Verily, a New Hope: Introducing Shakespeare

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Like any stereotypical former English teacher, Shakespeare is one of my great passions, and ever since Biggie was born, I’ve been hoping to watch plays and trade lines with him like any other father would want to play catch and watch baseball games.

We’ve already seen two plays at the Shakespeare Theater in D.C., A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Kiss Me Kate, and I regularly try to sign Biggie up for the monthly Folger Family programs.

It’s a delicate thing, though, to seduce your child into something like Shakespeare. You don’t want to push too hard and make it onerous, nor leave him unprepared to see and understand the plays. I like the approach of Ken Ludwig in How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, where he advocates gradually introducing famous lines of Shakespeare into your family’s vocabulary and eventually learning plots of plays, aspects of his stories, longer soliloquies, and so on.

At the same time, the best way to get into Shakespeare is by seeing live performances of it, and you want to take advantage of good quality local productions. The Shakespeare Theater is ending its run of Othello, and I want to go see it, but would it be too much for my 8-year-old boy? It’s not a comedy; it’s a tragedy filled with sex, violence, and psychological turmoil. Its themes of revenge and manipulation and prejudice are mature, and the staging is bound to be less demonstrative than a fantasy like Midsummer. But presented with the opportunity, Biggie showed some enthusiasm at going.

Othello

How to prep?

We’ve just finished, for our bedtime reading, King of Shadows by Susan Cooper, a book about a boy in a modern production of Midsummer Night’s Dream who gets mysteriously transported to Elizabethan England to work on Shakespeare’s own production of the play. It’s a young adult book but one that tested Biggie’s attention and knowledge — and so a good book for bedtime read-alouds. It was also a good way to give him a sense of Shakespeare’s world and context, and it has a subplot about political intrigue in Queen Elizabeth’s court.

Just recently we’ve started Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher, a cheeky re-telling of Episode IV in Shakespearean language. It’s kind of great. Biggie loves Star Wars, and so he’s very familiar with the story and plot. He also digs my attempts at mimicking everyone’s voices. It’s been a fun way to acclimate Biggie to the patter, rhythm, and conventions of the plays, and Doescher also includes a lot of sly allusions, as you can see in the book trailer:

As for Othello itself, I want his first performance of the play to feel fresh, so I’m trying not to overexpose him. We talked about the difference between comedies and tragedies, and I very quickly went over the basic plot of the play.

I’ll probably also have him watch these two video summaries by Shmoop and SparkNotes, respectively:

… but I’m going to avoid watching the many adaptations of the play now available on the Internet and on DVD. There’s a lot of good ones out there, though.

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