Infuriating, confusing, verbose, witty, hilarious, tragic, magical, satirical – there are many things one can say about Shakespeare, but to say that he’s outdated or overrated would be a mistake. Unapproachable might be a good term, especially for those of us whom Shakespeare was thrust upon us in a 9th grade English class. But what if Shakespeare wasn’t a requirement, but more of a secret discovery? Introducing Shakespeare earlier rather than later, by choice rather than requirement, can make these classic works more approachable and in the end enjoyable.
Start with a comedy, which is less heavy in content and language. My choice for first Shakespeare? A Midsummer Night’s Dream for upper elementary or early middle schoolers. It has royalty, fairies, mischief, and a character named Bottom. This fact alone is hilarious to kids, but then he gets a donkey head and is called an Ass – highly amusing and a little naughty. Seeing a production in your area is the best way to introduce Shakespeare – as there is nothing like the visual combined with the words to make it come alive. We just went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a free production of Shakespeare in the Park. To me this is the ideal way to see Shakespeare – live theater, warm summer night, and a nominal donation means we can enjoy Shakespeare to the fullest – and if necessary leave early without regret.
Some preparation is good before you attend a Shakespeare play. Sparknotes are a great resource to give an overview of the production in contemporary language. Shakespeare: The Animated Tales is a 4 DVD set with twelve of Shakespeare’s well known works. This BBC production is extremely well done, using some of the Shakespearean language but keeping the story clear and concise. Either of these options are great preparation for watching a full production, and will help to ensure it is a positive experience.
Shakespeare has been reinvented and re-imagined many times. Another great way to introduce and enjoy Shakespeare is to compare and contrast different interpretations. Read or see a production of The Taming of the Shrew and then check out the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You to see a modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s classic story of sisters Bianca and Katerina.
In addition there are some helpful series to make Shakespeare more accessible including No Fear Shakespeare by Sparknotes – which gives the full Shakespeare text on one side and a modern translation of the opposite page. This is helpful for slightly older readers who want to tackle reading the plays on their own. Shakespeare Can Be Fun! is a series by an elementary school teacher Lois Burdett from Stratford, Ontario, Canada (home of the Stratford Festival each summer) that rewrites the plays in rhyming couplets for easy interpretation or performance. The brand new book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig provides guidance helping your child grasp the far-reaching influence of Shakespeare as well as the cultural implications that are relevant to this day.
If Shakespeare on his own isn’t enough, or maybe he’s just a little too much, you can start with these fun Shakespeare themed reads to get your young reader excited about the Bard.
Romeo & Juliet: A BabyLit Counting Primer is a delightful board book for the littlest readers. Based on the characters and story of Romeo & Juliet toddlers can have their very first introduction to Shakespeare while learning their numbers and counting. PB
Jack and Annie are on another adventure in the Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne. In Stage Fright on a Summer Night they travel to Elizabethan England and meet William Shakespeare at the Globe Theater. When actors in his latest play fail to show up can Jack and Annie fill in and save the day, even if it means performing for the Queen herself? ER-1/2
Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach is the story of Hero, a young girl with an unfortunate name -or so she thinks- who discovers a mystery involving her elderly neighbor, a million dollar diamond and Shakespeare. With the help of the coolest kid in school, who surprisingly wants to help her, Hero discovers the truth to the mystery and a little about herself. Read Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to learn the story of Shakespeare’s Hero. MR-4/5
In Deron R. Hicks Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave Colophon Letterford loves the family publishing company that was founded by Miles Letterford hundreds of years ago. But now her father’s role as head of the company is at risk and her mysterious cousin Julian needs Colophon’s help to piece together a mystery that is the heart of all the Letterford family is founded on. Unravel the secrets hidden by time to help Colophon discover a priceless treasure. MR-4/5
Gary Blackwood’s The Shakespeare Stealer is an historical drama set at none other than Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Widge is an orphan with a unique skill – he can write in a special code. Ordered to steal Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Widge works his way into the Globe to copy the lines of the play. However, the players in the acting troupe welcome him. Can Widge betray them and follow orders? Or has he finally found his true home? MR-5/6