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How To Introduce Your Children to Shakespeare

by Rebecca Ripperton
April 8, 2019

Shakespeare is a topic near and dear to our family’s heart. We all love reading Shakespeare, seeing plays performed lived, staging or even acting in plays, and talking to each other about Shakespeare. This sustained passion is in large part due to the way that our parents introduced the topic to us. So today we wanted to revisit just how our family began to introduce Shakespeare in hopes of helping other families have similarly positive experiences. This post is part one of two; the second post will follow in two weeks, on April 22, 2019.

Introduce the stories before the plays

It's always a good idea to introduce children to the stories well before they read or even watch the plays. There are a number of ways of doing this. The first is by reading literary adaptations, such as Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare or Tales from Shakespeare. (We read both books years ago as a family, and recommend them highly!) One advantage of following this method is that these stories all have literary merit in their own right and make excellent family read alouds, even if you aren't preparing to see them performed.

Another good way to introduce Shakespeare’s stories is to have a parent or older sibling tell the story aloud, perhaps in the car on the way to see a play for the first time. The storyteller doesn’t necessarily need to recount the entire plot (maybe you want to leave the ending as a surprise), but it is definitely worth providing some context for the story and a sense of familiarity with the primary characters ahead of time. Children are likely to be much more engaged if they have a good foothold into what’s happening at the very beginning.

Begin with the comedies

On a related note – we suggest beginning with the comedies! Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Taming of the Shrew all make great introductory plays. I would recommend postponing introducing the romances (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) until after a child has seen at least a comedy or two first. The Tempest, however, is one exception to that rule and would be an excellent first play. Lastly, although Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are technically comedies, they do deal with more mature content and are best reserved for older audiences.

Shakespeare live

Next, take your children to see as many Shakespeare productions as you can. Nothing beats seeing Shakespeare's plays performed live!

Here I would encourage you to take advantage of the resources in your community such as free Shakespeare in the Park events or other low-cost community theatre. Venues that specifically welcome and even cater to children are great, because these performances tend to be a bit higher energy. Your children will be freer to engage with the play and you won’t have to worry as much about keeping them quiet or still throughout the performance. Sometimes, too, community theatre productions can be creative in unexpected ways due to limited resources, and this can be a lot of fun to see. Besides, having a more minimal set or costumes can often give your child’s imagination room to play more freely.

Another excellent thing to do is to take your children to plays where they know at least one cast member. It’s so exciting as a child to see your older sibling, a family friend, or even a teacher in a play!

Returning to the same plays over and over again

Lastly, we've found tremendous value in returning to Shakespeare’s plays over and over again. Seeing and reading the same plays many different times affords a richer understanding of the play as a whole, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the characters and their language. These plays are so bountiful that the more time we spend with them, the more they yield to us (not unlike Cleopatra!)

"Other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."

— Antony and Cleopatra, Act II scene 2

All audiences, but children in particular, will discover new elements of a play each time they're exposed to it, which can be both exciting and rewarding. It's also a great lesson in the value of re-reading texts.

More on this same topic in 2 weeks! But in the meantime ...

Share your experience!

Do you remember your first exposure to Shakespeare or the first time you took your own children to a Shakespeare performance? What went well? What — if anything — do you wish you had done differently?  Please let us know in a comment below!

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Rebecca Ripperton
 

  • Ruth Reynolds says:

    I have always found it difficult to understand the language if the plays and hope to change that for my children. Thanks for the stories recommendation! Will help me and the kids!

    • Rebecca Ripperton says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ruth! I think the vast majority of people struggle with the language (at least initially), so you are in good company there. A combination of re-reading the plays, talking about them with other people, and also seeing them performed live has been key for me, but it’s still very much a work in progress. I definitely rely a lot on my memory of actors in a given role to start piecing together the meaning of thornier sections.

      Please let us know how you and your kids like the stories! Hopefully they are helpful!

      – Rebecca

    • Ruth, I wanted to pass on the encouragement I received from Megan Hoyt, a veteran homeschooling mother with children older than mine, who told me, as we were starting our journey, that the reading of Shakespeare becomes easier the more plays you read. I didn’t really believe her at the time, but she was absolutely right! It did get easier, and not just a little, but a LOT! In the meantime I recommend that you use the Folger editions of the plays with vocabulary helps on the lefthand side of each page spread, and the Shakespearean text on the right. Gradually, you will become aware that you need to consult the notes less and less.

  • Jeni says:

    I will be walking along side my son as a 1st time experience with Shakespeare. I am very excited and anxious.

    • Rebecca Ripperton says:

      Jeni, thank you for your comment. And how exciting for the both of you! Hopefully our post this upcoming Monday will be of some help to you, as well. Teaching and/or reading Shakespeare can definitely feel daunting, but it’s also so rewarding (and so much fun!)

      – Rebecca

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