I am often asked by parents why we read Shakespeare in a living education. Let me answer by quoting author Gertrude Slaughter, sharing wisdom from Charlotte Mason, and telling about a few of my own experiences.
“Many a child has entered into Shakespeare’s Temple of the human spirit and come forth charged with a knowledge far beyond his present or his future experience. It cannot all happen on a summer day. Step by step, slowly and serenely, under a clear sky, the child approaches by pleasant ways to an understanding of life. And if he finds in the revelation the tragedy of sin and self-seeking, he finds himself, in spite of that, in a delightful world-a world of great achievement and great failures, now and again forgotten in great laughter,–a world where it is good to be alive. And a sane and healthy joy of life is entrenched in the child’s mind against the blows of fortune by the beauty of the medium through which the world has been revealed.”
So says Gertrude Slaughter in her winsome book, Shakespeare and the Heart of a Child (1922). Aren’t these all things we hope our children will discover in the living books we give them? Yet here we have them all encompassed in one author, William Shakespeare! She states many of the same reasons that Charlotte Mason did for including Shakespeare in such a prominent place in her living curriculum. Conceivably, a student could encounter 27 plays if they began as Charlotte prescribed in Form II (4th grade) and read one play per term throughout their school career. But that’s doubtful, as plays were sometimes repeated or spread out over more than one term. Charlotte had some definite reasons for the preeminence of Shakespeare in the curriculum that I have certainly found to ring true.
Shakespeare’s Thought-provoking Stories
Just observe as young children engage with the wonderful, complex, and thought-provoking stories. We have such little faith in their ability to understand, but they prove us wrong over and over again. I remember taking my 7 and 5-year-old sons to an outdoor production of The Taming of the Shrew one summer in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. I watched in amazement as they were captivated with the story and actors, laughing at appropriate scenes and thrilled to be part of this seemingly adult world.
Forming Consciences and Strengthening Wills
As we read the Bard’s plays “step by step”, our students begin to identify with the characters. What young girl doesn’t relish reading the part of Portia in The Merchant of Venice and internalize the roles of justice and mercy, equipping her to face difficult situations later on with wisdom beyond her years? What young man doesn’t want to lead a “band of brothers” after reciting Henry V ‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech*, thereafter to proclaim each October 25th for years to come? Each and every play holds its treasures just waiting for the student to uncover.
The scope of Shakespeare’s stories are not like any other books they will read in school. Perhaps this is part of the energy and excitement with which they approach each play as their minds become stored with such a wide panorama of human experience. This knowledge will definitely help form their consciences and strengthen their wills. The reading of Shakespeare will teach them “’lessons never learned in schools’ which comes to each of us only as we discover it for ourselves.”Charlotte Mason, Volume 2, p. 71
Heart Rhythms in Shakespeare
Of course, there is the sheer genius and beauty of his writing which helps the student in their understanding and appreciation of truth, beauty, and goodness through the written word. They will inwardly digest the heart-rhythm of iambic pentameter which they will recognize as part of themselves when reading poetry and sonnets as they mature.
Tucking my 10-year-old daughter into bed one night, she was quietly reciting this ditty from Love’s Labour’s Lost:
On a day, alack the day!
Love, whose month is ever May,
Spied a blossom passing fair
Playing in the wanton air.
“Why are you saying that?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I just like the way it sounds. It makes me happy,” she replied.
“Me too,” I answered.
Read what Charlotte says about such lines:
“A couplet such as this, though it appear to carry no moral weight, instructs our conscience more effectually than many wise saws. As we ‘inwardly digest,’ reverence comes to us unawares, gentleness, a wistful tenderness towards the past, a sense of continuance, and of a part to play that shall not be loud and discordant, but of a piece with the whole.”
And today, at 16, she has chosen to recite the heart-wrenching monologue on grief from Constance in King John, a mother who has just lost her young son, Prince Arthur. Another example that helps her recognize that she is “of a piece of the whole”, the gamut of human experience.
Rationale For Shakespeare in a Living Education
Charlotte states all that our family has experienced with Shakespeare over the past 25 years with this rationale for reading 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.”-Volume 4, Book 2, p. 72
Her words ring true to our experience as I have seen all these goals played out in a myriad of ways over the years. (See my page of helpful Shakespeare resources under “Shakespeare in Our Community” on this page.) I’m thankful that Charlotte Mason knew the value of Shakespeare in a living education. So carry on with consistently reading Shakespeare in your homeschool, “slowly and serenely” until it becomes for the children as natural as reading Alice in Wonderland or Pilgrim’s Progress.
Teaching From Peace,
*The St Crispin’s Day speech is a part of William Shakespeare’s history play Henry V, Act IV Scene iii 18–67