Brave Writer, Homeschooling, Literature

Reading Shakespeare’s Plays with my Kids

The words and the language of Shakespeare’s plays can be intimidating for kids, and let’s face it, most adults as well.

Do not let that stop you from tackling this subject with your younger students.  They can learn to appreciate, enjoy, and perhaps even fall in love with the world of Shakespeare.

And you can right along with them!

Ideas and resources to help you teach and enjoy shakespeare's plays with kids.

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Of course, I suggest that you first begin with some basic information about Shakespeare’s life and the Globe Theater.  Then it is time to pick a play to read.

Shakespeare’s plays are divided into three basic groups:  comedies, tragedies, and histories.  (Sometimes a fourth group, the romances, is included.)

When selecting a play for your younger children, I recommend beginning with comedies.  The storylines are generally light-hearted, memorable, and engaging for kids.  I have read, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Much Ado about Nothing” to my children.

We have also read, “Romeo and Juliet“, though I don’t suggest starting there.  It is one of my personal favorites.  Starting with a personal favorite allows the opportunity for your children to catch your enthusiasm.

Shakespeare’s Plays with Kids: Start with a story

When reading a play to my children, I find that it helps to begin with a story version of the play.  You can find several great story versions of Shakespeare.   The stories will introduce your children to the characters and basic plot.  Many of these versions include occasional text from the original play, some more than others.

Our family owns the hardcover version of this wonderful book. Stories From Shakespeare illustrated by Elena Temporin and retold by Anna Claybourne which includes 11 of The Bard’s plays.  Several comedies are retold in this book, including, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”   My children enjoyed this version and didn’t want me to stop reading.  They thought that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was hilarious!

While the Usborne book is my favorite, there are many options when you are looking for a retelling of a Shakespeare play. This week we were reading, “Much Ado About Nothing,” and it isn’t included in the Usborne book so I had to find another option.

Our library had this version by Leon Garfield available and it included the play we were looking for.

The retelling included a decent amount of the original text and it was entertaining for the kids.

Of course, there are also incredible picture books that do a beautiful job of retelling these stories.  

This version of Romeo and Juliet by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Jane Ray is my favorite BY FAR!

The story includes much of the original text from the play but it also summarizes along the way as needed.  Our family read this book one Saturday morning and all of the kids were engaged.

Once everyone is familiar with the basic plot and the characters, then you can dive in deeper or leave it at that.  Last year, we simply read the story version, enjoyed it, and then moved on to other learning.  This year, inspired by our Brave Writer Family Shakespeare class, we dove in deeper.

Shakespeare’s Plays With Kids: Learn a Specific Scene

I suggest taking a deeper look at a specific scene or two.  If you aren’t familiar with the play, a basic google search will help you find memorable speeches or dialogues in any of the plays.  Once you are settled on a scene, it is time to take a deeper look.

There are resources to help you with a basic English translation, though some of the deeper word meanings and word plays will require more effort.

The Shakepeare Made Easy Series is a fantastic tool to help you and your children understand the “plain English” meaning behind Shakepeare’s words.  The pages on the right-hand side have the original text while the pages on the left-hand side of a more “plain English” version of the play.  You can instantly check the basic meaning of what is being said.  If you want to dig deeper into a specific section or term, you will have to go hunting a little online.

No Fear Shakespeare is another book series that can be accessed for free online.   We did not used the printed book, but instead, accessed the material online.

Like the Shakespeare Made Easy Series, the online “book” has both the modern and original translations side by side.  You can look up specific plays and then narrow in on the Act and Scene you wish to read.

I selected Act 1, Scene 1, lines 92-114 from, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

First, we watched other people read through the scene in Kenneth Branagh’s movie version:

Then we read through it once and I summarized what was being said in my own words (as I studied it the night before).

NOTE:  If you don’t have enough copies of the play for each child, you can do a little copy/paste and print the scene out for everyone.

Finally, we looked up words that we didn’t know and in doing so, gained a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare’s wit. For example, take a look at this conversation in Act 1, Scene 1 of “Much Ado About Nothing”:

BENEDICK
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue and so good
a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name. I have done.

BEATRICE
You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old.

In these lines, we were confused by the meaning of a jade’s trick because the modern english version simply said: You always slip out of the argument like this. I know you from before.

We understood the basic meaning, but wanted to know what a jade’s trick meant. So we looked it up.  We discovered that, “Literally, a “jade” is an ill-conditioned horse; so a “jade’s trick” is what you would expect from such a creature—that it drop out of a race before the finish.”

Benedict wishes his horse were as fast as Beatrice’s tongue and she declares him an ill-conditioned horse that has to drop out of the race of wits before it is over.  The quick wit of Beatrice to respond to Benedict’s horse comment with a horse insult of her own is lost in the modern translation.

But it is BRILLIANT.

And it is one example of how you can dig a little deeper by looking up unfamiliar words and terms.  Thank goodness for google and the internet.  Both have helped make Shakespeare a topic that can be tackled by this homeschooling mom.

Shakespeare’s Plays With Kids:  Watch a Play or the Movie Adaptation

Live theater is the best option, but it isn’t always available at the right time or location.  Thankfully, many of Shakespeare’s plays have movie adaptations available for purchase or rent through amazon or Netflix.  We chose to view the Kenneth Branagh version of “Much Ado About Nothing” and it was tons of fun to watch.  As always, use parental discretion when selecting a movie for your kids to watch.  This particular one did have a scene that I fast forwarded.

Hint: Declare it the schoolwork for the day and the kids will easily buy in.  Popcorn and a movie as school for the day!

Shakespeare’s Plays with Kids: Create a Reminder

I wanted a way to remember the characters and plot of the play we had studied.  It had to be something simple that we could keep around to remind us of our study.  I decided that we would create a poster.

I grabbed a bunch of markers and some posterboard.  No one was really interested in helping me until I called my boys (ages 9 and 6) over.  I asked them to help me decide what to do for the bad guy’s name, Don John.  Then both girls wanted to add a few things as well.

IMG_5054

In the end, we have a simple poster to hang in our school room. Everyone make a contribution and I am happy with the outcome.  When we tackle another play, we will add to our collection.

And there you have it.  Four steps for tackling Shakespeare with your kids.

Have you tackled Shakespeare with your family?  What play have you most enjoyed?

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Ideas, tips and resources to help you teach and enjoy Shakespeare with kids.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Lise May 19, 2016 at 3:24 am

    I just finished watching your scope about this and came over here to say thank you! I haven’t done much Shakespeare with my daughter yet, but she’s memorized the first passage from “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” and loved “Will’s Words” and spots and identifies his portrait everywhere, so I think we’re ready to begin! I’d ordered the Usborne book before your scope had ended!

    I also want to give you this idea from my college Shakespeare class. I had an awesome professor. We were to keep a journal and had a certain number of things we had to do in it from a great big list. The one I loved most was to take a comic strip (I used Calvin and Hobbes), white out the words, and replace them with words from a scene from Shakespeare. I had such fun with a scene with lots of insults! I think kids would love giving it a try, too.

    • Reply notbefore7@gmail.com May 19, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      That is BRILLIANT!!! Thanks Lise. I am going to try that!

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