William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Title page of the play, from the first quarto
Author(s): 
William Shakespeare
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

We studied this Shakespeare comedy in 9th grade using an "interleaved" edition featuring the original text on one side and notes to clarify the meanings of archaic terms on the facing pages. Looking at the text on the pages was a little daunting, but it is amazing what a difference reading it aloud in class made. Suddenly the words were not so strange or difficult to follow any more, and as it is a play -- not a novel -- reading aloud really helped bring it to life. Our class was also able to attend a live outdoor performance, which further enhanced our study of the play.

As for the play itself, it is a light comedy that revolves around two young men (Demetrius and Lysander) and two young women (Hermia and Helena) and their adventures. Their fathers want Demetrius and Hermia to wed, but Hermia prefers Lysander. Meanwhile, Helena is still in love with Demetrius even though he has jilted her for Hermia. Hoping to elope, Hermia and Lysander enter a wood, but are pursued by Demetrius and Helena. There they get mixed up in the doings of the fairies, whose King and Queen have themselves had a bit of a falling out. Throw in the mischievous Puck and a group of simple craftsmen, and you have a recipe for much hilarity.

Shakespeare uses the situations to explore our human capacity for caprice and wilfulness through the sometimes ridiculous events in his play. Other themes you might want to discuss are: is it appropriate for a father to insist that his daughter marry a particular man? To what extent have the people Shakespeare portrays been influenced by the return of classical thought and Roman law in this regard? What of Oberon's attitude toward his wife Titania? And what about the magic? It's supposed to fix everything, but does it? Or does it just create more chaos?

But A Midsummer Night's Dream is a lot of fun, so don't let too much dissection spoil it for you or your students.

Additional notes: 

Written approximately 1595.

Many editions available, including several online.

Review Date: 
1-8-2009
Reviewed by: 

A Storyteller's Version of Shakespeare for Kids

A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew
Author(s): 
Shakespeare as told by Jim Weiss
ISBN: 
1 882 513 401
Copyright: 
2000
Publisher: 
Greathall Productions
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

I love Melissa Wiley's quote on Jim Weiss' website: "Suddenly I understand. My four-year-old is narrating Shakespeare...Thank you, Jim Weiss!" (www.melissawiley.net)

My teenagers have fond memories of doing just that-- listening and quoting Shakespeare in early elementary school. I asked my 16 year old before I wrote this review and his opinion was that this CD offers the usual Jim Weiss traits: high quality adaptations, great storytelling voice, well done character voices.

The stories in this CD--A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew-- are neither over simplified or obscure for younger children. Jim Weiss is successful at opening up the world of Shakespeare at an early age and gives them the cultural references that will aid children in their studies until they are ready to tackle Shakespeare!

Additional notes: 

Jim Weiss also has produced a version of Romeo and Juliet.

Review Date: 
1-21-2009
Reviewed by: 

In Search of Shakespeare

Author(s): 
Michael Wood
Copyright: 
2004
Publisher: 
BBC
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

This is a fascinating documentary, but not suitable for children. Although it leans secular to a certain extent, it provides a very helpful (and detailed) background of the nature of the political and religious conflicts going on in Shakespeare’s world. It also makes a pretty strong case that Shakespeare grew up in a Catholic household and had some Catholic sympathies throughout his life, that at least seem to reflect the basic morals found in his plays. There is plenty of ugliness too, but I think it’s worth sorting through the muck to get a better understanding of the Bard.

Available from Netflix or your local library.

Because of mature content and a slight secular bias, this series is recommended for parents (who can, of course, share the content with their children at their own discretion).

Review Date: 
2-11-2009
Reviewed by: 

King Lear

Author(s): 
William Shakespeare
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

King Lear is the heart-wrenching tragedy of a king with three daughters who decides to test their love for him as a condition for inheriting a part of his kingdom. Naturally the two who are most interested in the prize are the most willing to tell him what he wants to hear. The youngest, Cordelia, in her honesty and simplicity, refuses to flatter him and is disinherited. Over time, Lear realizes his mistake, as his two other daughters are only “nice” when they have something to gain from it.

