Shakespeare Books

By Deborah Markus, from Secular Homeschooling, Issue #12.


The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard

Written and illustrated by Gregory Rogers. Roaring Brook Press, 2007

A treat for almost all ages. I give you the title — the rest is silence. Hardly uneventful, this all-pictures book is a wonderful time-travel story of a small child who stumbles into an old theater and abruptly finds himself onstage some 400 years ago. He's chased off the boards by a Shakespeare enraged at having a performance of one of his plays disrupted by this tiny stranger. The mad pursuit takes the two of them through Elizabethan London and doesn't end until the boy and the bard come full circle back to the now-deserted stage, where the boy is just as suddenly flung back to his own time. But not before he frees a chained bear and, with its help, an imprisoned Baron.

This book is a terrific visual introduction to Tudor England. Parents of sensitive or very young children may want to look through it first. The author/artist, in a brief introduction to his book, refers to "those harsh, dirty, brutal, beautiful times" he portrays — which include human heads on poles decorating London Bridge, and preparations for a beheading (which happily doesn't take place). Somehow this book manages to be sweet, funny, and even tender anyway.

The Shakespeare Stealer

by Gary Blackwood. Puffin Books, 1998

First in a series of historical novels. Widge is an orphan apprentice who is torn between fear and true friendship when he finds himself a member of Shakespeare's theatre troupe. He is trusted and treated better than he's ever been in his short life — but his life's in danger unless he steals the script of Hamlet for a rival company.

The Shakespeare Stealer gives a good sense of Elizabethan England, offering information in a natural, accessible fashion. Occasionally Blackwood inserts too much of a 21st-century sensibility into the plot: at a time when people bathed infrequently, Widge would not be told so often that he smells, and the constant references to what being "a family" really means are anachronistic at best. But the institutionalized sexism and anti-Semitism of the time and place are presented matter-of-factly, giving them a stronger emotional impact than any weeping and wailing would do. Best of all, Shakespeare himself is presented as an enigma — a man who was "a good companion in his younger days" (translation: a party guy), but who is now reserved and thoughtful, which jibes well with the little we know about him. A good, fast, informative read.

Enter Three Witches

by Caroline Cooney. Scholastic Press, 2007

A young adult novel not so much based on as placed in Macbeth. Motherless Lady Mary is the ward of Lord and Lady Macbeth, trying to learn from the latter the art of running a castle. After all, she's fourteen; soon she'll be married with a castle of her own. Instead, she finds herself surrounded by treachery and murder, never knowing who she can safely trust — and, though innocent, never trusted by those around her.

Cooney wisely doesn't try to rewrite Shakespeare's play. Instead, she exploits the fact that though women and servants are rare as speaking characters in Macbeth, they would dominate the landscape by force of numbers if Shakespeare's tale were being told in prose rather than acted out by men. Mary is not a character in Macbeth; but she (and the scullery maids and waiting women Cooney characterizes so expertly) could be characters. They, or people very like them, would exist in this story. Cooney is simply broadening the stage.

She also can't resist filling out two very minor male characters who do appear in the play, which offers an opportunity for real suspense: even those who are familiar with Macbeth can't guess how this book ends. And although Mary is technically the main character, Seyton and Fleance play such important roles (and are warriors in such grim and gory battle scenes) that Enter Three Witches can hardly be accused of being a "girls only" book.

The story is laced with paraphrased dialogue from the play as well as actual quotes, making the reader feel effortlessly educated. If you've read the play, you'll enjoy this book (and probably want to go and reread the play); if you read this first, you'll want to read the play. Either way, you'll learn a great deal about Macbeth and have a wonderful time doing so.

King of Shadows

by Susan Cooper. Simon & Schuster, 1999

Nat Field is a grieving American boy who finds solace in his talent for acting. On a trip to London to play Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is mysteriously transported to Shakespeare's time — and to Shakespeare's acting company, where he is given the chance to act the same role with Shakespeare himself as Oberon, the king of the fairies. ("And if that makes you go ‘Haw-haw-haw,' you might as well stop reading my story right now," Nat tells us early on.)

Since the main character travels through time, he can make comparisons that will intrigue the modern reader. A penny for the cheapest admission to a play doesn't sound like much to modern ears. But Nat learns that "for a penny you could buy a pound of cheese, or half a pound of butter; six pints of beer, or a big two-pound loaf of bread. But a workman like a carpenter or a mason only earned about seventy pence a week."

Modern standards of cleanliness don't apply to Elizabethan England, either. "Hardly anyone in this century except the rich ever took a bath," the narrator points out. "The more private parts of your body were washed only if you went swimming, in sea or river or lake, or if you deliberately removed all your clothes and washed yourself all over from a basin of water — something that didn't seem to happen often."

People haven't changed much on the inside, though. "The groundlings were very fond of special effects," Nat notices. "They particularly liked disasters, and explosions. They'd have loved video games." These groundlings went wild for the ass's head used in a staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream: "The head's eyes rolled wildly, on command, and the ears went up and down and sideways." Its creator "was a real whiz at special effects; put him in the twentieth century with computers to play with and he'd have made a lot of money in Hollywood."

Enjoyable as such passages are, it's the relationship that develops between Nat and Shakespeare that gives this book its power. King of Shadows primarily focuses on (and tells the story of) A Midsummer Night's Dream, but Shakespeare's "Let me not to the marriage of true minds" sonnet also plays a significant role. The idea of love as a pure and generous sentiment rather than a romantic tie is explored and celebrated. And Cooper ties her story up with some unexpected real-life history that will send the reader running to learn more about just who Nat Field really is.

Wicked Will: A Mystery of Young William Shakespeare

by Bailey MacDonald. Aladdin, 2009

The current literary trend is to write novels of the lives of real historical figures. Jane Austen has been rendered a detective; now it's Shakespeare's turn.

