So, as it turns out, yesterday was Shakespeare’s birthday. I read a couple plays when I was little, but didn’t read any more for a long time. But I’ve gotten back into it recently, reading some plays for high school, and I’ve been loving it. So I totally freaked out when Mom told me yesterday! I didn’t have time to do anything about it then, but I decided today was an appropriate time to post the first Great Books paper I wrote this year. Enjoy!!
I was first introduced to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before I was a decade old, in Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children by E. Nesbitt. I read the original version, after seeing it performed at Shakespeare on the Green, a few summers later. Even at the age of ten, I was enthralled.
My obsession was not lodged in perfect resolution, flawless morals, or amazing role models. I was enamored of a simple, girlish draw of the story: the fairies. What girl could resist the urge to pour over a sylvan fairytale, where fairies make coats of bats’ wings and hide in acorn cups? I, for one, certainly had no power to resist the temptation! I think you could go as far as to say my favorite character was Puck (a mischievous little sprite in the fairy king’s following).
Reading Midsummer as an older student, I have become more skeptical of Shakespeare’s themes and morals. I wonder if I loved his plays more as a younger girl, having fewer scruples on content and character. I had no high expectations as a fourth grader; what I wanted was a good story–and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream I found just that.
It is hard to tell what aspects of Shakespeare’s plays portray his own personal opinions, and what elements were simply added because they were in popular demand; to “fill theaters” as my Mom put it. But whatever his private beliefs were, William Shakespeare was a great storyteller. Whatever morals he upheld, as a writer myself, I respect him as a master. I recognized the music of his lyrical (sometimes even perfectly rhymed) lines in my ears, even before I could understand their full meaning.
One thing I noticed this time though, that had escaped my attention in earlier readings, was how real the characters themselves were. Even as a modern reader, I could relate to their feelings, and see singularities in them I have recognized in real people.
In fact, there was one character that almost completely escaped my attention the first time I read Midsummer: the amazon queen, Hippolyta. I knew she was a fantastical character wandering in the background, (and they gave her too many of Duke Theseus’ lines at Shakespeare on the Green!), but I never saw her as having a unique temperament. I was rather shocked this read-through to discover she had a real personality, and her lines portrayed a specific character!
When I was younger, I memorized a whole speech one of the fairies gives. I was delighted with the flow and lovely language, but it wasn’t until this read that I really realized what she was talking about. As it turns out, the little fairy was telling Puck that she was scattering dew around the forest for the fairy queen! Is that not romantic? Just like I did at age ten, I reveled in the magic of my literary discoveries.
So I believe in reading Shakespeare. Not as a lesson in virtue or some kind of moral exercise, but as great stories.
I think even very young children are capable of handling them, if they are shown the right approach. I know there are elements in some of the plays that are unsuitable for children, and I know these must be treated with caution; but I think we should give children a chance to like Shakespeare. I don’t think I would like him now, if I hadn’t grown up with him, and wasn’t old friends with Midsummer and Julius Caesar. I think I might have already given up on them, if I had never had the chance to read them with uncynical, childish eyes.
To make a long story short, I guess all this is just to say: I believe in reading Shakespeare. As young children, in search of a good story; and as older students and adults, looking for the meaning and purpose of our own stories, as well. A good story opens our minds and awakens our imagination, and I believe these things, in themselves, are virtues. I think they are worth the time it takes to read a play, and the effort required to decipher Shakespeare’s beautiful language.
“Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.” (66)