Wednesday, May 19, 2010

For the Love of Shakespeare

Shakespeare is another language. There is no use pretending otherwise. When I was in college (I know that was light years away), I took a semester course on Shakespeare. Because I knew we were studying plays, I recognized that I needed to watch, or at least, listen to them. That is what I did "right." With every play that I read, I listened to it at the same time. The text sprang to life and it made what could have been a dreadful experience absolutely wonderful.

To Use Notes or Not

At the same time, what I did "wrong" is that I did not know about Cliffs Notes or Spark Notes. Now there are plenty of students who read these instead of the actual plays in order to short cut their way to the answers, but they end up short cutting themselves by not using them as additional notes and skipping the required texts. However, since I did not know about them, I more or less muddled my way through the course. I survived, but I could have gained more from the course.

These Notes include the life of the author, characters, a brief plot synopsis, critical essays, suggested essay topics, and more. The analysis notes vary from play to play and also differ from the versions on the internet. They are designed for students in high school or beyond.

A Better Edition

When I studied Shakespeare, we used the Signet Classic editions. There are many fine points about these editions. They include many helpful notes and additional information. However, they could have been more thorough. Since that time, I have discovered the Folger Shakespeare Library. I especially like the more recent editions, since they include larger print and are easier to hold. What makes these editions better? Lots!

A middle school teacher who produces a Shakespeare play every year highly recommends the Folger Shakespeare Library (The school has year round school.). Since I was unfamiliar with the Folger editions, I checked them out from the library. These editions include summaries of each scene, explanatory notes, pictures to clarify word use, and additional notes. They begin with an introduction, a guide to reading Shakespeare, a discussion of his life and theater. After the play, there is an essay on "A Modern Perspective," and a list of additional books to read. The book closes with famous lines from that play.

Shakespeare for Children

Another way to introduce young children to Shakespeare is through stories. The most well known is the Tales of Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. Their version includes 20 plays. Because it was written in 1807, some readers do not care for its outdated language, complicated sentence structure, extraneous personal opinions, and convoluted plot summaries. In Twelfth Night, they spoil the plot by revealing key surprising info. early on. These stories are, however, not unreadable. My children have read them without complaint. Woven throughout are passages from Shakespeare that make them particularly pleasing. Others fondly remember their parents reading these stories to them in their childhood. Because of the language, 13 and up would be a better age, but younger children might be interested.

Another popular collection of stories, although not as well known, is The Children's Shakespeare by E. Nesbit (There are many different versions available. The titles and number of stories vary). Written in a fairy tale type format, The Children's Shakespeare offers a simplified version to 11 Shakespeare plays in modern prose. The stories are not as detailed as the Lambs' version. Because the style is modern, it is more accessible than the Lambs' version and Nesbit's elegant prose incorporates a delightful sense of humor. In her matter-of-fact style, her wit and charm shine through. This is also available on audio cassette. We have enjoyed listening to the audio cassette version, but it is out of print. We found it in our library. The suggested age level is 9-12, but all ages would enjoy.

If you are looking for a more complete children's version, Stories from Shakespeare by Marchette Chute includes 36 of Shakespeare's 37 plays. The number of plays is based on his First Folio. When Chute wrote this book, she included all the known plays at the time. Although written some time ago, it is still in print. This popular book has gone through many editions. Chute covers the essential plots in a readable modern prose. Although her style is clear, simple, and direct, it contains a lyrical quality. Not just summaries, these stories are wonderful. The book opens with a short introduction. Although a 9-12-year-old could read it, 12 and up would gain more from it.

Still yet another children's version, which has received positive reviews, is Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield. Garfield's presents 12 selected retellings of Shakespeare in modern prose with illustrations by Michael Foreman. There is a second volume of 9 retellings. The first volume covers the more familiar plays. Although written in modern prose, these stories contain a beautiful lyrical quality. Garfield, a masterful storyteller, strives to keep the essence of the original language. Absorbing to read from start to finish, the stories are far more developed and detailed than Chute's version. Foreman's vibrant watercolor and pen and ink illustrations elicit mixed emotions. For the most part, Foreman's illustrations are evocative and lovely. Some may object to a few of them. While the publisher recommends ages 9-12, I would prefer 13 and above, because of the inclusion of some of Shakespeare's "mature" humor and the illustrations.

To Produce or Not

Our homeschool group has produced more than one scaled down version of Shakespeare's plays. Which play and how elaborate would depend on a number of factors: age of players, number of players, length of play, etc. For those who are not able or interested in performing in a play, a student could still memorize portions of the play. For example, Mother of Divine Grace 8th grade syllabus has the student, after reading Lambs' Macbeth, memorize and recite Act V, scene v.

Last, but not Least

The best way to appreciate Shakespeare is to listen to or to watch him. There are many adaptions available. Even though a story covers the basic plot, listening to him allows you to hear the beauty of the language. The ideal situation would be to read an overview of the story first, and then listen to or watch an adaption, or ideally, cap it off with a live performance.

 There are plenty of essays on why to study Shakespeare. The internet is brimming with them. Certainly, he appeals more to the mature student. After 400 years, Shakespeare is still around because he offers a glimpse into the human heart. Shakespeare, with all his odd language, will probably be around in another 400 years because of this. To understand Shakespeare is to catch a glimpse into the human heart.

Parts of this post were published in the reviews section of mater et magistra's issue on Shakespeare.

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