WFU expert offers tips to help kids with Shakespeare and other required summer reading

Shakespeare in Education coverIf your kids would rather read Spiderman comics or Seventeen magazine than the Shakespeare plays on their summer reading list, a Wake Forest University expert says a trip to the theater or video store might help.

For a time, some students did not have to read Shakespeare as teachers favored more diverse contemporary authors, says Joseph Milner, professor and chairman of the education department at Wake Forest University. Today, because of national and state education standards, most students can expect to study one Shakespeare play each year throughout high school.

From the complex language and imagery in “Romeo and Juliet” to the ranting soliloquies in “Hamlet,” kids often are intimidated and distracted by Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, Milner says. Seeing a live performance or a video of a play can help students get past the “thees and thous” and focus more on the universal themes of each work. He suggests that parents pick videos of live performances by reputable theatrical companies rather than Hollywood film productions because feature length films tend to stray from Shakespeare’s original text.

“When Shakespeare said ‘the play’s the thing,’ he meant that a play is more than a text, it is something we witness as a community,” Milner says. “The best plays speak to the universal human experience, telling us about love, jealousy, what happens when ambition gets out of hand and all the other intricacies of life, just in a grander fashion. You really need to see a play performed to ‘get it.’ ”

Milner recommends that students and parents watch a live production of a play and then read the work together. The summer is an ideal time to do this as Shakespeare summer stock companies usually offer long runs of the classic works many high schools require, from “Othello” to “Julius Caesar.” Usually, those shows are faithful to Shakespeare’s original scripts with great attention paid to performing entire plays unabridged, Milner adds.

“In live performances, actors convey a lot of meaning through nonverbal communication and other physical cues,” Milner says. “That can’t be translated when you’re just reading the script. Afterwards, you can have terrific discussions about the themes, the language and the character development because the students have seen the text come to life.”

If going to see a live show is not possible, videos of productions are widely available through public libraries and video rental chains, Milner says. He particularly recommends videos produced by the BBC.

“There is something beautiful about the Elizabethan language that Shakespeare
uses and about the way he writes, because it puts you in a space that’s different,” Milner says. “I believe the true mark of his genius is that people can pore over his plays and always see new things every time they encounter his works. Even today, he has an amazing ability to tell us about life.”

Watching theatrical productions and videos also can help students understand challenging novels that are commonly taught like “Jane Eyre” and “Great Expectations,” Milner says. But, because the Hollywood versions of novels often depart from the original text, he suggests that students watch only the first few minutes to avoid confusion.

“Watching only the opening scenes brings the setting and characters to life just enough so that students can imagine the story play out in their minds as they continue reading,” Milner said.

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