Raising Readers, Reading Guides, Reflections, Resources
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Introducing Shakespeare’s Plays to Children

Should you wait until your children are in high school before expecting them to tackle Shakespeare? Why not start them young, while they love learning words and listening to stories, while memorizing is easy for them? They might as well, because as Janie observed yesterday, we’re surrounded by Shakespeare in literature and culture, and our children might as well enjoy it sooner rather than later.

Tales from ShakespeareWhere do you begin, with the man or his work? I decided to first introduce my children to the plays so they could appreciate the bard’s significance, then later this month we’ll progress to reading about his life and the globe theater. I have boys who love dressing up and sword fights, so I started by reading them simplified variations of Hamlet. First Marcia Williams’s four page, graphic-novel format gave us an overview.  Two volumes are available now: Tales from Shakespeare and More Tales from Shakespeare.  I commend Williams for her excellent illustrations and the layout which includes a summary of the action, brief quotations, and comments from the audience. Great basic introduction.

Next I read another version for children in the Shakespeare Can Be Fun! series by Lois Burdett. Burdett taught Shakespeare’s plays to children as young as seven, and her success is evident as the books are illustrated by her students’ drawings and perceptive story summaries. They get it! She writes in rhyming couplets, including Shakespeare’s words whenever possible. Even so, I needed to summarize the events as we went along.

Building our exposure, I found Hamlet in both in E. Nesbit’s The Children’s Shakespeare and Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb on Librivox. These versions contain more narrative and rarely quote the characters directly, but they do suggest more motives and provide more explanation of the story. I am not sure I could say that one these four versions alone was more effective than another. Together they introduced characters and plot, laying a foundation that makes the story familiar, preparing us to dig more deeply into the plays sometime in the future.

Next we need to learn the beautiful language of Shakespeare and its meaning…

How to Teach Your Children ShakespeareThat’s where Ken Ludwig, a well-known playwright and long-time Shakespeare-lover can help.  How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare takes a delightfully simply approach to the subject beginning with the author’s cardinal rule: the best way to appreciate Shakespeare’s poetry is to memorize it.  And that is much easier than you might suspect, if you stick with the author’s cardinal method: adjust to the natural rhythm of the lines.  You can get some idea of his method by visiting the website and reading Chapters 1 and 2.  Ludwig even includes printable downloads of the “quotation sheets,” which are essential to his method of memorization.  He might be a little too worshipful of the Bard–many theater people are–but his argument that kids will be better for having these words in their heads makes sense.

For immersion in the plays, the Shakespearience eBooks, designed for a tablet or iPad, look like an intriguing  option, though we haven’t had a chance to look at them in person yet.  The full text of the play includes touchable interface with a glossary for looking up unfamiliar terms.  That’s all well and good, but audio clips are included, so the text can be heard as well as read.  Since the plays were written to be heard, this can be a big plus, especially since the interpreters are noted actors.   Photos, costume designs, and production notes from actual performances are included, as well as scene comparisons.  If you have an iPad, it might be worth purchasing one of the six available plays at $9.99 each.

For all of the above in book form, the Cambridge School Shakespeare series offers a full-surround experience with annotated text, discussion of themes and characters, color photos from different productions showing different interpretations, background material, performance history, group projects, writing activities, and more.  See if your local library has copies.

Much of the same type of material, but from a Christian perspective, can be found in an examination of Macbeth by Leland Ryken, as part of Crossway Publisher’s “Christian Guide to the Classics” series.  Macbeth is the only Shakespeare play available so far in the series, but it’s rich in subject matter for discussion with your older kids.

We’re just getting started! Janie will provide more practical ideas for teaching and appreciating Shakespeare next Tuesday, so stay tuned…


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