To be or not to be that is the question! Or rather do you get Shakespeare or not? I was one of the students that just didn’t. In English Literature, I loved Dickens, Chaucer, Poetry, Novels but the second that Shakespeare’s plays came out I was confused. I know I wasn’t alone, it was the language, the fact that the context is often missed and we read it as a play which was often disjointed and over a few lessons.

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Now that I’ve got kids of my own I want to support them and help them get to grips with it so that they don’t have the same confusion and experience that I did. So I thought I’d give you some ideas of what we are doing at home to Introduce Shakespeare whilst they are young.

Shakespeare for Kids

Whether you like it or not at some point your kids are likely to be asked to read and analyse a play or a few of Shakespeare’s. The language is different than our English, the situations can be easily understand or away with the fairies. So helping your child get to grips with it can be not only daunting for them but for you as well especially if like me you didn’t get it at school.

So what can you do? Well here’s what we’ve been doing to introduce it to them so that it makes a bit more sense and they have a better understanding and comprehension.

Picking Your Plays

With so many to choose from one of the first considerations is to pick the plays that you are going to introduce.

For us, it’s a combination of ones that I know the school is going to focus on and ones that I think they will enjoy. You may have your own favourites that you want to introduce.

To give you an idea here’s are the ones that we have picked

  • Midsummer’s Nights Dream
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth
  • The Tempest
  • Much Ado About Nothing

To help your choose your play

Decided which one can be a little challenging so we’ve put together some overviews for your of those plays so you can pick your first foray into Shakespeare Study with your kids.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A fairy filled frolic celebrating marriage and midsummer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is amongst Shakespeare’s most well-loved plays.

Lovers Hermia (who has been ordered to marry Demetrius by her father) and Lysander flee the city to elope. Helena betrays their confidence and tells Demetrius, who is in love with Hermia, of their plan and sets off after them, hotly pursued by Helena who is in love with Demetrius.

Meanwhile, a group of workmen rehearse the play Pyramus and Thisbe which they are planning to perform at the wedding of Theseus (the Duke of Athens) and Hippolyta.

The king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, argue and Oberon sends Puck, his servant, to find a herb to make a potion which, when administered, will make Titania fall in love with the first creature she sees. Oberon then observes Demetrius being pursued by a desperate Helena and instructs Puck to administer the love potion on Demetrius too. Puck stumbles across the sleeping Hermia and Lysander and mistakes Lysander for Demetrius. Shortly after, Demetrius appears, pursued by Helena. Demetrius manages to shake Helena off and Helena finds the sleeping Lysander and wakes him. He, under the influence of Puck’s potion, declares his love for Helena who thinks he is taking the mickey and furiously runs off. Lysander follows and Hermia wakes to find herself alone.

In the meantime, Puck comes across the rehearsing workmen and decides to play a little joke and gives Bottom an Ass’ head. Upon seeing the transformed Bottom, the workmen flee in fright. Titania is awakened by the self-soothing singing Bottom and immediately falls in love with him.

Oberon soon realises that Puck has made a mistake and sends him to sprinkle the potion on Demetrius’ eyes. Demetrius is then woken by the arrival of Helena and Lysander and instantly declares his love for Helena. Hermia then arrives and is rejected by Lysander. Helena believes both Lysander and Demetrius are mocking her and all four quarrel.

Oberon gives an antidote to Puck who administers it to Lysander and all four lovers sleep. Oberon then releases Titania from the spell.

The four lovers awake, reconcile and return to the city and Bottom is returned to normal and finds his crew. A huge wedding takes place with all the couples getting married and the workmen perform their play at the wedding.

Macbeth

Written in tribute to King James I who had a fascination for all things supernatural, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s darker tragedies.

Soldiers Macbeth and Banquo happen upon three weird sisters upon the moor.  They prophesy that he will become thane (rank of nobility) and eventually king of Scotland and that Banquo’s descendants will be kings. Shortly after this, Macbeth hears that he has been made thane and he shares his news with his wife, Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth returns to his castle and King Duncan joins him. The Macbeths plot to kill King Duncan. Lady Macbeth drugs the guards and Macbeth stabs the sleeping king. In his regret, Macbeth returns to his wife with the dagger; she reassures him and returns the dagger to the crime scene just in time. Macduff, a nobleman, arrives and finds the murdered king. Macbeth kills the guards in retribution for the murdered king and Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan’s sons, flee in fear for their own lives.

Macbeth is crowned king.

Unnerved by the prophecy that Banquo’s descendants will be king, Macbeth arranges for Banquo and his son Fleance to be killed but Fleance escapes.

At a state banquet later that night, Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo and again his wife, Lady Macbeth, calms her husband and covers for his strange behaviour. 

