Sadly, I managed to get all the way through my schooled education without an appreciation of the beauty, wit and effortless elegance of Shakespeare’s work. I studied three of his plays, and Twelfth Night was far and away my favourite, with all its cleverly constructed plot twists, but it was presented to us in a very dry and dull fashion, focussing, I’m sure, on ensuring the pupils understood the key points that were to get us the most marks in our exams. And thus entirely missing the point of Shakespeare. I’m embarassed to admit that I left school feeling that his work was fairly inaccessible and incomprehensible.
We were never shown the joy of truly understanding and learning the language, letting it roll off our tongues and injecting the fevour, passion or comic note that is so essential to bringing his plays to life. When we studied the passage in which Cesario makes his plea of love to Olivia on his master’s behalf for example, we simply read the passage and discussed what was happening. We might have found it amusing that Olivia fell in love with Cesario who was actually Viola, but we didn’t feel the power and romanticism of Cesario’s words in the Willow Cabin speech. We didn’t have a true appreciation of how these words moved Olivia so. We weren’t, like Olivia, overwhelmed by the yearning in Cesario’s voice, a yearning that existed because of Viola’s own heartbreak.
And even if we had been asked to act out the scenes, in our teenage years, at the height of our self conscious age, I suspect we would have either been silly with it or just plain awkward and embarrassed.
Fortunately, I’ve had a second chance to appreciate Shakespeare through the eyes of my own children. I started introducing it when our children were just six and seven, initially with the Tempest followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before moving on to Twelfth Night.
Why at such a young age when my own education into the Bard’s works was clearly so limited?
I suspect there are many adults who have had the same experience as I did in regards to their Shakespeare education and, like I did, wrongly assume that it’s overly complex and certainly shouldn’t be tackled until secondary level education. Because of this, I think, most people would think we were mad for introducing Shakespeare at such a young age.
But here’s why I believe you should introduce these wonderful works to your little ones:
- We often hugely undersestimate children’s ability. As adults, if we’ve found something difficult as a child, we box it up as being too hard and have an aversion to reopening that box and reexamining our views and opinions. If we did, we may find there are many things we were put off as a child, which we may well actually enjoy and find we’re good at. Young children have not been told that Shakespeare is difficult and so it’s not. Clearly they don’t understand all of the words, meanings and metaphors, but that doesn’t matter to them. They understand the main gist of the play and that’s enough for them to love it. They revel in playing with the language of his time, rather than being afraid of and bamboozled by it.
- Children love poetry and Shakespeare’s poetry is, in my opinion, the best in the world. Why not expose them to it?
- Children at this age are totally uninhibited, unselfconscious and happy to throw themselves into any task with gusto. They revel in acting out Cesario’s love speech, and don’t feel embarrassed or awkward as an older child might. They might well over act it, but they will feel it and deeply connect with it.
- With the help of this awesome book, I truly believe anyone can understand Shakespeare. It proved to be our lynchpin, unlocking this hitherto incomprehensible world! Ludwig takes twenty five key passages from a variety of Shakespeare plays and for each passage he deciphers the meaning of every line, explaining any unfamiliar words or words that were used to convey a different meaning in Shakespearean times. He explains how Shakespeare uses the language to create puns, metaphors, imagery, epigrams etc. And he shares hints and tips about how to help your children memorise these passages. Finally, he also teaches you the plots and characters that go alongside them.
My children LOVE Shakespeare and they adore Ken Ludwig’s book. And I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say that memorising passages from Shakespeare plays is one of their favourite things to do. Recently, we used it to memorise seven passages from Twelfth Night and in the process really understand the twists and turns of the sometimes complex and overlapping plotlines. We read this abridged version of the play together and Bean8 decided to read the original text from cover to cover off her own back. Just because she’s a little bit obsessed with Shakespeare.
But there really is nothing like a) seeing Shakespeare being performed or b) performing it yourself, for truly bringing the plays to life and cementing your learning. And although there are some excellent recordings of Shakespeare with top notch actors and actresses (we watched this one), it’s not quite the same as seeing a live performance. We were lucky enough that Cathy booked tickets for us all to see such a performance at the Globe in London. It was an utterly brilliant afternoon (see her post); the actors and actresses were exceptional. Despite studying the play with my children, it wasn’t until seeing this performance that I truly appreciated just how side splittingly funny the play is: we were in stitches!
By chance, for the same week, I’d also organised for an excellent local theatre group, the Bindlestick Theatre Company, to run a day’s immersive session on Twelfth Night with a group of us home educators. A full on Shakespeare week. As far as the children were concerned therefore, it was a no work week, just fun! And yet they were learning so much without realising it.
