Delighting in the Bard: Why Shakespeare Matters

 Delighting in the Bard: 
Why Shakespeare Matters

"We probably read Shakespeare in the first place for his stories, afterwards for his characters; the multitude of delightful persons with who he makes us so become intimate with Shakespeare in this way is great enrichment of mind and instruction of conscience. Then, by degrees, as we go on reading this world teacher, lines of insight and beauty take possession of us and unconsciously mold our judgements of men and things and of the great issues of life." 
~Charlotte Mason 
Volume 4, Page 72 

I have witnessed the great joy and molding of character and thought that results from the reading of Shakespeare, both in my own home (and my own heart and mind) and in the homes of many others. 

I have also encountered several objections to the reading of Shakespeare; and quickly learned that most of these objections are rooted in a mother's own fear or discomfort and that they are quickly rooted out as soon as we make the decision to choose what is good, true, and beautiful and commit to spreading a wide feast. 

I will briefly address a few common objections, and then share the benefits I have observed of the reading of Shakespeare and some principles to abide by for Shakespeare lessons in a living education.

Common Objections to Reading Shakespeare 

1. I just don't like it. 
To this, I always gently say this "too bad, Momma".
Hear my heart when I say this, in great love: your own dislike of something doesn't give you justification from withholding something from your children. A wide feast includes all of the best things, and Shakespeare's work is absolutely one of those things. 

Not only that, but not liking something that is so profoundly good is a weakness on the part of a mother. I don't say that to be disparaging, but to speak plainly. We all have weaknesses (many due to our own lackluster educations), and a poor appetite for good things is one of those weaknesses in many of us.  
If we don't like what is good, we should want to address that weakness within ourselves, not to cater to it. And, most of all, we shouldn't want to cultivate that same weakness in our children. 

"I always tell new students of the Bard that if they don't like Shakespeare that is fine, but it is the height of ignorance to conclude that it is the Bard's fault rather than something lacking within themselves." 
~Cindy Rollins

2. My children won't like it. 
If you don't expose them to it, they will never like it. Exposure breeds taste. The only way to cultivate an appetite for what is good is to feast upon what is good. A living education isn't a child-led education. They are persons and their opinions matter, but they don't know what is best for them and they don't have to love every moment of their school day. To attempt to make everything "fun" or "easy" for them is to do them a disservice. 

Shakespeare is hard work, but it is worthy work. And, it does become easier with time and practice. 

3. It's full of sin. 
So is Scripture. The Bible displays the sinful hearts and actions of men, and the consequences of those actions and sinful motivations, and so does Shakespeare. In avoiding twaddle, we should be more wary of "goody goody" (as Mason calls it) moralizing stories than we should be of stories that show the condition and habits of sinful men and the direct and natural consequences of the actions of humans. It is far more dangerous to see virtue as the avoidance of "bad behavior" than it is to encounter what isn't pleasant and to be forced to reckon with it. Shakespeare won't make your children want to do what's wrong, but it will instead form a moral imagination that can see what vices and selfish behaviors actually look like in the life of a human being and also how to recognize virtue when they see it. 

Benefits of Reading Shakespeare: 

  • A love for and command of language that can come solely through exposure to and a steady diet of quality language itself. 
  • Listening Skills 
  • Thinking Skills (narrating Shakespeare builds listening and thinking skills efficiently and effectively, due to his story lines and character development).
  • Foundation for proficiency in writing- figurative language, imagery, characterization, themes at their very best (we don't learn to write by being TAUGHT to write, but by reading the best of the best in writing). 
  • Exposure to the impact on the English lexicon (you can't fully understand the English language without Shakespeare, due to his large impact on the lexicon and our daily vocabulary). 
  • Relevance- understanding of the vast array of references to Shakespeare in pop culture, literature, poetry, film, and more. 
  • Exposure to the timeless. Shakespeare's sonnets are considered to be the standard of perfection in use of the English language, and his plays are the standard up to which all stories and plays are upheld. He is simply the best, and to understand an art, we must love and know the best. 
  • Relationships with profound characters. Shakespeare's characters are unmatched, and knowing them bears much fruit in the development of the moral imagination. Not to mention that they are just a joy to know. 
  • Unparalleled knowledge of and insight into the vices and virtues of men. In Shakespeare's characters we can SEE the motives, struggles, weaknesses, thoughts, addictions, torments, pains, desires, aims, dreams, minds, and hearts of men and the consequences, good and bad, of each action and its underlying causes and motives. 
  • Thorough understanding of and exposure to the art forms of literature, theatre, and poetry. 
  • Quality entertainment. Shakespeare is just plain fun, and its entertainment is the kind of value and not the mindless form that is so much easier to reach for, but yields little to no fruit in comparison. Shakespeare's work is a beloved pastime of its readers, but it also does work in their moral imaginations, hearts, minds, thoughts, words, understandings, and lives. 

Principles of Shakespeare 

"I believe that the moment a child takes pleasure in a humorous incident, is frightened by a suspenseful occurrence, or is warmed by a human experience- that child is ready for Shakespeare." ~Fred C. Adams 

  • Children ARE equipped and capable to read and digest Shakespeare. Don't hold them back or underestimate them. 
  • Children are prepared for Shakespeare by the readings of Scripture, history, tales, fables, and good stories.
    (There are over 1000 references to Scripture in Shakespeare's works)
  • Shakespeare is a unique opportunity to see human character and consequence displayed- so discuss often and openly. 
  • Children will do what they each will with the display of human character and consequences; all of it is valuable. Children are persons and their education is their own possession, responsibility and work. They will each do something different with their reading of Shakespeare, and no reading of his work is wasted .
  • Shakespeare is a feast within a feast- so DELIGHT in it. 
  • The struggle of reading Shakespeare is worthy and necessary. Build character, not handicaps. Allow the struggle, and navigate it with patience. 
  • Appreciation is developed and taste is bred. There is no shortcut, so don't waste precious time searching for one. Just dive into what is good and true and cultivate your appetite for it. 
  • Shakespeare grows with us- so don't get in the way of this process. Each reading of Shakespeare will reveal more depth of understanding, and each reading is worthy. 
  • There is no need to understand every word, or every line, every time. 
  • The primary component of success in Shakespeare lessons is: a mother's own attitude. So, have a good one. :) 
"Shakespeare is not to be studied in a year; but is to be read continuously throughout life, from ten years old and onwards. 'But a child of ten can not understand Shakespeare'. No, but can a man of fifty? Is not our great poet rather an ample feast of which everyone takes according to his needs and leaves what he has no stomach for?" ~Charlotte Mason, Volume 5, page 224 

In a follow up post, I share principles and practices of Shakespeare Lessons for a living education. 

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