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Every once in a while you find an author with whom you connect on a deep level. One who can use words masterfully to paint a picture on the wall of your mind, almost as vivid as a framed watercolor in your living room. A writer with keen insights into personality and human nature, which he weaves into the seams of his plot and dialogue lines so skillfully that you don’t fully realize how much his characters and stories influence your thinking.
For Charlotte Mason, that author was Shakespeare.
Charlotte believed that Shakespeare’s plays were full of “lines of insight and beauty” that would unconsciously mold her students’ judgments about men and the great issues of life. That’s why she regularly included Shakespeare in her curriculum, even for elementary students.
“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?” (Vol. 5, p. 226).
Now, if your background with Shakespeare is anything like my background was, you probably have a glaring doubt in your mind at this point and, quite possibly, an incredulous expression on your face to go with it. But let your mind return to what you know about Charlotte and her methods. She did not have her students “study” Shakespeare the way your teacher most likely made you “study” Shakespeare. Just as with other subjects, Shakespeare in Charlotte’s schools was approached with an eye toward making the story come alive and allowing each person to glean what living ideas he was ready for at the time.
The erroneous and life-stealing notion of analyzing a play into dissected bits should be put to rest right now. Instead, Charlotte wisely foresaw that the children would go through a natural sequence in their understanding of and appreciation for the Bard’s writings. First, they would grasp the stories, for good stories can be appreciated at any age. Next, they would find themselves remembering the characters in those stories and comparing those characters to real-life people—their tendencies, their decisions, their responses, the ideas that ruled their lives. Third, after they were comfortable with the plot and characters, they would little by little develop an affinity for the lines of the scripts—the sometimes playful, sometimes pointed, sometimes soaring use of the words themselves.
Do you see why so many of us had no appreciation for Shakespeare in our schooling experience? Most Shakespeare studies skip to the third step and spend the majority of the time in a hard-hitting analysis of the lines without giving the student permission to, first, develop a relation with the story and the characters, and then, time to digest the lines little by little as he is ready.
“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 Iago.’ 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” (Vol. 4, Book 2, p. 72).
This is not to say that every play Shakespeare wrote is a paragon of virtue; some contain themes or lines that are unbiblical or downright inappropriate for children. But there is also much good to be gleaned from this world-teacher when used with discretion. If we approach it in Charlotte’s delightful way, Shakespeare can become “a great enrichment of mind and instruction of conscience.”
Next week we will give you some practical help on teaching Shakespeare the Charlotte Mason way.