Bringing Shakespeare Home
by Sandra Dodd


Song lyrics are meant to be sung, recipes are made to be cooked, and Shakespeare is made to be performed and watched. Reading Shakespeare from a book is an American school tradition, but it makes less sense than reading recipes you never intend to cook or taste.

Shakespeare is the fodder for many graduate degrees, and can be one's life's work, but it's not the big mystery some would like you to think it is. With very little expense or effort you can introduce your family to Shakespeare and if they have a sparkly interest, with another few dozen dollars or so (less than the cost of one college course) you can all become experts.

Stopping Shakespeare Before he Starts

Julie (bravewriter) wrote on the unschoolingdiscussion list:
My sophomore daughter is face-to-face with kids who wish they could go back in time to kill Shakespeare so that they wouldn't have to study him.

My Sandra-Dodd response, and new introduction to an article I wrote years ago:

WELL!
Having just watched Pride and Prejudice (again, the BBC mini-series which is on DVD) with Colin Firth, the first thought that popped into my mind was to recommend that everyone here immediately rent or buy the DVD called Black Adder: Back and Forth. It was the last (most recent, maybe not always last) installment of the Black Adder series, involves time travel, and Colin Firth plays Shakespeare. See how Black Adder deals with him on behalf of all school children thereafter.

I like Black Adder, and Colin Firth, and Shakespeare.

Of my kids, none fear Shakespeare. When Marty stayed with Anne Ohman's family, they saw a production of The Tempest, with an actor who's a friend of Anne's and Marty had met him beforehand. As soon as Marty got into the hotel room at the conference, he told me lots about it, and showed me the program. When we were packing to leave, he couldn't find that program, and was as close to grouchy as he had been all weekend when I didn't know where it was either. We searched, it was located (in my pile of papers) and he was happy again. He's talked to me about the play a couple of times since then. I have a Classic Comics or some other kind of illustrated version of it, and I intend to locate that and leave it on Marty's bed at some point soon.

But "studying" Shakespeare is quite different from enjoying and appreciating Shakespeare if my kids are any indication.

Another wonderful thing to get if you yourself are afraid of Shakespeare or marred by previous "exposure" or you didn't have much exposure and would like more is "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare," also on DVD, by The Reduced Shakespeare Company. There are only two plays they do at length, but they... well, you'll see. And you won't be sorry if you do.

Luckily for us all, we can see Shakespeare in our own homes, done by professionals, and we can pause or rewind or fast forward, we can eat chocolate chip ice cream or hamburgers (neither of which were known to anyone at The Globe Theatre), sit on soft couches with kids in our laps, have subtitles playing... I love DVDs. And I'm grateful to anyone who has ever made a film of Shakespeare. Netflix has a DVD of some of the earliest silent movies of Shakespeare plays. Sometimes it's only one scene of a play, and some were very experimental things with interesting special effects.

. . . .

I can't leave this without a curtsy to Kenneth Branagh, or without telling you that he is mentioned in the conversation between Black Adder and Shakespeare in "Back and Forth."

Sandra
September 2004
Here is the secret: RENT VIDEOS. That's easy. If you're around big video rental stores, you'll have no problem. If you're out in the country, you might need to use interlibrary loan, or mail order some videos. note below The wonderful thing about videos is that you can pause, rewind, turn them off and think for a few days. You can pause and look things up. You can pause and call your friend who knows about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's plays are categorized as histories, tragedies and comedies. Here's my recommendation for a basic starter set. If you watch these and discuss them with your family, the kids will have had a better introduction to Shakespeare than most high school students have ever had in the U.S. All are readily available for rent. For the tragedy, choose Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli, 1968) or Hamlet (the one with Mel Gibson; Zeffirelli, 1990). History: Henry V (Branagh, 1989). Comedy: Much Ado About Nothing (Branagh, 1993) or Twelfth Night (Nunn, 1997)

Either buy used or check out from the library a Shakespeare collection (or individual little books of plays if you find those cheaper) so you can see what the plays look like on paper—what stage directions they have, who the characters are, and what sorts of things are edited out to keep the play under two hours. If that seems interesting you can rent the Brannagh "Hamlet" (1997) which has the entire text and lasts nearly four hours. If the text you've found has introductory material and footnotes that's best. If you have choices, I'd recommend The Riverside Shakespeare. If you have a "Complete Works of Shakespeare" of some sort without notes, look (in used bookstores first) for Cliff's Notes or Monarch Notes for the play. Those will discuss characters and summarize the action.

Another source for information is a book that tells the stories in prose form. One is by Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales of Shakespeare. You might find others. You don't have to read that to the kids, you could just read it yourself so you can help explain the action if the videos confuse them.

If you have the opportunity to take your children to a live performance, even a student production, that's another good plan, but New Mexico isn't a hotbed of Shakespearean production. [author's note: This was first published locally in Albuquerque, on paper, thence the comments above and below.]

If you have access to the internet, poking around for Shakespearean sites might be fun for you and your children. Try this: Shakespearean Insult Generator, or Green Eggs and Hamlet, both of which went around by e-mail in the pre-web-page days of yore.

After you've gone that far, you will probably have come upon lots of books about Shakespeare's life, videos of other plays, related art, music, and humor—all sorts of things. There is an incredible book on Shakespeare for $10 from Usborne books. It would be the best I'd ever seen if it were three times that price. My oldest son, when he knew I was writing this, recommended the new "Romeo+Juliet" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Parental guidance is advised on that one, but my 11 year old son watched it straight through and understood it and recommends it. I'd start with the period setting (the Zeffirelli) first before going to modern setting, personally.

