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Get your kids hooked on Shakespeare ~
Written by Jamie Martin of Simple Homeschool and Steady Mom
This semester the kids and I have been diving deep into this popular history series, and recently I read aloud to them the Greek myth of the Minotaur.
Hearing the description of this half human/half beast, my Elijah (age 10) piped up with an eager hand raised and an observation:
“That reminds me of Caliban.”
Caliban, as in another beastly/human character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which we studied last spring. And I loved that this literary allusion came from my 10-year-old son, who has developmental delays and hasn’t yet crossed the threshold to independent reading.
Every child can have a positive relationship with Shakespeare, if the master playwright is introduced well.
What to be aware of when it comes to Shakespeare and young kids
We study Shakespeare because of his incredible mastery of the English language (and the fact that he invented much of it!).
He grows our vocabulary and helps us grasp and fall in love with the nuances of language. Additionally, his plays delve into the depths of human nature, allowing us to learn from the mistakes and successes of others.
For all there is to gain from studying Shakespeare, there’s definitely a good and a bad order to introduce his plays to young children. Though his works are genius, they can also contain sexual innuendo, murder, and plenty of other subjects on the yuckier side of the human experience.
(I won’t tell you all about the time I took Elijah’s enthusiasm for the subject a little too far and tried to read the kids’ version of Macbeth to him–#majormommyfail!)
When my kids were younger, I took comfort in this wise advice from Simply Charlotte Mason (SCM) about the order in which to introduce his plays based on age/grade level.
As a general rule, stick to the comedies for older elementary age and save the histories/tragedies for middle/high school. I began introducing my own kids to Shakespeare around ages eight or nine, depending on their own readiness and emotional maturity.
SCM recommends the following plays as possibilities for the elementary years:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- The Comedy of Errors
- As You Like It
- Twelfth Night
I should add that I’ve also had a good experience studying Two Gentleman of Verona and The Tempest with my tweens. Find a complete list of his plays by genre here.
Keep in mind your goal
Don’t just introduce Shakespeare because I say it’s a good idea, or because it shows up on some recommended reading list. Take the time to think through and come up with your own goal behind it.
My personal goal is to whet my kids’ appetites for Shakespeare, to leave them with a positive impression/taste in their mouths about his work–so that as they get older they’ll look forward to going deeper in study.
Keeping that objective in mind helps me decide which plays to introduce at what stage in our family.
A 5-step plan to get your kids hooked on Shakespeare
Of course, this order is just a suggestion, not a formula. Adapt it to work for you and yours!
1. Choose a play based on your children’s age/interest level.
An image from Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Animated Tales
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect first choice if you’re just getting started.
2. Read the story of the play in Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit.
This collection of Shakespeare’s most popular plays has been rewritten into beautiful prose by Edith Nesbit. I find this version to be the perfect first step to acquaint my kids to the plot and characters of the play.
The plays included in Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare
I usually write a list of the basic characters as we read through the story for the first time to help us remember their names and who they are as the plot progresses.
3. Next, read the same play in Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.
The Tales from Shakespeare version will help cement the storyline into your children’s minds so they really begin to grasp the plot of the play. (Bonus: You can get the book free on Kindle!)
List of plays retold in Tales from Shakespeare
By the way, take your time and don’t feel as though you have to read the entire chapter in one sitting. I often break it up depending on how “into it” my kids appear.
4. Watch Shakespeare: The Animated Tales version of your chosen play.
I can’t vouch for all the episodes on this list, but the first two I’ve watched with my children. We loved them!
Each episode is about 25 minutes long. Several represent Shakespeare’s tragedies, but I’ve put the comedies in bold print. I’d recommend previewing any of them before watching with your kids.
- The Tempest
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- As You Like It
- Julius Caesar
- King Richard III
- Romeo and Juliet
- The Winter’s Tale
- The Taming of the Shrew
- Twelfth Night
5. Go deeper.
Photo by Marialba Italia
By now, hopefully you have your kids hooked! Now you can expose them to the language of the full play and they won’t be lost by the plot.
At this point you can proceed a few different ways, based on your children’s ages and/or interests:
- Assign parts and have the kids join you in reading a favorite scene/act.
- Set the example by reading the full version of the play for yourself and discussing it with your kids. (Inspire, not require!)