This is a tragedy about deception and superficiality – particularly within the family, but with many political implications. It illustrates Shakespeare’s incredible capacity to understand human nature and there are thus multitudinous themes to reflect on, such as love and loyalty and the superficiality of flattery. Questions to consider might include: How do we recognize true devotion? Is anyone really as demanding as Lear is? Does loyalty to something other than the state, (what some might consider a divided loyalty), such as the Church, make one a better or worse citizen in the eyes of the state?

I found Ignatius Press’ Ignatius Critical Edition: King Lear (edited by Joseph Pearce) to be quite helpful in studying King Lear with our teen discussion group. This book includes detailed definitions, explanations and commentary in footnotes on each page of the play as well as “Classic” and “Contemporary” essays on the play. While I didn’t read all of the essays in the book, I did particularly enjoy James Bemis “King Lear on Film”, which led us to Laurence Olivier’s 1984 portrayal of King Lear. We watched this as a group (following our discussion) and enjoyed it very much, in spite of a few gory spots.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
2-11-2009
Reviewed by: 

Much Ado About Nothing

Book cover: 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Copyright: 
1993
Publisher: 
MGM
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

This is an admirable portrayal of one of Shakespeare's great comedies beautifully filmed on location in Italy. It is a love story that also laughs at love and a drama that ends up being "Much Ado About Nothing." It is so refreshing to see that Kenneth Branagh (director, adapter and co-leading man) appreciates Shakespeare as Shakespeare rather than trying to add on modern nonsense to make it more accessible. Instead, Branagh assists in making Shakespeare's timeless story accessible through good acting, beautiful scenery and an amazingly faithful script. I like this film very much, and I think it can be a good place for introducing teens to Shakespeare. However, there are a few short scenes of a sensual nature that parents might want to edit for their children. I recommend that parents preview the movie before watching it with their children, but in a nutshell, here some scenes that parents may wish to edit, particularly the third one:

During the credits, the men and women (who are in separate places) are shown bathing and dressing up while preparing to meet each other after the men had been away at war. While this is done in a fairly innocent manner, there are plenty of naked "backsides" in this scene.

There is a small scene during the costumed party involving a couple who are not behaving themselves very well. It does help establish their characters which play an essential role in the story. Although it is not terribly graphic (and might go unnoticed by small children), it is probably not suitable for younger viewers.

The balcony scene in which Margaret is "courted" by her boyfriend (same couple as above) by the name of another is a pivotal point in the story. It is done without nudity and is consistent with the story, but is still quite graphic and unsuitable for young viewers.

Additional notes: 

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, PG-13, 1 hr. 51 min., Color

Starring: Kennegth Branagh, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington

Review Date: 
6-24-03
Reviewed by: 

Much Ado About Nothing

Author(s): 
William Shakespeare
Subject(s): 
Review: 

Much Ado About Nothing is an uproarious comedy (with plenty of dramatic elements) about love and hate. While awaiting the marriage of Hero and Claudio, several plots unfold. One is an incredibly funny conspiracy to set up Beatrice and Benedick, two swift-tongued sworn enemies, to fall in love with each other. The other is nefarious, a plan to ruin Hero by convincing Claudio and company that she has been unfaithful.

You’ll find lots of great fodder for discussion here, including the wisdom of the foolish and the foolishness of the wise and, of course, Shakespeare’s often-present cautions about deception and flattery.

Review Date: 
2-11-2009
Reviewed by: 

Othello

the Moor of Venice
cover from first quarto, c 1619
Author(s): 
William Shakespeare
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Othello, which we studied in tenth grade, is a dark play, a tragedy brought about by Othello's surrender to Iago's campaign of deceit.

Although this is the main idea of the play, quite a few characters and twists and turns maintain the suspense. The title character Othello is a general and Iago's commander. Iago is angered at Othello's promotion of a less-experienced soldier (Cassio) over him; moreover he is in the pay of Roderigo, a rich man who wishes to marry the beautiful Desdemona. However, Othello has already won over Desdemona and married her. In his hatred, Iago plots to ruin Othello's life by convincing him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, thereby exacting revenge on Cassio as well. In this, he succeeds, with tragic results.

