I’ve found that approaching Shakespeare from multiple angles, and focusing on what he really has to offer a young audience – story, character and emotion – can help children relate more closely to his work.
Shakespeare’s plots are simple and classic, like fairy tales. The man who wants power, but has to kill to get it (Macbeth). The boy and girl who are desperate to be together, but thwarted by their parents (Romeo and Juliet). The fairies who have fun playing tricks on people (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Telling the story first – as a retelling, or as your own simplified version – can be a great way to introduce the play, inviting the listeners to talk about it as you go along. What must it feel like to be that guilty king? How did Romeo and Juliet know it was love at first sight? How does it feel to have to leave your home behind? These themes are repeated over and over in other stories children will be familiar with – The Lion King, Frozen, Inside Out – can they think of other examples?
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed, and still are performed, so invite children to think and talk about how best to do that. They can design stage sets, costumes and make props. What about special effects – how could you make a character fly, or disappear in a puff of smoke? You could set a task to research how Shakespeare’s own theatre company managed things like this, and how they are done in theatres today.
When it comes to tackling the language, there are many passages of Shakespeare that aren’t hard to work out, and still retain a direct impact. For example:
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog.
If you take a simple, rhythmic excerpt from an interesting scene, you can talk about what’s happening and encourage children to learn and recite it, being as OTT as they like, then discuss what is happening. Witches around a cauldron is a familiar theme from Halloween – who has a cauldron or a witch costume? What are the revolting things the witches are throwing into the spell?
For language that is really confusing, start with something simple – one troublesome word in a meaningful sentence.
Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
“Wherefore” might seem to mean “where?”, but in Shakespeare’s language, it actually means “why?” What is Juliet saying? She’s asking why Romeo has to be who he is – an enemy of her family.
Relating to the immediate feelings, dilemmas and physical presence of the characters makes moments from Shakespeare real and relevant. That’s a great first step towards telling the whole story, and exploring the whole text.
About the author:
Anna Claybourne has written the Short, Sharp, Shakespeare Stories series for Wayland Books and The Comedy, History and Tragedy of William Shakespeare, winner of the 2015 SLA Information Book Awards Judges Special Commendation, published by Franklin Watts. Both imprints are part of the Hachette Children’s Group. She has written over 150 information books for children on a huge range of subjects.
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