Introducing Young Children to Shakespeare

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I love Shakespeare and I have been excitedly waiting to introduce my children to his work. The decision to spend time on it this month came after the children choose to memorize an excerpt from Macbeth quoted in a book of poetry.  We took to reciting the passage over and over as we cleaned the living room, using the kids’ blocks as ingredients to a witches brew and a basket as the cauldron:

Round about the cauldron go
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Intrigued by the third and forth line there I did some googling and found that “one” indeed used to rhyme with “stone.” (Think of the word “only.”) The kids found that equally fascinating. We used colored blocks to model the rhyming pattern and compare it with other poems. Someday I hope to be able to discuss meter with them but right now I don’t know enough about it. Hopefully I’ll learn more about it soon and be able to discuss it with them kids at some point later.

I waited till they had the verse almost memorized and then I turned to my trusty copy of Tales from Shakespeare to help me summarize the story of Macbeth for them. Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles and Mary Lamb, is written to try as much as possible to reflect the language of Shakespeare while still being understandable to children. I’ve found a few inaccuracies in the details and I can’t quite understand why they choose to include all the parts they do, so I don’t (yet at least) read them the tales directly from there, but skim read it, quoting some and telling them things my way. They got the basic idea of the story, which they then wanted to act out. My oldest son likes to take the role of an advisor and pretend he’s giving advice to all sorts of characters from history or literature, thus leading to new alternative endings, so he moved back and forth pretending to advise King Duncan and Macbeth.

Encouraged by the success in introducing them to that story I checked out what our local library had for children. We found a number of books, my favorite of which I’ll list here:

  • Shakespeare and Macbeth : the story behind the play by Stewart Ross, is an excellent book. It tells about Shakespeare writing the play, about the historic Macbeth and it summarizes the play, pointing out the way in which the play differs from the history. The references to James I of England helped us make the connection between Shakespearan England and what was happening in the “New World” at the time. (The book doesn’t mention the New World, but we’re reading about Jamestown, Quebec and early settlements elsewhere so this tied in nicely.)
  • A treasury of Shakespeare’s verse (published by Kingfisher) is another library book we borrowed. This has nice little excerpts, though I haven’t read many of them to my children yet, as most are still to hard for them to understand.
  •  A child’s portrait of Shakespeare by Burdett Lois tells of the life of Shakespeare and is very readable. We first read this a few years ago.

My children are young. I know they don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare yet, but I like that they are learning about it. I am taking care to present Shakespeare lightly. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to be excited about learning more later. I never thought the play Macbeth would be their introduction to Shakespeare, and yet it has worked well for us. Witches, murder, kings, warriors and prophecy all play well with the children.

When we were out shopping today, my oldest saw a fake knife in a Halloween displays, and he suggested maybe Shakespeare used something like that in faking the fight scenes. When we came home, he wanted to talk about what other special effects Shakespeare might have used, and what effects people use today that wouldn’t be possible back then. Learning about Macbeth has provided chances for us to discuss so many different topics!

Edited to add: Another homeschooler whose blog I like just wrote about her experience with teaching young children Shakespeare.

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