Starting Shakespeare Part 2: Stories Retold for Children

Starting Shakespeare Part 2: Stories Retold for Children

Bella's Globe Theater
Bella’s Globe Theater

First, my usual caveat: I’m not an expert in anything. I’m just a mom with five kids, a couple of English degrees, and a very, very little experience teaching college level English. This blog is my chronicle not of what has been proven to work but of what I’m currently trying. These are more akin to lab reports than to published peer-reviewed articles. But since there’s been curiosity from various quarters about how I’m introducing my kids to Shakespeare, I’ve daringly decided to tell you what I’ve tried. With a little of my thoughts about the why, but again keeping in mind that this is only my speculation and ongoing experimentation, not the result of some kind of expertise or a time-tested method.

This is the second post in a blog series that will attempt to answer the question of how to introduce young children to Shakespeare. Please do read Part One where I give all my caveats and explain my rationale for introducing Shakespeare to young children. Having attempted to address the why, this post is going to jump into the how.

In my first post I explained that I don’t think there’s a proper way to go about introducing kids to Shakespeare or one proper place to dive in. I think you can start with the stories as stories and you can also start with the speeches as poetical music, pleasing to the ear and the tongue long before the mind fully comprehends it. We’ve done a little of both. But this post is about how to start enjoying the plays as stories.

To Read or Not to Read: That Is the Question

When I was in college and taking a Shakespeare class I used to have long arguments with my friends who were drama majors who insisted that one shouldn’t read Shakespeare because Shakespeare’s plays can only be properly appreciated when acted on stage. The purpose of a play is to be performed and a play that exists on paper is dead until it is acted out. To try to appreciate it by reading it to yourself, is to miss the life of the thing.

And I certainly appreciate this argument. There certainly is a sense in which Shakespeare’s plays don’t live until you’ve seen them. Perhaps even until you’ve acted in one. On the other hand, Shakespeare is literature. And I’m a literary scholar through and through. I want to take classes on Shakespeare, to write essays on Shakespeare. I enter most fully into the work when I’m wrestling with it, writing about it, discussing it, and yes, reading it.

I don’t think it’s really an either/or proposition. I think good actors study it, good critics watch performances. Shakespeare is rich enough to be appreciated both on the stage and in the academic setting and to neglect either is probably to miss something. At least for me it would be.

Why Not to Read Shakespeare to Your Kids

Anyway, that was a long digression. What we’re really here to talk about is not why you should read Shakespeare but why you should not read Shakespeare. Or, rather, why jumping in to reading a play is, in my opinion, the worst way to begin for enthusiasts of any age and why it is most likely what kills the love of Shakespeare for many a young student.

Again, reading Shakespeare is indubitably hard. And without a guide the endeavor will quickly fall to pieces. Even with a guide, it’s easy to get lost, overwhelmed, bored. I propose that reading Shakespeare plays should probably be reserved for college. Before that, they should be enjoyed primarily in performance, both as an audience member and as an actor or reciter. It is in hearing them read with the proper inflections, in seeing them performed, that they take on life.

Why You Should Read Shakespeare in Translation

Before you even get to the point of performance, either watching or doing, you first need to get a handle on the story. Before grappling with the complex language, you need to be able to untangle the complex plot. And Shakespeare’s play are all of them sophisticated dramas with many characters and complicated story lines.

So where to begin? No matter who you are, what age you are, before you try to watch a Shakespeare play, I suggest it behooves you to familiarize yourself with the story and the characters. It will be much easier to follow Shakespearian language and fast action on the stage if you already know who everyone is and what is going to happen.

And for young children and probably not so young what you want is not just plot summaries. They are dull and boring and suck all the life out of the work. Spark Notes are out. No, what you want is a well told translation into modern English and into narrative form. What you want is a story that is well written and entertaining in its own right. A story told so well as to fire up the imagination and to make you want to know more. Something to really whet your appetite. Not a summary but a reworking by a storyteller who knows how to tell a tale and who can help you through the complicated cases of mistaken identity and stories that don’t unfold chronologically.

Finally, the List

There are a few options I’ve found and I’ll tell you about them and what I like and don’t like about each.

1. First, there’s the favorite of homeschoolers everywhere Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.

The Lambs wrote their versions of the plays in 1807 and attempted as much as possible to retain the flavor and language of Shakespeare while making them into story form. As the introduction by the authors states:

“. . . his words are used whenever it seemed possible to bring them in; and in whatever has been added to give them the regular form of a connected story, diligent care has been taken to select such words as might least interrupt the effect of the beautiful English tongue in which he wrote: therefore, words introduced into our language since his time have been as far as possible avoided.”

This is a lofty goal and these versions are indeed lovely and do retain much Shakespearian language. While I highly recommend them for that reason, at the same time it is precisely because of the complexity of the language that I’m not sure they are the best place to start for very young children.

Also, I was annoyed at a few of the Tales for cutting out major subplots. Lamb’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, cuts out all of the story of the rude mechanicals and their play within a play. Instead Bottom appears in the forest on his own, with no context. It works well enough as a story, but it was dissatisfying to me as a lover of Shakespeare.

The Lambs cover the largest number of plays and I found myself turning to them for a retelling of As You Like It before we watched the play– though they cut out enough of the subplots that we got lost a bit during parts of the play. I had no idea there was a fool, for example.

They do not cover the history plays.

I think this should be on your library shelves at some point. It is beautiful and being exposed to the original language is very important. But I’m not sure it should be the first introduction to Shakespeare for little ones, who may find them hard to follow and may be overwhelmed. Nerdy Bella with the amazing attention span loves them, the other kids don’t seem to be as interested.

2. So then we move on to a book that’s at the opposite end of the spectrum: the Usborne Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare.

These stories are retold in contemporary English and a rather simplified language at that. Each story includes a couple of lines from the play, but otherwise the dialog is in contemporary idiom. But they tell the stories in a lively way that is fun for children and easy to follow. Each story is told by a different author and illustrated by a different artists. The styles vary quite a bit. The little ones really enjoy both the stories and the bright illustrations. The book has disappeared to the bedrooms.

Bella has declared that she is not as impressed by the language. She’s thriving on the poetry as much as the stories and wants the richer fare. Still, even for her, I think these stories have been useful in untangling the plots.

3. Next, my favorite find so far: the various picture book versions retold by Bruce Coville. Coville’s retellings are lucid and engaging. His language is modern but more mature than the Usborne. His dialogue quotes extensively from the original and paraphrases using Shakespearian language where it doesn’t quote. The illustrations, done by different artists in the different volumes, are excellent. Though the children all hate the pictures in Hamlet and aren’t even interested in my reading it on that account. Those pictures are too dark, they say, and too indistinct. The soft pastel just isn’t detailed enough to grab them. MacBeth, on the other hand, is very dark, but has sharper lines and clearer colors, and has proved to be much more popular.

The favorites have been The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romeo and Juliet has also been enjoyed by Sophie and Bella and Bella enjoyed The Winter’s Tale. MacBeth was enjoyed by all as I read, but deemed a bit scary at bedtime. Probably should have made it an afternoon or morning read.

The only failing of the Coville versions are that they are single volumes instead of an anthology, and so more expensive. Also, they don’t cover many plays. Only seven that I can find:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Twelfth Night

Romeo and Juliet


The Tempest

The Winter’s Tale

4. Finally, I own Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by E. Nesbit on Kindle but I have not read any of them. I find eBooks cumbersome to read from to children. The Kindle is never where we are reading and it just doesn’t have that physical presence which attracts. I suppose I should read some of these versions, just to get a taste.

5. Editing to add Stories from Shakespeare, by Geraldine McCaughrean, because I hadn’t got it yet when I wrote the original post. I really like quite a bit, the language seems less stilted than Lamb, though the retellings are not quite as thorough as the Coville. And it includes a nice selection of the plays. I think the Lambs don’t cover any of the history plays and McCaughrean at least covered Henry V. Bella really likes this version.

+ + +

Again, as to method. I’m still on the fence about whether you start with the story or samples of performance to get the sound of the original and the flavor of the drama. I’ve done it both ways. We started off by reading Lamb: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Although I am sure I’d quoted lines from both long before we read. I repeat my favorite lines often, so they become a part of our family’s vocabulary.

Then we got the Coville versions and read them. We watched a brief scene or two of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on You Tube.

With Much Ado about Nothing, I actually played the kids a few scenes from the movie first and then read the Lamb’s Tale– it was fun to see Bella’s eyes light up when we got to the scene in the story that contained a bit of the dialog she’d watched. The flash or recognition: I just saw that and heard it, now I’m hearing it again. Then, when I’d read her the Lamb’s story, we watched a few more scenes. (Sadly interrupted by a cranky toddler.)

Well, that’s enough for one night. I’ll hopefully have more thoughts about watching and listening to Shakespeare soon.

Final caveat, I repeat myself, but I think this is important to say: Again let me be perfectly clear: there is absolutely no need to do any of this. Your third grader does not need to know who Shakespeare is. Knowledge is not an arms race. If you don’t want to do Shakespeare,or he doesn’t want to do Shakespeare, don’t do Shakespeare. If it would frustrate you, stop, don’t do it. If you don’t already love the plays or at least long to know more for your own knowledge and pleasure, it poetry and drama aren’t your thing, then please for the love of all that is holy– especially for the love of yourself and of your children– please don’t try to force your young kids to enjoy Shakespeare. Let them do what they love when they are young. Life is too short and childhood is really too short. Kids should be playing, not working. There will be time and there will be time.