I approached Wicked Will skeptically, and was soon won over. First, I was reassured by the fact that young Will is not the narrator; a young actor in a traveling troupe tells this first-person story. Then I rather enjoyed the cheerful irreverence of the idea that young Shakespeare would talk your head off as soon as look at you — the implication being that he only learned to shut up when he wisely decided to do his chattering on paper. When he and the narrator become embroiled in a murder in Stratford, Will resembles Tom Sawyer — eager to solve the case and willing to go to fantastical lengths to do so.

As an adult reader, I found MacDonald's weaving of lines from Shakespeare's plays into the characters' dialogue occasionally amusing, often clever, but sometimes tiresome. "Yes, it's Shakespeare! We get it!" But it is Shakespeare, and her target audience isn't going to know many, if any, of these quotes. MacDonald is sowing seeds in young minds.

Similarly, she also sprinkles Shakespearean names throughout the novel. I was puzzled by the inclusion of a boy named Hamnet (if he's supposed to be such a good friend of Shakespeare's that Will grew up to name his son after him, we aren't seeing enough of him in the story) and a saucy wench named Cordelia (if these are supposed to be people who influenced Shakespeare's choice of character names, why not make the people more like their namesakes?). But, again, this seems to be part of MacDonald's firm wish to immerse her readers in Shakespeare's life and times.

She succeeds very well so far as language is concerned. The dialogue is free, natural, and fairly accurate — I liked the fact that (unlike in The Shakespeare Stealer) the narrator's internal and spoken dialogue has the same tone and vocabulary. And MacDonald is good at explaining obscure Elizabethan slang. One character calls another an "old rogue of a natomy;" in the very next paragraph, MacDonald mentions "Michael Moresby, a young man so slender you might well have mistaken him, too, for an anatomy or skeleton." MacDonald has a similar gift for dropping the reader effortlessly in the midst of ordinary Elizabethan life, as when the narrator and Will sneak into a house "through a larder, well stocked and fragrant with the aromas of hanging hams, dried apples, and other delicacies."

The narrator, about whom I'm being purposely vague, is a strong and interesting character, whose struggles offer the reader some insight regarding the conflict between Catholicism and the Church of England in Elizabethan times. The solution to the murder mystery is a clever surprise, though the very end of the book feels rather hurried and as if MacDonald wished to give young Will material for every tragedy he'd go on to write. But the reader is sustained by the quality of the writing and expert crafting of the rest of the book.

The Juliet Club

by Suzanne Harper. HarperCollins, 2008

An absolute sunbeam of a book — laugh-out-loud writing that disproves the old idea that the comic can't touch on deep truths. Harper's touch is so light, it's a shock to realize just how much she ends up teaching the reader. The text is sprinkled with apt quotations from Shakespeare — the two main characters, Kate and Giacomo, are the offspring of Shakespeare scholars, so their frequent references to the Bard are natural and forgivable (though not to their best friends, who often beg the two to quit with the quoting and just talk, already).

Harper doesn't make the mistake of implying that Shakespeare is a breeze. Instead, she shows how much fun he can be, promising the reader that the work involved in understanding the great plays is ultimately worth it. Here is Tom, who pulled a fast one to win a place in a young people's Shakespeare seminar in Verona and who has just triumphantly (and to his own surprise) finished not merely reading but enjoying Henry V:

At first, he had struggled with the language. He had to look up every footnote just to understand what was going on. It was hard, slow slogging, and he wondered what he had been thinking, to take on this task when he had never been that good at understanding difficult books, especially something as difficult as a Shakespeare play. There had been all that back and forth between lords and bishops about politics and then an incredibly long speech about honeybees. And that stupid chorus kept coming onstage and talking everyone's ear off.

The payoff comes for Tom when "a character appeared uttering wonderful curses," and from then on he's hooked. A teacher tells him that he's discovered the secret of the great playwright: "Shakespeare always tells you what you need to know when you need to know it."

Although the cover art and title would imply that this is a book that could only be of interest to girls, my 12-year-old son was intrigued enough by the bits I read out loud to read the book himself. Harper's light touch extends to the gently blossoming romances that spread through the cast of characters — there is nothing gag-inducing here, even for an adolescent boy (or a middle-aged mother). And the writer gives plenty of time to the male main characters thanks to a deftly moving third-person point of view, though the story begins and ends with Kate — a smart, practical high school student. When the book begins, Kate's one brief (and chaste, as is the rest of the book) foray into the dating scene has taught her a very valuable lesson. Not, as one of her best friends suggests, "the importance of knowing five ways to kill a person without being caught;" but rather, as Kate corrects, "that romance is merely an illusion. On one level, it seems real, but on a higher, more evolved level, it is nothing but a projection of our own imaginations." Happily, the only person more delighted than the reader to see Kate proven wrong is Kate herself. If laughter really is the best medicine, I wish I'd saved The Juliet Club for a day I was sick in bed — I'd have been cured before the prologue ended.


by Lisa Klein. Bloomsbury U.S.A., 2006

As this novel is told in the first-person, the reader may wonder for a moment if it's the longest suicide note ever written. But its author wants to give Ophelia the life Shakespeare deprived her of; not only does Ophelia not die in this retelling of Hamlet, but her story continues for several years (and more than a hundred pages) after Ophelia's funeral. How Lisa Klein manages this is well worth reading. The about-the-author on the dust jacket says that Klein "has always been dissatisfied with interpretations of Ophelia and, since Shakespeare is not alive today to write stronger female characters, she has taken it upon herself to breathe new life into Ophelia's story." Purists may be uncomfortable with this novel, but they must admit that nothing Klein writes contradicts the play. The story she creates simply happens in its shadows. Ophelia is no longer the prop she is treated like by her father, King Claudius, and Hamlet himself in the play — she has her own ideas, feelings, and struggles. The "what if" premise Klein suggests will give young students of Shakespeare a great deal to think about when they tackle his most famous play.

Othello: A Novel

by Julius Lester. Scholastic Inc., 1995

This book is not, as might be inferred from the title, a simple prose retelling of Shakespeare's play. Julius Lester had originally intended it to be so, but found himself stumped by "some very practical questions" regarding Shakespeare's premise:

How did Othello get to England? How had he adjusted to life there? Did he miss his homeland? What had his homeland been like? Who had he been in his homeland? What was his name in Africa? Did he think of himself as European or African, or both? These were not questions for Shakespeare and his time, but they are very logical ones for ours.

Lester explains in his brilliant introduction that we don't mind getting all the answers while watching a drama unfold onstage, because we get caught up in the performance before us. Reading a novel, however, is a thoughtful and intimate experience. If the plot presents questions, we will be disappointed if they aren't answered.

In exploring what it would really mean to have an African character fall in love with a young European woman, Lester makes some significant changes to Shakespeare's premise. He sets the events in England, rather than Venice and Cyprus. More significantly, he adds some characters — Desdemona's mother is given a voice — and leaves others out. And he makes Iago and his wife African. "If race was going to be more central in the novel, and it was, Iago could not be white, because his jealousy might stereotype him as a racist," Lester explains. "I found it more interesting to explore racist feelings in a black person."

Lester also decides to set "phrases, sentences, and passages based on Shakespeare" — specifically, based on original Shakespearean dialogue — apart by putting them in a distinctive typeface. Lester's hope is that "those who might feel intimidated by Shakespeare will gain sufficient confidence from this exposure to his language to read the original for themselves." The reader-me found this change in typefaces distracting; teacher-me applauds it.

Lester's retelling is beautifully written, tender, and tragic. Worth reading for its own sake, it would also be a good companion volume for a study of the play. Discussions and/or essays could be inspired by questions about the changes Lester made. (What are the differences between Shakespeare's Iago and Lester's, for instance, and which of the two do you find more compelling — or more "real," or more frightening?)

Young readers — nonfiction

Tales From Shakespeare: Seven Plays

presented by Marcia Williams

Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!: Seven Plays

presented by Marcia Williams

Like all Candlewick Press books, these books are immensely visually pleasing. In each volume, several plays are presented in comic-book form. Every panel has plain text beneath it explaining the plot; the words that balloon from the mouths of the cartoony characters are snippets of Shakespearean dialogue. This way, the reader can "see" the play and get a taste of the language without being overwhelmed. Williams uses every inch of the page — all around the margins of the comic she draws audience members, whose comments are both funny and illuminating. An absolutely first-rate introduction to Shakespeare.

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Shakespearean Actor!

Written by Jacqueline Morley; illustrated by David Antram. Scholastic Inc., 2010

Readers of all ages will enjoy the books in Scholastic's "You Wouldn't Want to Be" series. They're a lot like the "Horrible Histories" books, but shorter and more generously illustrated (in color). They pack a lot of memorable information — parents of the very young and/or sensitive will definitely want to read these through first. (This particular volume offers some harsh facts about life in a time of periodic outbreaks of the plague.)

You Wouldn't explores the seamy underside of acting in Shakespeare's time. You have to be male; and as acting is not usually a respectable or profitable profession, you're probably not going to be a member of the wealthy, educated classes. An apprenticeship to an acting company is far from glamorous — aside from having to learn lines for the female roles, you have to do all the grunt work for little pay and not a lot of food. Once you're accepted as a real actor, your mental workload will become staggering. "In some plays, you perform more than one role, so altogether you need to keep at least 50 parts in your head," Morley explains. "Minor actors, who each play more than one part, may need to memorize 100 roles."

In the course of learning about the everyday life of an actor, readers will also learn a great deal about Shakespeare's working life and his world. Pair this up with a prose collection of stories from Shakespeare for an excellent and enjoyable introduction to the big S.

Top Ten Shakespeare Stories

by Terry Deary; illustrated by Michael Tickner. Scholastic Inc., 1998

Terry Deary is the author of many of the books in the "Horrible Histories" series. If you're familiar with them, you'll immediately have an idea of the tone and basic format of Top Ten — irreverent humor, goofy illustrations, and a lot of information mixed in with all the silliness.

The premise of Horrible Histories is that history can be fascinating if you teach it right; Deary is even more passionate on the point that Shakespeare should be enjoyable, since the man wrote plays that were meant to be entertaining.

The top ten in question are those that have been performed most often in the past century and a half. Which gives us titles like A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, but also such child-unfriendly fare as King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. Deary manages a hilarious retelling of Lear (in describing the king's wicked children Goneril and Regan, Deary says that "to have one evil daughter is unlucky, to have two looks like carelessness"). When it comes to The Merchant of Venice, Deary doesn't try to laugh it up much — he offers a comic telling of the three caskets part of the story, but also takes a brief, grim look at the anti-Semitism of (and closely preceding) Shakespeare's time.

Deary offers summaries of the plays in an entertaining variety of formats: sometimes main characters tell their own stories, sometimes the stories are presented as comic-book stories, newspaper articles, even (in the case of Hamlet) a police report. The summaries are broken up with quizzes and top-ten weird fact lists. Charlotte Mason fans will be happy to see "The Shakespeare Timeline" quiz, which gives readers some historical context in which to put Shakespeare. Mischievous linguists will enjoy "Vicious Verbals," where they can learn some authentic Shakespearean insults. And anyone interested in learning or teaching about Shakespeare will enjoy...the entire book.

Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare

by Diane Stanley and Peter Vennema; illustrated by Diane Stanley. William Morrow and Company, 1992

This beginning biography weaves the comparatively little information we have about Shakespeare together with a minimum of "must haves" and "may haves." Bard is also the story of how plays, playwrights, and the theatre evolved, and what part Shakespeare played in that evolution. Readers will pick up out-of-the-ordinary facts about the nuts and bolts of putting on a play four hundred years ago. For instance, "The costumes were often elegant. In those days, it was customary for a gentleman to leave his clothes to his faithful servants when he died. But servants didn't wear that sort of clothing, so they sold it to the actors to wear as costumes." (Maybe this explains why Shakespeare cast Julius Caesar in the clothing of his contemporaries rather than culture-appropriate togas — it would have been more expensive to commission "realistic" costumes.) Stanley and Vennema's "Postscript" is a valuable brief examination of the history of the English language and Shakespeare's important place in that history. Altogether an excellent book.

Shakespeare's London: A Guide to Elizabethan London

(from the "Sightseers Essential Travel Guides to the Past" series) By Julie Ferris. Kingfisher Publications, 2000

This series takes a basic, amusing, and informative premise. Travel guides act as an introduction to foreign countries; as L.P. Hartley famously pointed out, the past is a foreign country; therefore, we need travel guides to times as well as places. In spite of what might be seen as a rather whimsical jumping-off point, the books keep a completely straight face. The tone is lively but serious; the text informative but not so studious as to be daunting.

Shakespeare's London is an excellent book all by itself; it's also an outstanding supplementary volume to The Shakespeare Stealer. Readers can get more information about subjects Blackwood glances at in his book: wherries, London Bridge (and the dangerous difficulty those small boats had in passing under it), blackened teeth, and of course the Globe and its rowdy audiences.

The little human touches this book offers are wonderful. The fact that the coach had recently been introduced (via Germany) as a form of transportation was interesting; the consequences of the fact that these coaches had no suspension system was painful to imagine; and the idea that it was considered very unmanly to ride inside a carriage was utterly new (and very amusing) to me.

Young readers will find that their own time and place may not be terribly exciting compared to Elizabethan England, but there's something to be said for living now. "Most people die young [in Shakespeare's time]," this travel guide points out. "Only one out of ten people reaches the age of 40." But some things never change: "The authorities frown on the playing of soccer because it is a frequent cause of riots and bloodshed." (This in a society that had no problem at all with cockfights or bearbaiting.) This book is bluntly informative, but, considering the time and place it's a guide to, not inappropriately graphic. Parents of the young and squeamish should read it first.

Shakespeare: His Work & His World

by Michael Rosen; illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Candlewick Press, 2001

A boring title for one of the best books about Shakespeare available. Candlewick Press books are of the highest quality — their art is amazing, and their writing is of the highest standard. All the adults I showed Rosen's book to exclaimed over how visually pleasing it was. Right from the cover, the choice of font and coloring grabs readers of any age.

Shakespeare is the ultimate antidote to the idea that Shakespeare is a "subject" to be "studied." Shakespeare's writing is some of the purest pleasure in the world, but too many people haven't had the chance to enjoy him thanks to a lousy introduction.

Michael Rosen understands this. His skill and enthusiasm are enough to win even the most hardened Shakespeare skeptic over. "What's So Special About Shakespeare?" his first chapter title asks. He answers:

Watching Shakespeare's plays is like being invited into a house full of amazing rooms. Go through a door at the top of the house and you will meet a ghost walking the battlements of a castle at night....Walk into one of the rooms and you will come across a rich man yelling at his daughter because she won't marry the man he has chosen for her....There are lots more amazing rooms, and if you go into them you will find trial scenes, battles, love potions, cruel kings, civil wars, assassinations, riots, witches, fairies, jesters, even a statue that comes to life.

Having given the reader a glimpse of the adventures Shakespeare has to offer, Rosen goes on to give more than the usual outline of Shakespeare's life. Yes, he was born in 1564, died in 1616, and wrote a great many wonderful plays in-between. But what was it like to be a playwright in Elizabethan England? One such writer, Christopher Marlowe, was killed in a bar brawl; another, Ben Jonson, had his thumb branded for committing murder. The country was still suffering the aftershocks of the Catholic-Protestant revolution, and citizens were still legally required to observe the rituals of a church that had only existed a few decades. (Those who think of Elizabeth as the "good" religiously moderate queen compared to her sister, bad old Bloody Mary, should keep in mind that as Rosen points out, "Elizabeth had 123 Catholic priests executed.") Europeans were traveling all over the globe — shall we call it exploring or exploiting? Bringing back stories as well as wealth, certainly. And while female literacy was still low, more English men were reading than ever before. "Someone like Shakespeare, from a tradesman's family living in a country town, could turn the knowledge he found in books into lines, scenes, and whole plays," Rosen points out. Provided one could manage to be born male and middle class, it was a great time for a genius of a writer to be born.

After mentioning the exciting current events available to inspire Shakespeare's work, Rosen then does something I've never seen in a young reader's book and rarely in one for adults: he presents solid evidence for the fact that Shakespeare not only borrowed most of his plot ideas from old writing, he also helped himself to phrasing from time to time. Rosen compares a quote from a 1597 translation of the ancient Roman Plutarch with a quote on the same subject (Cleopatra sailing majestically down a river) from Shakespeare himself. Both Shakespeare and Plutarch describe Cleopatra sailing to the sound of flute music in a golden barge fitted with purple sails and silver oars. But Sir Thomas North's translation is merely adequate writing. Shakespeare takes the same material and polishes it into brilliance.

