Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
According to Becky Faraj, an educator, drama teacher and theater director in Ann Arbor, MI, helping children appreciate Shakespeare can shape the way they read and write, teach them virtue and bring greater beauty into their lives.
Faraj, 47, a homeschooling mother of eight (two of whom are now in college), has been teaching children Shakespeare and directing them in plays for the past 15 years. Faraj’s lifelong passion for Shakespeare began as a teenager. She went on to study drama at Franciscan University, graduating in 1990 and has since directed many plays and musicals — including Shakespeare’s plays such as Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing — primarily in home school co-op settings.
Faraj spoke to Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky about the value of introducing children to Shakespeare and how to make it happen even when you’re not well-versed in the playwrights’s work yourself.
Where did your own love for Shakespeare begin?
In a Shakespeare class in high school. Back in the day of vinyl albums we listened to recorded readings of his plays. I loved it, especially when the teacher would lift the needle to pause and explain what was happening in the story. I loved how Shakespeare could take the most ordinary conversations and make them sound breathtakingly beautiful. As a musician I fell in love with the musicality of his words and loved the way he created pictures in my imagination with his words. When we moved on to sonnets, it was all over! Everything he wrote seemed like a song to me. Then I saw a play and realized his plays are really meant to be performed, not just read.
When should we begin exposing children to Shakespeare and where do we we begin?
I don’t do any “formal” education in Shakespeare until eighth grade, when I have students begin reading synopses of various plays and learn actual passages. This is mostly for memory work, which is stressed during certain periods of learning in classical education. The kids also memorize a few sonnets.
But there are some very good children’s books out there where authors have taken his tales and made them accessible to young children. My favorite is E. Nesbit’s Shakespeare’s Stories for Young Readers, and I also like Marcia William’s Tales From Shakespeare.
Years ago I found a fantastic book series by Lois Burdett called Shakespeare Can Be Fun. Burdett was a teacher and translated several of Shakespeare’s plays into short, rhyming couplet plays to be read, illustrated and performed by her first graders. I love the illustrations by her students in these books! I perform her versions with middle school kids, and another good book for middle and high school students is by Mary and Charles Lamb and is called Tales From Shakespeare.
My great aspiration is to read more sonnets aloud at home in the evenings or in the morning before my kids start school. I also aspire to memorize some of this stuff myself along with my eighth graders — especially the St. Crispin’s day speech from Henry V — so inspirational!
Should younger children memorize Shakespeare?
I would put it up there with having your children memorize scripture and Catechism questions. Children memorize easily and the beauty of the words make it all the more valuable for memory work, which is not only key for developing brains, but keeps material at the forefront of their thoughts. Just as we would like our children to be be able to access a memorized scripture passage as they go through life, it’s also beneficial to have a wealth of beautiful language to draw upon.
A friend just introduced me to the book How toTeach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig, and it’s good for helping younger ones memorize Shakespeare.
How do children today respond to the language of Shakespeare?
They usually love his stories and are fascinated by the words. It’s a strange thing for them to hear words they know arranged and used in very unique way, but if we wait until kids are in high school, the total unfamiliarity can be a huge obstacle. I’m a big fan of reading his actual work as young as possible.
People may think some of Shakespeare’s themes — tragedy, love, revenge — are too much for kids. What is your view?
There are enough versions for children that remove some of the more gruesome details so you get the idea without it being quite so graphic. Shakespeare is a great way to help kids understand vice and virtue — it’s easy to see what vice can do to you when it destroys a character.
I once had a parent who was a chastity speaker request that I not have middle school kids perform Twelfth Night because of all the romance and silly “love at first sight” business — she thought it would give the kids the wrong message about love and relationships. I, on the other hand, trust that if we explain what some of his real themes are — usually they are far deeper than the surface action — the kids get it and they can still enjoy the humor and silliness of his characters.
Which plays or sonnets are the best ones for kids?
The plays most often adapted for kids are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. They are probably the ones most often studied in high school, so it’s nice for kids to be exposed to them early on. All of his sonnets are beautiful and deal with themes like love and beauty — two of my personal favorites are 18 and 116.
My greatest Shakespearean joy came from directing Much Ado with a huge high school cast — much inspired by Kenneth Branaugh’s brilliant ability to put Shakespeare on the screen in a completely accessible way. I really love working with high school students.
In your opinion what are the short-term and long-term benefits of teaching kids Shakespeare?
Short-term benefits would include your child falling in love with classic stories and, if you start them memorizing young, falling in love with beautiful language.
The long-term benefits are the great lessons on vice and virtue that sink in over time, and the deeper truths about life — many which reflect the beauty of the Catholic faith. If children are exposed to beautiful language at an early age, they are more likely to use beautiful words and well-constructed thoughts in written and verbal communication. Most importantly, beauty always draws us closer to God.
If a parent or teacher reading this has little knowledge of Shakespeare but wants to begin exposing their children to it, what are some simple ways to do that?
First, buy some beautiful illustrated children’s books and read them to your kids. (Lois Burdett’s books are great for playacting.) The Ludwig book I mentioned (How to Teach Your Child Shakespeare) tells you step by step how to help your child learn and fall in love with Shakespeare.
Also, take some time as a parent to read authors who cover Shakespeare’s themes from a Catholic perspective. Dr. Henry Russell has recorded several talks on some of Shakespeare’s plays that delve into his Catholic themes. By understanding the deeper truths Shakespeare is expressing, you can help your growing child see more clearly the importance of virtue and how destructive vice can be.
Lastly, don’t be discouraged! Even if it seems your child is bored or complains, take a short break and read shorter bits for a while, but remember that the beauty of the language is leaving a mark.
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer at Aleteia.