Friday, August 16, 2013

AO's Shakespeare Rotation

Over on AO's forums (where I hope you are already a member, and if you are not, you are really missing out on some great support!), one of our members asked the Advisory how we chose the Shakespeare rotation that we did, and did we really intend for students to do some plays twice, and others not at all.

Here was my answer (slightly edited for this blog):

You can never read Shakespeare too many times.=)

 There are 37 plays, and we only begin the reading of a full play in year 4, so it would seem we could have scheduled one play per term and gotten a lot more of them in- and, in fact, initially, that was our intention.  We did initially plan a different play for each term with no repeats. We worked out a schedule for doing just that- in the midst of discussions on the hymn and art rotations, website details, and a few other things as well. At any rate, once we worked out a term by term rotation with one play per term and looked at it, we realized that did not fit with our vision for AO.

In volume 4 of Miss Mason's six volume series, on page 72, she writes of Shakespeare:

We probably read Shakespeare in the first place for his stories, afterwards for his characters, the multitude of delightful persons with whom he makes us so intimate that afterwards, in fiction or in fact, we say, 'She is another Jessica,' and 'That dear girl is a Miranda'; 'She is a Cordelia to her father,' and, such a figure in history, 'a base lago.' To become intimate with Shakespeare in this way is a 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 mould our judgments of men and things and of the great issues of life.
On the following page she talks of the value of the best novels, and says that they should be read with care and attention, and can be read over and over again, every time with pleasure. Shakespeare, too, is like this.  We don't want to give our students the impression that having read a play once, they are done with it for life. We don't want to give them impression that education ends with graduation, either. We want them to continue reading (and watching) Shakespeare for pleasure long after they have left school.  If they read a play twice, several years apart- they will discover for themselves how much they see in the play the second time than they did the first, and we hope they will conclude that a third time might reward them the same way, and a fourth time, too.

There were other issues we took into consideration as we looked over our Shakespeare rotation.  Not all of the plays are suitable for school children, in our opinion (Titus Andronicus is hard for many adults to stomach). Some of these plays are so foundational to an understanding of English Lit, to common speech (Hamlet is the most quoted play in the English language), and have such insights into human nature, that it's not right for a child to 'do' that play once, at 10 years of age, and then never see it again. We do think Hamlet, MacBeth, Henry V, Much Ado, Twelfth Night, etc, merit more than one reading during the school years. Some of the plays just weren't that vital, in spite of the glow of Shakespeare's name, and some of them were downright unsuitable- Timon, Titus, Croilus and Cressida, off the top of my head.

 We also realized that,  unlike in CM's days, the majority of our users probably haven't done much Shakespeare at all, or perhaps only one or two plays. It occurred to us that  often, we are introducing parents as well as children to Shakespeare. Our goal is also the enjoyment and appreciation of Shakespeare, not a comprehensive study of the body of Shakespearean works, so that informed our choices as well. Remember that Charlotte Mason's standard was not merely how much a child knows, but how much he cares (vol. 3, p 170).

There are other reasons we left out some plays.  Advisory member Leslie Smith read Professor Edward Dowden's introduction to a collection of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and shared that he said there is good reason to doubt most of Henry VI was even written by Shakespeare (he is not, in general, a sceptic about the authorship, so we took that to heart. This seems to be an older play by somebody else that Shakespeare revised, but not entirely successfully). He described parts of Pericles as 'revolting to the moral sense.' Some of the historical plays are much, much drier than others.

Our final selections also reflect the combined thought, such wisdom as we possess, prayer, and research of all seven of the Advisory, rather than the perhaps more prejudicial choices any one person might have made. For instance, one of us would have left out King Lear altogether, another thought we could do without any of the histories at all. I would have left out Two Gentlemen of Verona myself, but Anne's saner view prevailed, as she recommended it 'as a fairly simple, non-gory play suitable for reading with younger students,' and it had the advantage of having a 'decent BBC video version.'

 So, to make a long story short, yes, we do intend that students will do some of the plays twice. However, we also encourage parents to make the curriculum their own, and adapt as they see fit. We also favour live performances over readings, so any time you have the opportunity to take your family to a live performance, that's the play I would do that term (unless it's Titus Andronicus or Timon).

Our goal is not to make Shakespeare Scholars of our students, although that may perhaps be a happy by-product for some of them. It is simply to come to appreciate, even love, the great master of the English language and his insights into human character.

