Charlotte Mason recommends that students read Shakespeare yearly beginning in the fourth grade as part of their liberal education. For parent-teachers intrigued and excited by this idea, the practical application seems daunting. How do we do Shakespeare in our homeschools? What does that look like?
To help demystify the inclusion of Shakespeare as part of home education, take a peak at what “doing” Shakespeare looks like in my house.
I follow the Ambleside Online recommendation of reading three Shakespeare plays each school year—that’s one play over a 12-week period—so the first thing I do is chose 3 plays. I try to choose a comedy, a tragedy, and a history, but sometimes I just pick my favorites. Ambleside Online also provides a Shakespeare reading rotation if you’d like some guidance in selecting plays. Once I’ve selected my plays, I break them down into weekly reading segments. To complete a play in 12 weeks, I read about 2 scenes per week.
We read our Shakespeare selections out loud as part of our family homeschooling time in the morning. It’s one of the highlights of our week. All of my children eagerly anticipate Tuesday mornings, Shakespeare day! Even though Charlotte Mason recommends Shakespeare for children beginning in the fourth grade, I’ve always included my youngest child in Shakespeare time as well. She loves it, and I am often stunned by her detailed narrations and insightful comments. Don’t hesitate to include younger siblings!
If your children are younger than fourth grade (of if you want to make sure that your older students are familiar with the basic plot of the play), Edith Nesbit and Charles and Mary Lamb both have excellent story versions of Shakespeare. You can read these out loud or assign them for independent reading.
I enjoy Shakespeare and drama, so I read the plays out loud with multiple voices and sound effects, and I try as much as I am able to help my children imagine what an Elizabethan audience would have seen onstage. Have fun, be silly, be melodramatic. This isn’t supposed to be some serious, stuffy, academic study of Shakespeare. Despite what we think of the work of the Bard these days, back in his own time, Shakespeare was popular entertainment. People went to see a Shakespeare play like we go to the movies. This reading time should be fun!
Of course, because we aren’t an Elizabethan audience, some parts of Shakespeare are difficult to understand. Elizabethan jokes and language and cultural references are foreign and often confusing to modern readers. As a result, I do explain the more difficult passages, and sometimes I offer short commentary, just to make sure that they understand what’s going on. We don’t formally “study” the plays, but inevitably we have interesting discussions about human nature and life and mankind. And my children often connect something they are studying to a Shakespeare play we’ve read.
After I read, I ask my children to narrate. And I also start each week’s reading with a narration of the previous week’s scenes. I start our reading time by saying in my best announcer’s voice, “Previously on Macbeth…” and then one of my children finishes the sentence. I try to keep things simple and fun. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Even my 7-year-old can narrate Shakespeare—often recalling details that her older siblings forget.
Shakespeare reading can be as simple or as complex as you desire. I know homeschool families who select famous passages of plays for memory work and copywork. One family even uses Shakespeare’s sentences for grammar work, parsing those complicated sentences as a family. It can also be fun to watch a Shakespeare play after you’ve read it.
Even if you’re not a Shakespearean expert, you too can read and enjoy Shakespeare. I promise! You might even find that Shakespeare becomes your favorite part of homeschooling. My very normal children really do say, “Yay! Today is Shakespeare.”
Help for Teachers:
Shakespeare for Dummies
No Fear Shakespeare editions (these editions offer the original play with a modern paraphrase on facing pages.)
Online commentaries (just google it!)
Brightest Heaven of Invention by Peter Leithart (Shakespeare commentary from a Christian perspective)
Additional Resources for Children:
Story versions of Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit, Charles and Mary Lamb, and Leon Garfield
William Shakespeare and the Globe by Aliki
Bard of Avon by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema
DK Eyewitness Shakespeare
The World of Shakespeare (Usborne) by Claybourne and Treays
Tales from Shakespeare by Marica Williams (a comic book version)