Best first Shakespeare Plays for High School Students

A few days ago, I received a terrific email from a homeschooling mother who teaches a writing/ literature class to her 9th-12th grade students, most of whom have not studied Shakespeare before. She asked which plays would be best to introduce first and whether high schoolers would be too old for How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare.

Here's my response:

MIDSUMMER_NIGHTS_DREAM300.jpgA lot of high schools use Julius Caesar as the first Shakespeare play, and I just don't know why. It's very political and pretty dry and a difficult read. I find that it's just not a good way to get kids interested in Shakespeare.

I always think it’s better to start kids with one of the comedies. A Midsummer Nights Dream is always best for ALL kids, young and old. It has all the great fairies and funny lovers and a magic flower. If you think that's not a good fit for your group, the other great choice is Twelfth Night - as long as the kids are old enough to get it (from about 12 on up). It's more sophisticated than Midsummer, and has an enormously touching story about the love of a brother and sister. I personally love the comedies best because they're genuinely funny and the stories move right along. The other great one teach as a starter is Much Ado About Nothing. It's VERY funny and there are at least three great DVDs of it.

The other way to go for the first time is a good blood-and-guts tragedy and here the clear choice is either Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. Lots of actions and they both have great stories. Romeo and Juliet of course also has the romance. Macbeth has the witches and ghosts. If you think Macbeth might be unsettling for some of the kids, then I'd stick with Romeo and Juliet.
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To answer your second question, high schoolers are definitely not too old for How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. In fact, the secret fact about the book is that it's meant for adults as much as it is for adults-to-teach kids. So many adults grow up never being exposed to Shakespeare and then they get frightened of the language and never really try it. The goal of my book is to teach people to see that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history because he's not only profound and witty and magical; but because he's fun to read and filled with the best stories and characters ever written. He's like a foreign language to start with. You just have to read slowly at first - or watch a DVD or listen to a cassette - and get into the swing of things; and when you first start to read him, you should take your time and understand every word so that you're never confused. Then, pretty soon, adults and kids alike start to "get it," and after that they find they can't stop reading.

So How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare is is written so that the passages start with the ones that are easiest to understand and memorize. Then, little by little, the passages get more complex as you grow into the language.

Photo credits:
Dame Judi Dench as Queen Titania and Paul Rogers as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Sir Peter Hall. Photo by Geraint Lewis.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann.