How my son came to yell, “O, Lord, what fools these mortals be,” while standing on the slide of our backyard swing set

NOW I must tell you that at least one of my four grown children has a somewhat different recollection of what I’m about to share. But, I’m sticking with my version because it’s how I recommend people introduce their children to Shakespeare. It’s a case of: do as I think I did, not do as my 25-year-old daughter thinks I did.

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So, how might one present Wil Shakespeare to one’s kids? (without them falling asleep)

1) Introduce him to yourself first

I’m the one who first became interested in Shakespeare. I’d totally missed anything Shakespearean until my mid-thirties (my high school English teacher spent most of her time napping, as I recall, although, as I’ve mentioned, my recollection may be flawed). I rented Hamlet starring Mel Gibson and watched it one night by myself, knees tucked under my chin, marveling at all the everyday phrases we use that were in it. Though I later would come to appreciate other productions much more (Kenneth Branagh’s version and also the Royal Shakespeare Company’s filmed-for-television production with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart), I was mesmerized. And my enthusiasm was definitely contagious.

So if you’re already a fan of the Bard, super. But, if not, get to know him a little bit before bringing him home to the kids.

2) Lower your expectations

After I saw Hamlet I checked out A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the library (I can’t remember which production). I did not force the kids to sit down and watch (and here is the one place where Ikuni’s memory differs from mine). I let them know it would be playing, and I sat down to watch it. The kids wandered in and out and my two oldest boys (ages nine and ten) stood in front of the TV for a while and thought the line, “No, no, I’m as ugly as a bear, since animals that see me run away in terror,” was absolutely hysterical.

I watched the play a couple more times over the next few days. The kids liked certain scenes but I didn’t realize how much they’d picked up till they started quoting from the play (see subtitle above).

Anyway, the point being, I did not make the kids experience The Wonders of Shakespeare. I allowed them to interact as much or as little as they wanted.

3) Watch before reading

It’s said that Shakespeare’s plays were primarily intended to be heard not read or even seen. I tend to agree with that, but when introducing the Bard to children then I recommend watching them first (as opposed to radio plays or reading). There is a place for reading the plays. But that doesn’t seem to be the best way to start for most.

Attending a live performance can be wonderful, and if your kids are older I’d highly recommend it. I suggest videoed performances, though, for younger children. It gives them the ability to opt out whenever they want, they don’t have to sit still to enjoy the play (sometimes my kids would color or build Legos while watching), and you can watch certain scenes they like repeatedly, which gives them the opportunity to memorize certain lines (be warned, however, this also means that at some point you may hear “I would rather listen to my dog bark at a crow than hear a man swear that he loves me” recited over and over from the backseat while driving your young crew to the dentist).

4) A summary can help

After my kids were hooked and thought of a Shakespeare play on TV as not much different from a Disney movie, I started reading brief summaries beforehand. I used a beat up 1956 copy of Outlines of Shakespeare’s Plays by Wolf, Holzknecht, and Ross that I’d picked up for pennies at a library book sale.  Others use (aff links):

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit
Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield

But I NEVER shared the endings before watching the play the first time. I’d read enough for my kids to get the gist of the plot and characters then stop. That kept their curiosities peaked and encouraged watching all the way to the end!

You might also use parodies of the plays that can spark children’s interest: the Muppets’ Brush Up Your Shakespeare segment with Christopher Reeves (Ep. 418), Bugs Bunny in A Witch’s Tangled Hare (Looney Tunes, Ep. 162), etc. And my kids adored The Fifteen Minute Hamlet by Tom Stoppard.

Though we didn’t see these, I’ve also heard that the BBC’s DVD set Shakespeare: The Animated Tales is fantastic. Voice actors include Hugh Grant and Tom Wilkinson.

5) See quality productions

Whenever possible see well done productions. I’d sometimes screen filmed versions first to find the most entertaining and well acted. We also have a number of local theatrical companies that put on quality productions throughout the year.

Oh, and if you ever have a chance to see the 1998 Lincoln Center production of Twelfth Night starring Helen Hunt, Kyra Sedgwick, Philip Bosco, and Max “always had us in stitches” Wright then do it!

6) Be mindful of the material

There are dark elements in almost all of Shakespeare’s plays, but some contain more than others. We started with the comedies then moved to the histories then the tragedies.

7) Play Shakespeare games

Have fun with Shakespeare themed:

card games
board games
magnetic poetry
insult kits

8) Act out scenes

So you’re a Shakespeare fangirl (or boy) yourself, your kids have first dabbled then embraced Master Wil themselves. Now’s the time to act out some scenes. We did this in a number of ways:

  • The kids would divvy up the parts then I’d read the stage directions and the dialogue (attempting to use different voices for the characters) and the kids would silently, and dramatically, act out the scene.
  • We bought some copies of Shakescenes by John Russell Brown, picked a scene (they’re categorized: one actor and one actress, for two actors, for two actresses) then had a ball.
  • I also picked up multiple copies of favorite plays and, books in hand, we’d act out more complicated scenarios.

And if your kids really enjoy acting you might look into local children’s theatre companies.

9) Take your time

My children are all adults now. Before they left the nest, however, we enjoyed about 20 of Shakespeare’s plays together. We saw multiple theatrical versions of some. For instance, Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost film (which was not so great) and then a local college production (which was awesome!). For others, we saw a number of different mediums (Romeo and Juliet, the play, the ballet, the films, and also West Side Story).

However, we did not see all 20 plays in a year…or two…or even five. It was more like eight to nine years. And we’d go long periods of time when we wouldn’t watch any.

Also, doing all the above is not a guarantee that your children will looooove Shakespeare. Two of my four are still head over heels for the Bard. My oldest and youngest, not as much, though they do appreciate him. Your kids may find something else that sparks their imaginations, and that’s okay. But, if you’re interested in the Bard then explore away! And you might find your kids come along for the ride.


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