Shakespeare is a topic near and dear to our family’s heart. We all love reading Shakespeare, seeing plays performed lived, staging or even acting in plays, and talking to each other about Shakespeare. This sustained passion is in large part due to the way that our parents introduced the topic to us. So today we wanted to revisit just how our family began to introduce Shakespeare in hopes of helping other families have similarly positive experiences. This post is part one of two; the second post will follow in two weeks, on April 22, 2019.
It's always a good idea to introduce children to the stories well before they read or even watch the plays. There are a number of ways of doing this. The first is by reading literary adaptations, such as Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare or Tales from Shakespeare. (We read both books years ago as a family, and recommend them highly!) One advantage of following this method is that these stories all have literary merit in their own right and make excellent family read alouds, even if you aren't preparing to see them performed.
Another good way to introduce Shakespeare’s stories is to have a parent or older sibling tell the story aloud, perhaps in the car on the way to see a play for the first time. The storyteller doesn’t necessarily need to recount the entire plot (maybe you want to leave the ending as a surprise), but it is definitely worth providing some context for the story and a sense of familiarity with the primary characters ahead of time. Children are likely to be much more engaged if they have a good foothold into what’s happening at the very beginning.
On a related note – we suggest beginning with the comedies! Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Taming of the Shrew all make great introductory plays. I would recommend postponing introducing the romances (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) until after a child has seen at least a comedy or two first. The Tempest, however, is one exception to that rule and would be an excellent first play. Lastly, although Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are technically comedies, they do deal with more mature content and are best reserved for older audiences.
Next, take your children to see as many Shakespeare productions as you can. Nothing beats seeing Shakespeare's plays performed live!
Here I would encourage you to take advantage of the resources in your community such as free Shakespeare in the Park events or other low-cost community theatre. Venues that specifically welcome and even cater to children are great, because these performances tend to be a bit higher energy. Your children will be freer to engage with the play and you won’t have to worry as much about keeping them quiet or still throughout the performance. Sometimes, too, community theatre productions can be creative in unexpected ways due to limited resources, and this can be a lot of fun to see. Besides, having a more minimal set or costumes can often give your child’s imagination room to play more freely.
Another excellent thing to do is to take your children to plays where they know at least one cast member. It’s so exciting as a child to see your older sibling, a family friend, or even a teacher in a play!
Lastly, we've found tremendous value in returning to Shakespeare’s plays over and over again. Seeing and reading the same plays many different times affords a richer understanding of the play as a whole, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the characters and their language. These plays are so bountiful that the more time we spend with them, the more they yield to us (not unlike Cleopatra!)
"Other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."
— Antony and Cleopatra, Act II scene 2
All audiences, but children in particular, will discover new elements of a play each time they're exposed to it, which can be both exciting and rewarding. It's also a great lesson in the value of re-reading texts.
More on this same topic in 2 weeks! But in the meantime ...
Do you remember your first exposure to Shakespeare or the first time you took your own children to a Shakespeare performance? What went well? What — if anything — do you wish you had done differently? Please let us know in a comment below!
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Ever since we’ve started this blog, I’ve had a flood of memories come back to me about our experiences of reading aloud as a family. And although I have always appreciated the value my mom placed on literature, it’s taken me a long time to realize that it was our ritual of reading aloud in particular that both shaped our family dynamic and my own love for books. Accordingly, today’s post is a glimpse into what it was like growing up in a read-aloud family.
For as far back in my childhood as I can remember, we ended each evening by reading aloud as a family. Usually my mom read aloud to us, but sometimes my brother and I also took turns reading. We began by reading simple picture books, then chapter books like the Twins series and the Little Britches books. Along with these books, we also read some more modern titles. Eventually we worked our way up to authors such as Melville, Dickens, and Scott and later on, Wendell Berry.
Reading aloud was an activity that brought us together at the end of each day, and gave us a sense of unity as a family. Because we were all invested in the books we were reading, we all looked forward to this nightly tradition and the time we were able to spend together then.
My older brother and I could not have been more dissimilar while we were growing up, but reading aloud gave us a shared interest and goal. It served as a way for us to do something together without bickering or becoming annoyed at one other. It also gave us things to talk about, and helped us develop more sympathy for each other.
In retrospect, I think reading aloud was especially important for our family dynamic after my dad died. This ritual gave my mom a way to spend quality time with both of us together every single day and to check in on us in an indirect and subtle manner. So many aspects of our family life had been thrown off kilter after his death that the constancy and comfort of that one ritual was really critical for all of us, playing a valuable role in our healing process.
Of course, there were always plenty of good books available to us for independent reading, as well, which we did more or less as we pleased. My mom mostly took a “laissez faire” approach to independent reading since she wanted us to actually enjoy it. She figured that it would be best to let us come to reading in our own time (which we both did). But reading aloud was non-negotiable.
So all throughout our childhoods, she read books of the very highest quality aloud to us, one chapter at a time. Many of the books that we read aloud together I went back to a year or so later and re-read by myself. But reading these books aloud together was an entirely different experience and one that was valuable in itself.
One powerful outcome of reading aloud together was that we processed difficult topics together. I particularly remember reading books like The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom and Mildred Taylor’s Logan series (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, etc.). These books address hard subjects, but ones that are important for children to be aware of and to talk about. We often discussed what we read afterward and would refer back to it in later conversations.
Simply sharing the experience of reading these hard chapters also brought us closer together. I don’t think I will ever forget about the revelation about being grateful for fleas in The Hiding Place, or the terror their family felt. I was also very, very glad to have my family there when reading about those experiences.
Part of the joy of reading is being able to share what you read with others, and spending time reading aloud as a family enabled us to do just that. Over the years we shed many tears of sorrow as well as tears of laughter together. We also read scores of outstanding books that enriched our hearts and our minds alike. Best of all, though, we were able to share these experiences as a family.
Do you have a favorite memory of your family reading aloud when you were growing up? Is reading aloud something you do with your children now? Please let us know in a comment below — we love hearing from our readers!