Summertime offers lots of chances to see one of Shakespeare’s plays. Maybe a theater company near you is touring a free production to your local park; Maybe you’re visiting a regional Shakespeare festival to catch a few of your favorite plays; Maybe you’ve got tickets to Folger Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Building Museum.
⇒Related: What’s onstage at Shakespeare theaters this summer
Those opportunities make summer a great time to bring your kids to their first Shakespeare play. But how can you make the show a positive experience for them? What’s the best way to share your love of Shakespeare with a young person? We asked our partners across the country for their best tips on taking kids to their first Shakespeare plays.
The number one answer? Talk through the plot or read a synopsis together before the show. “If they know a little bit about the story of the play, the names of the characters, and a few lines ahead of time, it makes all the difference,” says Peggy O’Brien, the Folger’s Director of Education. “This has them even with an audience at the Globe [in Shakespeare’s time], because almost all of Shakespeare’s plays are based on stories that were generally known.” Folger Education introduces the stories with “Folger 20-Minute Plays,” which incorporate plot, characters, and key lines into a short, power-packed synopsis:
Theseus, the Duke of Athens, has wooed Hippolyta, the warrior queen of the Amazons, and they are to be married. [2. I WOOED THEE WITH MY SWORD . . . BUT NOW I WILL WED THEE . . . WITH REVELING!] Love. Awwww.
So . . . some workmen of Athens have decided they will put on a play for the Duke and Hippolyta at their wedding. And they begin to practice. [3. IS ALL OUR COMPANY HERE?] They have the whole discussion about who plays whom [4. WHAT IS PYRAMUS—A LOVER OR A TYRANT?] and they schedule their next rehearsal [5. WE WILL MEET AND THERE WE WILL REHEARSE MOST OBSCENELY AND COURAGEOUSLY!]
“Include visuals so they keep track of the characters, especially crucial for comedies,” adds Idaho Shakespeare Festival Director of Education Veronica Von Tobel “The more they understand the story, the easier it is for them to get past the language and enjoy the play because they know what’s going on. Treat it like story time!”
Kathy Hiteman of American Players Theatre suggests reading a story version of the play first. “Leon Garfield is a favorite,” she says, “He’s a genius with weaving his own prose with Shakespeare’s to make it entertaining and accessible.”
Houston Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Jack Young also encourages reviewing the play’s characters and their relationships. He adds, “Before going to the show with young’uns K – 3, I’d recommend adults share the story of the play in a kid’s version, something along the lines of the Shakespeare Can Be Fun series. . . Any pictures from the production could help get the young one an idea of what kind of universe that version will share.”
Once a child understands what they’re about to watch, what’s next? Here are a few more tips to take your kids through their first performance.
Before the play
I love to use Shakespeare’s insults and compliments to give students a chance to use the language, tossing those “slings and arrows” at each other. After seeing the play come to life on stage, students are amazed at how much they understood and were invested.
– Greta Lambert, Associate Artistic Director, Alabama Shakespeare Festival
Using basic plot points from the Shakespeare play you are attending, ask kids to brainstorm films, TV shows, and books they know that have similar plot points. This introduces kids to the plot while making contemporary connections.
– Lindsey Schmeltzer, Education Director, SPARC Theater
The best way to prepare someone for their first Shakespeare play is to find the characters and stories in the show they can relate to personally. A brief plot synopsis with follow-up questions works great—who do you identify with? Why? What would you do if you were in this story? Shakespeare’s universality of human emotion is his secret weapon—if you get a student to relate to the stories, you’ll have a life-long Shakespeare lover on your hands.
– Emoria Weidner, School Programs Manager, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
If they are seeing their first play, explain the difference between live theater and TV/film, as well as expected audience etiquette. But most importantly, encourage them not to shy away from their honest reactions. Let them laugh out loud, boo the villains, or even clap for things they like; the theater is a place of discovery both on and off the stage!
– O’Neil Delapenha, Community Engagement Manager, Atlanta Shakespeare Company
Prepare children for Shakespeare as if you are introducing a vacation to an exciting and unfamiliar land. They’ll arrive ready to expect the unexpected, which is always the best way to enjoy any kind of theater no matter how strange parts of the trip may feel.
– Adam Flores, Manager of Education and Community Engagement, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
During the play
Ask yourself what characters are doing when they are not talking. Who is most interesting when they are not speaking? Sometimes we can learn as much from what characters do as we do from what they say.
– Michael Witmore, Director, Folger Shakespeare Library
With Shakespeare, it takes a few minutes for our ears to adjust to the language—like our eyes do adjusting in the dark. Don’t worry about each word—listen to the tone of the actors’ voices and watch their faces, and you’ll understand the story!
– Marilyn J. Halperin, Director of Education, Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Let go of the words. The actors will direct you towards the intention of the text and the truth of the moment. It’s okay to not understand everything!
– Evan Held, Education Work Group Member, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Watching a Shakespeare play can be fun—a little like unlocking a secret code. Be patient with the language that may seem “old,” and try to hear the images that the actors are using to describe how they feel!
For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the end of Act 1, scene 1, Helena shares with the audience that she thinks that Cupid is bad at his job.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste.
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
Here, Helena is saying that people fall in love blindly, without thinking—and of course they do, when Cupid, who’s in charge of putting couples together, is shooting his arrow at people while flying around blindfolded! Can you picture this? Would you be able to choose love wisely, flying around blindfolded with a bow and arrow? Probably not!
– Bryn Boice, Associate Artistic Director, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company
I like to give kids things to look for in a production so that watching it becomes like a scavenger hunt. Depending on their age, kids might be on the lookout for a key line or a word that appears in the play early and frequently (“vision” and “eyes” are great for Midsummer!), a few key moments in the play (check out the synopsis and production reviews for ideas) or a specific character (Bottom in Midsummer is great fun, as is Viola in Twelfth Night, and who can resist the witches in Macbeth). A list makes for great conversation at intermission and after the play.
– Garland Scott, Head of External Relations, Folger Shakespeare Library
After the play
Ask more about what was exciting or puzzling, rather than “what was good.”
– Jack Young, Artistic Director, Houston Shakespeare Festival
After the show, discuss things that occurred in the play that they can relate to. Getting in a fight with your friend? Being jealous? The more they connect the play to their own experiences, the bigger impact it will have and make Shakespeare less intimidating when they study it in school later!
– Veronica Von Tobel, Director of Education, Idaho Shakespeare Festival
Be warned: once you’ve seen the show, your kids might want to try performing Shakespeare themselves. Sam White, Shakespeare in Detroit Founding Artistic Director, offers a few tips for young people before they start speaking Shakespeare.
Sam wrote to us:
“First and foremost, giving students agency to show up as themselves when they engage with Shakespeare. They don’t need to sound like some idea of Shakespeare they may have absorbed from movies and old ideas of what Shakespeare should look and feel like. I would have them create their own set of values or affirmations around the work before they even begin to open the text. I like to ask our teen students or actors to write down five values to bring to their reading or playing Shakespeare, i.e.:
“1. I can learn meter and still sound like myself by honoring who I am and my voice.
2. I am not bound to colonial ideas of who plays and speaks Shakespeare
3. These plays belong to us all, including me.
4. Shakespeare can be fun and I will have fun with Shakespeare.
5. I am excited to ask questions—they mean I am curious and I am excited to learn.”
Enjoy the show!
Alabama Shakespeare Festival, American Players Theatre, Atlanta Shakespeare Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Commonwealth Shakespeare Festival, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare in Detroit, SPARC Theater, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum are part of the Folger’s Theater Partnership Program.
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The BEST for my two kids, when they were in elementary school, were the two volumes of TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE by Marcia Williams! Comic strip panel illustrations that carry the action of the story – easy for them to follow the plot.
Leon Garfield’s two volumes of SHAKESPEARE STORIES are best for middle school/high school.
Tara Whitworth — August 17, 2022
We were so excited to take my children to my brother-in-law’s production of Merry Wives of Windsor this summer! Their first Shakespeare play! What you describe is just what I did, I described the plot and characters to them before we went, emphasizing Falstaff’s silliness and the other parts I thought they were most likely to relate to. They loved the play, they had so much fun, they watched the whole thing, understood the main arch of the plot, and laughed uproariously! It was such a gift to see it through their eyes, it was like seeing it for the first time. Other theater goers also said to us afterward how much they had enjoyed and appreciated hearing the kid’s laughter. Afterward we didn’t need to prompt any conversation, they were full of amazing observations. We are so excited to go to our next play!
Dina Robbins — August 18, 2022