Shakespeare can be an intimidating subject to introduce. Isn’t the language archaic and the doesn’t high quality mean high difficulty? Actually, the language isn’t that difficult when it’s read (that is, interpreted) by an experienced reader. The profound themes within plots were created not as pure art, but also to entertain the masses. Shakespeare was the hot movie in his day, and he can still be enjoyed that way today.
You don’t have to wait for high school to do Shakespeare with your kids, and you don’t need to be homeschooling to study Shakespeare together. If you do any reading aloud or movie watching together, you can do Shakespeare together.
Shakespeare was written in order to be seen, scripted in order to be performed. Shakespeare wrote popular entertainment, not philosophical treatise. We can draw out deep themes and discuss grand philosophy using monologues and plots we find in Shakespeare, but we should never study Shakespeare to the exclusion of simply enjoying the fun of Shakespeare – Shakespeare was meant to be fun.
I believe that Shakespeare, the greatest artist whose medium was the English language, can and should be introduced to children. The deep discussions about betrayal, cowardice, truth, love, and piety can wait for high school, but the enjoyment of the plots, the characters, and the language doesn’t have to wait. Introducing children to the world of the plays will help them feel more at home and navigate those deeper waters later in a more knowledgeable and understanding way, because they’ll already know the lay of the land.
Last year my little group of elementary students ages 10-7 enjoyed three Shakespeare plays and this year 3 more are in the plan. Here are the five steps I use to put together a simple, enjoyable Shakespeare unit.
Step 1: Introduce the Play
The first step is to do basically a Cliff’s-Notes version of the play. When the plot and the story line are known beforehand, then our attention is free to enjoy the details without having to keep track of who is who.
But we also don’t want the introduction to introduce the idea that Shakespeare is dull. A plain enumeration of the characters and salient plot points makes for a boring introduction and a bad starting point.
So introduce the play with an engaging retelling.
Especially if it’s the first play we’ve ever read together or even if it’s just the first play of the school year, I like to start off with a little history lesson about who Shakespeare is and what his Globe Theatre was like in order to give us some context for the plays.
To introduce the basics of the plot, I try to find a beautiful picture book version. Lamb or Nesbit have popular collections of retellings from Shakespeare, but I actually do not prefer these. I’ve tried them so many times, and I just don’t like them. There is no virtue in language being archaic for the sake of being archaic. Though his language is more difficult for us, Shakespeare was plain (though punning) and bold in his day, and so I feel that modern adaptions tend to get closer to the spirit of Shakespeare than the Victorian-era versions.
These are some of my favorites:
Step 2: Memorize Some Lines
Familiarity breeds affection, not contempt.
Ken Ludwig, author of How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, writes:
Having thought about Shakespeare for most of my life, I have concluded that the best way to learn about his plays, his language, his themes and his stories with any real depth and integrity is to memorize a few passages from his plays so that you have them at your fingertips.
Memorization doesn’t have to be an ordeal. During the weeks you watch and read the play, simply repeat the lines you’ve chosen for memory.
I print the selections in large font, with the phrases broken up and each on their own line – plenty of white space makes it easier to follow and easier to see in the mind’s-eye for recall. Then before we read or watch or talk about the play, we repeat each selection 2-3 times, all together.
Easy. Simple. It really works.
Choose the best lines
Ken Ludwig’s How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare includes his choices for memory and is a helpful place to start. However, he doesn’t include a couple plays I like and some of my favorites aren’t included and some he includes are not my favorites.
There are no canonical “Right Lines” to memorize (well, except perhaps ‘To be or not to be”). It’s not something you can mess up. Pick lines you like, leave out speeches you don’t, and never be afraid to pick and choose.
In addition to “expert” selections like Ludwig’s, you can also look at sites like these:
Absolute Shakespeare’s list of famous quotes by play is a great place to learn those lines that show up subtly in a thousand contexts since Shakespeare’s day. This site is best for one-liners.
Shakespeare-Monologues.org is the perfect site to find speeches to select for memory work. Actors use this site to find selections for auditions. Here is their list of famous speeches for Hamlet. This site is best for extended monologues.
I also have made the printables I use when I teach Shakespeare available for download for free:
Download the lesson plans and memory sheets:
Step 3: Watch the Play
Shakespeare was meant to be seen. How many movie scripts make it into lit class? Not many at all; that Shakespeare does demonstrates his genius.
Which would you prefer? Reading a movie script or watching the movie made from it? Of course we’d rather watch the movie because the movie is the point of the script. In the same way, Shakespeare was meant to be acted and interpreted.
