Confessions of a Shakespeare Illiterate


When I was 13 years old, I heard a girl in the year above me at school reciting what I thought was a poem. It appealed to me so much that I remembered some fragments over all the intervening years up until a few years ago when we read them in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and I discovered their origin.

  Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade, 

Those verses were my first introduction to Shakespeare. I just didn’t know it.
A copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare was given to me before I had children by a friend who had a spare copy. It sat on the shelf for years after I’d decided that I’d never make any sense out of it. My eldest daughter started reading this book when she was about 9 years of age and most of her siblings connected with Shakespeare at a similar age, starting off with Charles & Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare, but it wasn’t something we’d done as part of our homeschooling because I felt completely inept.
I was a Shakespeare illiterate.
My journey into appreciating Shakepeare was slow and my children were there long before I was. Four years ago even my 7 year old knew more about Shakespeare’s plays than I did.
When we started using Ambleside Online about five years ago, I added Plutarch and Shakespeare to our weekly schedules. I still had no clue about Shakespeare, let alone Plutarch, but jumped in anyhow. Since then we’ve read and listened to two to three plays per year. Some of it still goes over my head, but I don’t feel like an illiterate anymore.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and over the five years since I added them as part of our regular studies, we’ve so far read through/watched/listened to 14 of them: eight comedies, four tragedies, and two histories.
I’ve read often enough that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, and it did help me to watch some of the movie versions of his plays (and a few stage productions) but my older daughter had to give me a running commentary to help me know who was who. I found this really distracting (she knows the plays inside out so it didn’t bother her) and because of the barriers I encountered, I’ve tried  to use a mixed approach when we study Shakespeare.
I’ve written quite a few posts on Shakespeare but I wanted to gather together on one page the resources that helped me to spread the feast that is Shakespeare in a way that both my children and I could partake.

I’ve found it wise to preview all the movies. Even the G-rated versions have unsuitable scenes although often it’s easy enough to fast forward without missing much of the story. Live productions can be variable, especially when the plays are given a modern setting. The last Bell Shakespeare production turned me off going to another one, while an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a lot of fun and suitable for the whole family.
Here are some of the things we’ve used to make Shakespeare come alive for us.


Aside from Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare, these are some re-tellings we’ve used:

The Enchanted Island by Ian Serraillier (the author of the WW2 book, The Silver Sword) is a book of stories from the plays, not of them. He often chooses secondary plot lines to follow which makes for an interesting read that isn’t just a repeat of every other book of Shakespeare summaries.  Easy to read with engaging language, the eleven stories include Henry V, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest. Published in 1966 so available secondhand.


Stories From Shakespeare by Marchette Chute – excellent summaries of Shakespeare’s plays.  My copy is an older one but the book has been republished:


Marchette Chute



Romeo & Juliet by Margaret Early – lovely illustrations and a good introduction; all ages.









The Animated Shakespeare for Children, narrated by Jim Weiss is a fun re-telling of two of Shakespeare’s plays. Moozle listened to these over & over for probably a year. They are a great introduction for younger children.









Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (YouTube) is an animated version of the play and is a good follow up after Shakespeare for Children or just as an introduction to the play for those with no familiarity with Shakespeare. There are other plays that have been animated but I’ve only watched snippets of them. Some are better than others but this one was enjoyable to watch.


I came across these books by Marcia Williams in the library and they were helpful for a general overview of the plays. They are done well and quite appealing for kids who might struggle with the rich language Shakespeare uses. The language is still used but the plays are (obviously) condensed and done in a comic style. A couple of my boys enjoyed them when they were around 8 to 10 years of age but older children who’ve had no previous exposure to Shakespeare would probably enjoy them.

 ‘Take your place in the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s day to see seven of his best-loved plays in performance. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are all brought vividly to life in Marcia Williams’ gloriously accessible comic-strip versions, which include the bard’s own dialogue and the rowdy remarks of the audience.’

 Movie Versions of Shakespeare

Romeo & Juliet

One of the best productions I’ve seen is the 1968 movie by Franco Zeffirelli. It is rich and sumptuous and gives an authentic feel for the times. Romeo & Juliet are played by young actors whereas other productions tend to cast older people in the roles and it doesn’t work nearly as well. It’s more suited to a high school audience but because the settings are so good, I used portions of the movie to give my younger children a feel for the play and the boys loved it. It is sensuous and hormonal in parts; the death scene is very moving and at one point Romeo’s bare backside flashes across the screen.

Henry V

Our first introduction to Henry V was with the Laurence Olivier movie, followed by reading the re-telling found in Ian Serraillier’s The Enchanted Island. We then listened to the BBC Arkangel fully dramatized version on CD. (We did this over a couple of months covering about 15 minutes at each listening.) After this we watched the very well done 1990 Kenneth Branagh movie which I edited at a few places (battlefield scenes, a hanging). It was interesting to compare the two movie versions of  Henry V.
The Branagh version was certainly more appealing to my boys but the Olivier film commences and finishes as a play at The Globe Theatre and so gives a good feel for the Elizabethan era.
Bell Shakespeare performed this play in a WW2 setting which was quite interesting, but they emphasised the crude bits that neither of these films included.

Much Ado About Nothing

This is an excellent movie directed by Kenneth Branagh. It has a couple of scenes you’d definitely want to skip so preview first, but overall the movie is very good with some very humourous parts.