Over a bubbling cauldron, the three weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be safe until the woods arrive at his castle, that he cannot be harmed by man born of woman but that Banquo’s descendants will still be king. To prevent this, Macbeth goes on a killing spree.

In the meantime, Macduff, having lost his wife and children to the murderous Macbeth, finds Malcolm, Duncan’s son, and vows vengeance.

A sleepless Macbeth is informed that men are marching towards his castle holding branches as camouflage. A sleepwalking and sleep talking Lady Macbeth, mad with remorse, reveals all to the doctor. Unable to live with the guilt, she kills herself and Macbeth mourns.

Macduff confronts Macbeth in a final battle and informs Macbeth that he was born via a C section. Macbeth admits defeat and Macduff carries Macbeth’s head on a pole to a cheering crowd. Malcolm reclaims the throne as rightful heir and peace is restored.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy which deals with much ado about nothing! It is packed with banter and is one of Shakespeare’s most prose heavy plays.

War is over and Pedro, Prince of Aragon, with his soldier compadrés Benedick and Claudio, visit the house of Leonato, Duke of Messina, father of Hero and uncle to Beatrice.

Quick witted and sharp-tongued Beatrice soon engages in banter with her male equal, Benedict, both of whom profess not to ever love or marry. Claudio, upon seeing Hero, falls immediately and deeply in love and the two make plans to marry.

Others, observing the love hate relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, plot to get them together: they arrange for Benedick to overhear his friends talking of Beatrice’s so-called love for him and vice versa. Both fall for the ruse.

In the meantime, Don John arrives, Pedro’s malicious half-brother, and fools Claudio into believing that Hero has cheated on him on the night before her wedding. What he has actually seen is Don Pedro’s assistant, Borachio, in bed with Hero’s maid, Margaret.

Claudio dumps Hero at the alter who faints and the friar suggests that Leonato should pretend that Hero has died from the heartbreak to protect her honour. As a result of the injustice, Beatrice demands that Benedick kills Claudio.

Dogberry, a foolish constable, hears Borachio boasting of the stunt and exposes the plot. Claudio is filled with shame and agrees to marry a cousin of Hero’s, whom he has never met, to make amends. At the wedding, the veiled bride is revealed to be Hero much to Claudio’s delight.

Beatrice accepts Benedick’s marriage proposal and they too marry.

­­­Romeo and Juliet

Probably one of Shakespeare’s best known and most adapted plays, Romeo and Juliet tells the tragic tale of two young lovers.

The Montagues and Capulets are two old feuding families. The prince warns that if there is any more unrest amongst the families then the head of each family will be killed.

The Capulets hold a big party and uninvited Romeo and his friends sneak in. He meets Juliet and both fall hopelessly in love knowing that their families will not approve. The next day, Romeo and Juliet are secretly married by Friar Lawrence.

Romeo is challenged to a fight by Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, for attending the party uninvited. Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, steps in to support Romeo but is killed. Romeo avenges his death by killing Tybalt. Romeo is banished from the city.

Although saddened by her cousin’s death, Juliet is pleased that Romeo is still alive but devasted that he has been banished and threatens to kill herself. Her nurse maid, with Friar Lawrence’s help, arranges for Romeo to spend the night with Juliet. The next day, Romeo leaves, and plans to return when Friar Lawrence has smoothed things over.

In the meantime, Juliet’s father, not aware that she is now married, arranges for her to marry Paris. She seeks out Friar Lawrence for help and they devise a plan to fake her death. A messenger is sent to inform Romeo of the plan.

On the morning of her wedding to Paris, Juliet takes a special potion which makes her appear dead. Her body is taken down to the family crypt. Romeo is informed of Juliet’s death, having not received the message, obtains some poison and returns to mourn her. Outside the crypt, Paris stops him and they have a sword fight where Paris is killed. By Juliet’s side, Romeo takes the poison. Juliet awakes and finds Romeo dead. She kisses his lips in the hope of being poisoned too and then stabs herself with his sword.

The heartbroken families resolve to end their feud.

The Tempest

Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, is a farewell to the stage and rammed with magic and mystery.

Previously, Antonio, with King of Naples Alonso, overthrow Prospero who is cast out to sea with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda. They land on a magical island which they make home.

Years later, Alonso is on board a ship with his son Ferdinand, his brother Sebastian and Antonio nearing the island Prospero and Miranda have made home. Using his magic, and with help from his servant Ariel (a creature with special powers), Prospero conjures up a storm. Miranda watches the ship in the storm and begs her father to calm it.

The shipwrecked survivors wash up on different parts of the island.

At first sight, Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love but Prospero makes out that he is opposed to a wedding in order to test Ferdinand’s love for his daughter.

Meanwhile, shipwrecked Stephano and Trinculo, Alonso’s servants, meet a monster like man, Caliban, who is Prospero’s other servant. Caliban is overheard by Ariel when he suggests to the men that they should kill Prospero.

