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Paris Review: How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare

Little House on Avon
by Laura C. Mallonee
For The Paris Review
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A couple of years after I graduated college, my mother gave me a present: her old set of Portuguese Little House on the Prairie books, which she first read at the age of twelve in Brazil. Uma Casa na Campina—the familiar story of a family leaving the safe realm of the Wisconsin woods for the unknown American West—had awakened her to wanderlust: reading itself became her own covered wagon plowing through uncharted prairies. Such yearning quickly blossomed into a passion for the English language, the channel through which a whole literary world came to life. And decades later on hot summer days, we would lie out in the yard as she labored, in her delicate accent, to bring the iconic figures of the literary canon to life. She guided my sister and me through glorious readings of many authors—from Charlotte Brontë to Nathaniel Hawthorne—but the one I mostly vividly remember to this day is Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I was in the third grade when we started the Little House books together, fully immersing ourselves in Wilder’s world. If Ma made flap-jacks, we topped our Saturday morning pancakes with old-fashioned maple syrup; when the Ingalls family ate sourdough biscuits, we cultured yeast for our own bread. My sister and I stripped the tender, green sheaths from store-bought cobs, soaked them, dried them, and made our own cornhusk dolls. In lieu of a gingerbread house, we gathered twigs and pebbles from the yard, constructing miniature log cabins inside halved cardboard boxes. My mother even made us calico sunbonnets using a costume pattern she found at the fabric store. Nothing about this seemed unusual to me; it was all part of the great narrative we had entered.

On November 5, 1920, a fifty-three-year-old Wilder wrote in the Missouri Ruralist, “It doesn’t occupy our brains to peel potatoes … Our bodies learn to do the everyday tasks without much head-work, leaving our minds free to pass thru these windows and follow the fascinating ways that lead from them.” Wilder’s window was not in the kitchen of Rocky Ridge Farm, her home in Missouri, but in her mind. On this day, she floated out of it into “Shakespeare’s country,” lovingly describing the poet’s sixteenth-century England for the newspaper’s Midwest readership. It is no surprise that Wilder read Shakespeare; Western writing flows out of him like water from a deep well.

In How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, playwright Ken Ludwig celebrates the power parents have to introduce their children to literature. Ludwig’s investment in the cause is personal; when his daughter was in the first grade, he decided that “if there was any skill—any single area of learning and culture—that I could impart to her while we were both healthy and happy and able to share things together in a calm, focused, pre-teen way, then Shakespeare was it.”

They began memorizing a series of twenty-five Shakespearean passages together, from Oberon’s plot against Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Prospero’s speech in The Tempest, and his step-by-step method is laid out in the book. An Olivier Award winner whose life’s work has been inspired by Shakespeare, Ludwig suggests the poet be invited as a “permanent houseguest” into your family’s home, or better yet, “the wise uncle … who always knows right from wrong … whom you can call on at a moment’s notice … who sees deeply, searingly, into the souls of us all.” By communing regularly with his plays, he says, children can formulate their worldviews through a “Shakespearean lens.” Discussing a passage in Macbeth, Ludwig writes:

One of the central puzzles of the play involves how we feel about Macbeth's violent end. Here is a man who murdered at will out of blind ambition, killing a kinsman, a guest, and a king, yet something about him makes us feel that he was possessed of a great spirit, with the potential for another, better life. Is it the language of his speeches? His affection for his wife? His struggles with his conscience? Or did he have no choice in life?

Readers may protest against the idea of a six-year-old grappling with Macbeth’s difficult content and archaic language, but Ludwig makes a compelling argument in favor: “When we experience a work of art that has genuine value … we see it differently depending on who we are by nature and where we are in the trajectory of our own experience.” In other words, true art grows with us as our understanding of it deepens through time.

Furthermore, he reasons, having an intimate knowledge of a masterpiece can steer your children toward their own greatness: “I am not only witty myself, but the cause that wit is in other men,” Falsteff announces in Henry IV. (Coincidentally, it was after reading Wilder’s books, I began to try my own hand at writing.) In this respect, Ludwig’s argument is similar to that of the novelist Graham Greene, who wrote that “in childhood all books are books of divination,” telling us about and influencing our own futures in ways they never do in adulthood: “What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years?” he asked.

Nowadays, it is accepted wisdom that Greene (and my mother) were onto something. One 2008 study confirms what Laura Bush and the rest of us already know—that children who are read aloud to have earlier language and literacy skills, becoming more likely to pick up a book down the road. In his autobiography, Salman Rushdie recalled his father reading him The Thousand and One Nights. Toni Morrison’s fiction also draws from the folktales her father told her. Did Shakespeare himself read to his children? We might have known, but his daughter died before the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon ever followed through on plans to interview her. We do know that he lived in London most of his life, seeing his family in the countryside only once a year.

By contrast, Wilder’s family was insular. They were strangers to the prairie, and their survival depended on a close family bond. Life on the plains was spent planting and gathering, fighting off wildfires and sickness and literally huddling together for warmth during one very long winter. Because of this, there’s a tenderness at the heart of Little House, borne from the pain of uprooting one’s self and setting off for unfamiliar country. While today they are tangled up with the television adaptation and the industry they spawned, the books weave a spell (a subject explored by Wendy McClure in her memoir The Wilder Life) even as the biographies and viewpoints of Wilder and her daughter Rose, have complicated the idyll for some modern readers. But there is something elementally appealing about this classic series: it speaks not only to the joy of exploration but also to the tenuous nature of comfort, culture and even friendship—the quiet, lonely hunger that can annihilate one if not for family.

It was Wilder, not Shakespeare, who informed my worldview. As a child, she urged me not to settle for the known world but to chase my own frontiers. The deeper lessons exemplified by the Ingalls about the importance of kinfolk only sunk in later, after I had left home for college in the Ozarks—Wilder’s own strange country—and found myself on my own. I think they are what my mother, who immigrated from Brazil to the United States in the early ‘80s, first saw in the books, and why she wanted to share them with my sister and me. It’s why she named me Laura.

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