I found it easy, even at that age, to relate to the characters in this play. They are drawn with depth and are believable. In particular, Othello's inner struggle is very realistic -- we in the audience want to shout at him that Iago is lying, that he should trust Desdemona.

Major themes in this play are love, trust, jealousy, and free will. Pride and insecurity also play important parts in the drama. The consequences of wrong choices are all too clear, as are the consequences of putting one's trust in the wrong person. Questions to consider might include: Why does Othello believe Iago? What could he have done differently? Othello doesn't go in one quick step from newlywed in love with his bride to murderous jealousy. What are the "little steps" by which he allows himself to be led on this road?

Additional notes: 

Written c. 1601-1604

Many editions available. "Interleaved" editions (original text with notes on facing page) are helpful.

Review Date: 
1-24-2009
Reviewed by: 

Shakespeare for Kids

His Life and Times
Book cover
Author(s): 
Colleen Aagesen
Margie Blumberg
Copyright: 
1999
Publisher: 
Chicago Review Press
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
149 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Have you grown up thinking that Shakespeare is dry literature forced upon high schoolers by antiquated professors? Think again! Even young children can capture an interest in Shakespeare through attractive materials such as this multi-dimensional biography of the bard.

The heart and soul of the book is the story of Shakespeare's life - charmingly enhanced by Shakespearean phrases (followed by modern translations in parenthesis). Numerous photos, sketches and maps give us a peek at Elizabethan life and architecture and a few scenes from renditions of his plays.

The authors periodically draw in a wide variety of projects and activities related to the storyline. Some are connected with Elizabethan life in a general way, such as making a Pomander ball or creating a Habitat for Birds. Others are more directly related to acting, costuming and Shakespeare himself, such as: learning to juggle, staging a sword fight, designing a coat of arms and composing a sonnet.

This very creative resource could serve as the centerpiece of an Elizabethan history study, an introduction Shakespeare for Middle Schoolers or just a fun summer family project. It could serve a wide age range, but is most appropriate for 4th through 8th grade. The text and projects are quite accessible - most projects could be done independently by older children.

Additional notes: 

This book was donated for review by Chicago Review Press.

Review Date: 
11-30-04
Reviewed by: 

Starting with Shakespeare

Successfully Introducing Shakespeare to Children
Author(s): 
Pauline Nelson
Todd Daubert
ISBN: 
15 630 875
Copyright: 
2000
Publisher: 
Teacher Ideas Press
Number of pages: 
217 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Unit Study-loving families may find in Starting with Shakespeare a very useful resource! This book is literary filled with Shakespeare-related activities!

In the introduction we get to know the authors and their passionate belief in the benefits of bringing Shakespeare to elementary school. They are quite convincing with a top 20 reasons list, secrets for success and even some criticism of how memorization has been dropped from school curricula a long time ago. The introduction also helps the reader understand how the book is organized and what to expect. The first part of the book is entitled "Setting the Stage" and it offers biographical sketches on Shakespeare, very detailed ways to get the students interested, and creative tips for success.

The second part presents four William Shakespeare plays, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Macbeth," "Hamlet," and "Romeo and Juliet" introduced for kids in a unique way alongside a plethora of resources and ideas for each one. As the publisher states: "a complete historical background, an introduction to the characters, a retelling of the story, a variety of integrated activities, verses for memorization, a complete script for class performance, and a list of resources accompany each play. Activities extend learning to history, geography, science, art, music, movement, math, and language arts." Each play is explained, character by character, plot, themes, and then told to children in prose with points for discussion in class. The authors encourage the making of a class film or video, as opposed to a performance, stating that it is simpler to use a video camera than setting up a live performance.

What I enjoy about this book is that, albeit geared towards elementary school aged kids, it makes plenty of use of genuine Shakespeare language. Each play is also presented in "Will's Words--Selections for recitation", where key excerpts of the play are quoted on top of the page. Obscure words are defined and explained right below under "Say what?", and then a paragraph explains what is going on in plain English under "Kispeak". The illustrations are all made by elementary school students and some of them are quite interesting.

All in all this book can be a wealth of resources for homeschool families daring the tackle the Bard of Avon in elementary or middle (or even high) school!

Perspective: 
Secular
Review Date: 
1-22-2009
Reviewed by: 

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