Rosen also gives brief summaries of four of Shakespeare's plays — A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest. He then explores the plot and language from one scene of one play. His choice is the argument that occurs when Juliet's parents decide to cheer her up after the murder of her cousin by saying (in effect), "Guess what, honey? You get to get married tomorrow!" Ordinarily, such news would be received with delight by a young woman of good family. But since Juliet's cousin was murdered by none other than Juliet's secret husband, she has any number of reasons to be distressed by this announcement — and no way of explaining why. By examining this scene closely with (and for) the reader, Rosen is able to demonstrate that Shakespeare isn't such a tough read (especially with the help of some thoughtfully placed footnotes). He may also succeed in intriguing readers into examining the rest of the play independently.

The end of Shakespeare includes a timeline that includes details about Shakespeare's life and career, as well as pertinent current events. In 1593, the same year that Shakespeare was 29 years old and published the long poem Venus and Adonis, 11,000 people died of the plague in London. These are not unrelated events — theatres were closed if the death toll got too high, and Shakespeare took advantage of his enforced idleness to work on his poetry. Similarly, in 1594, "the queen's doctor, a Portuguese Jew, is accused of trying to poison her and is executed." Is the fact that this happened not long before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice significant?

Other than the interesting timeline, this outstanding book is not a reference resource but rather an invaluable introduction to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and Macbeth: The Story Behind the Play

by Stewart Ross; illustrated by Tony Karpinski and Victor Ambrus. Viking, 1994

Although the focus of this book is the creation of Macbeth, it has a great deal to offer about Shakespeare and his work. Readers should be warned that, informative as this tale is, it must be read as "it might have gone a little something like this" so far as most of the specifics are concerned. Historians would be ecstatic if we had for certain any of the details given here of Shakespeare's speech, personality, and visits to his wife and children.

Nevertheless, this book is exceptionally good as an introduction to Shakespeare and a companion to (or first) study of Macbeth. Discussion questions will flow thick and fast, especially regarding the writers' craft. What do you think of how much Shakespeare changed history in order to write a gripping story? How much of what he changed was for plot reasons, and how much for purely political ones? Would Shakespeare have been a better writer if he hadn't been so worried about keeping on the good side of whoever was currently on the throne? Would as much of his work have survived if he hadn't kept such concerns in mind?

As well as giving crucial details about the history behind the play, Shakespeare and Macbeth also summarizes (with illustrations) the story of Macbeth. If your child is up for a good scary Shakespeare story, this would be an excellent place to start (or continue) Shakespeare studies.

Shakespeare Explained

Various authors. Marshall Cavendish (publisher)

An excellent series for strong readers. Each Shakespeare Explained title tackles one play. So far, the publisher has released Henry IV Part 1, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night. (King Lear is due to be released in the fall of 2010.)

This series is ideal for homeschoolers. Each book begins with an introduction to Shakespeare's life, world, and work — but not before the continuing vitality and relevance of the Bard is explained. "You probably quote his words several times every day without realizing it," the reader is told. Of course, the language has changed quite a bit between Shakespeare's time and our own. Each volume of Shakespeare Explained includes a "Shakespeare Glossary" — a list of words that may be unfamiliar to young modern readers, either because they aren't too common in youthful conversational English ("countenance"), their meanings have shifted ("doubt" used to mean "to suspect;" "fond" meant "foolish"); or they're extinct in American English ("clepe," "eyne").

The introduction and glossary are included (and are the same) in each volume of SE. Then the play in question is addressed. The reader is introduced to Shakespeare's source materials, as well as current events and technological advances that influenced his choice of subject matter and treatment. Each scene of the play is briefly summarized and then analyzed. The analyses are thoughtful explorations, appropriate for the student who may be new at both reading Shakespeare and looking beneath the surface of classical works.

Shakespeare Explained books also offer broader explorations of the plays in question: themes, motifs, symbols, and the use of language are all discussed. Main characters are scrutinized; thought-provoking questions are asked. Toward the end of each volume is a list of several essay topics pertaining to the play. These topics are varied and intriguing — not the dry fare many of us remember from high school. Finally, each SE title has a "Testing Your Memory" multiple-choice quiz.

Shakespeare Explained texts are perfect for the child old enough to work independently and delve into a play. They would also make outstanding core texts for teaching a cooperative homeschooling class.

Young adult (and adult) nonfiction

Twisted Tales From Shakespeare

by Richard Armour. McGraw-Hill, 1957

The fact that this book is out of print is not only criminal but mystifying, since everyone who reads it falls immediately in love. Twisted Tales is the perfect parody of the deadly tomes many of us remember from literature classes, complete with mock-serious summaries of six of Shakespeare's plays, biographical material, and essay questions. Armour's humor is effortless and matter-of-fact, sometimes so transparently sarcastic that it takes the reader a moment to feel the impact. ("Just after midnight one night, a guard named Francisco is walking on a platform in front of the castle so he will be in plain sight of any approaching enemy," he explains in his synopsis of Hamlet.) More often, Armour affects a straightforwardly bumbling professorial tone. (Mercutio's death in Romeo and Juliet: "'I am hurt,' Mercutio groans, in one of the greatest understatements in all Shakespeare.")

What's wonderful about this book, aside from the fact that it never stops being funny, is that the reader actually gets a decent summary of the plays addressed, as well as a glimpse of some of the more famous quotes — embedded in humor, and thus easily committed to memory. If your library doesn't have Twisted Tales, find a used copy online; but don't miss out on this treat.

The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard

by Norrie Epstein. Viking Penguin, 1993

Although Norrie Epstein delights in Shakespeare, she sympathizes with those who feel daunted, irritated, or bored by the Bard. She also understands how off-putting it is when an overly enthusiastic author "goes into ecstasies": "the reader feels suddenly abandoned, as if everyone else is having a fabulous time at a party while he or she's alone in a corner." And so, although she proves unable (as she admits) to keep a firm grip on her enthusiasm for her subject, she wisely tells the reader not simply that Shakespeare is great, but why.

