The fastest way to turn a child off of Shakespeare is to make them read the plays!!! Even the bard himself said that his plays were to be seen and not read. Originally, only the performers read the actual plays, everyone else just watched them. At our house we think of them as the sitcoms of the Tudor Era. Since there was no tv back then people of all classes went to the plays for their entertainment. With this in mind, I try to present Shakespeare to my kids in a variety of formats. Sometimes we listen to an audio version, sometimes we attend live performances, and other times we read them together as a family. In regards to reading the plays we begin by reading short narrative forms of the plays before actually seeing the play (either live or as a video) slowly working our way up to actually reading and studying a few plays. Since it is more enjoyable to interact with others while studying Shakespeare this is one topic I do suggest taking an interactive class or setting up a fun study group for. Even if you never perform the plays it can be valuable for older kids to memorize and recite bits and parts of the plays. Only if the child has a strong interest and comfort with Shakespeare would I encourage them to formally read and study the full plays and even then, for most learners, I would hold off on the formal studies until late middle school or high school. Until then I just encorporate a little Shakespeare here and there in our literature and history studies as part of our lifestyle. We are just as likely to read one of the short narrative versions as a bedtime story as we are to read a Newbery winning book. I firmly believe that getting kids hooked on the narrative forms of Shakespeare while they are young is vital to enjoying the actual plays as an older learner. If learners are familiar with the actual story then they will later find the archaic language of the plays less intimidating.
Shakespeare Stories and Shakespeare Stories II edited by Leon Garfield, illus. by Michael Foreman, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994.
This is the best narrative version we have read. The adaptations are well written retaining much of the feel of the original plays without being overwhelming. The length of the narratives are just right for grammar and logic stage students. Whenever I read from these two books my kids always beg me to keep going! The illustrations are nothing special but since we use the books as read alouds that doesn't diminish our pleasure in the stories.
Tales from Shakespeare edited by Charles & Mary Lamb, Puffin Classics, 1994.
This is the version recommended on many classical and Charlotte Mason reading lists. Honestly, I am not sure why. Our family found the writing rather dry and many of the adaptations are so short that you don't really get a feel for the original play. There is an audio version available. It does contain a few plays that are not found in our favorite adaptations so we do keep it around as a decent quality last resort. Usually recommended for logic stage.
Folger Shakespeare Library series, edited by Barbara Mowat & Paul Werstine, Washington Square Press, 1992.
This is a version of the original plays that my son reads for his Shakespeare class. He *loves* this series because the book is a combination of the unabridged play and explanatory footnotes. The footnotes are on the right side pages and the play itself is on the left side pages. When asked about his strong preference my 14 yo stated, "I wouldn't have comprehended half the story without it.", referring to the footnotes feature. I like that it has fairly comprehensive background information at the beginning and end of the books. This series has been around for quite a while, one of ours is from 1969, so they are relatively easy to find. Recommend for rhetoric stage.
Dover Thrift Editions, edited by Shane Weller, Dover Publications, 1992.
These versions of Shakespeare plays simply can't compare with the Folger series. The print of this series is tiny and most names are abbreviated, making it physically challenging to read. While they may be cheap and easy to find I don't think they are really worth the money. There is zero explanatory or background information in these books. I have not purchased any but I am guessing that the audio version of the Sonnets would probably be worth the money though. Rhetoric stage.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Troll Communications, 1999.
Same problems as the Dover Thrift editions. Poor print quality and no background information. Not worth the money. I do not know if Troll published any other plays besides this one. Rhetoric.
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children, edited by E. Nesbit, Smithmark Publishers, 1997. Also available online. This is not a good book for introducing your children to Shakespeare! It contains only excerpts from the plays. What I do like about this book is the beautiful calligraphy that the excerpts are written in. Some learners may enjoy just looking at the book for it's beauty's sake. I must confess that I gave mine away as we never used it.
Personally, I have had the best luck with introducing my kids to the comedies (ie. Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night) before moving on to the tragedies. If you have grammar stage children you may want to look for the picture book versions by Bruce Coville.
See the plays! Check your local community for Shakespeare in the Park programs, local Shakespearean productions (both big and small) or see if your local high school is putting on any plays. If there absolutely is no option for seeing Shakespeare live then I would look through the PBS (or equivalent in your country) archives and see if any of those interest your family. I suggest PBS because it is fairly easy to get their productions on DVD via local libraries or Netflix type services. Always preview the videos to make sure they are age-appropriate.
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson. We chose this one for it's light tone and because my son likes this author. Rhetoric stage.
Young Shakespeare by Russell Fraser. Still in the process of reading this one.
Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov, Wings Books, 1970.
This is not a critical analysis of the the plays and not actual copies of the plays. I use it for reference and background information to share verbally with my children. It would aslo make a good resource for those who want to understand a live performance (either before or after attending the play) without having to read the actual play or one of the shorter narrative versions referenced above. A tome of a book at 840 some pages!
Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Today by Douglas Brode, Berkley Boulevard Books, 2001
Each chapter features a single play or group of related plays and then lists various movie productions of those plays giving descriptions of, and background for, the various movie versions.
Shakespeare in American Communities from National Endowment for the Arts.
A very nice "teacher toolkit" classroom package. Includes a CD featuring monologues from various plays, a timeline of Shakespeare's life, short lesson guide, guide of monologues for recitation, DVD titled Shakespeare in Our Time, DVD titled Why Shakespeare and various useless fliers and poster. Great for people who are unsure of how/what to teach about Shakespeare.
Learn Shakespeare Tragedies: Origins & Style from Standard Deviants. If you and your high schooler know nothing about Shakespeare you may find this DVD helpful. We ended up not using it only because my son's class includes much of the same information.
This site has a little bit of everything that you might want when studying Shakespeare. Includes some background info on the bard, vocabulary, quizzes and analysis of some of the plays.
Be sure to check out The Teaching Company's Great Courses as they do have a few related to Shakespeare. Never pay full price for these!!! They go on sale often; plus many libraries now carry them.