Friday, May 13, 2022

How to do Shakespeare at Home

Last week I shared some reasons WHY it can be good to read Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare’s plays have found a home deep in the gut of an awful lot of people, people from super diverse backgrounds and in varying time periods. This reveals that something within the plays transcends time and place – that something is truth. It's the same truth we see in fairy tales, because the plays are patterned after the same structure as fairy tales.

I've heard that perhaps we should avoid Shakespeare plays because all theatre is dangerous. I can think of one reason why this might be true: if his plays contradicted the Gospels, we would be wise to pass. While it is true that not all of the plays are appropriate for all ages, I think they complement the Gospels, and I’ll explain why next week. Of course, you the parent know what is best for your family and should make the final call!

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But for now, here's what I want to share with you.

3 Easy Steps to Understanding a Shakespeare Play

1. Read the story of the play from Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare for Children
2. Read the actual play aloud together.
3. Watch a production together.

The goal is to get the big picture. Not to understand every word. Not to analyze the symbols or settings or characters. Not to be able to answer test questions.

Just to receive the story on the most basic level.

Let me give you some tips for these three steps.

1. Read the story of the play from Lamb's.

You can access a free version, which can be printed one story at a time or downloaded to a kindle. Or, you might prefer an illustrated kindle version.

I found my old illustrated version at a thrift store for a few dollars.

If you like a book in your hand, Amazon has an economy paperback for $4.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can splurge for a collector's edition for $144 - crazy! It is beautiful...

What I really appreciate about the Lamb's version is that they have kept many of the most important lines intact, as well as the important themes and ideas and tensions. All the while, the language is completely appropriate for any age. Here's an example:

In Much Ado About Nothing, a young count is tricked by an evil villain into thinking his fiancé has been unfaithful. He confronts her on the wedding day.

Claudio: (referring to Hero) Give not this rotten orange to your friend... She knows the heat of a luxurious bed!"

In Lamb's version, Claudio thinks he sees her talking to a man outside her window, and the next morning "Claudio, in the most passionate language, proclaimed the guilt of the blameless Hero..."

See? You can share the stories with your children without any worries.

I will admit that I didn't start reading the actual plays aloud until my youngest was ten. The kinds of lines like the one I quoted above just go over his head, but you will know what is best for your family.

What if you want your family to act out at least a part of the real play, but not read the whole thing?

I highly recommend this coloring book, which also has one-page scenes your children can act out, like my youngest two did with King Lear.

Once you've read 2-3 paragraphs (just pause when it feels right, when the scene changes or characters leave or enter) ask the children to tell you back what they heard. Tell them they will be asked to do this before you begin.

Why Tell it Back?

1. Knowing they are going to have to tell it back to you helps them pay attention while you read.

2. The process of sorting through what they heard and sharing it aloud helps them absorb the play better. It can be compared to chewing food. You wouldn't want them to swallow a steak whole, and neither would you want them to swallow a Shakespeare story whole. Telling it back allows them a chance to chew and digest.

One last tip for Lamb's: I suggest the parent or a very capable teen read this version aloud for everyone. The language, though appropriate for children, is not simple. 

As you read, do not rush! Take it slowly - even just a couple of paragraphs per day - until you have worked your way through it. Pause and try to emphasize words, vary your tone of voice, and share the feeling of the story. You do not have to be an actress or do special accents or voices, but do try to avoid sounding monotone.

Let's move on to the second step:

2. Read the actual play aloud together.

Purchase a copy of the play for each family member, so everyone can hold their own script. The books do not have to be the same because you can find your place by referring to Act, Scene, and line #s instead of pages.

I picked up these inexpensive copies at our local thrifty bookshop, which is near a college campus and has dozens of each play.

Caveat: try to avoid No Fear Shakespeare for read-alouds. These editions might be a useful resource for studying a play, but that is not what we are doing. The formatting is distracting during a read aloud. Every left-side page is Shakespeare's play, and every right-side page if a simplified modern translation of the same lines. Sometimes a child will keep reading into the right page and all the sudden sound strange.... or a child might stop to interrupt every few lines to tell you exactly what something you just said means. That defeats the goal of getting the big picture and enjoying the flow of the play.

Ask for volunteers or assign roles. Perhaps give yourself the longest, hardest speeches.

Assign someone to read the stage directions. They are usually in italics, something like enter Claudio and Hero.

Go for it!

You might be surprised how well you all do! It really helps that everyone already knows the story. Remember, the goal is not to understand every word, but to get the gist of the story. Sometimes you will encounter characters that were not in the Lamb's version, but you can just remind your children that they couldn't include everyone.

3. Watch a production together.

One year I found out a local college was performing The Tempest in the Spring. I called and asked if the show would be family friendly or a more experimental version (important to know!). Once I knew it was good for us, we spent the fall working our way through Lamb's and then the play. It was fun to see the live versions of the characters we had come to know, and it provided lots of conversation afterwards.