The Friendly Shakespeare isn't a book to be read straight through. It is, after all, a guide to the works of a very prolific author — one who lived and worked several hundred years ago. You can plow through systematically, of course, especially if you're already a fan of the playwright; but if you're just starting out, you may want to skip around a bit. Epstein encourages this with her format: chapters are short and snappy (but never superficial), and explorations of the plays are alternated with interviews, photos, and lots of fascinating "Hey, did you know that...?" mini-essays. (For instance, "Quartos, Good and Bad" gives fans of The Shakespeare Stealer terrific information about real script thieves and how they've been useful to modern editors.)

The Friendly Shakespeare is worth reading just for the wonderful facts Epstein tucks in all over the place. (In the Viking story Hamlet is based on, Prince Amleth pretends to be mad to ensure that his uncle won't harm him, because in their culture, "killing a madman released his soul to fly into your own" — makes more sense than Shakespeare's Hamlet's lame rationale for acting like a nutter, doesn't it?) But this is far more than a collection of Shakespeare trivia (although where else are you going to learn about the Lear mafia?). Epstein is so at home with her subject that instead of lecturing at her readers, she can comfortably converse with them. Consider this, from her introduction to Shakespeare's tragedies:

Tragedy is defined not by what it does but by what it does to us. We watch comedy, but we experience tragedy. In comedy, the parade of human folly is presented through the wrong end of the binoculars, from a perspective of detached amusement. But with tragedy, the binoculars are turned the other way: everything is up close, intense, and immediate.

...Shakespeare keeps his [tragic] heroes anchored to the earth by adding subtle touches, words or gestures that make them recognizably human: Macbeth calls his imperious wife "dearest chuck" (the Elizabethan equivalent of "sweetie pie"). One moment Lear is a towering figure of fallen majesty, but then, turning to Kent, he asks, "Pray you undo this button," and at once the powerful king has become a tired old man.

This is exactly the sort of writing Epstein aims for in her "Note to the Reader," in which she promises a book for "the intelligent common reader who is tired of academic jargon and the patronizing tone of the student handbook." As Epstein joyfully demonstrates, Shakespeare and his work can be discussed in terms that are simple without being simplistic, basic without descending into the trivial.

Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare

by Isaac Asimov

No specific publisher or publication date information is offered, because for some reason this invaluable resource drifts in and out of availability.

Asimov examines the plays one at a time in careful detail. After giving a brief introduction to the play in question, he walks the reader through the plot, stopping at important points and any quotation he thinks needs more explanation. His prose is clear and straightforward; he explains obscure word meanings, important historical and cultural references, and of course any science that happens to come up. (When Horatio in Hamlet refers to "the moist star," he's talking about the moon.)

I was in my early twenties when I decided to read all of Shakespeare's plays. I'd already read a few, but I wanted to tackle the entire body of work. I had this book right next to me for the whole project. I would read a bit of Asimov's guide, then some of the play, then some more of the guide. This gave me an order in which to read the plays, and kept me grounded as I did so. Although Asimov occasionally offers his own interpretations of characters and events, which the reader may disagree with (Coriolanus in the play of that name is "a tearful, butterfly-killing mamma's boy who never grew up except in muscles;" Hamlet's mother Queen Gertrude is, in Asmiov's opinion, not too bright), in general it's just the facts. Anyone who is apt to get a bit panicky when reading or teaching Shakespeare should find a copy of this calm, factual book.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

by James Shapiro. Simon & Schuster, 2010

If Contested Will were simply a history of the various Shakespeare conspiracy theories that have emerged in the past couple of hundred years, it would still be worth reading because James Shapiro's writing is always worth reading. But Shapiro doesn't just discuss what has been said and by whom about "the man from Stratford;" he explores why the idea that Shakespeare didn't write his plays has seemed so urgent, and to whom. Although he thoroughly disagrees with the idea that Shakespeare wasn't "Shakespeare," Shapiro neither condescends to nor mocks the opposing camp. He has the facts on his side, and he presents them.

Shapiro mentions in his prologue that when he was speaking to a group of nine-year-olds at a local elementary school, one of the students said, "My brother told me that Shakespeare really didn't write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?" "It was the kind of question I was used to hearing from undergraduates," Shapiro says. "I hadn't expected that doubts about Shakespeare's authorship had filtered down to the fourth grade." If such doubts crop up in your studies — or if you just want a terrific read — reach for Contested Will and enjoy a fascinating history told in that rarest of tones: the voice of reason.

Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired (abridged)

by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (of the Reduced Shakespeare Company). Hyperion, 2006

Ignore the "abridged" in the title. The authors put it there because everything the Reduced Shakespeare Company does can be considered abridged. These are, after all, the people whose stage show, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," barrels briskly through all the Bard's plays in an hour and a half. (Happily, this performance is available on DVD.) So it was only natural that two of its members would decide to cover (in the loosest possible sense of the word) Shakespeare's entire body of work — plays, epic poems, and sonnets — in a little over two hundred pages. Their premise is simple: Shakespeare is a lot of fun if you don't let yourself get scared away from him.

Over the centuries, Shakespeare's been put up on a pedestal. In his time his plays were popular culture: Everyone loved them, from royalty to the groundlings. But now his work is considered "high" culture, and the sad fact is that today, Shakespeare intimidates people.

In this book we fight back. We kick the pedestal out from under Shakespeare and make him accessible once again to the grubby, semiliterate, easily distracted masses. Um, present company excepted, of course.

I knew this book would be funny, because the writers just can't help that. I knew that there would be social satire in their humor, because if you're familiar with any of their work, you know they can't help that, either:

It's probably hard for modern readers to understand just how different things were in the late sixteenth century. Unlike today, people of different religions had no tolerance for each other; back then, believers of one faith thought they were right, everyone else was wrong, and that it was their holy duty to convert everyone else to their own point of view.

