Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Your Children Shall be Kings

During a particularly bad Idaho winter in 1996, my 10 year old niece visited me for the weekend.  She accompanied me to a meeting of my Shakespearean troupe, Stage of Fools.  Only one other brave soul dared to trek through the snow to rehearse that day, so we abandoned our show and read a scene that allowed my niece to play along.  We chose the Lady Macduff murder scene…what 10 year old doesn’t love to die a dramatic death?

Amy's niece and her friends play out a scene from Macbeth.
Amy’s niece joins a scene from Macbeth.

We started our exploration of the text by reading through the scene.  I was amazed at how quickly she picked up the language.  There were only a few words that she needed help defining, and after the second reading, she fully understood the action of the scene.  This is when the fun began…we got the scene up on its feet.  With every reading, she became more and more animated and died with dramatic flourish.  It made me wish that she lived closer so that she could join the Stage of Fools!

I could have performed the scene with her all night, but the weather made me nervous, so we donned our winter wear to make the slow trip home.  Before leaving the theatre, she asked me if she could borrow Macbeth for the week and give it back when I visited her the following weekend.  Of course, I said yes.

The next weekend, I attended her 11th birthday party.  To my surprise, she and her friends took turns enacting the scene for our entertainment during the party.  It turns out that she had read the entire play that week and taken the script to school so that she and her friends could practice during recess.  As you might imagine, I was one proud aunt.

A few years later, I was able to take her to the Folger Shakespeare Library.  It was a very special trip for us.  Today, she is an adult who still has a passion for Shakespeare.  In fact, she has our favorite quote tattooed down the back of her leg, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Over the years, as the owner of the Shakespeare High website, I’ve been asked by parents and educators how soon we can expose our children to Shakespeare.  I always cite this anecdote as evidence that young children are more than capable of reading, understanding, enjoying, and embracing Shakespeare’s language.  While attending the “Shakespeare for All” workshop at the 2012 NCTE conference, Folger educators shared that “cognitive psychology tells us that adolescents have a harder time with language acquisition and dialect differences.  Start with grades 3-6 because they are ready.”  By introducing our younger students to Shakespeare’s language in small chunks, they will soon be ready to tackle a full play, and 9th grade teachers will no longer hear moans and groans when they introduce Romeo and Juliet for the first time.

Although I don’t teach elementary school, I enjoyed learning about the performance-based methods used when teaching Shakespeare to younger children.  If I didn’t live in the “other” Washington, I would attend the Folger Shakespeare Library Conference on Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom June 24-26, 2013.  The conference theme is Sharing Our Stories.  I’m thankful that I was able to share my niece’s story with you and hope you will share your stories with me by leaving a comment below.

Amy Ulen is a TSI 1996 Alumni. After 20 years of teaching English and theatre, she moved into technology education.  She created the Shakespeare High website and eventually plans on updating it again. She continues her passion for incorporating technology into the study of Shakespeare both online and in face-to-face workshops.   


  • My first introduction to Shakespeare wasn’t until SEVENTH grade. FAIL. I am totally going to introduce my kids to his works at an earlier age. I can only imagine how enchanted my daughter will be by the fairies of “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” in a few years.

  • I joined Shakespeare High on February 21 2001, discovering a friendly and informative community already growing. A few years later, I realized that my son had noticed Shakespeare as a frequent topic at the table. He also saw the growing collection of Bard books on the shelves. His curiosity about Shakespeare was explored in his own unique way. He was interested in movies of the plays and acting out the role of kings and warriors. When he was nine, I found him in his room reading Macbeth. I will never forget how excited he was to seek me out for questions when he had finished. He now has two degrees, one of which is in Literature, and teaches English. The same thing plays out in Amy’s story. The subject of Shakespeare is easily demystified for children. Their natural eagerness is a force like the tide.

  • Oh I love this! Such great memories. I’ve always loved Shakespeare but it’s YOUR passion for life and love for me that got me through the toughest of times.

    • Kate, this is only one of a million fond memories I have of you! The title of this post is perfect, because you have grown into such a spectacular adult. I’m so proud of you.

  • I directed a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Connecticut in 1994. My niece, who was six at the time, came up from New Jersey with my mother and sister to see a performance–it was not only my niece’s first Shakespeare, but also her first play-in-a-real-theater. She laughed and clapped, developed a crush on Puck, told me she loved the show. So far, no surprises. But my mother says that all the way home in the car, my niece, although sleepy by then, was retelling the story with accuracy and enthusiasm, and even quoting some of the lines. My niece’s experience that year and the next (As You Like It) suggest that if the performances are good, a Shakespearean comedy is accessible to children of virtually any age, and verbally accessible as soon as the child is herself verbal. (I think the histories and tragedies are textually and structurally complex and so should probably wait until the child is old enough to read the text after seeing the play, so yes, 9 or 10.) A last note: when Rachel read her first Shakespeare in school–late middle school, maybe?–she was surprised that her fellow students found the reading “hard” and the play hard to understand. By then she had seen half a dozen Shakespeares, as well as plays by two of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and had read several other Shakespeare plays on her own.

    • RAB, thanks for sharing Rachel’s story! I always advise parents to start with a live production. Like you said, when done well, a live performance can really help kids develop a passion for Shakespeare. Yet, I also tell them to call the theatre and ask for a “rating” for the show. I remember going to a college production of MND once that contained nudity and was very sexually suggestive…not what the parents of the two little girls in their Sunday best sitting across from me were expecting, I’m sure!

      Your blog looks great, by the way.

  • Before I retired, I taught middle school and worked with the social studies teacher on interdisciplinary themes. During a 7th grade focus on immigration, we read a radio play version of “Romeo and Juliet” (from a library book of 30 minute play versions) before watching “West Side Story,” etc. Later that year, we had a Conflict and and Resolution theme and read the full play, “The Taming if the Shrew,” in class with minor props or items of clothing to identify characters. The eighth grade had an Economics theme, when “The Merchant of Venice” was read in similar fashion. I also have a copy of Albert Cullem’s book, “Shaking Hands with Shakespeare,” about introducing his works to third through sixth graders. Alas, it dates from 1968 and may be out of print now. It was a Scholastic publication. (I haven’t proofread carefully, so I apologize for any typos!)

    • Madlon, what a great way to incorporate Shakespeare into interdisciplinary themes. I directed a high school production of “Macbeth” and we got most of the departments in the school to teach a lesson or two related to the show. It was fantastic!

      I appreciate that the Cullem book was published in 1968 and that the notion of exposing young children to Shakespeare is not new.

      I look forward to using some of the printable pattern from your website. Thanks for sharing!

  • That’s a great story, I bet you are an awesome aunt. I like teaching Shakespeare. The kids always start with complaints and end with quotes.

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