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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.
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.
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.
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?