Fortunately now, almost 500 years later, these myopic religious views and extremist sectarianism have completely disappeared.

What I didn't know was that this book would also be a genuinely factual and valuable resource. The plot summaries Martin and Tichenor offer are hilarious, but they're also really good. And though there's not a page of this book that didn't make me laugh out loud at least once (really embarrassing in the bathroom), occasionally it would forget itself and wander into some genuinely thoughtful analysis. The section on how Shakespeare's relationship with his acting company affected his writing (and vice versa) is just one example.

Civilian readers (such as yours truly) may also appreciate the fact that after a terrific and brief discussion of the sonnets, the writers divide them into two categories: "the good sonnets (which are all the ones you've heard of) and the bad (which are all the rest)." They then present the full text of nine of the most famous sonnets ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" and all that), so if you get this book you'll know exactly where all the sonnets you'll ever want to read are. (Inside it.)

The section on "The Films of William Shakespeare" is a handy resource as well. The authors don't discuss every movie ever made of every play Will ever wrote, because then the book would be heavy enough to destroy any shelf you put it on; instead, they tell you which movies are worth bothering with, who's in them, and which movies aren't technically Shakespeare plays but are obviously based on them (O is a retelling of Othello; 10 Things I Hate About You is "a surprisingly likable version of [The Taming of the] Shrew") or are otherwise related to Shakespeare's work in some way. (To Be or Not To Be, Charlie's Angels — wait, really? "Charlie is Lear, the Angels are his daughters, Bosley's the Fool. Think about it." Oh.) If you're looking for film versions of the plays to be part of your studies, the RSC boys have some great advice on which ones to check out. They're also very, very funny, and their behavior should be encouraged.

Shakespeare Stories

Many writers have "translated" Shakespeare's work from play to prose, in order to make a smoother read for young readers. If you're going to see one of Shakespeare's plays performed and you decide to take someone whose youth and/or inexperience would make the language a serious barrier to understanding what's going on onstage, your companion is going to be restless and bored in a short time. Reading a prose version of the play is a quick and entertaining way to give your young scholar an idea of what to expect. Understanding the story in advance makes it easier to relax and enjoy the general flow of the language and the quality of the acting without sweating out the meaning of every word.

Similarly, if you're preparing to study Shakespeare, prefacing the plays with prose can be a fine introductory exercise and a transitional passage to the real thing. For the most part, Shakespearean cultural literacy isn't about the plotlines. It's about the language. It differs strikingly here from Biblical cultural literacy, which is primarily about the stories themselves and only to a lesser extent about exact quotes. Most of us read the Bible in translation, but Shakespeare wrote in English. And so the goal is to read his words, and Shakespearean cultural literacy means knowing when Shakespeare is being quoted (and, perhaps, being able to quote him intelligently yourself). Stories — especially illustrated ones — can be a useful and enjoyable step toward reading, seeing, and enjoying the plays.

Below are listed some of the best-known collections of Shakespeare stories. In addition to some pertinent information about each, I've included a sample of their prose. As A Midsummer Night's Dream is the play that often serves as an introduction to Shakespeare's work, I've quoted the beginning of each volume's treatment of that particular play.

Bruce Coville's Stories from Shakespeare

Once in ancient Athens a dark-haired girl named Hermia loved a dreamy poet called Lysander. He loved her as well and the couple had promised to marry. But Hermia's father had other ideas.

"It is my right to choose your husband," he told his daughter, "and I choose Demetrius. He's every bit as noble as your Lysander, and he doesn't have his head in the clouds."

Bruce Coville has written picture book versions of several of Shakespeare's plays — A Midsummer Night's Dream (quoted above), Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest. The books are beautifully illustrated by various artists. The dialogue in the stories is a mix of real Shakespeare and simplified Elizabethan English.

When I led a cultural literacy book club for homeschooling parents, most of the members had read little or no Shakespeare. We started with A Midsummer Night's Dream, and many of the parents said that they had a much easier time reading the play after reading Coville's picture book version with their children. This play can be a challenge to read cold because the two pairs of main-character lovers are completely generic. And it doesn't help that Hermia and Helena each have three-syllable names starting with the letter H. Coville's book will walk you through figuring out who's who and who belongs with who.

Coville's retellings of the more serious, intense, and/or advanced plays include more of Shakespeare's own words, as well as more text (though still plenty of visuals). I admire Coville's writing, but the various illustrators also do memorable, vital work. They set the general tone in each book — Dennis Nolan's pictures in A Midsummer Night's Dream are rendered in realistic detail and predominantly green (fitting for a tale dominated by forest fairies), while Leonid Gore's illustrations of Hamlet are moody, vague and sinister. Coville's books are a beautiful introduction to Shakespeare for all ages.

Stories from Shakespeare

by Geraldine McCaughrean; illustrated by Antony Maitland. Simon & Schuster, 1995

Something was wrong in the world of fairies. Rain filled the ditches, swamped the fields, rotted the crops, and ran like tears down the abandoned village maypole. All this in July. In Greece! There was discord among the spirits, a falling-out between the King and Queen of the Fairies over which of them should have a little Indian changeling boy for a page. While they sulked and fumed and stamped their fairy feet, the rain kept pouring. There was every chance it would still be raining on Duke Theseus's wedding day.

This volume is beautifully illustrated and employs lively, strong writing. Each play's story is prefaced with a list and brief description of the most important characters; the margins of the stories are sprinkled with well-chosen quotes from the plays themselves. The prose is the most accessible I've seen in any such book, well suited to being read aloud.