- Attend a play in your neck of the woods. (You can start from this point, too. Last summer I found that a local Waldorf school would be performing The Tempest. Knowing I wanted to take the kids to it, I started at step 2 of this list to get the kids ready before the performance.)
- Download an audio version of the play and take it on the road with you – Audible has some excellent ones of Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Just keep in mind that the BBC radio version, while ideal for car listening, is slightly abridged. If you want to follow along with a written copy of the play while you listen, look for an unabridged version.
- Watch a full version (movie or play). Youtube can be an excellent place to search for a full and free version: Just make sure to preview first! When we were studying Two Gentleman of Verona, I found a full version on YouTube that had been performed in a park. The sound wasn’t perfect, but it was just what we needed. I followed along with the play while we watched.
Further popular resources to add to your book list:
In case you can’t see the images above:
- How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare
- Shakespeare for Children: Audio with Jim Weiss
- Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams
- Shakespeare Can Be Fun: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Shakespeare Can Be Fun: Twelfth Night
- Shakespeare Can Be Fun: The Tempest
- William Shakespeare and the Globe
- Shakespeare for Kids: His Life and Times
- Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare
Let’s give our kids a pleasant introduction to this genius wordsmith, and keep them coming back for more as they get older!
How have you successfully introduced Shakespeare to your little people?
What’s Your Homeschool Mom Personality? Take Jamie’s quiz now and receive a free personality report to help you organize your homeschool based on what your personality type needs most!
Over the summer, we listened to “Midsummer’s Night Dream” and “Taming of the Shrew” told by Jim Weiss. My children loved it. However, I felt rudderless as to how to proceed. So many of the plays are full of murder and more. This post is a wonderful resource and has given me the confidence to continue. Thank you!
So happy to hear that, Beth! And yes, that Jim Weiss production is fabulous!
This post is right up my alley. I bought the Ken Ludwig book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare and from there we totally immersed ourselves in Shakespeare including reading most of the books you’ve recommended, listening to audio versions and viewing many videos including popular movie versions. The only thing we haven’t done is go to see a live play. I think my kids like it mostly because I’m so into it (I never really studied Shakespeare and so feel I’m leaning it for the first time). A bonus is that my kids (10 and 7) have memorized several speeches from A Midsummer Nigfht’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet and it always impresses people when they recite them.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Jamie, all great ideas.
Isn’t it fun when our kids get excited about something because WE’RE excited about it?! Love it when that happens!
Also good – be an actor & director and rock out a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, then let your kids take the Puck horns home. Not an option for everyone, but it’s worked for us :). We’ve also got pictures of rehearsing a production of Macbeth 6 years ago with a baby in a sling. Our kids basically have no choice in the matter of liking Shakespeare, Chekhov and theater in general – this is in their blood.
Wonderful, Lupine! That photo will be precious in years to come!
Super inspiring Jamie! i would add that a lot of the local shakespeare companies (almost every state has one) have educational and out reach programs for kids. and most theaters have volunteer opportunities bc it takes so many people to put on a show…and not every position is paid…it could be worth looking into!
Definitely, Tricia! We have a lot of wonderful summer Shakespeare camps around our neck of the woods.
Introducing Shakespeare next year – WONDERFUL resource! Believe it or not I never even thought of what order to introduce them! Love the guide.
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I’m so glad you feel that way, Cindy! I know I would have loved to have something like this when I was trying to figure it all out for our family.
I just introduced my boys to Shakespeare this year, we started with A Mid Summer Night’s Dream. I do have to admit though that I’m not a fan of the Nesbit or Lamb versions. We read Bruce Coville’s version instead.
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Thanks for mentioning that, LaToya. I haven’t heard of that version before, so we’ll check it out!
“Bravo Mr. Shakespeare by Marcia Williams – it has a few of his plays written as comic strips – it uses some descriptions and a few quotes from the play.
ALSO – I live in the same state as you and my oldest is about the same age as your kids – I’d love to know about some of the local Shakespeare summer festivals/camps that would be appropriate for them. Could you please message me some info? Thanks! firstname.lastname@example.org
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This is great advice! I’ve taught a year-long Shakespeare class to middle schoolers for several years now and I agree with this list! However, the animated tales definitely have some inappropriate scenes you need to be wary of. Shakespeare is not lacking in bawdy-ness and most modern resources elaborate those “bits”.
