Sunday, October 17, 2010

Shakespeare: Enjoying the Bard

I love Shakespeare. I always have. And I love to share my affection for the Bard with my child.

But I admit I'm picky about my approach.

I share Shakespeare with my child by going to a Bard on the Beach production or watching a Kenneth Branagh version (or others) on DVD. The plays were created to be watched on stage, not read, and it's so wonderful to see the beauty of the play off the page. It is a fine thing to be able to read and understand a play, and there is plenty of time to do that in a person's lifetime.

A pet peeve of mine is that we, via our educational systems, make Jr. High and High School students slog through, line by line, Elizabethan dramatized English language in order to experience a play (with the video at the end). This method does not help most of these kids see how amazing Shakespeare is... it only makes the whole topic tedious and difficult and boring.

I was one of those people who didn't mind slogging through a play line by line, either during high school or University, as Shakespeare read like poetry to me and my ear quickly caught on to the rhythm of Elizabethan English. But it wasn't until I went to see Kenneth Branagh's Henry V that I saw how the language could be spoken in such a way that it makes complete sense to the colloquial ear. And it was so moving and beautiful that I cried (just a little)... not because of the story line, but because I was affected by the eloquence of the language and the integrity of the acting.

We do have the plays in our house. My husband has a volume that includes all the plays. I still have my copies of the Arden Shakespeare I used in University. For our son, however, the actual plays on paper can wait until he's eager to read them. In the meantime, we have many other resources in our home that help us all enjoy Shakespeare.


Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit. You may recognize Edith Nesbit's name from The Book of Dragons or The Railway Children. She was a prolific children's writer (perhaps the first "true" author for children) in the late 1800's and early 1900's. She has a lovely way of writing and her retellings of 20 of Shakespeare's plays are straightforward yet enjoyable. She is able to simplify the language yet retain the poignancy of the story. You can read her version of King Lear here.

Shakespeare Stories and Shakespeare Stories II by Leon Garfield. Garfield has done a wonderful job of not only retelling these 21 plays (12 in the first volume, 9 in the second) but of recreating them as stand-alone fictional pieces. These books are best suited for the older learner (10+) in terms of writing style and in terms of content (especially SS II).

I first became acquainted with Garfield through his book with Edward Blishen, The God Beneath the Sea, based on Greek mythology. If you can find this book (now out of print), it won the Carnegie Medal in 1970 and is illustrated by the amazing Charles Keeping.

Marcia Williams has two cartoon volumes of Shakespeare's Plays: Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays (AKA Tales from Shakespeare) and Bravo Mr. William Shakespeare! (AKA More Tales from Shakespeare).

I cannot gush enough about Marcia Williams. She is able to grasp the essence of a story in her nutshell retellings and her amusing illustrations. My son has spent a lot of time looking through these books on his own initiative, simply because they are so compelling. He's also retained much of what he's read in her books and often surprises me with details about plays that I don't remember.

Andrew Matthew's Shakespeare Stories are new to us! As they are illustrated by the amazing Tony Ross, we are going to take the leap and buy a few of the books. Some reviews say:

"An excellent introduction to Shakespeare for the junior reader."
"Andrew Matthews admirably conveys the beauty and power of the original plays. The text is full of the rhythms of spoken language and begs to be read aloud."
"The retelling of the plays is done with great individual style."

Sounds great!

Geraldine McCaughrean is a wonderful British reteller of all sorts of stories, including Shakespeare's. It's a bit hard to get your hands on her Shakespeare retellings, but it will be worth it if you can hunt them down.

You can find her work in both book and audiobook form. "Geraldine McCaughrean has won many awards for her brilliant versions of classic texts. Here she retells the ten Shakespeare plays children are most likely to come across: Romeo and Juliet, Henry the Fifth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest. Written in stirring, colourful prose, this book makes a terrific introduction to Shakespeare and makes complex plots easy to follow. The text is punctuated with well-known quotations that give a taste of the real thing, and each play opens with a cast list explaining just who the characters are."

There are other popular books for retelling, such as Charles and Mary Lamb's Classic Tales from Shakespeare (written in 1807, so the language is quite formal). The Shakespeare Can Be Fun series by Lois Burdett is fine for younger children, especially if you plan to take them to a production and want to help them understand the story ahead of time (we eventually tired of the rhyming couplets). Barefoot Books' Shakespeare's Storybook goes back the source for many of Shakespeare's plays: folk and fairy tales. Usborne also has a beautifully illustrated book titled Stories from Shakespeare. There's a lot to choose from and our library system makes a great place to begin exploring what's available.


William Shakespeare and The Globe - Aliki

Review from "Cleverly arranged as a play, with an aside and acts one through five, the book features a quotation from one of Shakespeare's plays on every spread. Bite-sized chunks of text are interspersed with the lovely detailed illustrations Aliki is famous for, making what might be a difficult subject very accessible. In addition, there are charts listing Shakespeare's plays, a chronology of his life, sidebars with mini-biographies of significant people in his life, and a partial list of words and expressions he invented (gloomy, moonbeam, mountaineer, zany, and bated breath, among 2,000 others!). Aliki also devotes a special section to Sam Wanamaker, a 20th-century man with a dream to reopen Shakespeare's Globe playhouse in London."

