Best Materials [Free or Low-Cost] for Teaching Shakespeare’s Plays

We've been including Shakespeare in our homeschool since way back when my oldest son was in first grade. Back then, I only had little kids and we didn't read the full plays. 

Over time, one child and then another has gotten old enough to read the original plays and we love taking different parts and reading 1-2 scenes from our current play once or twice a week. 

Now, six years later, reading Shakespeare's plays is just a normal thing we do. Here are my favorite free and low-cost websites and books that help keep our Shakespeare studies easy and fun. 

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If you are starting out with Shakespeare, this podcast episode gives a great overview of Ken Ludwig's method described in his book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. After listening to the podcast, I did read the book, but the podcast alone gives you a pretty good idea of how to get started. Here I wrote about exactly how I used that book to study Midsummer Night's Dream with 3 young children.

When I started planning to read the original plays, I researched and chose an edition to use across all the plays so that I could pick up very cheap copies at used book sales and know that we would be reading from the same text. I also wanted good explanatory notes to help us understand the language. I chose Folger editions and we love them. 

They are frequently used in schools so there are lots of used copies available. If I haven't already picked up at least 2 copies, I use the ISBNs from the publisher's website (linked above) to search Thriftbooks for just the Folgers editions that I prefer. 

You do not have to pay a cent to read excellently formatted Shakespeare plays! This site provides free texts using the exact same language as the Folgers Library Edition books. What it lacks are the explanatory notes and definitions. 

I can't imagine reading Shakespeare without those notes, so I buy 1-2 books that have them, often using one of my free book credits from Thriftbooks. The rest of us read the text from the free PDFs via a tablet after I downloaded and then uploaded them to Google Play (emailing them to a Kindle email address could put them on that app as well). 

Nancy Kelly wrote this article about what plays appeared on the PNEU programmes from 1921-1933 and I use it to help me choose what plays to study. Because I had only read a few plays myself in high school (namely Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night), I wasn't sure which ones would be most worthwhile and appropriate. This list helps me narrow it down quite a bit, especially when it comes to choosing Histories, which I knew nothing about. 

Another note on selecting plays: people often recommend starting with comedies, but other than Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, my two boys have preferred tragedies every single time. But you'll never know if you don't give them a try.

Line counts are just a list of the characters in each scene along with the number of lines that character speaks in that scene. If we are reading a play that has the line counts available on this site, I print them out and keep them in my book. Since we read the play aloud taking separate parts, these line counts simplify the process of dividing up the parts in a way that works for adults and kids, including later-to-bloom readers. They make Shakespeare evenings more of an open-and-go experience.

When we are reading a play together, I always assign one or two monologues as recitation pieces for each child. They will read their piece almost every day so that they can recite it beautifully when we have our break-week poetry tea which happens after every 6 weeks of homeschooling. This site is my go-to for identifying meaningful pieces that are already formatted for me to print and use. 

Before we start a new and unfamiliar play, it helps to read a brief retelling of the major plot points. I like Nesbit's retellings because they are short and to the point. It contains retellings of 12 plays, including Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest. Also on Librivox.

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb also on Project Gutenberg. Reprint available here.
I use Tales from Shakespeare if I don't have another retelling. It has 20 plays--notably Macbeth, Othello, and Much Ado About Nothing which are not included in the Nesbit collection. Also on Librivox.

Shakespeare graphic novels and picture books
Especially if we are going to see a live performance, I like to read a longer version for my kids who are too young to follow the entire play. I have had good luck with slowly reading through a graphic novel version like this one. I prefer ones that paraphrase large parts of the text as well as directly quote the most famous lines. Of course, I use what is available at my library or purchase used from Thriftbooks

I wish my library had some of Bruce Coville's retellings, like this one of The Tempest because I think the illustrations would be wonderful, especially for the youngest listeners. 

After we finish reading our play, we usually don't have the opportunity to see it performed nearby. And we've been reading it slowly a few scenes at a time over 12 weeks which can make it feel a bit disconnected. I found these collections of radio performances when I had some audible credits from a Black Friday promotion.  They are entertaining and great for car rides. We own the Comedies, Tragedies, and Roman Plays collections which cover most of the plays I plan to ever read with the kids.

No audible credits? Some of the individual plays are also on Libby/Overdrive. Or this site has great free recordings but they are not as convenient as playing the audio via an app. 

After we are pretty familiar with the play from reading and listening to it, I love to see it performed. We usually don't have the opportunity to see a play locally, but I can often find a free version on Amazon. Or I can save up some promotional credit to rent one. My small local library also has a few Shakespeare movies in their collection. 

I always read reviews carefully and/or preview the movie to make sure that I am ok with my kids seeing it. I am fairly comfortable with my kids watching mature subjects with me, but I know that there is a lot of material in Shakespeare that goes over a child's head more in reading the play than in watching a movie!

Best advice for using these resources?
Don't force it. 

While I do expect my 4th graders and up to participate in our Shakespeare reading time, we keep our sessions short and light-hearted. There are no vocabulary lectures, reading comprehension questions, narrations, or anything expected other than participation. If only I could have read Shakespeare this way in school!

Sometimes younger kids aren't interested in a retelling or graphic novel. That's fine. Shakespeare wasn't written for children. There will be another time to enjoy Shakespeare later.

And it has happened that the movie version I found isn't capturing the interest of my kids and we decide not to finish it. In our homeschool, we have always finished at least a retelling and reading the full play. But no one says you can't stop a play that isn't going well either. All other stuff--audio and movie versions--are just extra around here and certainly not required.

Are there any websites or books that help you enjoy Shakespeare in your homeschool? I'd love to know about them!