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Shakespeare Revisted

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Last time we ‘studied’ Shakespeare together my goal was for the kids to gain some familiarity. I wanted them to recognize the name and know a bit about the person so that when references to Shakespearean plays come I could point them out.

This time we’re studying Shakespeare my goal is to encourage the kids to play with words and language. We started by reviewing the witches song in Macbeth. We watched an animated version of Julius Caesar and I read some of my favorite lines from it. We talked about how Shakespeare used imagery and sentence structure to make a simple idea into something complicated.

I turn to one of my favorite Shakespearean rants, a description by the fairy Queen in A Mid Summer’s Night Dream of what has happened since the fairy King and Queen have fought.

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling on the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green For lack of tread are indistinguishable:

I love the way descriptions are piled on other descriptions. Feelings and emotions are attributed to inanimate objects The poet looks both to the big rivers overflowing and then zooms in as though through a magnifying glass as the grain. (The reference to “corn” brought up some interesting discussion because we know that corn was a new-world crop but the word was also used for grain in general.)

Then I posed some questions. How would Yoda, from Star Wars, tell a person to clean his room? How could we sound like a pirate while telling someone to clean his room?  Now, how could we tell someone to clean his room sounding like Shakespeare?

This is what we wrote (meant as a request and response).

I did notice of late
that you have not your bedroom cleaned
Papers piling up and cobwebs growing down
do like a garbage compactor
threaten to squash your very being.

Stop talking now or it
shall be like a wind that
thrashes fast against your mouth.
The room is dirty not because of me
but because of your unconscious mole-like dirtying
Dirt and clutter stick to you like
playdough to the soles of mother’s shoes
whereever you walk small bits of guck
do fall and books leap from the floor.

Shakespeare uses a lot of images. I want to encourage them to look about their own lives and see the objects and habits of everyday life as potential components of poetic thought. I want to encourage my children to look outside of just cliche images and create their own metaphors and illusions. My children eat pasta for breakfast, so we could probably serve up an abundance of pasta allusions. What about references to lego, blanket forts and other such fillers of childhood?

As we play with the language I think about the word “artifice” and the idea that “artificial” was at Shakespeare’s time not an insult but a compliment. Now we praise the natural instead of artificial, and artificial sounding language appears presumptious.

More than a decorative strategy, however, augmentation or ornamentation was understood to be essential to the process of defining and exploring the complexity at hand. (From pg 27 of Shakespeare and the Arts of Language by Russ McDonald)

Can learning to talk about things, and to look closely at them, help to develop skill at observation? Can practice at ornamental language help encourage thought and analysis? I think probably can.

We looked together at some of the patterns Shakespeare uses:

Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical! 
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!

This pattern is a chiasmus or criss-cross. Can we write something describing a burnt supper? Or the confused feelings of a frustration over a fight with a friend?

We’re being silly. We’re playing with words. We buy non-homogenized (but pasteurized) milk and sometimes the fat clumps so my eight year old asked the other day, “would it be a strain to strain the milk?” and we giggled over his dual use of the word “strain.”

I love to read it and share it with my children because I learned to read Shakespeare’s plays as a teenager. My friends and I used to stand in the attic of my house reciting A Mid Summer’s Night Dream. On top of that I love the verbal plays, the sense that there is always something new to think about, some underlying hidden joke or touch of wisdom.

Yet at the same time I have moments of guilt about reading Shakespeare with my children. There’s a question of elitism that I cannot quite shake off. There’s no real point to studying it now. It’s something that is taught in highschool as though there was value to everyone knowing it but all the while somehow implying that not everyone will actually be able to understand it. Is there a value to knowing it, besides just fun? Does knowing it attempt to imply some sort of superiority? It shouldn’t.


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  • Jennifer Dean

    It amuses me when people talk about Shakespeare in terms of élitism’– since he wrote as much, if not more, for the people in the pits — the common man, as it were. Take a look his insults — they are as base as any can be. Moreover, if you pay close attention to his puns, many of them are most easily and quickly understood NOT by University trained adults but by children… There is one, in Midsummer night’s Dream, to be precise, that my then 3 and 6 year olds picked up on, one which I had somehow managed to miss/supress… we were watching it and all of a sudden they began to dance around the room singing ‘My Bottom’s my Ass’ … hmm, so much for elitism…
    So.. no worries about elitism on my part. Shakespeare IS the English language. To be educated at all is to be familiar with his work. And I cannot find it in my heart to be embarrassed that I or my children love the language…

  • Lissa

    I love your angle on this. I was fortunate to have older siblings in high school performing in Shakespeare plays when I was 5-10 years old. I also had storybook versions of many of his plays and learned all my Sunday school verses in the old King James version of the Bible. The ease I had with the language was extremely useful in high school, and I have always thought the elitist view of Shakespeare to be utterly ridiculous. He wrote bawdy jokes for the masses. He wrote to entertain, not impress. I wrote an autobiographical essay in high school on how I played at Shakespeare in the woods as a child and my teacher told me it was a fabrication because children can’t understand Shakespeare. Don’t waste energy worrying about what other people think. You’re giving your kids a gift by teaching them how deep the English language goes in history, and how it changes. You’re giving them intellectual access to thousands of interesting books today’s kids can’t understand. You’re liberating them from the grammar nazis of the future by showing them how flexible, how agile, our language is. It’s changing every day. That’s seriously cool!

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