Thursday, September 3, 2015

Taming of the Shrew - By the Seat of our Pants

We were fortunate to be able to end off our summer, and start into a new school year by attending a free "in the park" performance of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew - one of my personal favorites of Shakespeare's plays.

As you can see from the costumes, the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks troupe gave the play a Wild West setting.   They stuck to the original Elizabethan English (for the most part) though, and Kate was still delightfully shrewish...

...and, best of all, they left in the usually discarded bit, at the beginning, with Christopher Sly.

I was actually extremely happy to see the play set in the old American West, because it went right along with the impromptu Taming of the Shrew study we (the teens and I) had done in preparation for the play.

I wanted them to enjoy the experience of going to the play (you know - "the plays the thing" and all that), so I didn't dump them into a lot of heavy studies before we went.  At the same time though, I wanted them to be familiar enough with the story, and comfortable enough with the language, that they would be able to understand the comedy, and maybe even love it as much as I do. 

Up until this summer we've only touched on Shakespeare.  Last fall we read some out of William Shakespeare's Star Wars by Ian Doescher, reader's theater style, and learned about iambic pentameter, and some theatrical devices, such as asides, that Shakespeare liked to use (a huge hit).

And, the teens, at various times have checked out and read some of the abridged versions of the plays in the Manga Shakespeare series.  But, beyond that we haven't really done much with Shakespeare's plays or poetry.  I've tried to get the children interested a few different times, but they were turned off by the language (tragic, I know), and the age of the plays.

This time though, I gave it a good running, by the seat of my pants type start.

First off I handed them my grandmother's old copy of the Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare (part of the  What Every Child Should Know Library).  Ours is an old volume (I read it myself in junior high), but newer printings can still be purchased.

Lamb's Tales are a fantastic introduction to Shakespeare for children (or reluctant teens).  The plays are all summarized into easily read, short story form, but still capture the themes and much of the feel of the original plays.

Once my teens had a grasp of the general story we moved onto the actual play, first reading a summary of the entire play, and of each act, and then reviewing the character map, and glossary of the more difficult vocabulary from CliffsNotes...

...and then the play in Elizabethan and modern English (side by side on opposite pages) from No Fear Shakespeare.  Honestly, I'm not crazy about the modern English version, but there are all kinds of little notes in the margins filling in background, and explaining customs, and details that you might normally just skim over without looking up.

As they became familiar with the play we watched the BBC performance of Taming of the Shrew, featuring John Cleese, on Amazon instant view (because who doesn't love John Cleese?).

And then, to gain a better understanding of the intricacies, and difficulties of the play for modern audiences, we watched "The Taming of the Shrew" episode of Shakespeare Uncovered,  narrated by by Morgan Freeman, and interspersed with his own personal experience of playing the lead (opposite Tracey Ullman, no less) in a Shakespeare in the Park production set in - the old American West.

This particular episode focuses in on the abusive chauvinist vs. empowering feminist fires of the play, and does an excellent job exploring them.
Finally, we checked out the modern remake, 10 things I hate about you, based loosely on The Taming of the Shrew.  Or, at least, we watched part of it.  The girls enjoyed seeing the characters, and some of their favorite lines, translated into a modern high school setting, but were turned off by the level of crassness in the movie, and turned it off before the end.

By this point all three of my teens (T joined in part of reading, even though he is in college now, and no longer studying with us - not to let the girls have all the fun) were familiar with The Taming Shrew

It was a quick (about one week) study, nothing like the fantastic "summer of Shakespeare" Claire has been posting about over at angelicscalliwags (you'll want to check out her posts if you haven't yet), but really built up an excitement in the house for going to see the play - which I am happy say, the teens enjoyed every bit as much as I did, despite a downright cold, gale force windy, forest fire smoke filled evening.

Waiting for the play to start.
There's nothing like homeschooling in Montana!


Bailey said...

I had high school English teachers who were amazing at making Shakespeare accessible. DH and I went back to a tribute to them a few years back to see a Shakespeare production set in the 1920's Chicago mob. DH is not a Shakespeare fan and couldn't believe I drag him to one, but loved it when he got there and realized with the scene set so to speak and the action focused on the time period, the language was less of a barrier to him.

What you outlined here was what I loved about their style. They always explained the culture, history, and reasons behind the language. It wasn't just a boring Shakespeare to English translation that I later got in college English. You can directly translate Shakespeare to modern English, but lacking the history and culture, it still leaves you lost much of the time.

This sounds like it was a great exprience. Have you tried the musical Kiss Me Kate? We did the Taming of the Shrew and performed Kiss Me Kate in the same year.

Natalie PlanetSmartyPants said...

This is a great preparation! We have seen Taming of the Shrew during last year's Shakespeare in the Park, and our then 7 year old enjoyed it more than I thought she would. But this year they had Romeo and Juliet, and she did not want to go, because she read the retelling and did not like the ending ;)

Sue Elvis said...

After reading your post, I now want to watch Taming of the Shrew again!

I like watching versions of Shakespeare's plays set in different times and places. I've never seen one set in the Wild West though!

Thank you for all the resources. I shall be following your links.

sunflowerous said...

Sounds like lots of fun, the preparation and the play. I tried introducing Shakespeare last year, but kids weren't interested. I do have Shakespeare's Star Wars at home, surely it will help. Manga is a big thing in our house too, I'm curious to see Shakespeare's one now :)

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

Bailey - I haven't seen Kiss Me Kate, but it sounds like fun.

Sunflowerous - It's quite an interesting take on Shakespeare, and Star Wars :)

Angelic Scalliwags said...

Hi Leah, thanks for the mention! Have you seen the BBC production of Taming of the Shrew? (I think it is called Shakespeare retold. It is a very modern interpretation (probably even more modern the Ten things I hate about you) but it is so much better. I watched it twice and I haven't even started teaching the children yet (we are continuing with our Shakespeare studies each friday). It does have a small amount of cross dressing in it. Also another fun adaptation is the old Moonlighting one. You can see that on youtube (in fact the BBC one is also on youtube). It's typical Bruce Willis and Cybal Sheppherd humour but very good nonetheless.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

Claire - I thought about the Moonlighting one, but the kids have never seen the show, so I wasn't sure they would appreciate the parody. I however would love to see it to YouTube!

Ticia said...

There's also a musical version of it called "Kiss Me Kate," which is based loosely off an actual theatrical couple who were similar that's worth watching. You'd probably enjoy that as part of your studies.

You should try some of the Kenneth Branaugh Shakespeare movies, I really enjoy those. Also reading the first act of Hamlet outside by candlelight is amazingly eerie.

maryanne @ mama smiles said...

Very cool! I love this Shakespeare play, too. I also recommend the musical Kiss Me, Kate.

I grew up reading Shakespeare plays out loud with my siblings - starting as young as 7 or 8 years old. We had a great time!

Have you seen the LEGO Shakespeare books? They are done by the same guy who did the Bible books, but focus less on the negative/controversial stuff than the Bible one does. The Bible one has a pretty clear anti-Christian slant to it.