One of the few things I’ve been able to consistently stick with in our homeschool is the study of Shakespeare. The whole thing started on a whim during the 2014-15 school year. I’d tried reading poetry once a week during our “family subjects” time and the kids were ‘meh’. So I decided to introduce Shakespeare at the beginning of our second trimester. Makes perfect sense right? If I recall correctly, we’d watched part of the Hollow Crown Series earlier in the year when I was desperately trying to find a video that lined up to the history period we were studying. I believe my train of thought was that since everyone loved the live action Henry V adaption, they’d love whatever other Shakespeare play I threw at them. Plus, it’d give me an excuse to put on another movie every few weeks. And I’d feel less guilty for ditching poetry. So while I knew I definitely wanted my highs schoolers to study Shakespeare, I didn’t give a whole ton of thought to how to study Shakespeare at home with my kids in grades PreK through 7th.
We started with Comedy of Errors, and I quickly found a system that worked for us, and I’ve stuck with it ever since. My kids’ enthusiasm has grown through the years, and I think it helps that I truly love reading and watching Shakespeare with them. Plus, there are no grades or projects tied to our study of the Bard. We read, discuss, watch, discuss, and after a steady diet of comedies and tragedies we start making connections between the plays, and other forms of entertainment as well. I had no experience with Shakespeare, save for studying Romeo and Juliet in high school, and it was really my lack of expertise in pretty much all great British and American literature that motivated me to introduce as many good books and authors to my kids as soon as possible.
So if you’re interested in exposing your kids to Shakespeare, don’t be intimidated! You can learn how to study Shakespeare at home with your kids! But also know that, if you give it a try and it doesn’t work for your family or homeschool, it’s not the end of the world.
For elementary age kids, I recommend Beautiful Stories From Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit (which you can listen to for free on LibriVox), or any good children’s adaption of Shakepeares’ plays. Usborne Books has several good looking versions (including a fun sticker book I bought just for myself). When we started, I would have the younger kids listen to a children’s version of the play I was reading aloud to the older kids. Then we would all watch the play together (with numerous pauses to explain what was going on). When we started, we focused on the comedies Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, etc. Most of the plays we watched were free either through Amazon Prime or our local library. Only a few times when I found the free options to be absolutely awful did I consider purchasing/ renting a different version.
For my upper elementary, middle school aged kids, I read the plays in modern English, usually from the No Fear Shakespeare series. We’d cover about one scene at a time (or a few if they were short). I’ve done some dramatic reading, but typically, I would simply mention something like “And then Malvoleo said…” if it wasn’t overtly clear who was speaking. I’d also pause and review the scene as necessary to make sure everyone understood what was going on. I’ve also made drawings to explain connections and relations when needed.
We also talk about William Shakespeare when we study Elizabethan England, so the kids learn about his personal life, the Globe theater, etc. during history.
In high school, both Addie and Byron read and studied plays for various literature courses. Addie through Queen of Heaven Academy, and Byron took a great course through Tan Books: Shakespeare’s Catholicism: A Critical Analysis of the Bard’s Life and Plays, led by Joseph Pearce. (So don’t worry, when deciding how to study Shakespeare, you can always consider outsourcing some of the work.) He gained a lot of insight from that class and led us in discussions of Romeo and Juliet and the Merchant of Venice. Edie studied A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 8th grade and should I continue to plan Edie’s high school curricula, I will definitely have her read several plays as part of a course on British Literature and/ or with his plays tied to different historic periods. The difference between high school and earlier study is I do expect my kids to be reading the original versions (not modern English adaptions) and writing in-depth literary analysis papers. But because they have experience with Shakespeare, it’s no more intimidating than any other book. (So just to be sure- there’s still complaining, but it’s no worse than usual.) The creators of the No Fear series are also the people behind Spark Notes, so their website is also helpful for older students who need help understanding the plays and writing papers about them.
Right now I read Shakespeare every day during our morning meeting time which includes the younger three. Because Edie is studying other plays for literature, I don’t have her doing any additional writing on the plays I’m reading aloud.
My favorite video adaptions are as follows (some affiliate links below):
- Twelfth Night* – with Sir Alec Guiness! Obi Wan as Malvolio = perfection.
- Much Ado About Nothing*
- The Comedy of Errors* – WHO knew Robert Daltrey could act??
- As You Like It*
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V – The Hollow Crown
- Henry VI Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Richard III – The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses
- Coriolanus – This version with Tom Hiddleston streamed for free on YouTube as part of quarantine theater program. I’m not sure you can view it now. This version looks fantastic, but is probably too violent for younger viewers.
- The Taming of the Shrew* – John Cleese is funny (as usual!) in this version.
- Hamlet – I don’t love Hamlet, and I don’t love David Tennet as the lead, but I think it’s a solid performance.
- The Tempest – Good performance, but mainly worth watching just for the crazy 1960’s set and costumes.
- The Winter’s Tale – This performance was free earlier this year as part of a fundraiser, but you can purchase access to the full performance at The Globe’s website.
- Antony and Cleopatra
- Julius Caesar – Currently free at that link on YouTube but also available on Amazon.
- Loves Labors Lost
- The Merry Wives of Windsor – Not fantastic, but free, and enjoyable.
- Macbeth – My favorite.
- Romeo and Juliet – I like this version and how Paul Rudd looks exactly the same today as when this was filmed.
- The Merchant of Venice – I question Al Pacino’s accent in this, but otherwise, a great performance.
*These BBC productions are very good, and are usually free on Amazon Prime or we had most available at our local library on DVD. You usually can’t go wrong with this series- except for Macbeth which I thought was awful.
Just a reminder that Shakespeares plays were written for adults. There’s lots of sexual jokes, violence, and words you might not want your kids repeating (I feel like every other word in King Lear is either whore or bastard). If you have young children, some of the language and innuendo might go over there heads, but if you’re concerned, choose a video adaptation made for kids.
As you can see, there’s plenty of plays we haven’t covered yet. We’re currently reading King Lear, after which we’ll review a comedy the boys probably don’t remember well because we studied it years ago. As of yet, the kids have not performed Shakespeare, nor read parts aloud. I wouldn’t mind organizing something for our kids and others, but it never materialized and since none of my kids were clamoring for the opportunity to recite Shakespeare, it never happened. We’ve also never memorized soliloquies, quotes, or stanzas. I have tried to highlight famous passages when I read them, but memorization has never been my strong suit. I feel like what we’re doing is fun, enjoyable, and exposes my kids to great literature so I don’t usually feel guilty for not doing even more… until I see some other homeschoolers creating lavish sets and costumes for their 15th annual Shakespearean Festival of the Arts in which everyone speaks in Elizabethan English all day for authenticity. The rest of the time I’m fine. How you decide to study Shakespeare at home can look completely different from what I’ve outlined here.
If you want to take your study of Shakespeare a step further, I recommend Ken Ludwig’s book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, plus a quick search on Amazon will turn up several adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays suitable for a children’s performances.
(Lastly, thank you for your prayers everyone- we get to keep 12 hours of nursing care! We went through several appeals, but finally an external appeal agency agreed with us and overturned the insurance company’s decision to reduce our hours. )
So that’s how to study Shakespeare at home, Mantoan style. Any questions?