Shakespeare for children

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I recently had the pleasure of seeing both the young person’s Hamlet and the puppet version of the Tempest at the newly opened swan theatre with the RSC . Both productions were recommended for young people and both had much to appeal to their target audience.

But even more interesting than the excellent plays was the discussion I had afterwards with a group of visiting students from Concord Academy aged between 16 and 18. I began by asking them which of the productions they would recommend to someone with a young child – lets say an 8 year old.

They were divided, some feeling that the clear story telling in Hamlet was excellent, some preferring the visual delights of the Tempest.  From there we got onto discussing what kind of stories we tell our children. From the carefully constructed picture book showing the father doing the dishes or the child being brought up by two mummies,  we are,  as a society very self conscious about the images we present to children in their early years.

Interestingly a lot of my students were disturbed by the fact that many of the young children watching the Hamlet found Ophelia’s mad scenes truly hilarious. Most adults of course find these scenes disturbing so there was a curious split amongst the audience of giggling children and embarrassed adults wondering if it was OK for their young charges to laugh at Ophelia’s suffering.

I asked if my students thought it was OK for the RSC to encourage children to laugh at grief or madness? They decided that a production cannot really be responsible for the response of the audience and at least the children were enjoying Shakespeare even if at a moment which is less pleasing to an adult audience.

We then discussed what moral lessons might be accidently embedded in acting choices (such as ‘It’s ok to laugh at another’s suffering’) and this is what my students suggested

From Hamlet

  1. It’s OK to treat women badly (As Hamlet is rude to mother and girlfriend  despite being a character the audience is invited to like)
  2. It’s OK to use physical force to express anger at others – particularly women (again because Hamlet, a character the audience likes, does so with no compunction)
  3. It’s OK to murder people by accident (like Polonius)
  4. It’s OK to kill your step father (so long as he is a creepy kind of guy)

From The Tempest

  1. It’s OK to keep small fairies in captivity. (Referring to Ariel being played by a small greenish flying puppet).
  2. It’s OK to treat stupid people (creatures) badly (referring to Caliban being played as a large slow blue puppet, half dog half dinosaur)
  3. It’s OK to completely manipulate people, to make them fall in love, to drive them mad and to temporarily enslave them  – basically to be a bully. (Because even though Prospero was played as a basically kind man he still does these things)
  4. It’s OK to get stupidly drunk, in the end it is just funny (with reference to Trincolo and stephano)

So I asked whether children should be protected from these things, and if we should not take our children to see Shakespeare because his works contain many morally ambiguous issues. Of course we should not shun Shakespeare, everyone agreed! What is important the students said was that the parents, carers and  teachers  etc. talked about the stories that Shakespeare wrote and used them to discuss the issues they raise. Shakespeare, we concluded was an important platform for discussion. So I concluded by reminding them that that was just what we were doing ourselves using Shakespeare as a platform to discuss parenting, teaching, society, morals and the importance of communication.

Read more about Shakespeare and young audiences on Friday


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Elizabeth

    I think you raise a number of interesting points here. And of course my blog truncates and simplifies the discussions I had with the students from Concord. We did discuss whether or not there was or should be a ‘correct’ way to respond to the arts, (on which their opinions were divided) and I discussed their early memories of the arts which ranged from those who loved it in a very uninhibited way to those who’s responses were shaped from a very early age.

    It is also interesting that we seek to adapt performances and texts to suit particular audiences – I have seen young children sit entranced through full length ‘adult’ productions of Shakespeare, just as I have seen children left cold by adaptations made for them..

  • Brooke Bovard

    Interesting. From a scientific viewpoint I might be interested in your sample, the kids of Concord Academy. If they’re from the Concord Academy in Massachusetts, they’re predominantly wealthy, as well as predominantly white, come from small families, and this isn’t, by any means, their first exposure to Shakespeare, although it may be a relatively early one to Shakespeare in live performance. Their opinions (wherever they’re from) will be based in their own experience, whether of Shakespeare or of young children, and I’d like to see what those represent. And, of course, the nature of the audience is critical, too.

    My observation of younger kids and the arts (Shakespeare in performance, dance, museum environments, etc.) is that a willingness to be visibly engaged with the material is as much culturally dependent as age dependent. Some kids are raised in an environment where more spontaneous crowd reaction is expected and approved, and those tend to be lively audiences 🙂 . Some audiences, even of children, have already been taught that reactions to art are best experienced “politely,” and those are quieter. The arts organizations in this area that have midweek performances for school groups commonly distribute a list of behavioral guidelines for the teachers to present to their attendees, which, although as an adult audience member I appreciate their effort, serves to reinforce the idea that art is a ‘which fork should I use’ environment.

    In Shakespeare, particularly, I wonder how much student audiences have come to represent our “Groundlings” and why we take such pains to alter the material for their imagined capabilities.

  • Duane Morin

    I started telling Shakespeare stories to my children when my oldest was maybe 4 or 5. I started with the Tempest. For my money it is the perfect children’s fairy tale – a powerful wizard, a girl discovering that she is a princess, a prince coming to take her away to live happily ever after, fairies, sea monsters….it’s got everything, happy ending included, without having to censor much at all. I have many fond memories of overhearing my daughters playing with their Barbies, having renamed them Ariel and Miranda, running away from the evil witch Sycorax. I once had to explain King Lear to my 3yr old (greatly edited, and with happy ending), but for weeks afterward her dolls were named Cordelia, Regan and Goneril.

    In August 2008 they went to see their first production ( ). They were 6, 4 and 2. Since then they’ve seen live productions of Midsummer, Winter’s Tale, and Much Ado. I’m keeping an eye out for a Twelfth Night for them.

    What I think is the absolute most important is that I, as parent, serve as extra narrator. When they are confused, I explain. When they have questions, I interpret. I interpret as *parent*, not as literary scholar. I tell them what I as their parent want them to understand, not necessarily what I think Shakespeare might have been going for. There’s time enough for that as they get older. If they come away saying “It’s ok to treat Caliban badly because he’s a monster” I can explain that it’s not ok, and even sometimes good people like Prospero can make mistakes without realizing it, and the best they can hope to do is stop the bad behavior and try to make up for it. I don’t need to get into issues of slavery and colonialism.

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