The Point Hath Gone Missing

"Can we please listen and read the next act, Mom?" begged Abby (caught above reading the play).

Abby is a newcomer to Shakespeare and our co-op where we are enjoying The Winter's Tale.  She's also only 8 years old.  It's amazing what children are capable of understanding at such young ages.

It's the original words of an author that I want my children to read, not someone else's.  This is especially true when it comes to Shakespeare. A few parents have recently shared a concern with me about the appropriateness of teaching Shakespeare to children.  As it turns out, these parents have been relying on modern translations.  (I am not referring to  the use of children's retellings like Lamb's or Nesbit's which are helpful introductions when followed by the original work.)

There are at least three issues that arise when relying on modern translations.  First, any interpretation will carry with it the  interpreter's worldview and agenda, which can take you on rabbit trails not intended for anyone, let alone children.   Second,  an off-color remark in Elizabethan English is not nearly as obvious or offensive as a blunt explanation in modern English that often times adds more color than intended.

Thirdly, there is the loss of the beautiful writing and insights.  An important reason that we read Shakespeare is to experience the genius of this author to convey his stories with such inspiring prose and verse.  So much of this is lost in a modern translation.   LittleJack has said to me, "Sometimes,  it's not what Shakespeare says, but how he says it.  That's the point." Yes, what is said matters, but I think you can see what he is getting at. Also, by focusing on an offensive modern word, we lose sight of what Shakespeare actually did say.  It's a little like not seeing the forest for the trees.

Charlotte Mason said,
"Then, by degrees, as we go on reading this world-teacher, lines of insight and beauty take possession of us, and unconsciously mould our judgments of men and things and of the great issues of life." Vol. 4, p. 71
Taking my cues from Mason, I recommend using Shakespeare in his original and unabridged format.  I recommend the Folger editions, which come with brief scene-by-scene summaries.  Children as young as eight, when properly introduced, can certainly follow his writings.  Not only can they follow them, but enjoy them as well!


  1. Yes, well put. Thank you for encouraging us.

  2. Mental note "Folgers"...when Shakespeare time comes for us, I know where to find great advice :)

  3. Yes, the entire volume 13 is entitled Mathemagic. There is another book entitled Mathemagic, but it's not what I have, it's about magic tricks and math. I've told other parents that Mathemagic is something I can use with my little girls since I guide them in the process, but it's very appropriate for older children -I'd say early elementary, to give a range-.

    And I'm looking forward to your lantern pics!


  4. My verse translations, though designed for mature readers, increase comprehensibilty while maintaining the rhythm and complexity of Shakespeare's original. You can see excerpts of my Shakespeare translations at http://www.fullmeasurepress.com.

    I feel compelled to add that I would introduce Shakespeare when kids are older. The themes and language demands, even in my translations, are too mature. What's the hurry?

    Kent Richmond

  5. Dear Kent,

    Thanks for visiting my little blog! I admire your moxy for

    a.) attempting translations of the Bard
    b.) posting about them in a post that talks about not using them!

    This blog is my personal opinion based on my personal experience. I'm not asking anyone to agree with me, I'm just hoping to encourage others who have chosen this path and hopefully spark a new idea or two.

    You ask, "What's the hurry?"

    There is no hurry! That's the beauty of homeschooling - we have choices. This includes when to start the Bard. This post articulates, however briefly, a handful of reasons why you would start young. I will continue to write about my experiences with Shakespeare, so feel free to check back if you are still curious, as more reasons will be posted at later dates. I have two children at the U who could chat all day as to how it has benefited them.

    We read many things in our school with mature themes (the Bible comes to mind) and I suspect children in schools everywhere have already been exposed to many mature themes.

    Thanks for the conversation, Kent.

    Grace to Boot,


  6. Kent: I really appreciate that you do your translations in verse. This at least provides a closer parallel work then the many available translations in hackneyed prose.

    That being said, I believe there really is no substitute for the original text. While your translation may attempt to maintain nuance and technique, any change made to the original language detracts from the authenticity of the work:

    1). Most of the truly archaic words Shakespeare uses permit multiple meanings. Any translation must by necessity pick one of these meanings and select a modernized word accordingly: multiplicities do not dovetail across the centuries.

    2). Language and meaning are inextricable entwined. No two words mean exactly the same thing. There are subtleties lost in ANY change.