See the other posts in this series:

Starting with Shakespeare Part One

Starting Shakespeare Part 3: Shakespeare and His World

Starting Shakespeare Part 4: Trippingly on the Tongue

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  • I was blessed to grow up in a community that has an outdoor amphitheater that was established specifically for the performance of Shakespeare. Over the decades the theatre group has expanded their repertoire to include other play-writes too …. But when I was growing up — from about the age of eleven or so? — every summer was filled with Shakespeare in the moonlight. Really amazing and rich and wonderful. Then in high school i took a Shakespeare course, which was taught by a genuinily gifted teacher. He was amazing and the class was amazing. I learnt so much from him, not just Shakespeare, but *how to teach* …. Also, my high school had annual field trips out to that same theatre … Our community also has an amazing youth theatre group specifically for the performance of Shakespeare. So my eldest son grew up seeing his friends perform a few of the bard’s plays every year. He wasn’t interested in acting, himself. My now 15yo daughter would love to join that troupe, but we couldn’t make it work this year. Maybe next year ….. We, too, love the Bruce Coville books, tho’ they are in high demand from our public library so can be difficult to get ahold of …. I think reading, preforming, and viewing the plays are all wonderful ways in which to enjoy them. And I so enjoy hearing about your family’s experience with learning and loving Shakespeare! 🙂

    Love what you say about learning not being an arms race 🙂 Every homeschooling family will have their unique passions …. Some of them most unexpected! I never thought my kids would be such linguists but here we are with them loving Latin, Greek, and Hebrew! (And talking about Sanskrit) Who knew …. ?!

    PS apologies for any typos i did not catch!!

    • Ellie,

      How wonderful! You are very lucky to have all those wonderful opportunities. I’m still trying to find live performances. I’m sure there must be some, but I’m not sure where. I know Boston often has a performance on the Common in the summer, but of course we’ve missed that for this year. I wish there was one central bulletin board that kept track of Shakespeare opportunities. I’m sure with all the colleges round here there must be plays being put on at local theaters all the time. It’s just a matter of finding them. I feel out of touch with the drama world. I used to be so on top of it when I was in grad school.

  • I’m with you on the Bruce Coville books. I think they are wonderful, and we have read several of them to our kids. I found the Nesbit book hard for the children to get into, and also discovered the Lamb book left important details out (such as that The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play–not that we read that one to our kids though!).

    I haven’t seen the Usborne book but will definitely check it out. I feel like I missed the boat entirely since we covered Shakespeare the year I had a newborn. We’ll be back to it soon though. 🙂

    • I think the Usborne might be out of print. Amazon only has used copies. I was leant it by a local homeschooling friend when she heard we were doing Shakespeare. Which reminds me that I forgot to mention the Poetry for Children book that she also leant us.

  • Hello again –
    Just wanted to say I agree with Melanie’s assessment of Lamb’s Shakespeare stories.
    The book I used with my children to read them story versions of Shakespeare’s plays is called Stories from Shakespeare, by Geraldine McCaughrean (a favorite children’s book author of mine!) and illustrated by Antony Maitland.
    Not sure if it’s in or out of print, but it was a wonderful resource for my family.
    Then there’s also Shakespeare Stories I and II by Leon Garfield & illustrated by Michael Foreman. These may be well-suited to older children.
    Another book we liked is called All The World’s A Stage – William Shakespeare: A Pop-Up Biography by Michael Bender, published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
    Many Blessings!

    • M.E.,

      Oh yes. That reminds me that I do have Geraldine McCaughrean’s Shakespeare stories book on one of my Amazon wishlists. I really should see if I can get it from the library. I’ve loved many of her other books. Especially the lovely retellings of the myths of Rome and her version of the Canterbury Tales. I’ll have to add that one to my list.

      Thanks for the other recommendations as well. I will definitely check them out.

      I’m planning to do a whole blog post on resources for studying Shakespeare and his world, especially the Globe.

  • P. S. – if you have middle school aged children, the might enjoy the historical fiction novel, The Shakespeare Stealer, by Gary Blackwood, published by Dutton Children’s books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.
    Best wishes on your literary journey!

    • I did pick that one up from the library on the recommendation of the friend who leant us the Usborne. But I’m not sure Bella will be up for it. She is really disturbed by dramatic tension which involves characters breaking the rules. The premise didn’t seem to grab her when I explained it. It may be I need to save it for the next go round for us.

  • OK, just two more Shakespeare resources to mention 🙂
    Stage Fright On A Summer Night by Mary Pope Osborne is #25 in the Magic Tree House book series and is a Shakespeare adventure story.
    Also try Jim Weiss’s Shakespeare for Children audio CD, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream & The Taming of the Shrew featured retellings. It’s by Greathall Productions.
    Good luck!

  • Our kids really enjoyed the E. Nesbit retellings and we also watched some of the old animated BBC versions of Shakespeare’s plays, although I had to edit Romeo and Juliet on the fly, so beware! They are all available, or were, to watch on YouTube. I really appreciate learning about how you handle these topics with your kids. It is inspiring and affirming!

  • Yes, I agree Danae – Melanie’s posts are so inspiring & affirming. Looking forward to reading about more of her insights & resources.
    Thank you, Melanie, for sharing!