Picture shows a child's hand holding a styrofoam skull. Text is "Introducing Young Children to Shakespeare: Alas, Poor Yorick, I knew him."

Introducing Young Children to Shakespeare through Play

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I love Shakespeare. As a teenager, my best friends and I would hang around in the attic of my house practicing acting out Mid Summer’s Night Dream.  We didn’t understand all the jokes at first, but annotated books helped us learn them and we became familiar with the rhythm and language of his works. I still hear my best friend’s voices when I read certain lines of the play.

Later, as a parent, I was excitedly to introduce my children to his work. I started when they were very young, still at an age where they were playing with wooden blocks. We took to reciting a passage from Macbeth 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 didn’t 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 liked to take the role of an adviser 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 Shakespearean 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.)
  • How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig is a great book for parents to use. It gives suggestions for which passages to encourage your children to memorize and helpful tips for doing that. It also provides some background on the plays those passages are from.
  •  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, 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. Later, my children convinced me to buy a styrofoam skull that they could use while reciting the lines from Hamlet about Yorick! 

Playing with blocks and Halloween props was a great start for the kids learning Shakespeare. As they grew older, we used Minecraft to recreate scenes. We programmed Minecraft NPCs to speak Shakespearean lines. We continued to read the plays together.

As my kids grew older, I wanted to share more of the history of Shakespeare and his time. I found the following books particularly helpful:

(This post was based off of a post written on September 23, 2011 but was revised and republished in April 2020.)

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