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:
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.
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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: