Why Study Shakespeare?
This is a question your children may ask when they are faced with a play written in English they struggle to understand. Yes, it will require effort to read Shakespeare’s plays – and poetry – but it is a very rewarding experience.
Shakespeare was a master storyteller and that alone is a good reason to read his plays. This is why there are so many modern retellings of his stories.
He also covers universal themes that touch everyone’s lives – love and jealously, hunger for power, loyalty, guilt etc. Although the plays were written 400 years ago, these are topics teens can identify with.
So many books and movies draw their inspiration from Shakespeare and knowing the original plays helps us enjoy a richer experience as we read books influenced by him.
Your children may never know how many common phrases originate from Shakespeare! “All the glitters isn’t gold” (Merchant of Venice), “green eyed monster (Othello), “wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet) and “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” (Hamlet) are just a few. You can find more here.
If you are now convinced you should be adding Shakespeare to what your teens are reading, here are 7 tips on how to enjoy Shakespeare with your teen.
Provide context for the time Shakespeare lived
To understand Shakespeare’s plays, students need to understand the time Shakespeare lived, how theatre was performed then (only male actors for instance) and who went to the theater.
A fun way to do this would be to read a book like The Shakespeare Stealer (aimed at middle school students so it will be a quick read for high schoolers) or watch a movie or documentary (we watched and enjoyed In Search of Shakespeare)
You could also challenge your child to do the research and then create a poster, or video or infographic or slideshow to explain what they have learned.
Provide context for the specific play you will study
Be sure your students understand the type of play it is: tragedy, history or comedy.
Study the setting, and if relevant, the history that is depicted in the play. If your children understand the background to what they are reading, it will help them understand what is happening in the play.
You can easily find help if you do a quick internet search on whatever you are studying.
Choose a good version of the play
The versions that I think are most helpful have the play on the right-hand side, with notes on the left. You don’t want ones that have the full play in modern English on the left as students will just be lazy and read the modern English instead of the original.
And I find it is easier to just look to the left when you are reading and don’t understand something than to look at footnotes below.
So, if possible, go into a bookstore and look at the different options.
Read the play aloud
Remember Shakespeare’s plays were written to be watched and heard. If you have a few children studying Shakespeare together, it is fun to take different parts, but even if it is just two of you, reading it aloud together will help to make sense of the words.
Watch the play performed
If you can select a play that is being performed near you, that would work really well. But if you can’t catch a live performance, at least find the best film version to watch. All the ones with Kenneth Brannagh in them are great!
Be sure you have already read the play BEFORE you watch it. Knowing the basic storyline will mean you and your children can focus on things you may have missed. And of course, watching the action as well as reading the words, will add an extra layer of meaning to the play.
In addition, you could watch a modernized version of the play (eg “West Side Story” when you study Romeo and Juliet) and discuss the differences between the original and the adaptation.
Discuss the themes of the play
There is plenty to discuss in any Shakespeare play. Once you are sure your teen has understood the content of the play, it is time to go a little deeper. I highly recommend Brightest Heaven of Invention by Peter J. Leithart if you are studying any of the 6 plays he analyzes. This book also contains discussion questions.
It would be great to have discussions with a few teens at a time, but even if it is just you and your teen, it will be valuable.
After you have explored various themes together, your high schooler should be ready to tackle a short paper on a theme of their choosing that you didn’t cover in detail.
Play Shakespeare games!
Playing games always helps make learning fun and there are plenty of options to choose from. Brainbox – Shakespeare will get your children learning quotations from Shakespeare, The Play’s the Thing will get students more familiar with 3 of his plays and Top Trumps Shakespeare’s Plays introduce students to many characters in the plays.
Or you can buy playing cards with Shakespearean quotes or insults on them!
I hope these 7 tips will help make Shakespeare more accessible to your teen and you will have fun studying some of his works.
(Are you looking for a great way to study Shakespeare in your homeschool? Check out our live, online poetry class at True North Homeschool Academy. This summer class is shorter, cost-effective, and takes the stress out of teaching Shakespeare in your homeschool.)
Meryl van der Merwe homeschooled her 4 children and during that time started teaching at the local homeschool co-op. She still teaches there – as well as online at FundaFunda Academy. In addition, she coaches homeschool Science Olympiad and Quiz Bowl teams. She believes education should be engaging, relevant and challenging. Meryl hosts the Homeschooling with Technology podcast where she shares tips on how to integrate tech in your homeschool. In her spare time, she loves reading and traveling. Follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram,