January 30, 2011

Shakespeare in Our Kitchen

In sixth grade I thought I read Hamlet.

Shakespeare was a famous name to me, nothing more, and I think I saw some personal challenge in reading this most famous of grown-up writers.

When my book report came back, Mrs. Miller explained, very gently, that I hadn't read Hamlet at all.

I had found the wrong library shelf. My book was a historical study of the staging of Shakespeare. Seeing a title like Hamlet: A Performance History, I mistook it for the real thing. And there were bits of the real thing in there, but only bits, out of order, and buried among bits of other plays and lots of commentary.

A whole book about...another book? This was unexpected.

Skip ahead 30 years, and Camille and I have just read Macbeth aloud with our children, neither of them quite as old as I when I had attempted Hamlet.

Our kids are more familiar with how plays work, having seen many live dramas and musicals. (Homeschoolers buy tickets at the heavily discounted school rates.)

Initially wary, Nathaniel warmed enough to create costumes and two prop knives—a clean "before" and a blood-stained "after" version. Jessica embraced the role of Lady Macbeth a little too eagerly. Over the course of several nights we invited friends to read some of the parts, enlisted stuffed animals and dolls to stand in for characters, and compared notes from different editions while stumbling through the language.

We made delicious mistakes:
  • Banquo's issue, referring to his descendants, was read as Banquo's tissue. Sneezing jokes ensued.
  •  That business in your bosoms became the more intestinal business in your bottoms.
  •  The blessings that hang about the king's throne were, about our kitchen table, no longer sundry but sun-dried.
  •  When I asked for ideas about what a hurley burley might be, Jessica looked offended that I should ask, then hulked her lanky ten-year old body into a bicep-flexing pose and said, "You know, a hurley burley! A big tough guy with muscles."

    And we were victorious! I don't pretend that any of us understood every word. But we got through it, followed the basic plot, and even discussed a handful of poetic images and plot parallels. Shakespeare migrated from the mysterious unknown into something recognizable. 

    In college I was struggling to read Karl Marx when a biographical detail struck me. A fan of Shakespeare, Marx insisted that his children know all the plays.

    Recalling my sixth-grade failure, I tried to imagine that. Were the whole family geniuses? Did other kids ridicule the young Marxes?

    Above all, what sort of weird parents read Shakespeare with their children?

    Now I have kids of my own, and the older they get, the more certain I am that homeschooling, well, weirdens them. I just hope it's in a wonderful way.

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