Almost twenty years ago I started a literary journey of discovery that I may never turn back from. Sad to say, at that point in my middle-aged life, I had never read an entire Shakespeare play. In 7th grade we had studied portions of Macbeth, but I’m fairly sure that was the sum total of my previous Shakespeare (reading) experience. I’m not sure how I managed to graduate from high school (as valedictorian, no less) with no other encounters with Shakespeare. But I don’t know which frustrates me more – that fact, or the fact that I actually took a Shakespeare class while I was a student at M.I.T. – and we never read a total play there either!
Yes, there are lots of ways to enjoy Shakespeare – watching his plays on the stage or on a screen certainly aid in that process. I even wrote a guest blog post for Folger about “Three Ways to Have Fun with Shakespeare,” so I’m clearly not against those types of activities either.
But playing with or watching Shakespeare should come with reading Shakespeare, not take its place. And I’m not talking about reading about Shakespeare – I’m talking about reading Shakespeare. Yes, the plot development and characters in Shakespeare are pretty amazing – but It’s his words that rise to the top when I ponder why students need to become better acquainted with the Bard. And there’s no better way to make that acquaintance than by reading his plays – from start to finish.
Another way to read Shakespeare.
My First Classes
When I started this journey it was at the request of one of my older sons. He had been reading Shakespeare on his own (having fairly well exhausted the literature in the family’s extensive library). But he was tired of reading the plays alone. The conversation went something like this: “Mom, you should teach a Shakespeare class. I want to read these plays aloud with others.” Me: “Of course.” (As I’m wondering how I’m going to teach about something I know so little about.)
But as happened so often in the thirty-five years that I homeschooled, not knowing something didn’t get in my way. I was going to make this work – and learn Shakespeare along the way, right alongside my students. The first year I “taught” Shakespeare we invited one other family (so between us we had eight readers). In order to have a good balance of plays, we started with Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet, and Henry V, giving us a taste of his comedies, tragedies, and histories. Those three plays had the added advantage of being easily available in video format. (Though I found out the hard way that the version of Hamlet we rented needed to be screened.)
Sadly, I can’t remember now whether we watched the video versions and then read the plays, or did it the other way around (and over the years of teaching since then I’ve done it both ways). But either way, when it came to reading the plays, we passed out characters amongst each of our readers, and then read each play, from the first scene to the last one.
Characters and Lines
It didn’t take me long to run across the first problem – trying to determine which characters had the most lines. With students of a variety of reading levels (from elementary age through high school), it was crucial to have an idea which characters spoke most often and with the greater number of lines. After a great deal of searching I gave up and took care of the problem myself – creating a character-line chart for each play we were preparing to read. (How many lines does Hamlet have? Or Ophelia? Or the King? I could soon answer all of those questions and then some!)
After one year with just one other family I was branching out and inviting other high school students I knew. Pretty soon I was teaching a bona fide high school Shakespeare class of sixteen students. We mostly read Shakespeare, occasionally watched Shakespeare, and sometimes we even discussed Shakespeare.
While I was teaching, I continued to learn about Shakespeare – reading a number of other books along the way. (A couple of my favorite books included Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and Shakespeare for Dummies.) As I taught and studied I fell further and further in love with Shakespeare.
Recently I’ve also discovered several Audible books related to Shakespeare that I’ve also enjoyed, including Shakespeare Saved My Life and several Great Courses lecture series – Shakespeare: The Word and the Action; William Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies and How to Read and Understand Shakespeare.
None of the above are absolutely critical for starting to teach or learn about Shakespeare, but any of them will help add to your understanding if you are interested.
And I can safely say that I have now shared my love of Shakespeare with dozens of students directly over the last two decades, and through other teachers that I taught, probably hundreds more. Many of them benefited from the guide I wrote during my first three and a half years of teaching every Shakespeare play – Sharing Shakespeare with Students.