Older Globe Theatre productions are amazing. You can buy them from Great Britain or find used ones on ebay. They are acted out with an audience in a reproduction of the theatre Shakespeare's plays were orginially performed in! Stick to the older ones, though for a more PG experience. Newer ones are just like newer TV shows in that respect.

If you have a Shakespeare-in-the-Park near you, those are fun outdoor productions.

Film Versions

Be aware of modern, agenda-driven films.

You can find Laurence Olivier versions for free on Youtube.

Your local library probably has quite a few selections. Just check the rating to make sure there is no surprise nudity. (Sometimes you can avoid a particular scene in an otherwise great film by announcing a "potty braek" and fast-forwarding while everyone is gone. You have to preview it yourself first for that to work.)

You don't have to do this last step, but it is a nice way to end your time with a play.

As you share a play with your children, you will build a relationship with the ideas in the play and with each other. Of course, being aware of the stories is NOT a path to virtue. You have to pray and read the Scriptures and pray and read the Lives of the Saints and pray and struggle together with your children.

Even though the plays are not a fast-track to attaining virtue (there never is a short-cut, is there?) they are still full of good and true and beautiful things that open a person's heart to seeing beyond our material world.

Perhaps you are still concerned about hurting your children's imagination. This is a valid concern! You might would like to learn more about what the Church Fathers teach about the imagination before jumping into Shakespeare? St. Gregory Palamas explains how good art helps the imagination. Here’s a great place to start:


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(You may have to scroll down to March 2022 if you happen to be reading this at some future date.)

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Why Shakespeare?

A couple of years ago, I read aloud Lamb’s version of King Lear to my kids. When the villain, Edmund, was scheming to hurt people, my 8 year-old son clenched his fists in anger. His eyebrows drew in and his voice grew tense. He hated it!

The story gave him a way to experience for himself an inner knowing that such scheming is bad – in a way that trumped anything I could have preached to him about the topic.

Likewise, when the good and faithful servant, Kent, stuck by the king after everyone else had abandoned him, my son set his jaw and drew up his chest and said, “I want to be like him!”

Isn’t this what education is supposed to do?

·       To open our children to seeing what good can look like.
·       To teach children to love what is worthy of loving.
·       To help them recognize those things that are not worthy of our love.
·       To teach them to despise the despicable.

The Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children puts it this way in Kontakion 10:

“Raise my children to hate sin and all transgression.”

“Raise my children to love good and all virtue.”

No Lesson Plans!

I did not set out to teach my son that scheming to gain power is bad. I did not make a list of virtues to point out when we found them in King Lear. No! I just served the play to them like a beautiful meal and allowed the Holy Spirit to teach them what was appropriate for each. 

We know it works this way in our own reading lives as mothers. We will read a passage of a book and gain one thing from it. Then years later we read the same passage and see a new truth.

It is not that the truth was new. It was that we were in a different place and now ready to see that truth.

Our children are the same way. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, they will see the truths they are ready to see.

So relax, breathe easy! 

If our kids are assigned Shakespeare at school, we can help them without worrying about whether we are teaching the right thing or not. 

If we decide to read a play with them this summer, we don't have to plan what to teach when we read it. 

We can just let the play do its work in the heart of the child. We may never know until months later something a child learned. We may never know ever.

And yet the Shakespeare play still does its work in the heart of the child.

I have seen my children begin to learn to hate sin and to love good in their experience with Shakespeare’s stories.

Here’s another example from Julius Caesar, which we were reading aloud together last fall. Honorable Brutus wanted to do what was right, but listened to the wrong voices in his ear. He listened to Cassius, who was trying to manipulate him. Brutus also listened to the fake letters of praise tossed through his window, effectively flattering him, Brutus, you are our only hope!

My children made the connection pretty quickly:

    “Cassius and the letters are like the demons shooting darts into our minds!”

    “The logismoi!”

    “Why can’t Brutus see that Cassius is trying to manipulate him?”

    “Brutus is more likely to believe Cassius because his pride is getting involved!”

That sort of personal revelation is priceless. The children now have an image in their imagination of what it could look like to be persuaded to do something against their better judgement. They have an image of how pride can blind them.

Why do Shakespeare’s plays work like this?

The short answer is, because they are good art. Good art reveals spiritual truths using material means. Good art expands our understanding of reality. 

One way to know if something is good art is to see if it has stood the test of time. Shakespeare’s plays, written in the 1400’s, have proven themselves in the last 600 years. They don't show us merely what one character is like, or what one place is like. They show what life is like. What human nature is like.

What about this summer?

Perhaps consider approaching a Shakespeare play - either for yourself or with your family. 

