wrote letters to each of the actors, telling them how much she enjoyed the play and the funny parts. Only one actor actually wrote back: Patrick Stewart. It was hand-written, and he even enclosed some postcards of himself, signed.
I so wish that my own introduction to Shakespeare could have been so alive, to have such “skin” on it, so when people ask me how to start their children on reading his plays, I suggest the gentle approach.
Don’t get bogged down in the details, but get the gist of the story and then go see a performance.
It doesn’t have to be the RSC. In fact, sometimes you may not want to go to somewhere like the RSC, where productions may be too “mature” for your family (a recent RSC production of Othello made use of a power drill for torture … ummm, no – just no), so find a local amateur production instead. Call ahead to ask about suitability for children, just in case!