Thanks for mentioning this about the animated tales, Pam! As I wrote in the post, I’ve only seen the first two myself (which were fine by our standards).
We must be on the same wavelength:) I just posted about enjoying Shakespeare with kids this morning! Seeing others sharing about the same ideas is so encouraging!! Thanks!
Angela Awald’s latest post: The Simple Guide to Enjoying Shakespeare with Kids
Oh, I love this! A fellow homeschooling mom told me about Nesbitt’s book and then I got sidetracked and ended up buying Lamb’s stories so now I have those! But I have never heard of The Animated Tales. Another resource I have liked, though, is Gareth Hinds’ graphic novels. He has King Lear, Macbeth and one another that I can’t remember right now. They’re quite well done!
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My children enjoy Shakespeare so much — and it’s really from not only hearing about him from their friends, but also seeing live theatre. I really believe the theatre can bring to life any genre or subject because of the power to engage! In our neck of the woods, it’s very popular to have free Shakespeare in the Park during the summer – it’s Brilliant! Thank you for the tips – always good to have tools in your chest of homeschoolery 😉
Wow, Jamie! You outdid yourself with this post; I’m Ever-noting it right away!!!! I’m a person who went into the theatre business and wound up becoming an actress who performed Shakespeare professionally. I only say that because I want to stress how important this ONE fact is: when you think your children don’t get this, they DO…on their own level…it’s amazing how much they get it. When I was a pre-teen I saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I fell in LOVE with Shakespeare. I read it and understood more of it than I probably understand now (I know that sounds strange). I just GOT it. And i know my children are that way too…my 7yo got irritated by the simplified version of a play I was reading and wanted me to read the real deal. It’s powerful. There’s a reason for his fame and his relevance. Thank you for breaking this down…it’s very helpful and a fantastic resource. <3
I agree theater is an essential skill for kids to have. It helps them learn improvisation techniques that are essential for professional careers.
King Lear By William Shakespeare (Summary, Book Review, Online Reading, Download, PDF): https://www.toevolution.com/file/view/2207/king-lear-by-william-shakespeare-summary-book-review-online-reading-download-pdf
I don’t think I agree with your advice to only share comedies with elementary age children. My 10 year old is LOVING Henry V this term. We read the chapter about the battle of Agincourt from HE Marshall’s Our Island Story to review the plot, rather than using Lamb or Nesbit. He’s been reading from the Classical Comics unabridged graphic novel, and I’ve been reading from my big old complete works, taking parts in some scenes and just alternating lines in others. He and my almost-9 are both begging to do Romeo and Juliet next. (We’ve read Bruce Coville’s picture book, and watched the Megan Follows DVD of that one after they bought it for me for Christmas last year.)
Obviously, you don’t want to read Titus Andronicus or Merry Wives of Windsor with your elementary age kids, but there are many histories and tragedies that can be appropriate to read and discuss. Charlotte Mason herself mentioned elementary-aged children reading and enjoying Macbeth, King John, and Richard II. (Vol 6, p 52)
Thank you so much for this awesome post! It is just what I needed. I have been wanting to introduce Shakespeare into our homeschool program, but have hesitated, not wanting it to quickly turn into drudgery. These steps and resources are perfect – thank you so much!!!!
Lana Leigh Wilkens
Hey Jamie, you wrote this several years ago, but that’s what is glorious about blogs – they keep giving long after you’ve moved onto other topics. I am just now starting to incorporate Shakespeare and we are excited to begin. Thanks for your thoughtful suggestions. I think we’ll begin with The Twelfth Knight because I’m most familiar with it and it’s funny. 🙂 So grateful for your resourcing on this! Have a great year with your family.
You know I found some interesting stuff here — https://www.dailystrength.org/journals/lady-macbeth
However, if there was a child, it was most likely dead and or absent.
That aside, when the reader is first introduced to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth it is clear that their love is strong. Since their (possible) child is out of the picture, Macbeth is the centre of Lady Macbeth’s affection.
She wants everything for him and will do anything for him.
After hearing the Witches’ prophesy, Macbeth tells his wife that he wants the throne of Scotland.
Thank you. Very helpful.