My only quarrel with this book is that its author slightly misrepresents the endings of a few of the plays. For instance, we can only imagine how Caliban feels after Prospero and Miranda leave his island in The Tempest; McCaughrean gives us her ideas on the subject without mentioning that these aren't necessarily shared by Shakespeare. King Lear does not die "with his understanding intact but his heart broken." Barring these quibbles, I highly recommend this book as an early introduction to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Stories

by Leon Garfield; illustrated by Michael Foreman. Shocken Books, 1985

Hermia, who was small, dark and perfect, loved Lysander; and Lysander loved Hermia. What could have been better than that? At the same time, Helena, who was tall, fair and tearful, loved Demetrius.

But Demetrius did not love Helena. Instead he, too, loved Hermia...who did not love him. What could have been worse than that?

Now although Lysander and Demetrius were both young, handsome, and rich, so that, to the untouched heart and the uncomplicated eye, there was nothing to choose between them, Hermia's father had made a choice.

The prose in this volume is more challenging than that of McCaughrean — tricky for reading aloud, but excellent for silent reading. All dialogue is from the plays themselves, which means that the reader is introduced to, without being overwhelmed by, Shakespearean language. Garfield's stories are best suited for the reader who is almost ready to tackle Shakespeare in the original but needs a transitional step. The stories cover a good range of Shakespeare's plays — tragedies, comedies, histories, and problem plays. All in all, a very good first Shakespeare for a strong reader.

Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare

by E. Nesbit. First published 1907; various editions available, including free online version at Project Gutenberg:

Hermia and Lysander were lovers; but Hermia's father wished her to marry another man, named Demetrius. Now, in Athens, where they lived, there was a wicked law, by which any girl who refused to marry according to her father's wishes, might be put to death. Hermia's father was so angry with her for refusing to do as he wished, that he actually brought her before the Duke of Athens to ask that she might be killed, if she still refused to obey him. The Duke gave her four days to think about it, and, at the end of that time, if she still refused to marry Demetrius, she would have to die.

E. Nesbit, the author of The Railway Children, Five Children and It, and a great many other brilliant books, wrote this adaptation of Shakespeare's plays for her own children. The writing here is as skillfully simple and straightforward as it is in her fiction. The dialogue is a combination of authentic Shakespeare and her own simplification of his words. Nesbit includes a pronunciation guide to difficult names in the plays, and "a collection of Shakespearean Quotations, classified in alphabetical order, illustrative of the wisdom and genius of the world's greatest dramatist."

Because racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are perceived and discussed much differently now, I was curious to see how a book written nearly a hundred years ago would handle Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice. Nesbit describes Othello as follows:

Othello was a Moor, but of so dark a complexion that his enemies called him a Blackamoor. His life had been hard and exciting. He had been vanquished in battle and sold into slavery; and he had been a great traveler and seen men whose shoulders were higher than their heads. Brave as a lion, he had one great fault — jealousy. His love was a terrible selfishness. To love a woman meant with him to possess her as absolutely as he possessed something that did not live and think. The story of Othello is a story of jealousy.

Nesbit's telling of The Taming of the Shrew reads like a folk tale of a man outwitting a magical creature more than a battle of the sexes. Regarding the latter, here is Nesbit speculating between the lines:

Whether [Kate] fell in love with Petruchio, or whether she was only glad to meet a man who was not afraid of her, or whether she was flattered that, in spite of her rough words and spiteful usage, he still desired her for his wife — she did indeed marry him on Sunday, as he had sworn she should.

Nesbit's take on The Merchant of Venice is strange in one respect: although the telling of the story is otherwise straightforward and she does not abuse Shylock as the Lambs did a century earlier (see below), she tells the entire story without telling us that Shylock is Jewish. The closest she comes to mentioning this is when her Portia refers to him as a "foreigner." In the play, Portia actually calls him an "alien": because of his religion, he can never be a citizen. This may be difficult to explain to a child; but leaving out the fact that Shylock is a Jew is, as a friend of mine put it, like telling the tale of Romeo and Juliet and leaving out the fact that Juliet dies. Nesbit's book is otherwise outstanding, but be aware of this odd omission.

Tales From Shakespeare

by Charles and Mary Lamb. First published 1807; various editions available, including free online version at Project Gutenberg:

There was a law in the city of Athens which gave to its citizens the power of compelling their daughters to marry whomsoever they pleased; for upon a daughter's refusing to marry the man her father had chosen to be her husband, the father was empowered by this law to cause her to be put to death; but as fathers do not often desire the death of their own daughters, even though they do happen to prove a little refractory, this law was seldom or never put in execution, though perhaps the young ladies of that city were not unfrequently threatened by their parents with the terrors of it.

This collection was written in 1807 by a brother and sister, and, like Nesbit's work, is a classic in its own right. This is one of the earliest attempts, if not the earliest attempt, to smooth and simplify the glorious complexity of Shakespeare's writing for young readers. At the time of its original publication, it was significantly simpler to read than Shakespeare's own work. However, it hasn't aged as well as Nesbit's telling. To the modern child, tackling the Lambs' 200-year-old prose may be almost as tough a job as reading Shakespeare himself. The passage above is perfectly representative of the skill and humor the Lambs are capable of, as well as the demands made on one's vocabulary.

However, the prejudices of the Lambs' time and culture are apparent in some of the stories. Shakespeare seems to have had some sympathy for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; the Lambs have none, and go beyond anything Shakespeare ever implied by stating that Shylock "was disliked by all good men." The Lambs' also soften and misrepresent the conversion of Shylock to Christianity.

Speaking of misrepresentation: if you're familiar with Pericles, the play whose major plot elements include father-daughter incest and a virgin imprisoned in a brothel, you may find it amusing, astounding, or both that the Lambs decided to include it as one of their stories. They left Julius Caesar out, but kept Pericles — and had to lie like a couple of rugs to make it child-appropriate. The Lambs' book is of historic interest, but I wouldn't recommend it as a young people's introduction to the Bard — though their parents may enjoy it.

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