Shakespeare for Kids: Hamlet

posted in: pedagogical | 5

We studied Hamlet in our homeschool last year – over 6 months ago – and the quotes still linger as part of our family culture.

Last month I was headed out the door with friends to spend a weekend away (hooray!) and the kids all started waving limply and wailing, “Adieu! Adieu! Remember me!”

Their new favorite answer to the question, “What are you reading?” is now, “Words, words, words, words.”

If you want quotable Shakespeare, Hamlet is your best bet. It is full of pithy one-liners and common phrases that have entered English parlance.

In my original Shakespeare for Kids post, I wrote:

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.

And even if all you want to do is read a picture book version and learn a line or two – that counts as introducing Shakespeare!

Shakespeare for Kids: Hamlet » Simply Convivial

Step 1: Introduce Hamlet

If you want to begin first by introducing Shakespeare and his time and his theatre, William Shakespeare and the Globe by Aliki is a beautiful narrative book that makes a great read aloud in its own right.

For the “picture book” introduction, my absolute favorite is the version by Bruce Coville. It captures the essence of Hamlet, weaves in direct quotes, and is beautifully illustrated.

Step 2: Memorize Hamlet Famous Lines

Or, at least a handful. Hamlet reads nearly like a play of cliches, so many of the lines are famous.

We chose these two selections:

GHOST: I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!

and Polonius’ lecture to his son:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Yes, there is the famous “to be or not to be” monologue in Hamlet, but it didn’t seem right to have 8-year-olds memorizing a contemplation of suicide. A ghost scaring us about purgatory, perhaps, but not suicide thoughts with knife in hand.

Download the free lesson plans and memory sheets:

Step 3: Watch a Play Movie or Production

I am a firm believer that Shakespeare is meant to be seen, so I think watching a production – live or movie – is an important part of learning and loving Shakespeare. Usually we've tried to fit a movie in after reading the picture book summary and introducing the play and before we start the real text. Unfortunately, most producers seem to think Ophelia needs to undress during her insanity scene, so finding a movie the whole family can watch is difficult. We chose the Mel Gibson version, although it very abridged and rather Freudian in its interpretation. It's still a good introduction and the set is dark but sumptuous.
If you have older children, are willing to skip a scene, or have different opinions on the matter, I highly recommend previewing the Hamlet with David Tennant. This is my favorite version. Kenneth Branaugh's version is remarkable for being uncut and unabridged, but it is entirely inappropriate. Branaugh hits you over the head with what some lines allude to by interposing bedroom scenes.

Step 4: Listen to Hamlet

How a text is read greatly influences comprehension and appreciation, so I like to stick with well-done audio versions of the play along with either coloring or reading along. A Shakespearean actor reading the text simply makes it more understandable, and a British accent makes it more enjoyable, too. I chose the version narrated by B.J. Harrison, but the Arkangel editions are also recommended.

Step 5: Play Hamlet

No lectures or charts or Socratic discussions necessary - not for elementary students. Just wait and watch and see what connections they draw themselves and I bet you'll be surprised. Another way the kids enjoyed acting out Hamlet was with the Masterpuppet Theatre set. They each picked a scene to read while using the puppets to act it out.
After all, playing someone who is playing a madman is always fun. If you can find a skull to toss around, even a Lego one, all the better. Everyone can "Alas, poor Yorick" with gusto.
Shakespeare for Kids: Hamlet » Simply Convivial
Remember that the point in the pre-high-school years is just to introduce the stories and get Shakespeare into their affections. If they grow up thinking that Shakespeare is fun and normal, they will be ready to dive deep when maturity comes because there will be no fear or intimidation that comes with the assumption that Shakespeare is hard and enigmatic.
So loosen up, and remember that the point is caring, being interested, and growing in familiarity.

Download the lesson plans and memory sheets:

Learn more about reading Shakespeare with kids.

5 Responses

  1. Jessica Burke
    |

    We just finished reading through our first play- we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m trying to decide which play to do next. What ages did you do Hamlet with?
    Thanks!

    • Mystie Winckler
      |

      The kids were 11, 10, 9, & 8.

      We started with Midsummer Night’s Dream also, then did Taming of the Shrew and Henry V before doing Hamlet. But there’s no Right order. :)

      Here are my posts for those ones:
      http://www.simplyconvivial.com/2014/shakespeare-kids-taming-shrew
      http://www.simplyconvivial.com/2014/shakespeare-kids-henry-v

      • Jessica Burke
        |

        Great! Thanks. I’m really looking forward to it. We all loved it. And my husband listened to an audio version on his way to work so he could talk about it with us. I’m really looking forward to reading another one. We read it with two other families, meeting once a week for 3 weeks for our reading and I’m hoping they’ll do it with us again.

        • Jessica Burke
          |

          Ok-I shouldn’t write comments on my phone again. Sorry, that got all chopped up.

  2. Renee
    |

    I didn’t need to finish the article for you to convince me to do this this year! My B.A. is in Drama, so I’ve always wanted to integrate my love for this with my children, but my personality type/temperament didn’t give me help in figuring out how to implement it. Your ideas sound great, and I’m looking forward to it!