I absolutely love to watch multiple versions of a play and see how differences of inflection, of setting, and of context put completely different spins on the lines. This is the beauty of Shakespeare. None of them are “Right” (although some can be Wrong). Scripts allow actors room to interpret their characters and get into character, reflecting different facets of humanity as they do so. Is Hamlet’s ghost to be trusted? How that ghost is portrayed will affect how you feel about that central plot point. Shakespeare’s plays and themes are complex, as life and people are.
Always preview movies
Of course you, as the parent, should always watch a Shakespeare production yourself before viewing it with your children. You know your children and your standards, so you need to preview movie options in light of those. Violence, bawdiness, even nudity are all issues in many Shakespeare videos, and there are also many that make Shakespeare feel dull and confusing.
You’re going for an experience that will leave your children with a positive enjoyment of Shakespeare, so watch the movie options beforehand and try to find ones that will be a good fit for your family.
There are a number of movie versions that I enjoy that I wouldn’t let my kids watch, but here are some we’ve watched as a family:
Your mileage, of course, may vary. I’m not promising you or yours will like them.
If you can’t find a movie you can endorse in its entirety, sometimes you can watch brief clips on YouTube. Something is better than nothing: the kids need to see that Shakespeare was written to be done and not just endured.
Check for live productions
Movies are not actually the only way to watch Shakespeare performed. Before film, there was still theater. As an added bonus, many school or local groups will refrain from excessive violence or lewdness in their plays, at least in our town.
High schools, local theaters, and area acting companies are all likely places to find the occasional Shakespeare play. I have sometimes chosen the play we read in school based on what will be performed locally. Ask around and see if there are groups you don’t know about yet.
Step 4: Listen to the Play
Though Shakespeare wrote to be performed, there is still great value in reading his plays with their beautiful use of English. However, there’s more than one way to read a text.
Audio + Visual = read along
My favorite way to read Shakespeare with the kids is to give each one his own paperback (multiple copies can be found at the library or any used bookstore usually, or Dover publishes cheap editions without frills) and play an audiobook version while we all follow along. Hearing someone who knows how the lines flow read them helps immensely with comprehension.
If I have an unmotivated or non-reader, I’ll give them a coloring page to keep their hands and eyes busy while they listen to the audiobook. Dover publishes a book of Shakespeare coloring pages, or even a book of plain designs to color in is a good activity for listening times.
Having Shakespeare come in through both the eyes and the ears is a great way to foster success and engagement with young students.
Step 5: Play the Play
Of course the best way to engage with Shakespeare is to be the one performing it. There are several ways to do this without being a drama person (I am most definitely not).
Knowledge comes from doing
Personally, I am the sort very tempted to leave off the hands-on activities like this. I like the meat and acting out a scene or two seems like fluffy fun that can easily be dispensed with.
However, in this case, that is not true.
True knowing and understanding comes when we make the material our own, when we recreate or represent it in some sort of personal expression. In history or grammar that might involve writing or speaking, but the most natural way to add personal expression with Shakespeare is to be the actor the play is directing.
Be creative in the theatrical options
Although it would be valuable, you don’t have to have costuming and rehearsals in order to give your children the chance to act out Shakespeare. Here are some other low-key, low-commitment ways to add doing to your studies:
- Duplo or LEGO scenes & characters (try recording it for your own movie production)
- Illustrated comic book versions of selected scenes
- Monologues dramatically delivered like at a try-out
- Puppets – handcrafted, popsicle stick, finger puppets, paper dolls – can be recorded to make a movie.
If you are interested in staging a scene, an abridged play, or simply delivering monologues with your kids or with a group, check out how these homeschool moms have done so in their homeschools:
Shakespeare for Kids: Sample 6-Week Plan
- Week 1: Read Shakespeare biography & a picture book version of the play
- Week 2: Introduce the lines to memorize, explain words, watch movie or clips or see a live production
- Week 3-5: Repeat lines together two or three times, then listen to the play in approximately 30-minute segments.
- Week 6: Act out favorite scenes either as a play, with finger puppets, or with Legos. Allow the children adequate time to prepare and practice together.
More reasons to read Shakespeare
If you still aren’t convinced you should try some Shakespeare in your homeschool, here are some more inspirational and encouraging articles and podcasts to give you the courage! It really doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated.
Shakespeare Lesson Plans
As we study Shakespeare plays together in our homeschool, I am making available our lesson plans and resource lists. Here are the links to each of the plays we've studied so far. Included in each one is a downloadable pdf set with not only the lesson plans, but also the printable quote cue pages we use for memorizing select lines from each play!
- Taming of the Shrew Lesson Plans
- Midsummer Night's Dream Lesson Plans
- Henry V Lesson Plans
- Hamlet Lesson Plans
- Julius Caesar Lesson Plans
- The Tempest Lesson Plans
- Much Ado About Nothing Lesson Plans
- Merchant of Venice Lesson Plans