Fortunately, we were blessed with beautiful weather, so we were able to run the session in the woods, and with the dappled sunlight shining through the leaves against the backdrop of the bright bluebells, it made the perfect setting for a Shakespeare day.
The lady running the Bindlesticks session was excellent; she was full of energy and had the children fully engaged from the first moment until the last and all of them, from the shy to the super confident, participated and thoroughly enjoyed the day. All ideas were welcomed and encouraged, thereby developing the children’s sense of positivity and self worth.
Here’s what the day encompassed:
- An initial run through of all the Twelfth Night plotlines, pulling in the children to act as the different characters as she explained.
- A series of warm up activities, such as tongue twisters, doing the opposite action of the instruction she gave (so clapping when asked to jump etc) and using their bodies to create freeze frames of various objects, such as trees or boats, in a variety of group sizes. They were only given a short period of time to do this and so they had to think quickly and creatively to come up with an idea and then work collaboratively with their team members to affect the design.
- Creating a selection of tableaux from the play: in small groups, the children worked together to produce a tableau from a part of the play using no props, just their bodies. When these were performed, the rest of the children were asked what they thought the tableau was supposed to represent, giving the groups instant feedback on their effectiveness.
- An interactive group discussion about:
- the personality traits of the different characters in the play and how actors can portray this through their work
- gender roles as a key theme in Twelfth Night, touching upon the historical aspects of how women and men were treated in Elizabethan times, and how Viola circumnavigates the restrictions upon women in her day by taking on a male identity
- how to use your voice, accents and language to best depict the characters, discussing for example, the different between how Olivia as the master of her household would have spoken compared to one of her servants
- how to use your body language both in small and large ways to aid characterisation
- The play: the children were then split up into smaller groups and given a key scene from the play. Using all of the information they’d learned throughout the day, they worked out who would play each character, what they would say and do to best depict this character, what props to use (the opening of the prop box was a huge hit with the children!) and how the characters would interact. The Bindlesticks leader worked with the children in turn, helping them where needed, but allowing their creative juices to flow. Finally, each of these scenes was acted out to the larger group in turn, creating a wonderful, children’s designed version of Twelfth Night.
Much fun was had and some excellent scenes created from this funny play, in a free and uninhibited way, allowing the children to connect with and understand the characters they were playing and their motivations. On a personal level, I loved that Bean7, playing Malvolio in the scene where he discovers the fake letter written by Maria, actually copied the acting from the Globe production we’d seen on the Tuesday. He stood in a very upright position reading out the letter and then left the stage, only to return and say, “Oh, and here’s a postscript,” before reading out about how the letter stated that he should smile for the beautiful Olivia!
Without realising it, children learn so much from these immersive acting experiences. Not only did they learn more about the characters and plotlines within Twelfth Night, they also developed some extremely important life skills in the process, such as:
- Self confidence to stand up and present in front of an audience.
- Communication skills in terms of how to use their body and voice to effectively convey their message in an engaging way.
- Teamworking skills, including articulating their own ideas in a clear manner, but also listening to others’ ideas and, in some cases, dropping their own idea in favour of a better one from the group (never an easy thing to do, even for us adults!).
- Creativity and problem solving – in many of the tasks, they were asked to think creatively and solve problems under time constraints. This was completed in a very safe and non critical environment, and it was lovely to see the ideas and imagination flowing from the children. As is discussed in this excellent TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, creativity is slowly being killed in our schools, as they’re forced to focus increasingly on testing in the more traditionally academic subjects, leaving sparse time available for more creative avenues. Being released from the constraints of testing as home educators provides us plenty of time to nurture the creativity, imagination and innovative skills in our children.
- Empathy – through acting they are learning to understand what it feels like to be someone else and in the process, develop their empathy skills.
- Accountability & dedication – they learned about the importance of pulling their weight, practising and contributing to the team effort in order to improve the overall outcome for the group.
- Receiving constructive feedback – this is something that many people, adults and children alike, stuggle with, but when it’s conducted in a safe environment, children learn that it’s simply part of the learning process and is something that can help them rather than to be feared.
- Flexibility – having to move from one task to the next quickly and adapting and changing their ideas and approach to suit the changing groups starts to develop their flexibility skills; the ability not to get stuck on one set idea/way of doing things, but instead to ‘think outside the box’ and come up with new and novel approaches.
Finally, it allowed them to learn whilst moving their little bodies in the sunshine, so important for the kinesthetic learners amongst them.
So, if you’re interested in learning about Shakespeare with your child, grab a copy of Ken Ludwig’s book, memorise a few passages, read a version of the play you’re studying, watch a film version, but most importantly, go and watch it being performed live and if you can, get them involved in an immersive acting experience, either run by a theatre company like the one above or create your own with some friends. You’ll be amazed at just how much they’ll learn in the process 🙂