The Mel Gibson movie is one I watched with my teenaged daughter a few years ago. I thought it was quite good although there is one scene where Hamlet gives his mother a rather passionate kiss, which was a bit weird. It was over very quickly and apart from that brief moment (which probably would go over the heads of some) the movie was well done.

I was looking forward to watching this version starring David Tennant but stopped just before everyone started getting killed off. There was nothing objectionable, but after a while Tennant playing Hamlet just drove me nuts! I thought Mel Gibson played the part more authentically. Or maybe it was the frame of mind I was in when I watched this version. I did enjoy reading the play – it’s full of so many quotes I’d heard but hadn’t attributed to Shakespeare.

The Taming of the Shrew

This is another Franco Zeffirelli Shakespeare 1967 production and it has a G rating in Australia. I’m glad I previewed it first! Overall it’s fine for general viewing but the first few minutes are full of heaving bosoms & generally well endowed wenches with toothless grins hanging out of upstairs windows. This is a fiesty and fun version of the play, aside from its bawdy beginnings and like his version of Romeo & Juliet, Zeffirelli captured the feel of the times.

Julius Caesar

I think this was the very first Shakespeare movie we watched and from memory it was suitable for general viewing. Caesar’s death was done fairly discreetly without much bloodshed, the movie is from 1953 and is in black and white. John Gielgud (a revered Shakespearean actor) and Marlon Brando play the parts of Cassius and Mark Antony respectively. It may be viewed online here.

The Merchant of Venice

A BBC production from 1980. Antonio was a little wooden but overall this is a reasonable production and suitable for about age 15 and up.


This version is like a movie of a play. It has very sparse setting but is well acted – not surprising when you have Sir Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the lead roles! Probably best for mid highschool and up (sombre & intense and not much action) – plus there’s a scene where a person has their throat cut, but otherwise no objectionable material.

Audio Versions

We’ve used both the Arkangel Shakspeare and the Naxos audio versions and out of all of them the two best versions are those below. The Naxos versions we’ve used have actually been better (and usually cheaper to purchase) than some of the Arkangel versions. Just saying that because Arkangel is usually touted as THE audio version for Shakespeare. The two below are our favourites so far:

One of my daughters enjoyed Macbeth and Son, by Jackie French when she was about 13 years old. The story has two parallel settings – that of a 21st Century boy in Australia (who happens to be studying Macbeth at school) and that of a boy in Ancient Scotland. French gives us a different view of Macbeth to that which Shakespeare portrays. Zana said she enjoyed this alternative view of Macbeth which is similar to the way Josephine Tey presents her version of Richard the Third in the book The Daughter of Time.
Update: we’ve been using the audio below for about six weeks and watching the YouTube videos of the movie version which has Lawrence Olivier and Diana Rigg acting the parts of King Lear & Regan. So far it has been very good:

18 thoughts on “Confessions of a Shakespeare Illiterate

  1. Thank you for sharing these resources. This year I plan to study The Tempest with my kids, and I am on the lookout for whatever sources I can find. I have a couple already, but I never thought of an audio version. And that Ian Serraillier edition looks great. We are familiar with his Beowulf and enjoyed his writing, so I will look to see if our library has that copy.


  2. Raising my hand as a Shakespeare illiterate here! My 8 year old says she LOVES Shakespeare which I find amusing — she has read some Shakespeare storybooks and loves the Jim Weiss audio you mentioned above.My exposure to Shakespeare in high school was brief, and not terribly memorable. I know we did a few plays, I'm sure that Taming of the Shrew was among them but other than that I can't really say. And I did see a live production in 10th or 11th grade at the Stratford Festival, but I'm not even 100% sure what play it was! King Lear or MacBeth I think. I do struggle with the necessity of including Shakespeare in my children's education considering the adult themes and debauchery included. It's not something I've got figured out yet.


  3. Listening to the audio while following along with the text of the play made Shakespeare accessible for me. I always get so much more out of a play if I've heard and read along prior to seeing it performed.


  4. Good to know I'm not alone in my ignorance! At least you actually did a play. I left that school at the end of that year so missed out completely.I think many of us have faced similar dilemmas with myths, fantasy and even some of the Old Testament accounts. Ultimately, it's a call we make for our own families. There's some good thoughts here about Shakespeare: this article also:


  5. I've read a few plays, but I really don't know much. I recently printed out the Ambleside year 1 reading schedule and saw a Shakespeare book on there, but haven't gotten my hands on it yet. I really want to begin exposing my children to it, and learn myself as well!


  6. This is a wonderful post. I'm trying to become more Shakespeare literate. So glad to know about the Seraillier book. I loved his retelling of Beowulf. I hope you don't mind if I link to this post from my blog in the near future. Blessings, Hope


  7. Thanks Hope. Feel free to link. I haven't read his retelling of Beowulf but I think we borrowed it from the library a long time ago – we have the Seamus Heaney version which my son read earlier this year.


  8. I must admit that I'm with Alison. I never particularly enjoyed Shakespeare myself not because I found the language inaccessible but because of the content. I believe there are better ways to introduce children to beautiful language with God-honoring content so we'll be putting off Shakespeare as long as possible here. I do appreciate that this is a super-helpful list for those who wish to introduce Shakespeare to their children. Thanks for sharing this at the Booknificent Thursday link-up on this week!Tina


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