Since our goal at AO is always to reproduce a Charlotte Mason education as much as possible, I'll close here with this quote from Miss Mason. It's found in volume 5, page 226:

And Shakespeare? He, indeed, is not to be classed, and timed, and treated as one amongst others,––he, who might well be the daily bread of the intellectual life; Shakespeare is not to be studied in a year; he is to be read continuously throughout life, from ten years old and onwards. But a child of ten cannot understand Shakespeare. No; but can a man of fifty? Is not our great poet rather an ample feast of which every one takes according to his needs, and leaves what he has no stomach for? A little girl of nine said to me the other day that she had only read one play of Shakespeare's through, and that was A Midsummer Night's Dream. She did not understand the play, of course, but she must have found enough to amuse and interest her. How would it be to have a monthly reading of Shakespeare––a play, to be read in character, and continued for two or three evenings until it is finished? The Shakespeare evening would come to be looked on as a family festa; and the plays, read again and again, year after year, would yield more at each reading, and would leave behind in the end rich deposits of wisdom.

(from Taming of the Shrew)
Postscript: This discussion came up on our FB group as well, where somebody whose previous experience of Shakespeare was the badly taught 8th grade study of Romeo and Juliet hat was inflicted on her, and she didn't like Shakespeare and wanted to know why others did. A couple of our members gave such good answers I reproduce them (with permission): Karen Richmond:
In some ways tastes are a hard thing to explain. I don't understand why so many people love coffee. I can't stand it. Possibly if I tried it over and over again, though, I would learn to enjoy it. Or possibly not. Anyway, I'm definitely not going to like it if I never have any. So I can give you reasons, but they won't teach you love. Only time and practice can do that, and even then it's not guaranteed. What is it that I, personally, love about Shakespeare? The turns of phrases, the way he says things better than anyone else. The deep insight into human nature, into personality and choices and temptation and virtue. The way he takes stale conventions and breathes new life into them. Sure, parts are crude. (My mother felt the same way, she was always deeply suspicious of him but not quite suspicious enough to get rid of the volume in the attic, so I acquired my love for Shakespeare partly from clandestine reading in the attic and partly from my bardophilic aunt.) Partly it was the need to simply produce popular entertainment, something that will keep the gallery laughing. Partly was that the Elizabethan times were simply plainer spoken than most eras since (they weren't afraid to talk about sex OR death). Partly it was that Shakespeare embraced all of life; the sublime and the absurd and the crude and the beautiful. All of it is part of being human. We are divine spirits in earthly vessels. To ignore either part of our nature is to be less than human. I don't know why people always inflict Romeo and Juliet on 8th graders. It's not the best starting place, except for soppily romantic girls. Try *The Tempest*, perhaps. Or *The Merchant of Venice*.
Mary Frances Pickett:
So, you asked why we care? And what you're missing? And you feel like you would be inflicting pain on your children to assign Shakespeare. I care because Shakespeare understood human emotions and motivations in an extremely deep and insightful manner. These are rich, rich stories that always give me much to ponder and yield new perspectives each time I read them. I know that the best way to have my children desire the good and beautiful and true, is to expose them to it over and over again. And Shakespeare's writings are good and beautiful and true. Yes, there are characters that do things that we do not want them to emulate. One way to discern whether something is True is to discern whether those people reap the consequences of their actions. And in Shakespeare they do. I think what you're missing is what many of us were/are missing - our tastes have not been trained to enjoy. That comes with time. It has happened for me as I read the AO books. You may find the Circe podcasts on Hamlet and Macbeth to be helpful at some point down the road. As for whether it is inflicting pain on my children. They haven't always loved the retellings, but it in retrospect it was ME that was inflicting a painful experience, not the Bard or the Lamb's. As I've learned to not push, to just do a little bit, to accept narrations kindly, to scaffold for them, they've turned into Shakespeare lovers.
You may also find this helpful. "A useful word of caution is given in connection with the teaching of a play of Shakespeare; namely that all cumbrous discussion as to the story, the date, the authenticity, the characters, and so forth- all, in fact, that is usually found on the first few pages of every annotated edition of a play, should be severely left alone...." Richard Wilson, author of a grammar text Mason used. More here. Appropriate Goals for Studying Shakespeare

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