Next week I will share my strategy for making sure we all understand the play. You might be surprised how much an elementary student can understand of Shakespeare. 

Maybe the next time you go to the library, pick up a copy of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare - or use that link to access a free version you can print or download onto a kindle. 

Read with an open mind.

And enjoy the feast!

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

First Weeks of the Fast

 A few years ago I bought a $6 pack of dish-washer safe chopsticks, and it helped make our Lenten lunches a little more likeable. 

Pilgrimage for the Feast Day of St. Papa Nicholas Planas!

The iconography by Fr. Turbo Qualls at St. Mary of Egypt was captivating!

 Looks at these Cherubim, as described in Ezekial 1:5-11

Back home, my 4th grader tried a craft from his calendar: an orange oil lamp. I admit, I didn't think it would work, but look!

I've been trying to do my own Nature Study, taking the same photo of our Silver Maple tree each few weeks. It has taken two months since the buds appeared, but they are finally starting to open up just a teeny bit. 

Mamas, I encourage you to try the things you ask your children to do - I often learn so much! 

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Science of Relations: Part 3 FREE RESOURCES

 Charlotte Mason Resources


If you would like to explore more how the educational philosophies of Charlotte Mason fit into the Patristic wisdom of the Orthodox Church, Elizabeth Davis has collected some presentations at Paidea Classics

Part I - Charlotte Mason's Thoughts on "Home Education" In the Light of the Teachings of Our Holy Fathers and Mothers

Part II - Charlotte Mason's Twenty Principles in the Light of Our Holy Fathers and Mothers

Part III - A Lifestyle of Learning Approach to a Classical Style of Education

You can also download those slideshows as pdf versions.

Mind to Mind, a thoughtful abridgement by Karen Glass, is an easy read and a good choice if you don’t have time or care to read all of Charlotte Mason’s books but are interested. It’s her last book, the one she wrote after decades of experience teaching, in which she sharpens and refines her thoughts on education.


Don’t have time to read a book about Charlotte Mason’s educational theories, but could listen to a podcast while you fold laundry or commute to work? Cindy Rollins has a new podcast, The New Mason Jar that has been comforting to me, comforting in making me feel like yes, I can do this! Cindy and various guests – mothers who’ve been doing this a while – talk about what education looks like played out in real life with real mothers and real kids.


Myths, Fairy Tales, and Church Fathers


The Church Fathers read myths? Actually, yes, many of them did. And they saw images of Christ embedded in stories. Justin Martyr calls these images “seeds of truth.” If this idea interests you, you might like to listen to Why Read Pagan Myths where I first heard this phrase - seeds of truth.


This article about St. Justin the Philosopher and Martyr from Orthodox Christian Fellowship articulates some of these ideas I have been trying to grapple with about creation, patterns, and Christ the Logos. It also links to the full text of St. Justin’s writing in which he mentions seeds of truth.


The Literary Life Podcast is free and if you scroll through the archives you might be delighted to find a discussion on a short story or Shakespeare Play you plan to read with your children or an idea you would like to think more about.


Not-Free Resources

(But worthwhile “Professional Development”)


I am currently taking a class from the House of Human Letters on How to Read Fairytales and it is very helpful in learning how to see the images! It is the reason I understood the thorns, the lips, the life in Sleeping Beauty, and most of my thoughts in this series came from this class combined with my spiritual reading. It turns out that most people in the Middle Ages knew what all the symbols were and what they meant, but we’ve lost quite a bit of that now. House of Humane Letters offers lots of “live or later” courses and webinars. 


From the Archives

Sunday of Orthodoxy is coming up this weekend. Here are some coloring pages and handwriting sheets to help your kids become more aware of this first Sunday of Great Lent.


For a look at real, live, not-perfect crafting and connections with little ones, here’s a science activity: STREAM - Creation and Chocolate. I know, I know: in this activity I helped them make the connections, after I told you not to make the connections for them. What can I say, sometimes an artsy gal is called to teach science and do a craft. In that case, one just makes do.


Here are the other posts about Science of Relations:

1.     Science of Relations: Delightful Connections

2.     Science of Relations: For all of Us (not just homeschooling mamas)

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Science of Relations: Part 2

What if I don’t use Charlotte Mason or homeschool my kids, why should I care about Science of Relations?


As an Orthodox Mother, one of my life struggles is to rightly see the contours of reality and to help bring my children to be able to see too. I got that idea about needing to develop the “contours of reality” from Bishop Irenei in The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer



It’s one of those books, like The Philokalia, that I can read only a couple of paragraphs at a time. And then I have to read those same paragraphs over and over, over the course of several days. Of course, those are just MY current readings. 

If you are wondering what YOU should read, ask your priest! 😀

But let’s get back to BLINDNESS and SEEING. Think of all the times Jesus encountered blind men in the Gospels. It was not only because those particular men needed physical sight. It is because we are all blind - spiritually blind - and need new sight. 