The men approach to kill Prospero but are distracted by glittering garments which Ariel has put out. They then run off in terror after seeing spirits.

Prospero sees that he has them all under his control and instead of taking his revenge for what they did to him years before, he offers them his mercy, restores all and gives up his magical powers.

As King Alonso grieves his son, Prospero reveals that he is alive and engaged to be married to Miranda. Alonso is over the moon to hear this news.

All are freed and happy and the play ends with Prospero asking for applause from the audience to demonstrate their enjoyment.

Twelfth Night

Commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to celebrate the twelfth night of Christmas, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, Twelfth Night (also referred to as Or What You Will), is a play packed full of fun, merriment and mischief making.

Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck and Viola believes her brother to be dead (he has actually been rescued by a kind-hearted sea captain, Antonio). Viola soon makes the most of the opportunity to pose as Cesario, a male working for Duke Orsino, causing much confusion. Cesario is sent to Olivia to pass on the duke’s message of love, however, upon meeting the duke, she (Viola – who is now posing as the male Cesario) falls in love with him who is in love with Olivia, who in turn falls in love with Cesario (Viola). See, it is already really confusing!

Meanwhile, fun loving and mischief making Maria (Olivia’s servant), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a drippy knight) and Sir Toby Belch (a pleasure-seeking jolly knight) plan to make a fool of the grumpy moralistic Puritanical Malvolio who has told them off for their noisy partying. Maria fakes a love letter from Olivia to Malvolio who falls for the ruse. He makes a complete fool of himself when he tries to woo Olivia. She naturally thinks he has gone bonkers so gets Sir Toby to lock him up.

Sir Toby sets up his friend Sir Andrew who is also in pursuit for the affections of Olivia. Sir Toby informs him that Cesario would like to fight him in a duel. The duel is a shambles. At this point, our friendly sea captain, Antonio, steps in thinking that Cesario is Sebastian and fights both Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Antonio is then arrested and Sebastian and Olivia arrive, later followed by the duke and all is revealed. The grumpy Malvolio is released from prison and all end up happy.

Start with Stories

If you switch out the scripts for a story adapted for the age of your child then Shakespeare is so much easier to understand.

We have 2 different books so that the interpretation is different in each.

A Shakespeare Story

This collection of books are illustrated and abridged especially written for children. The complete set consists of 16 books, which you can occasionally buy as a boxed set. However, knowing ahead of time which books we would be covering I have purchased from a second hand book store just the books that we need for the plays that we are covering.

The Usborne Complete Shakespeare

Whilst hunting for a book that could be read-aloud as well as covered the stories more in depth than the retelling I came across this one at a local book fair.

The stories are retold in a way that the dialogues are much more detailed than the children’s set of books I mentioned above. But, they also complement them as whilst you read you can go into greater discussion over the storylines and characters.

Watch The Animated Tales

Once you have the basics of the play you have chosen, now is time to introduce it visually. I love the Animated Tales and watch them on YouTube with our children as we study the individual plays.

If you search you will find the official series there, but you will also find cartons and others that you can watch together. A variety of different ones is great and helps to see that the plays although following the same story and script can be adapted and performed differently.

Listen to a Performance

Listening to audiobooks is a great way to help with understanding. There are many versions available but we are particularly found when performed by Shakespearean actors.

With Amazon Audible you can listen to some fantastic versions. There currently a free trial of Audible that you can sign up for 30 days – Sign up here for the UK and here for the US.

After the 30 days, there is a fee, but we’ve found it amazing for being able to listen and read along or just to listen to an incredible amount of stories and books.

Watch a play

Without a doubt, one of the best things you can do is watch a production of one of the plays.

If you are in the UK you can go and see a play at The Globe Theatre in London, or in Stratford Upon Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, and really feel the history of the event as well as enjoy the play.

However, with young kids, I think that open-air theatres are one of the best places. Check your local area for production, maybe it’s a theatre in the forest or a production in an open-air theatre there are lots of them.

The watching will really stick with them – I was under 4 when I saw one at an open theatre and still remember bits of it today. The location recently came on TV and I called my parents and said was that where I saw Midsummer’s Nights Dream and “Bottom” had those fantastic long Donkey ears. It was! Now 40+ years later it has still stuck.

Try some Fun Activities and Ideas

We’re just starting introducing the plays in our home education journey, but watch out I’ll be sharing activities to do with each of the plays as we study each starting with The Tempest.

Author
Cerys Parker

Cerys is a marine biologist, environmental educator, high school teacher and mum. Realising that life doesn't have to be put on hold and you don't just have to survive whilst the kids are young she shares ideas to inspire you to LIVE with the kids, with activities to do together, recipes to cook and enjoy and family travel to make memories to last a lifetime.

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