Getting to grips with Shakespeare: Great resources for gently introducing the writings of the Bard to children plus a fun Shakespeare game

Shakespeare's Storybook by Patrick Ryan and illustrations by James Mayhew

There’s no doubt that the retelling of Shakespeare’s stories to a younger audience presents a challenge.   In Shakespeare’s original tales, the language is not entirely straightforward and I can remember when studying Twelfth Night for O level getting very bogged down in the language and missing key events in the plot.  Fortunately, our enlightened English literature teacher took the whole class to see a stage production of Twelfth Night, one specially designed for young English literature students, and it all became much clearer.

So I welcome any resources that provide an informative, entertaining and engaging way of bringing these classic texts to a young audience.  Here are my pick of the bunch.

The Shakespeare Stories – Bringing Shakespeare to Today’s Children – retold by Andrew Matthews, illustrated by Tony Ross     This box set contains the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Henry V and Romeo and Juliet.   In Romeo and Juliet the story opens at the Capulet’s house, owned by Juliet’s father and is described as thus:


“On that warm summer’s evening, the Capulet house was the brightest place in Verona.  The walls of the ballroom were hung with silk tapestries, and candle-light from a dozen crystal chandeliers threw rainbows on to the heads of the masked dancers as they twirled through the music and laughter that filled the air.”

So, the scene is set for Romeo and Juliet to meet, both flushed and swept up by the excitement of the evening’s entertainments.   And from the moment they kiss, as we know, their fate is sealed – the bitter hatred of their two families setting in motion a series of tragic events.

This series of books really do offer a gentle introduction to Shakespeare for young readers (age 7/8+).  Very helpfully, each book contains a cast list of the main characters at the front; a brief discussion about the main emotions at play in the story; and what it was like to visit the Globe Theatre when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.  Age 7/8+

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Plays – Seven Plays Presented by Marcia Williams   Marcia Williams has presented these plays in a highly individual but incredibly effective way – essentially, in the form of a comic strip which includes Shakespeare’s own dialogue, a very helpful narrative running underneath the action and comments from the audience all around the edge of the strip.  The seven plays are: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest.  This is how Marcia describes how the comic strip format works:-

“Dear Play-goer…There are three parts to each performance: the words that Shakespeare actually wrote are those spoken by the actors; the story, or plot of the play, is told underneath the pictures; and the spectators – who are famously rude and noisy – can be seen and heard around the stage.”

Marcia Williams has followed up the success of this book with Bravo, Mr. William Shakespear!  This book contains seven more plays – Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Richard III, Anthony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice.  Age 9+

Romeo and Juliet presented by Marcia Williams

Romeo and Juliet presented by Marcia Williams

Detail from border of Romeo and Juliet (Marcia Williams)

Shakespeare’s Storybook – Folk Tales that Inspired the Bard by Patrick Ryan, illustrations by James Mayhew (with two full-length CDs)    Patrick Ryan introduces this book by saying that Shakespeare knew a good story when he heard one; heard, maybe, from his mother, or his grandfather or even his teachers, in public houses or from friends.   And that is the point, he ‘heard’ them.  Stories and storytelling were a big part of life, in the absence of other forms of entertainment. They were heard in churches or buildings owned by noblemen or simply in people’s homes.  “The people in Tudor times used to say that they were going to ‘hear’ a play” as opposed to seeing a play.  And Shakespeare used the stories he heard and adapted them into the plays that we know today.   They were drawn from folk tales, fairy tales and ballads which originated from many parts of the world.

Patrick Ryan has brought together in this book the stories that are central to seven of Shakespeare’s plays – The Devil’s Bet (The Taming of the Shrew), The Hill of Roses (Romeo and Juliet), A Bargain is a Bargain (The Merchant of Venice), Snowdrop (As You Like It), Ashboy (Hamlet), Cap-O-Rushes (King Lear) and The Flower Princess (The Winter’s Tale).   Each story is introduced, explaining a little about Shakespeare’s play itself and then examining the influences, sources or stories that Shakespeare might have used to write his play.   Patrick Ryan’s text is beautifully supported by James Mayhew’s rich and colourful illustrations.  Age 9+

An extract from The Hill of Roses (Romeo and Juliet)

The Flower Princess (A Winter's Tale): Illustration by James Mayhew

Shakespeare BrainBites Game by The Green Board Game Company – Do you know your Bottom from your Puck?    Shakespeare BrainBites is a fun quiz game for those who want to show off how much they know about the Bard and his plays.  It can be played successfully by those who know a lot and those who know a little.  This is because as you play the game you can choose the level of difficulty of the questions you wish to answer.  This is how it works.   Each player has their own brain card and the object is to gain brain cells, move around the card and be the first to gain 16 brain cells in total.  (See below).

The Brain Cards and Score Markers

To gain brain cells, you answer questions worth 1, 2 or 3 brain cells.

Question card (Romeo and Juliet category)

Answer card (reverse of question card, Romeo and Juliet category)

The questions fall into the following categories: General, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Cymberline, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Who Said What?

The whole game packs away in a compact tin, ideal for travelling with or taking to a friend’s house.  I also think that the game works really well as a revision aid.


This entry was posted in Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Matthews, Andrew, Mayhew, James, Pre-teen, Ross, Tony, Ryan, Patrick, Teenage, Williams, Marcia, Young Adult and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Getting to grips with Shakespeare: Great resources for gently introducing the writings of the Bard to children plus a fun Shakespeare game

  1. Rosalind says:

    What a fantastic post! I have come across a couple of the books during my the time I was teaching, but the others are brilliant new resources. I have a soft spot for Shakespeare (and not only because I’m named after one of his characters!) and am particularly keen to discover new ways of getting children involved with his work (I attended a great RSC training course on this subject a couple of years ago).
    I am hoping to start up a business offering interactive sessions for babies, toddlers and children based around encouraging them to read for pleasure and have now been inspired to perhaps insert a Shakespeare unit for the older ones. Fingers crossed that living near Stratford will strengthen the link for them as well! Thanks again for a very enjoyable read.

  2. Sam says:

    I loved reading this as I have been wondering about how to look at Shakespeare for a while. We gave out the excellent Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross books as party bag gifts at my daughter’s birthday party and they went down well. They tell the stories in a way that is accessible and not patronising, don’t they? And that don’t dumb down the language too much. I really liked the look of the Shakespeare’s Storybook too – must check it out. Thanks for providing some great examples!

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