At that point you could quit forever and your children would have enough exposure to Shakespeare to know whether they would like to pursue it further. If you keep all the activities light and fun, nothing forced or treated as a required bit of drudgery, you might find that you AND your children will be on the lookout for opportunities to see more Shakespeare and to find trivia and history between plays and movies. Have fun!


This article originally appeared in Enchanted Families, a now-defunct New Mexico newsletter for homeschoolers, in 1999. —Sandra
A GOOD SOURCE of information on video or DVD versions is to go to Amazon.com, look up any Shakespeare play there, and click on one of the lists on the right-hand side. There should be several people's lists of favorite Shakespeare videos with commentary/review.
UPDATE:

This 1999 article didn't know that online video-on-demand sites were coming, so even out in the country, the internet can get movies into your house. Don't depend on the popular, recent theatrical releases, though. Check for older or less star-studded productions, too.

The recommendation to buy or check out scripts from the library is made easier by online Shakespeare sites, too. You can read along if you feel the need to, but films often skip parts (as do stage productions), so don't be disturbed by directorial decisions. :-)




This week Once upon a time, Marty, a macho 14 year old American boy, watched Othello with me.

I studied Othello in college, meaning it was one of the plays I had to read and talk about and pass a test on. Then I saw it when it came out with Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh. I haven't watched the other two Othello movies.

So... I had read it once in the 70's, seen a movie in the early 80's, and that was all. Seems like a lot. (Plus all my familiarity with other Shakespeare plays, and being raised reading the King James Bible, and the cherry on the top: "I have an English degree.")



So I asked Marty if he wanted to watch it with me since it has Lawrence Fishburne. Marty and I have been Lawrence Fishburne fans since he was Cowboy Curtis on PeeWee's Playhouse, and we rooted for him in Searching for Bobby Fisher, and so Marty said "Sure."

I warned him it wasn't a happy play. Definitely a tragedy.

Well. Marty understood what was going on perfectly well. He learned the characters' names as it went. He was having NO trouble. A couple of times when it seemed least like English I'd look at him or ask him if he got that, and he had.

He made comments that were as good as anybody would have made. He talked about Iago being the main character, and I thought about saying "antagonist" and "protagonist," but decided not to. We watched half and quit 'til the next day.

I talked to Keith about it. He said "Well, it's because they've been exposed to Shakespeare their whole lives, and nobody's told them it's supposed to be hard." I told him I hadn't said "antagonist," but maybe I should the next day.

What I HAD said (I told him) was "But if they called it 'Iago the Shit,' it would have given away the story." He said it might be because they want to focus on good guys instead of glorifying evil.

So the next day we made an especially good lunch and sat down with it to watch the rest.

Oh! The night before, after we had quit, I put on the Reduced Shakespeare Company, right to the Othello part, and showed Marty up to the part in the movie we'd seen. It was funny, but I turned it off before they would give away what Marty didn't know. He had been about to go up and play video games, but said he would stay to see that. It was two minutes or less.

Then he said "Do they do ALL the plays?"

"Not really. They do all the histories as a football match, and they combine the comedies into one big story."

"Do they do Hamlet?"

"Yeah."

"I want to see it."

Hamlet's the longest one, but he said yeah, he'd rather see that and then go play.

By the time Hamlet was over, Kirby was back and took over his own video game, but Marty didn't really mind.

That was a pretty great Shakespeare "happening." It was more fun for me to see it with Marty than alone.

After we watched the second half, Marty watched quite a bit more of the comedy disk.

They were both rented and have been sent back, but I recommend if anyone has Netflix getting that "Complete Works of Shakespeare" by the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

I saw them perform in Albuquerque the year before they went permanent in England, but as explained on this DVD, they have three companies, one in London and two touring. The commentary track is interesting, and there's a video (one camera home video) of one of their shows many years ago at a Renaissance fair in California, where they used to do Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet separately and then pass the hat. One of the guys has been doing this for twenty years now. A Renaissance Fair skit became a lifelong career.

Somewhere in there I had a momentary flash of Marty becoming a Shakespeare scholar or professor or actor. WEIRD. Marty is not the kind of guy I would think would want to go academic, but he understood that effortlessly, and discussed it intelligently.

It didn't hurt that the acting was good and the enunciation was clear.

Sandra


Something serious, made funny.
Adam McNaughton's "Three Minute Hamlet" set to the applicable parts of Laurence Olivier's Hamlet:

The song is decades old. Lyrics and notes.
The video accompaniment is wonderful, and was done by "larryc56" on YouTube (he didn't give any further information on himself, but if anyone knows any, please send it).

Something funny, made serious.
Sam Rockwell as Thisbe.
(If you don't already know the story, watch this one first.)

Sam Rockwell was stunning in this interesting turn of Thisbe. The proportions are messy so people are too tall. This DVD is well worth owning. It has Kevin Klein, Mr. Noodle, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett (as the king of the fairies, but whoa) and many more. Midsummer Night's Dream (at Amazon)

Well, rent that Midsummer Night's Dream, or buy it. They've rightly removed the video. Here's a replacement, from Monsterpiece Theatre, hosted by Alistaire Cookie. It's Mel Gibson as Hamlet, with Elmo as... Elmo.

Other unschoolers' adventures with Shakespeare:
http://sandradodd.com/strew/shakespeare

At Youtube you can find other things, but here are a couple of leads:

Rowan Atkinson & Hugh Laurie - Shakespeare and Hamlet (1989) (Laurie as Shakespeare, Rowan as his editor trying to shorten the play)
Fry and Laurie Shakespeare Master Class (More about acting than Shakespeare, but if you like Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie, it will be fun.)

Fun and games with "Language Arts"