Many have never considered the possibilities that lie in the study
of Shakespeare for younger children. Shakespeare, a prerequisite
for high school literature classes, needn't be reserved for a once
in a lifetime wrestling match. Shakespeare's stories can be enjoyed
in their own right, and a gentle introduction to his vocabulary
and writing style can be nurtured into a lifelong love of the melody
This article will focus on Shakespeare's plays. However, you will
want to include Shakespeare in your study of poetry. His sonnets
are not to be missed.
Shakespeare's plays can be divided into three categories: comedies,
tragedies, and histories. Shakespeare had a rollicking sense of
humor and a keen eye for the common foibles of mankind. Society's
conventions have changed over time and many of the situations depicted
would be hard to imagine happening in "modern American society".
Nevertheless, the reactions and responses of the characters to these
situations are timeless. Discussing these responses and our own
reaction to them lead us to consider questions about right and wrong,
truth, and how we should treat each other.
Bringing Shakespeare down to the level of elementary age children
is not as disconcerting a task as it seems at first. The primary
obstacle to overcome is vocabulary. Many of Shakespeare's plays
have been rewritten in prose form. These prose "translations"
eliminate most of the difficult phrasing while retaining the essential
vocabulary and flavor of Shakespeare's writing. As you pre-read
a play, highlight the words you feel will need to be explained.
These can become your vocabulary list. Be prepared to define these
words as you come to them in your read aloud time. At the end of
a days reading with your children, you can review these words with
them. Have them write down each word, define it, and draw a picture
to represent the word.
During your pre-reading, you can also plan topics for discussion.
You don't need a formal plan, but do need to consider the various
discussion points that might arise from reading the play. This will
give you the opportunity to decide how to handle the "problems"
that Shakespeare presents. Of course, your children may surprise
you with insights you had not seen or questions you had not considered.
Plan each day's read aloud time to suit the listening ability of
your children. Pause frequently and ask one of the children to narrate
back to you what you have just read. After the first child has finished
their narration, ask the others to add any details they remembered.
If your children have trouble retelling the story, show them how
it's done by narrating that section yourself. These frequent pauses
are also good places to ask some of the why or what do you think
questions you have planned from your pre-reading. It's also fun
to ask "what do you think is going to happen next" type
When you finish reading the play, you will want to discuss the
overall theme of the play with your children. What was Shakespeare's
purpose in writing this particular play? You can have your children
write their own story using the same theme.
To get a better understanding that, although you read it as prose,
it is a play, you can plan to attend an actual production. Many
larger communities offer outdoor Shakespearean plays during the
summer months. If you do not have ready access to a theatrical production,
there are a number of plays produced as movies now on video. See
the list below for titles and ratings.
After seeing a play on stage or on video, you can extend your study
farther by staging your own production. For the stout hearted that
could mean involving your support group in a complete presentation.
A family might consider doing one or two scenes. Staging your own
production can send you on a learning excursion into costuming,
set design, speaking techniques, and the history of theater. How
was your play staged in Elizabethan times? Who went to see Shakespeare's
plays? How did the actors dress then and how do they dress now for
Shakespearean productions? What are stage directions? Who tells
the actors what to do? What kinds of materials are used to design
a set? How do they change sets quickly? Whether you choose to stage
a scene from the play or not, you should read a portion of the play
in the original to your children. This will show them how a playwright
writes a play. Point out the various conventions: list of characters,
character's names before the lines they speak, stage directions
in parenthesis, and set descriptions. If your children have written
their own story already, they can now convert that story into a
If you have chosen to read one of the histories, you may want to
find out how accurate Shakespeare was in presenting history. Compare
Shakespeare's version of events with Winston Churchill's A History
of the English Speaking Peoples. You can discuss the difference
in purpose between a play and a history. Why would a playwright
change historical events? Is it proper to do so? What is artistic
license, and when does artistic license become propaganda? Is the
play a reflection of society in the time that the play is set or
a reflection of the author's contemporary society?
With older children you will want to do an in depth study of at
least one comedy and one tragedy. To do so, you will need a version
of each play that includes notes. The resource list that accompanies
this article gives several suggestions. I prefer the Cambridge School
Your study can include the structure of the play itself including
the use of verse and prose throughout the play and other literary
techniques such as alliteration, changes in meter and rhythm, and
personification. A good resource for learning about literary terms
is A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams. If your children
have been introduced to Shakespeare at a younger age, you will be
able to build on what they have already learned.
Shakespeare can be fun for all ages. His plays have retained their
popularity for hundreds of years because they are well written,
interesting stories. Your family will benefit from the discussions
Shakespeare's plays provoke and enjoy the results of writing or
acting in their own plays.
|| Coloring books---Bellepheron,
|| The Plays the Thing,
board game, middle-high school ages, Aristoplay, 1-800-634-7738.
Theater & Costume Sites:
Writing Co., 1-800-421-4246. They have a variety of catalogs.
Ask for the Shakespeare catalog specifically.
|| Pioneer Drama Service,
play adaptations for children, 1-303, 779-4035.
|| The Mind's Eye,
audio cassettes, 1-800-949-3333.
Shakespeare: The Writing Company
This catalog is so full of wonderful resources for studying Shakespeare's
plays that I thought I should tell you a bit more about it. I never
imagined there were enough Shakespearean resources to fill a 48
page catalog until I saw this catalog. This catalog is chock full
of posters, software, books, replicas, videos, charts, activity
books, games, and playkits covering every aspect of Shakespeare's
life and works, theater production, costuming, English literature,
poetry, and English history. If you are serious about studying Shakespeare
you will want to call for this free catalog. 1-800-421-4246.
Shakespeare on Video
Until you begin investigating, you might think that Shakespeare
on video would be hard to come by. Not true. There have been any
number of film productions of various plays, some sticking quite
close to the text of the play others taking so much license they
are almost unrecognizable. West Side Story is an example where the
theme and conflict of the play, Romeo and Juliet, remain, but the
characters and story are changed.
This is a list of the productions you might want to obtain from
your library or video rental store. This is not a comprehensive
list, but does include the most well known and the better known
film productions of Shakespeare's plays. I've deliberately left
off the real stinkers, but I don't begin to claim that all the films
on this list are something you will enjoy. You'll want to use your
own descretion and perhaps preview the videos before you use them
with your children.