In 2014, I experienced Shakespeare at the Globe Theater in London. At that point, I had been teaching Shakespeare to students for over 20 years as part of their Charlotte Mason education and this encounter was a dream come true! My husband and I eagerly took our spots up front, standing with the rest of the groundlings on a rather humid spring evening.
The atmosphere was electric, the actors were amazing, and the audience was appropriately rowdy. Unfortunately, we walked out after about 45 minutes. You see, the play that evening was Titus Andronicus, and while I had previously read the play, I just thought that somehow this production would surprise me as many other performances had, by perhaps emphasizing an aspect I had not seen in my reading or maybe de-emphasizing the violence. I was mistaken. In fact, had I read the newspaper reviews before I went, I would have realized this production was not for me and was over-the-top in the violence department.
All Shakespeare plays are not created equal. Marchette Chute, in her must-have book Stories From Shakespeare states:
Titus Andronicus is the first tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote, and it has all the faults that would be natural in an inexperienced and ambitious young playwright. It is not so much a tragedy of blood as a melodrama of butchery, and the mutilations and tortures and beheadings are applied indiscriminately to all the members of the cast. The play was extremely popular in its own day, because it wallowed in the kind of atrocities that are still the mainstay of cheap journalism and cheap fiction, but Shakespeare himself graduated very early from this kind of writing. It was people he cared about, and the ones in Titus Andronicus are nothing but cardboard. Nevertheless, there is a curious kind of energy about the play that shakes it to life occasionally, a faint promise of the kind of miracles he was able to achieve later. (Chute, 1956, p. 131)
In my homeschool, I am selective in the plays we choose to read, navigating these choices on my own for the most part. And no, Titus Andronicus has never been on our rotation. But I have often wondered which plays did Charlotte Mason actually schedule in the programmes? Which plays did she skip? Did the students repeat any plays?
To answer my questions, I did a study of Shakespeare plays in programmes 91-127 (1921-1933) and a few other programmes (a total of 39). The results were surprising and fascinating to me! I will share the outcomes in the question and answer format that follows. This survey of 11+ years of consecutive programmes gives an accurate view into the choices and patterns that Charlotte Mason formed in regards to Shakespeare and we can rest assured that the years represented here that fall after her death were reflective of her ideas and wishes as they faithfully followed the patterns of earlier years.
What plays did the students begin with in Form II (4th-5th grade)?
The plays that the students began with in Form II in order of frequency were Macbeth, Coriolanus, Henry VIII, and Henry V. Next in occurrence were King Lear, Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Finally, there was Julius Caesar, King John, and The Tempest. As You Like it was scheduled only twice. Those are all the plays on the programmes for Form II.
Did all the forms read the same play at the same time?
Only about half the time. And a couple times the upper form teachers (IV-VI) were given a choice between the play the lower forms were reading or an alternate (designated by an “or” on the programmes), presumably to offer a fresh play the students had not recently read. A few times we even see a different play for each form across one term. Form III almost always mirrored Form II and half the time, Forms IV-VI were assigned something different.
What about Forms V and VI?
It appears that there were times when there was no Shakespeare scheduled in Form V and VI. The literature block is always full, but a few times devoid of Shakespeare. This happens most often in Form VI. Perhaps, as with Plutarch, a firm enough foundation was laid and other mature and choice literature selections were to be experienced. (Only 6 programmes were available that have Form VI selections in my survey.) There are other programmes for which we don’t have Form VI, but we do have the exam questions and sometimes those exam questions include questions from Shakespeare plays.
Which plays were most often on the programmes?
The play most often listed was Macbeth. This is followed by Coriolanus, As You Like It, King Lear and Twelfth Night. Then we have Henry VIII, Merchant of Venice, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Followed by King John, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Richard II. Rounding out the list are Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Taming of the Shrew.
Which plays are not found in the programmes?
All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, Comedy of Errors, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, Henry VI Part III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, and Two Gentlemen of Verona are not found in the programmes.
Would a student repeat plays?
Yes! If you were to follow the thread of a single student from year to year, you would see him repeat two or three titles. Those listed as most often being on the programmes were obviously the titles that were repeated.
Was the Shakespeare play correlated with the Plutarch life?
Every time the play Julius Caesar is scheduled, the life in Plutarch is read during the same term. When the play Coriolanus is scheduled, the life in Plutarch is sometimes read, too, but not every time.
What about Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb?
I saw no mention of Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb in the programmes that I examined. However, elsewhere in the Parents’ Review there is ample mention of Tales as admirable literature and as part of the nursery library. Henrietta Franklin mentions it for reading lessons in Form IB in the Parents’ Review article, “The Home Training of Children” (Franklin, 1909, p. 20).
Any other surprises?
Yes. I was surprised to read that Richard the III, The Winter’s Tale, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Cymbeline were found only once or twice on the programmes and only in Forms IV-VI. And I was pleasantly surprised to read of the plays she never assigned as we read a few of them that I really disliked, but did not share my opinion. Now I know I was in good company!
This outstanding quote by Mason illustrates the heart of her approach to Shakespeare:
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. (Mason, 1989e, p. 226)
“The daily bread of the intellectual life…the Shakespeare evening…read again and again”, all these quotes show us how the reading of Shakespeare was a habit to be continued and enjoyed throughout life. And while there were only 21 plays mentioned in the programmes, Mason refers to most all the other plays in her six volumes and other writings, albeit not Titus Andronicus. She held Ambleside evenings where the community and college students gathered to read through plays, although I don’t know which titles were read. But there certainly are plays that she favored for her programmes and these were not always Shakespeare’s most popular titles. I think these findings help illuminate that. Clearly, the object was not to read through as many plays as possible.
How nice it would have been to have these answers when I first began with Shakespeare. Yes, we read a few plays that she never assigned, but I don’t live with any Shakespeare regret and we always found good and true things in the plays we did. Did you find any of these results surprising? If these findings help you to make Shakespeare part of the daily bread of your family’s intellectual life and to have more confidence in your play selections, then I am one happy groundling.
Teaching from peace,
(This article first appeared on Charlotte Mason Poetry.)
Chute, M. (1956). Stories from Shakespeare. The World Publishing Company.
Franklin, E. (1909). The home training of children. In The Parents’ Review, volume 20 (pp. 20-26). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.
Mason, C. (1989e). Formation of Character: Shaping the child’s personality. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1905)