    3). Honestly, Shakespearean English is not terribly difficult to understand even at a young age. It takes a little concentration and an occasional trip to the dictionary, but no undue amount of effort.

    The main point of studying Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. Different texts, even skillfully emulating his style, do not an acceptable substitute make.

  7. Thanks for this post. I do agree. I've been attempting Shakespeare using children's versions with little success. My son is only 6, so we may just hold off and use the Folger editions, which look great.

  8. Impressive! I would guess that not all 8 year olds are ready for Shakespeare (originals, I mean). My assumption is that your 8 year old has been fed a steady diet of great literature since birth. Good for you!

  9. Nancy,

    Thanks for your kind and gentle response. I can only hope that translation skeptics will give translations a second chance and think about how much wonderful literature they have already read in translation.

    The post by "LittleJack" that offered a rebuttal may underestimate the difficulty of Shakespeare's language and exaggerate the ambiguity of Shakespeare's word choices. Shakespeare was a rather precise writer. Though his characters dissembled and engaged in wordplay, his best plays show an almost legalistic attention to phrasing. He was not trying to be vague and impressionistic. Translation reveals that precision. And remember that readers still have to translate as they read or listen and are probably doing a poor job of it. I translate with ten to fifteen annotated editions and various dictionairies scattered around me, double-checking practically every word. Each page has dozens of problem words or phrases.

    For a lively article on the difficulty of Shakespeare's work, see John McWhorter's article in the January 2010 American Theater Magazine. Here is the link: http://tcg.org/publications/at/jan10/shakespeare.cfm.


    Kent Richmond

  10. Kent,
    Thanks for stopping by again! I really appreciated the article you linked to and found the comments over there fascinating with much food for thought.

    You are obviously a very learned man with much expertise on Shakespeare. I would like to think that we would be great friends in the real world.

    Did you see my post on "The Green-eyed Monster"? I'd love to hear any further thoughts you might have.

    I think our situations are very different as you are in academia and I am in a homeschool situation. Do you blog? I love to hear about others' successes and failures with teaching Shakespeare. Despite my abysmal high school and college experience with the Bard, our school situation has been quite the opposite and I am thoroughly enjoying the journey!

    Happy St. Patrick's Day,


  11. What a fascinating comment thread!!

    My 8 yo will begin Shakespeare using the original words in January. She can't wait, and neither can I!

    The Lamb translations have served as a delightful springboard to Shakespeare for Jemimah, and her knowledge of the stories is excellent. We just need to add the words now...

    We plan to introduce Shakespeare by attending a production of Midsummer Night's Dream in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens next (Australian) summer. Fairies and comedy sounds like a good beginning to me!

    Have you seen any Shakespeare performed with your littlies yet?

    I'm enjoying my first visit to your blog. I'll be back. Thanks.

  12. Jeanne,
    Thanks for stopping by, commenting and making it through the comments on this thread! And yes, I have found these comments very interesting, too.

    Yes, we always try to follow up our readings with a viewing. Preferably live, but sometimes a video has to do. Oftentimes which play we study depends on what upcoming performances are available.

    We saw Midsummer last fall and I agree, it was the perfect introduction for many of the smaller children in our co-op - my 6 year old included. Have fun at your performance!

    Grace to boot,

  13. Hi Nancy,
    Popped over from the Carnival of Homeschooling. You have definitely inspired thought in this home. And I really appreciate how you explained the danger in relying on modern translations. We adults do the same thing with rewrites of master theologians like Andrew Murray and, of course, the Holy Bible.

  14. Even though my grades, standardized test scores, and Ivy degrees led me to believe I was intelligent...

    I never understood a word of Shakespeare!

    One obscure word or allusion and I was lost.

    Hopefully in the course of teaching it to my kids (only 5 and 3 yet) I'll figure out why this turkey is so highly esteemed!

  15. I have older comments... for the new ones.
    We are reading original Shakespeare now. I have Folgers, and I found some cheap No Fear Shakespeare's, but those I am having to read myself, I cannot give them to read for the explanatory part is, as you say, inappropriate.
    True. Our children, even young ones, can and will love Shakespeare's language too!
    Thanks to CM, and YOU, now we are a family who reads Shakespeare.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Silvia! Now it's your turn to share your experiences with Shakespeare with the broader CM Community.

      Always nice to hear from you, friend.