Obviously, the most important way to get this true sight is living the life of the Church: Prayer, Sacraments, Scripture, Lives of the Saints, Alms-giving, Fasting, etc.


But in addition to the Life of the Church, it seems that God in his mercy gives us art as a means of seeing reality. In times prior to our Modern Life, this is what art meant to do - portray reality through patterns. 


Musical patterns, nature patterns, image patterns, story patterns. 


When oral traditions of storytelling - from all over the world - end up repeating the same patterns and images, it is not because people just happen to find comfort somehow in these images. It is because they are glimpses of true TRUTH embedded within the creation, truth that can’t help but come out.


In this fallen world, we see only in shadow. In our own society, people no longer look to religion to tell what is true. Mankind can do it! 

I taught public high school for ten years and my students often voiced this desire. I once had a young man, bright of mind, slight of stature, a 9th grader with his dark bangs hanging over his eyes, explain it to me perfectly: “The Scientific Method is my measure of reality. If I can’t see it, taste it, smell it, touch it, or hear it - it doesn’t exist.”

It’s pretty hard to see the unseen if that is one’s idea of reality!

You might be thinking, that’s too bad for that kid, but I’m an Orthodox Christian. I know unseen reality exists.

True, but I think it would be fair to assume that as members of our age, our way of seeing is effected by the ways of thinking around us. We swim in the pool of our times. And there is pee in the pool. It's hard to avoid. 

But we can try to draw our minds back to reality. We can experience the unseen as incarnated patterns in paintings, music, and stories: like in thorns, a touch, lips, and life. Embedded in a fairytale, we find images of sin and death, the Body and Blood of Christ, and Life.

As a human person, much less a particular kind of person called an Orthodox Mother, it’s worth paying attention to life and looking at God’s creation, along with the creations of His creations. 

Our children are going to read something. Listen to something. Look at something.  It’s worth putting true stories and music and art in front of them.

And then paying attention to them.

And being open to what we see. 

And what connections we see between them.

Snow White

Next time I will share with you a whole basketful of cool resources to learn more about fairytales and the science of relations. For now, I hope you enjoy your own delightful connections that pop up in this whole big world of God’s. Open your eyes to notice them!



Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Science of Relations: Delightful Connections

The other day I was reading a paragraph of the Little Russian Philokalia and I gasped! Right there in front of my eyeballs I was seeing the same images I had just seen in the Grimm brothers’ version of Sleeping Beauty (originally called Little Briar Rose). 

I enjoyed a little rush of excitement and shook my head once again at the connection. What did I see?

Both writings share these words: 


thorns, touch, lips, life


In the original Sleeping Beauty she herself is cursed, but the curse also affects the world around her. The servants fall asleep, the horses fall asleep, and even the land is cursed with thorns surrounding the castle. 

 Only the son of the King can reverse the curse.

When the True Prince traverses the thorns, they transform into flowers. When the prince touches her lips with a kiss, the curse is broken and she awakens to new life



In The Little Russian Philokalia, Volume 2, Elder Nazarius is writing advice to his monks and says that the Body of Christ will “consume all your sinful thorns which grow in you… as soon as you see the priest’s hand stretched out with the Holy Sacrament and touching your lips… picture and believe with your whole soul that you receive it from the hand of Christ Himself, Who stands invisibly and places it within your mouth… (giving you) life” (pg 66).         


Image from St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in McKinney, TX

What exactly is the Science of Relations? 

It’s just a name for something we all do anyway, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We notice connections between things. And this is normal! We should notice the connections because everything is connected! All of creation is organized by God as one big WHOLE and all the sub-creators within it are a part of that creation. 

The term “Science of Relations” is the name British educator Charlotte Mason gave to this connection-making.

Ambleside Online explains: “Charlotte Mason defined education as a series of relationships formed by the learner as he developed intimacy with a wide range of subjects - something she called "The Science of Relations." 

A series of relationships formed by the learner. That’s me - I’m the learner. 


I read a fairy tale one day.

I listen to a podcast or take an online class to dig deeper and take special notice of some images. 

The next day I read from the Philokalia and see the same images. 

I relate the fairytale to the Eucharist.

I write a blog post and in writing remember Jane Meyer’s book The Man and the Vine and how when the little girl took communion, the “love filled her mouth”


All these connections add meaning to what I read and think and my understanding of the world and reality grows.


The love of the Son of the King touches my lips and I am saved from the sinful thorns of death and given life!


Of course, I’ve been talking about me, not just my children. As I heard at the end of The New Mason Jar podcast, “children are born persons, and so are their moms."

We all get a lifetime of education!

What about you? What delightful connections have you made recently? I would love to hear them!