As a child, instead of doing reading practice with early readers like Beatrix Potter and Dr Seuss I was given a large hardback of Shakespeare’s plays and we sat every day at lunch time for an hour and a half and read the plays out loud. My step mother, my father and I would take a part each and read that part for a couple of Scenes or an Act.
Now, when I was young my father and mother never had a television or a play-station to compete with Shakespeare so our little reading session began when I was five and continued till I was about eight years old at which point we had completed all the plays. You may be asking why I wasn’t at school in the middle of the day and the answer is that they educated me at home and reading Shakespeare was the bread and butter of that education.
I am fully aware that these days parents have to compete fiercely with all sorts of addictive technology and so sitting with Shakespeare as a first reader is not practical. However if like me, you appreciate the Great Bard and want to pass just a little of that onto your kids then here’s some ideas that I have tried and tested on my own two boys.
I shall list them in order below and then explain each point in more detail after.
- Start with fairy ‘s song from A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 2 Scene 2 (-drama, role play, drawing, fairy, imagination, mythical creatures).
- Story tell a little of the fairy part of the story of Midsummer Night’s Dream (leave out the Athenian lovers part) then read dramatically Oberon’s description of the ‘Love in Idleness flower’ and other excerpts. Act 2 Scene 1 and 2. (listening, myth & legend, imagination).
- Show Utube clip of Disney’s version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. And show them well chosen Dvd’s. (helps make it fun and child friendly)
- Introduce Jaques speech from As you like it Act 2 Scene 7 (-drama, old and young, life/death, time).
- Take the children to see their first play. I would probably start with a Midsummer Night’s Dream (although I started with The Tempest when I was 4 and a half years old and loved it).
1) The fairy song from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND) is a great place to begin as its full of animals, has great visual descriptions of them, is full of charm, magic and mythical creatures. You could approach this in many ways and I used as many as I could think of. I set the scene for my children by story-telling them about Titania who is the beautiful queen of the fairies who is being sung to sleep by her little fairy servants. I then sang the lullaby in a ‘fairy’ voice and the boys just wanted me to sing it over and over. If you dont know the song yourself then there’s a great Utube clip here.
This song can also lead to art projects, such as cutting spiral snakes out of paper/card and painting spots on them and making a felt forked tongue and sticking it on. Hang them from your ceiling. Or science projects such as: what exactly is a blindworm? Or how do spiders actually make their webs. Or going out in your garden at night and spotting a hedgehog (-we did this). Or keeping a newt as a pet or visiting a pet shop that has a newt to look at. All these projects can be adapted to the age and abilities of your children by making it either less or more complex.
A blindworm (just in case you were curious)
Children love role play and this is a great way to start. You can sing or read the song and as you say each animal your children can pretend to be that animal. Make this as complex or simple as you wish. Make your own costumes, act it out, get them to learn a line or two each, make masks, make puppets. Go for it!
2) My kids are suckers for a great story that’s well told. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fantastic story in itself, all you need is a little familiarity with the story yourself and your best story telling voice. Set the scene by introducing Oberon the noble king of the fairies, then bring in Puck, his mischievous servant. Tell a couple of the tricks Puck plays on poor unwitting humans. (like when he pretends to be a stool and as a large lady sits on him he moves leaving her a sprawling mess on the floor.) Then read the speech beginning “That very time I saw (but thou couldst not)…”
A note on reading Shakespeare to children: when you read do it slowly and with lots of exaggeration and hand movements that explain what it means. When really necessary, add one word after a tricky word that conveys the meaning to them without interrupting the flow. If they interrupt you, finish the bit you’re on and then explain. Children are very good at inferring meaning by how you read something and by your facial expressions so if you understand the passage yourself you may not need to explain too much anyway.
My boys found it fascinating hearing more about Cupid and a leviathan.
And of course they found it very entertaining imagining all the ridiculous creatures that Titania might fall in love with, from a slug to a pig to rather aptly a bottom.
Of course this brings me to the main event which is story-telling the moment when Titania awakes and falls in love with Bottom who has a Donkey’s head instead of a man. (another of Puck’s tricks) You can at this point skip through to Act 3 Scene 2 and read Titania calling to her fairy servants. “‘Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Moth! Mustardseed!” and read on till the end of that Scene. I read a little more as the boys wanted more, so I went on until the first sentence of Oberon saying ‘This falls out better than I could devise’ (Act 2 Scene 2)
Here are some links to A Midsummer Night’s Dream art work and music by great artists.
John Anster Firzgerald paintings -some beautiful atmospheric paintings by Victorian artist. Look out for Titania and Bottom
Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture Op 21
3) Walt Disney’s version of A midsummer night’s dream starring Donald and Daffy duck is amusing and that’s all I shall say about that, except that it is perhaps a little light refreshment before your next Shakespeare project. Here it is.
Here is an animated version for kids of A midsummer night’s dream.
There is a 1999 American film of A midsummer night’s dream which you can buy, its rated PG. Here is more info in it. Here’s somewhere you could buy it.
4) I introduced Jaques speech both to a class of thirty children and to my own two children and both groups thoroughly enjoyed it. I will describe briefly what I did with my class of thirty first, and then adapt those ideas for a small group.
I introduced my session as a drama lesson and divided them up into groups of seven. I named each group as old man, school boy, baby etc which the children found intriguing and amusing and then allocated each group a section of a large room. I then introduced Shakespeare and asked them to ‘lend me their ears’ which of course they liked doing literally and that got their attention hooked.
I then read the speech beginning ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players:’ (Act 2 Scene 7) The children listened attentively and I then asked them what they though it was about? There were some obvious contributions like “there was a baby” and such like and then one little girl put her hand up and said “its what happens to people”. She hit the nail on the head. This is a class of 6-7 year olds.
They listened again, now they had more of an idea of what it was about and were used to the language. Then I asked each group to work together to create a short drama ending with a freeze frame of a situation involving something about their part of the speech. They came up with all sorts of interesting scenarios: two old irritated grand parents impatient with their noisy grandchildren. A smart young man proposing to his girlfriend (which they found hilarious), some soldiers marching to some mouth trumpets. A group of elderly people dying in hospital. All these were completely the children’s ideas. They took 20 minutes to prepare their frieze frame and then performed them to everyone.
This sort of drama session can easily be done with tiny groups. You and your child/children can each take turns being the next stage and act it out to each other. Or one can read it whilst the other acts it out. Use some props, a satchel, glasses, a wig, walking stick, a nappy, slippers. Get others in your family involved like grandpa, could he play the schoolboy? And the kids play grandpa?
5) Now they should be ready to see a well chosen play by a child friendly theatre company. Its worth checking as there’s nothing worse than a bored child completely put off by drab acting and an overdose of apparently meaningless words.
Here’s an inspiring article from the independent-an eight year old experiences a Shakespeare play.
Link to Royal Shakespeare Company
Link to Globe Theatre
Link to Creation Theatre in Oxford that does good summer Shakespeare.
I hope that these five tips have given you more confidence in passing on your enthusiasm for Shakespeare in a child friendly way. Do feel free to drop me a line if you have any suggestions, questions or useful links.