The late nineteenth-century educator Charlotte Mason wrote, “Thought breeds thought; children familiar with great thoughts take as naturally to thinking for themselves as the well-nourished body takes to growing; and we must bear in mind that growth, physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, is the sole end of education.” Mason believed children should be exposed directly to great literature. Many would agree that the works of William Shakespeare represent some of the best literature in the world.
Shakespeare may seem out of the reach of children, but that’s not the case. Talented writers have made the Bard accessible to younger students in ways that will make their later experience with the complete works more enjoyable and more readily understood. An early introduction allows children to savor the genius of the storylines and to experience personal growth provided by exploring the themes.
Bruce Coville has adapted several works of Shakespeare for children as young as age four. Each of his picture books retells an individual play, using original language when possible. In his beautifully illustrated, 48-page adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, important quotes are true to Shakespeare. “The course of true love never did run smooth.” “What fools these mortals be.” Although abridged, the stories remain coherent. The artwork helps to bring the works to life for small children.
When The Railway Children and Five Children and It author E. Nesbit sought to share Shakespeare with her own young children, she found the language too complex for them to follow. In 1900, Nesbit created Shakespeare’s Stories for Young Readers, which is still popular today. She presents twelve tales in about six pages each, with the most difficult of Shakespearean English changed to Victorian English, although some of the original wording remains. This is recommended for children ages 8-14, but some as young as six will be enthralled.
Nesbit presents Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Cymbeline, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Pericles, The Merchant of Venice, and The Winter’s Tale. The stories aren’t sanitized; Romeo and Juliet still commit suicide.
Shakespeare’s Stories author Leon Garfield won numerous literary awards and honors, including the Carnegie Medal, before his death in 1996. Sixteen gorgeous color plates combine with numerous black and white illustrations by Michael Foreman to enhance the Shakespeare experience for middle schoolers and older. Garfield’s 1985 work presents a dozen of the Bard’s best, with some overlap with Nesbit. He drops four that Nesbit included and ventures into the more sober and mature King Richard the Second, King Henry IV Part One, Othello, and Macbeth. Narration is in modern English, while all spoken words are in the original language. Garfield tells the stories in 20-30 pages each.
In 1807, noted Victorian essayist Charles Lamb and his sister retold twenty of Shakespeare’s plays, using original language as much as possible. Charles summarized the tragedies and Mary the comedies. Children from age six and up will enjoy this, although it is officially recommended for ten and older. In Lamb’s own words, from the Preface:
The following Tales are meant to be submitted to the young reader as an introduction to the study of Shakespeare, for which purpose his words are used whenever it seemed possible to bring them in; and in whatever has been added to give them the regular form of a connected story, diligent care has been taken to select such words as might least interrupt the effect of the beautiful English tongue in which he wrote: therefore, words introduced into our language since his time have been as far as possible avoided.
Bring Shakespeare to Life
Noted American playwright and theatre director Ken Ludwig believes memorization and interaction enhance children’s knowledge. He wrote How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, which offers passages to memorize and background information that will increase students’ appreciation of and interest in the plays.
The Great Characters from Shakespeare Paper Dolls are a fun way to introduce actual, physical characters to students of any age. The representations are historically correct, as one would expect from Tom Tierney, a leading authority on fashion history. These teaching aids are a way to bring the Bard’s characters to life for $7 or less.
Actually going to see a live Shakespearean play after it has been well introduced is the ultimate treat for students of any age. Call ahead to be certain the production is suitable for children and presented traditionally. Some directors take great license with interpretation or even add inappropriate content. The best plays for youngsters to start with are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and The Comedy of Errors. Be kind to adults who didn’t study Shakespeare — allow your children to explain the plot and character motivations during intermission.