February is the month of love, romance, and all things pink, red, rosey, and chocolatey. Love songs, classical poetry and cheesy greeting card rhymes abound even after Valentine’s Day is over. Here’s one you’ve probably heard of:
‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.’
Those are the opening lines to William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
There are usually two responses when you ask school students if they like Shakespeare: the majority groan at the sound of his name and tell you how boring or confusing his plays are, and a minority, usually drama students, will express delight at your question, tell you their favourite play and ask for yours.
Did you know that Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ was inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Or that ’10 Things I Hate About You’ is a modern adaption of The Taming of the Shrew? Or that ‘She’s The Man’ is a re-telling of Twelfth Night? Most primary students have never heard of Shakespeare, though they could probably tell you that Romeo and Juliet is a love story. This tells us that Shakespeare’s stories are an integral part of our society and culture, whether or not we know or like his work.
The point of studying Shakespeare, like all literature studied at school, is to teach wisdom and knowledge though experience. Fiction is experiential knowledge as opposed to theoretical textbook knowledge. You might call fiction ‘heart knowledge’ compared to a textbook’s ‘head knowledge’. That’s not to say that textbooks aren’t helpful, but their purpose is informative compared to immersive.
Fiction, whether that be novels, plays, or films, develops our sense of empathy and our understanding of times, cultures and experiences which are not our own. As young adult novelist John Green said, ‘reading is always an act of empathy. It’s always an imagining of what it’s like to be someone else.’ To follow a plot, we necessarily have to imagine how character’s feel and understand why they do what they do. We learn to like or dislike characters by trying to empathise with them.
Fiction forces us to experience the lives of others, to encounter people and situations that we might never experience. When we read, we bring our own experiences to these new encounters and gain wisdom for how to deal with, or how not to deal with situations and people. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and villains are a great example of what happens when we let pride or jealousy get the better of us or when we don’t surround ourselves with wise counsel.
Sure, Elizabethan verse can be hard to decode without Sparknotes, but once you become more familiar with the language, you’ll quickly understand how funny, compelling and thought-provoking his plays were and why they have come to be part of school syllabi around the world. To start, you might find it helpful to search a Royal Shakespeare Company production on YouTube or watch a movie adaptation to get your head around the story before diving into the original text. For younger students, Andrew Matthews’ A Shakespeare Story books are great chapter-book style summaries of Shakespeare’s more well-known dramas.
It takes practice to understand literary texts and often a guide can be helpful. Nepean Tutoring boasts a host of experienced English tutors who have worked with students of all ages, and across HSC and IB programmes.
To build your child’s confidence and literary analysis skills, look no further than the enthusiastic tutors at Nepean Tutoring. If you have any questions, simply Contact Us and we’ll take care of the rest.
(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)