The Bard of Avon - Diane Stanley

From School Library Journal: "This is a wonderful book. Using the few facts known about their subject, Stanley and Vennema manage a full-bodied portrait of a life and time without resorting to fictionalizing or sloppy speculation. In the course of a brief text, the authors manage to touch not only upon the life but also upon important aspects of many of the major plays. There is even a tantalizing postscript with introductory glimpses of the development of the English language. As with their previous works, the authors provide a short but meaty bibliography. Stanley's distinctive full-color gouache paintings are clearly her own, and just as clearly planted firmly in archival research. They reinforce and expand the text with humor and movement." --Sally Margolis


The Shakespeare Stealer - Gary Blackwood

From School Library Journal: "Young Widge is an Elizabethan Oliver Twist with a talent for shorthand. Raised in an orphanage, he is apprenticed to an unprincipled clergyman who trains Widge to use a cryptic writing system that he's invented to pirate sermons from other rectors. Hired by a mysterious traveler, the boy is hauled off to London to attend performances of Hamlet in order to transcribe the script for another theater company. Naturally, all does not go smoothly, and in the course of trying to recover his stolen notebook, Widge goes to work at the Globe, eventually donning a dress and wig to play Ophelia before the queen. The true identity of the mysterious traveler provides a neat twist at the end. Tentative readers might be put off by Widge's Yorkshire dialect, but the words are explained in context. Wisely, much of the theater lingo is not explained and becomes just one more part of the vivid background through which the action moves. This is a fast-moving historical novel that introduces an important era with casual familiarity." -- Sally Margolis

There are two other books in the series, Shakespeare's Scribe and Shakespeare's Spy

King of Shadows - Susan Cooper

From Kirkus Reviews: "When Nat Field, an orphan living with his aunt, is chosen for an all-boy acting troupe traveling to London to perform Shakespeare in the reconstructed Globe Theatre, he hopes it will help him escape from his family's tragedy. Instead he finds himself switched in time with another Nat Field, who carries the Plague. In the past he performs with the Bard himself, who becomes a surrogate father and helps him deal with his sorrow, while preparing to play Oberon to Nat's Puck in a performance before the Queen. Cooper is in top form here; her confident prose, at once muscular and lyrical, vividly conveys the sights, sounds, and smells of Elizabethan London. Most powerful are her descriptions of the story and imaginative staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which should have readers scurrying for the original. Her poignant characterization of Nat, whose grief is released by Shakespeare and healed by his words, captures perfectly an adolescent in thrall of the theater, in all its grittiness and grandeur. A dramatic and sensory feast."


There are many wonderful adaptations of Shakespeare's plays available on DVD. Some are true to the plays (word for word); others are abridged; some are modernized. There are many fabulous choices. If you are looking for a first taste of Shakespeare on the screen for your kids, though, you may want to consider the following:

Shakespeare 4 Kidz

Shakespeare 4 Kidz is a British theatre company who introduces children all over the U.K. (and beyond) to the plays of Shakespeare (in the form of musical adaptations). There are currently only two of their on-stage performances on DVD (A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth), but it seems that plans are in the works to create six movies (the first of which is Hamlet) using Shakespeare 4 Kidz versions of the plays. Yay!

In Canada, you can find the DVDs for both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth at Fire The Imagination. They are fantastic.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company

From "Ah, Shakespeare. The great bard. You've heard he's a terrific writer. One of these days, you may actually get around to catching one of his plays. Yeah, right. Well, with the help of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, not only can you catch all of Shakespeare's plays at once, but you can have a riotous good time doing so. Three men performing 37 plays in less than two hours may seem a bit of a stretch. But Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor--all members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company--pull it off beautifully with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a slapstick show that summarizes the playwright's stage work (with the sonnets thrown in). Never read Titus Andronicus? No problem; it's presented here as a cooking show. Can't keep your Shakespearean histories straight? Visualize them as a football game. Wondering what exactly is the deal with that guy Othello? Hear his story as a rap song. Hard as it is to imagine, this video of the stage show (originally seen on PBS) is one of the funniest, most clever productions around. Long is hysterical in his roles of Juliet and Ophelia (among others), bringing a hip, edgy feel to the plays while remaining surprisingly true to the stories. Martin and Tichenor will amaze with their acrobatic movements and frequent costume changes, and the three together are a marvel of timing and rhythm. Best of all, whether you know Shakespeare inside out or have yet to read a word of him, The Complete Works will have you in stitches." --Jenny Brown

Shakespeare for Children as told by Jim Weiss

We love Jim Weiss at our house. He is a master storyteller and has a way of bringing out the major plot points while retaining the rhythm and poetry of the language.  He has recorded many classic tales and it's worth taking his CDs out of the library. We have purchased several as we like to listen to them time and again. They are great for listening to in the car or at at home on a rainy day.

This album has wonderful retellings for A Midsummer's Night Dream and The Taming of the Shrew.

Games and Toys

Magnetic Poetry Kit

Magnetic Poetry Kits are always fun... but when you can add Elizabethan language (and insults) to the mix on your fridge, it's even better fun!

Shakespeare's Globe: Interactive Pop-Up Theatre

This is a very fun little pop-up theatre with stick puppets you can use to perform plays (12 of them!).

It seems to be out of print now, so it might be difficult to get your hands on it. It's not necessary for learning about Shakespeare, but it does add a little fun.

Masterpuppet Theatre

There is a review of this puppet theatre at the New Yorker website.

"The puppets are the brainchild of Michael Rogalski. They take the form of playing-card-sized, cartoonish portraits of sixty well-known Shakespeare characters, and every card has two holes cut in the bottom where the character's legs should be, and where, of course, the puppeteer inserts her fingers..."

Shakespeare: The Bard Game

We picked this up at Bard on the Beach a couple of years ago, but haven't played it yet! I found a thorough review of it on

"Shakespeare: The Bard Game is a relatively average trivia game, with some fun additional systems that do add something to the game. If you're looking for another party game, this isn't a bad choice. However, where this release really shines is as a Shakespeare-themed game. The theming is great, well-integrated, and colorful. Fans of Shakespeare and his plays will probably really enjoy the game, despite the average gameplay. (My wife definitely does.)"