Reading Shakespeare Plays with my Kids

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The words and the language of Shakespeare’s plays can be intimidating for kids, and let’s face it, most adults as well.

Do not let that stop you from tackling this subject with your younger students. They can learn to appreciate, enjoy, and perhaps even fall in love with the world of Shakespeare.

And you can right along with them!

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Begin with some basic information about Shakespeare’s life and the Globe Theater. Once you are familiar with Shakespeare, then it is time to pick a play to read.

Shakespeare’s plays are divided into three basic groups: comedies, tragedies, and histories. (Sometimes a fourth group, the romances, is included.)

When selecting a play for your younger children, I recommend beginning with comedies. The storylines are generally light-hearted, memorable, and engaging for kids. I have read, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Much Ado about Nothing” to my children.

We have also read, “Romeo and Juliet“, though I don’t suggest starting there. It is one of my personal favorites. Starting with a personal favorite allows the opportunity for your children to catch your enthusiasm.

Shakespeare Plays with Kids: Start with a story

When reading a play to my children, I find that it helps to begin with a story version of the play.  You can find several great story versions of Shakespeare. The stories will introduce your children to the characters and the basic plot. Many of these versions include occasional text from the original play, some more than others.

There are many options for the retelling of a Shakespeare play. Check the table of contents to be sure the story you want to read is included:

Of course, there are also incredible picture books that do a beautiful job of retelling these stories.

This version of Romeo and Juliet by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Jane Ray is my favorite BY FAR!

The story includes much of the original text from the play but it also summarizes along the way as needed. Our family read this book one Saturday morning and all of the kids were engaged.

Once everyone is familiar with the basic plot and the characters, then you can dive in deeper or leave it at that. Last year, we simply read the story version, enjoyed it, and then moved on to other learning.

Shakespeare Plays With Kids: Focus on a Specific Scene

I suggest taking a deeper look at a specific scene or two. If you aren’t familiar with the play, a basic google search will help you find memorable speeches or dialogues in any of the plays. Once you are settled on a scene, it is time to take a deeper look.

There are resources to help you with a basic English translation, though some of the deeper word meanings and word plays will require more effort.

The Shakespeare Made Easy Series is a fantastic tool to help you and your children understand the “plain English” meaning behind Shakespeare’s words. The pages on the right-hand side have the original text while the pages on the left-hand side of a more “plain English” version of the play. You can instantly check the basic meaning of what is being said. If you want to dig deeper into a specific section or term, you will have to go hunting a little online.

No Fear Shakespeare is another book series that can be accessed for free online. We did not use the printed book, but instead, accessed the material online.

Like the Shakespeare Made Easy Series, the online “book” has both the modern and original translations side by side. You can look up specific plays and then narrow in on the Act and Scene you wish to read.

I selected Act 1, Scene 1, lines 92-114 from, “Much Ado About Nothing.”

First, we watched other people read through the scene in Kenneth Branagh’s movie version:

Then we read through it once and I summarized what was being said in my own words (as I studied it the night before).

NOTE: If you don’t have enough copies of the play for each child, you can do a little copy/paste and print the scene out for everyone.

Finally, we looked up words that we didn’t know and in doing so, gained a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare’s wit. For example, take a look at this conversation in Act 1, Scene 1 of “Much Ado About Nothing”:

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue and so good
a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name. I have done.

You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old.

In these lines, we were confused by the meaning of a jade’s trick because the modern English version simply said: You always slip out of the argument like this. I know you from before.

We understood the basic meaning but wanted to know what a jade’s trick meant. So we looked it up.  We discovered that “Literally, a “jade” is an ill-conditioned horse; so a “jade’s trick” is what you would expect from such a creature—that it drop out of a race before the finish.”

Benedict wishes his horse were as fast as Beatrice’s tongue and she declares him an ill-conditioned horse that has to drop out of the race of wits before it is over.  The quick wit of Beatrice to respond to Benedict’s horse comment with a horse insult of her own is lost in the modern translation.

But it is BRILLIANT.

This is just one example of digging in a little deeper by looking up unfamiliar words and terms. Thank goodness for google and the internet. Both have helped make Shakespeare a topic that can be tackled by this homeschooling mom.

TIP: Acting out scenes with props, especially swords, adds to the fun:

Shakespeare Plays With Kids: Watch a Play or Movie 

Live theater is the best option, but it isn’t always available at the right time or location. Thankfully, many of Shakespeare’s plays have movie adaptations available for purchase or rent through Amazon or Netflix. We chose to view the Kenneth Branagh version of “Much Ado About Nothing” and it was tons of fun to watch. As always, use parental discretion when selecting a movie for your kids to watch. This particular one did have a scene that I fast forwarded.

Hint: Declare it the schoolwork for the day and the kids will easily buy in.  Popcorn and a movie as school for the day!

Shakespeare’s Plays with Kids: Create a Momento

I wanted a way to remember the characters and plot of the play we had studied. It had to be something simple that we could keep around to remind us of our study. I decided that we would create a poster.

I grabbed a bunch of markers and some posterboard. No one was really interested in helping me until I called my boys (ages 9 and 6) over. I asked them to help me decide what to do for the bad guy’s name, Don John. Then both girls wanted to add a few things as well.

In the end, we have a simple poster to hang in our school room. Everyone made a contribution and I am happy with the outcome. When we tackle another play, we will add to our collection.

And there you have it. Four steps for tackling Shakespeare with your kids.

Have you tackled Shakespeare with your family?  What plays have you enjoyed the most?



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3 thoughts on “Reading Shakespeare Plays with my Kids”

  1. I just finished watching your scope about this and came over here to say thank you! I haven’t done much Shakespeare with my daughter yet, but she’s memorized the first passage from “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” and loved “Will’s Words” and spots and identifies his portrait everywhere, so I think we’re ready to begin! I’d ordered the Usborne book before your scope had ended!

    I also want to give you this idea from my college Shakespeare class. I had an awesome professor. We were to keep a journal and had a certain number of things we had to do in it from a great big list. The one I loved most was to take a comic strip (I used Calvin and Hobbes), white out the words, and replace them with words from a scene from Shakespeare. I had such fun with a scene with lots of insults! I think kids would love giving it a try, too.

  2. When I started enjoying Shakespeare with my very young children, I followed the methods laid out in How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare and they worked so well! However, since we preparing for a local performance, we did not do a comedy first as MANY people recommend. Our first play was Hamlet! And guess what? My little boys loved it. I think that the comedies can be kind of confusing. Midsummer and Much Ado About Nothing are probably the most straightforward, but it is hard to keep track of everyone when they are pretending to be someone else!?!?!? Since then we have prepared for and enjoyed performances of Macbeth (another favorite!), Midsummer, Much Ado, and Julius Caesar.

    Now that I have an older child (4th grade), we are loving reading through whole plays together as a family. We use Folger’s editions so there are lots of notes to help with the vocabulary, but we don’t worry about understanding all of it. We read for enjoyment and glance over to get help with any vocab that interests us. But I will say we are doing Romeo and Juliet for the first time and it is kind of a difficult play to read! Long and with so much wordplay and rhyming couplets. Julius Caesar was easier to read!!!!

    I appreciate your ideas of more activities to extend the interaction with the play. Something I will continue to think about as our relationship with Shakespeare grows and matures.

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