using an incomplete knowledge of Shakespeare for meaningful discussion

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I have written before about reading Shakespeare with kids so they gain some familiarity with the stories and another time I wrote about reading it with kids as part of discussion on language and exploring complex ideas. Today I write about yet another reason to read Shakespeare with children. Today my argument is that Shakespeare gives us a chance to look at the incompleteness of our own knowledge and what scholarship means. We get to do that, all while enjoying the works of a master who filled his works with such amazing jokes and clever ideas.


A few years ago my husband gave me a couple of copies of The Arden Shakespeare versions. It might seem like a bit of a strange gift for someone who already has a both a “complete work” of Shakespeare and individual editions of many of his plays, but I really appreciate the Arden copies. In many editions of Shakespeare the little footnotes make it seem like the meanings of everything are crystal clear, and if only we were knowledgeable enough we would know it all too. In the Arden editions it is apparent that there is still debate on what the little details mean. Footnotes sometimes reference to other scholars who offer alternative explanations. We had that reminder that all is not known, that there is still more to understand, and that the information that is available is available because of the hard work and scholarship on the part of others.

We live in a world where there is so much information floating around, so many different ideas about what is true or not true, that I like to take whatever opportunities I can to discuss with my children how we try to evaluate claims. Looking at the claims made for different interpretations in a footnote of Shakespeare is just one more way of doing this. We can imagine if we were editors comparing two versions of the play, how would we decide whether to include a word or not. On what grounds would we try to decide? Does it fit the rhythm? Does it change the meaning? Which source do we consider more accurate? Is it possible even more the “more accurate” source to have mistakes and why?

Sometimes the footnotes point out where the same phrase is used in a different piece of literature. We can talk about how people look to other uses of a phrase to try to figure out its meaning. With the younger children I talk about the way in which their idea of what it means when there is a wolf in a story is influenced by the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. With an older child I can talk about the differences between the word “avarice” and “greed” and how my perception is influenced by the word “avarice” always reminding me of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. One of my kids had an argument in the park the other day about the meaning of the word “scum” because another child thought of it as referring to prostitutes while my son connected the word to Redwall and Star Wars. (In Star Wars one of the towns is “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

Sometimes footnotes point out that certain words are likely typing errors. The words “prossesses” and “professes” would look quite similar depending on the design of the “f”s and “s”s. What other words or letters might be easily confused? Now a days proximity on a keyboard might explain the confusion of two letters but obviously that would not have been the issue then. It is also fun to look at the times when it is not a likely error in the written version, but a character confusing two words for comic or philosophic effect.

The Arden copies have notes on each page pointing out all subtle differences between the Folio and Quarto copies of the plays. Many of the differences are insignificant (in my eyes at least) and I don’t read them all, but sometimes the subtle differences are worth looking it. Does the sentence mean something different without that one word?

Knowing that the version of Shakespeare we read today is patched together from earlier versions is a good lesson too. It can open doors to discussions about the origins of other even older texts, particularly the Bible. Shakespeare does not lose its beauty and significance because editors have altered little bits trying to choose between alternative lines. The Bible does not need to lose its significance to recognize that it includes bits patched together over hundreds of years, edited and re-edited.

I think in some ways studying Shakespeare is good preparation for learning more about the Bible. We can look at the plays and the times in which the plays were written and say, how would people in that time have read this?  With Shakespeare we can ask what political ideas might be hidden here, and what events in English history would have encouraged Shakespeare to include that? What does it mean if Malvolio is a puritan? With the Bible we can do the same thing, looking at how the stories of the patriarchs would likely have been influenced by the exile to Babylon or how different Gospels were written at different times and therefore highlighting different issues.

It can be intimidating to see all the footnotes referencing to things we do not know about. Yet as long as it does not become an overwhelming thing, I think it is good to have practice in that area of wading through information one does not fully know. Does it matter if I don’t know this scholar referenced to in the footnote? Can I still take meaning from the footnote anyway? I wouldn’t recommend using the Arden versions with a very young child or as a first introduction to Shakespeare, but I don’t think they should be dismissed as too academic either.

If you are looking for a very first book to use teaching your kids Shakespeare, I highly recommend the book How to teach your Child Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig. (Here’s my amazon affiliate link to it  in case you are interested.) This book gives detailed instructions on discussing several of Shakespeare’s plays with children and has ideas for helping kids memorize specific passages. I like his method of sharing small passage of the text and then summarizing other parts of the story. We tend to go through his chapters on a play, then watch a movie version of it if available, and then I find other of my own favorite passages of the play to discuss with the children as well. Ludwig is not averse to pointing out some of the potty humor within Shakespeare, and I like to do that too. Above all, Shakespeare should be fun to study.

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