Anyone who thinks that Shakespeare’s plays are only dusty, old irrelevant texts that must be painstakingly read in high school in order to pass a final exam, probably hasn’t seen Shakespeare live on stage.
You only have to see Shakespeare performed once to understand why his work is still produced all over the world today. Shakespeare is funny, tragic, exciting, beautiful, and relevant. His themes and characters are instantly recognizable and real. Turn on the television and you will see contemporary counterparts to King Lear, Beatrice, Macbeth, Desdemona, and a dozens of others, including a host of fools and comic sidekicks. Shakespeare’s plays are about love, betrayal, ambition, jealousy, honor, loyalty, and family. In short, his stories incorporate many of the themes that run through a modern family’s Thanksgiving weekend with the folks.
Swordfights, love stories, and slapstick comedy make Shakespeare a natural fit for kids. Throw in ghosts, fairies, and witches and the “Harry Potter” set are completely captivated. And fortunately, in the summer, free Shakespeare can be found in almost every town and city. It’s a perfect time to take the kids. Many Shakespeare companies even invite children up on stage after the show to meet the cast and check out the props.
Children tend to find Shakespeare’s comedies the most accessible, but don’t rule out the exciting histories and tragedies. It’s a smart idea to tell your kids the story of the play before you attend. Shakespeare wrote his plays four centuries ago, so his language sounds different to us now. Rest assured, though. Shakespeare wrote for the masses and free summer Shakespeare is uniquely geared to include children and first-timers. Modern actors do their best to make the story clear as well as pump up the physical comedy and the drama. If you give your children the basic plot points before the show, they will be able to follow the story. And the great part about being outdoors is that whispering the answer to the odd question is allowed.
Besides sharing basic plot points with your kids, you may want to tell them about how Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. Audiences of his day watched in open-air theaters. (We know Shakespeare’s plays appeared at The Globe Theatre, which has been rebuilt near the original site in London.) Moneyed patrons sat in seats overlooking the action. But everyone else stood in the gallery around the stage. By all accounts, the average theatergoers, called “groundlings,” were a boisterous audience who ate, drank, talked back to the actors, booed, and threw things at the villains. You can assure your little ones that modern audiences are quite a bit quieter today. But free summer Shakespeare tries to remain true to the spirit of those original performances.
The effort of getting to, and through, a Shakespeare play with kids is part of the adventure. But it’s always worth it. Even if they fall asleep or get a little restless, they’ve been exposed to the most famous stories in the world, and they will be even more prepared the next time around. Sitting outside under a sparkling night sky makes the plays seem almost magical—just as they appeared to those other theatergoers some four hundred years ago.