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Conquering the Fear of Shakespeare

This week, Education World checks out three treatments of William Shakespeare's plays Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Examine the picture book versions by popular children's author Bruce Coville, the narrative retellings of Leon Garfield (now available in paperback), and the shortened ("Sixty-Minute Shakespeare") versions of the plays by author and professor Cass Foster.

Do your students typically greet references to William Shakespeare with derisive groans and resigned sighs? Have you avoided introducing the works of the beloved bard altogether because you fear students aren't ready to understand the complicated plots or appreciate the poetry of the language? Well, now may be the time to "screw your courage to the sticking place" and check out the latest literary offerings designed to make Shakespeare's plays accessible to even the most skeptical students.

Should you begin with a tragedy or a comedy? That is the question. Let's take a look at one of each and consider the different formats you have to choose from when teaching them.


One of the shortest and most frequently performed of Shakespeare's plays, MACBETH is perhaps also the tale most likely to fascinate young readers. Populated by ghosts and witches, hovering daggers, and humans haunted by permanently-bloodied hands, the story vividly portrays the battle between good and evil and ends, as children expect it will, with evil punished and evil-doers destroyed.

Macbeth CoverThe Picture Book

"Thunder shook the skies over Scotland. War raged across the heath as the Scottish thanes fought to turn back invaders from Ireland and Norway. Striding fearlessly through the battle, his flashing sword red with blood, was the greatest warrior of the day: Macbeth, Thane of Glamis. No foe could stand against him."

Thus begins Bruce Coville's retelling of Macbeth (Dial Books). And with those simple words, young readers are drawn into a complicated tale of intrigue and betrayal that will hold their attention right up to the bitter -- and bloody -- end.

Students will be spellbound as they watch Macbeth and his friend Banquo leave the scene of that initial battle, only to come upon "three witches, withered and wild-looking," who foretell a future neither man had dreamed of. As the story progresses, they will see the witches' prophecy fulfilled, not through fate or magic, but through Macbeth's own actions. They will watch as Macbeth is transformed from a fearless hero to a broken man, destroyed not by his foes, but by his own ambition and greed. In the end, students will breathe a sigh of relief and satisfaction at Coville's final words: "Thus ended the dark and bloody reign of Macbeth, who killed a king to become a king, and in so doing murdered his own soul."

With Macbeth, Coville has produced a vividly dramatic story in words that students will both understand and savor. But their enjoyment would be nowhere near as complete without Gary Kelley's dark and menacing illustrations. No imagination could conjure witches this grim, ghosts this ghastly, murders this foul. Like the characters in the story, the pictures seem to have "an eerie fog swirled thick about them" -- a fog that both enhances the action and softens the violence, making it irresistible and palatable for even the most squeamish readers.

This retelling of William Shakespeare's Macbeth in picture book format was written by Bruce Coville and illustrated by Gary Kelley, but the spirit is clearly Shakespeare's own. Who's yawning now? Which of your students still believes that Shakespeare is only for poets and pendants?

The Tale Retold

Shakespear Book Cover Leon Garfield's Shakespeare Stories (Houghton Mifflin Company) provides highly readable retellings of twelve of Shakespeare's works, including Macbeth. Originally published in hardcover in 1985, this recently released paperback version is well worth a place in your classroom library.

Garfield's stories, like Coville's, are told in a narrative format, but these are more faithful to Shakespeare's original works, both in language and in mood. The characters are more complex, the concepts more sophisticated, and the stories more appropriate for slightly older students.

Garfield's Macbeth begins "Three old women out in a storm. But what old women, and what a storm! It banged and roared and crashed and rattled. The sky was quick with sudden glares, and the earth with sudden darknesses." The language in this Macbeth, while more understandable than Shakespeare's words, retains the rhythm of his poetry and often the rhymes as well. This is not merely a good story; it is patently a poet's story -- one that must be seen primarily through the vividness of its language. Michael Forman's illustrations, though dramatic and appropriately eerie, are minimal and serve to supplement, rather than delineate, the text.

But this Macbeth does more than simply describe an adventure. It is also a story of men and women, of their strengths and weaknesses, of their motives and ambitions. As they read further, students will learn that the three old women are waiting for Macbeth, a soldier, a hero, a loyal subject, "a giant of fury and courage, his sword arm whirling and beating like a windmill as he fought for his king against the treacherous enemies who sought to overturn the state. So tremendously did he fight that he made killing almost holy, and they say his sword smoked with traitor's blood." The images here conjure visions of blood and battles, but they also raise questions of intent and motivation. "Why," students might be moved to ask, "would Macbeth fight so fiercely for his king and then callously kill him?"

Garfield's story ends with vivid imagery and dramatic understatement -- leaving students to discern the message and the moral for themselves. "They fought, and Macduff killed Macbeth. Then he cut off his head and carried it, dripping, to Malcolm, the new king. He held it up on high, and its sightless glare bore witness to the double truth of fate."

60 Minute Book CoverThe Play's the Thing

Ah, but Shakespeare was a playwright, you say, and students really should learn about him by performing his plays, not by reading narration. If only you had the time! But wait! Reading -- or performing -- Shakespeare doesn't need to take "forever and a day." Not if you raise the curtain on The Sixty-Minute Shakespeare (Five Star Publications). Designed to allow older students to learn about Shakespeare by performing his works, the series provides shortened, not modernized, versions of his plays.

The Sixty-Minute Shakespeare: Macbeth is the latest play in this quickly growing series. In this script, Act 1, Scene 1 is omitted and the action begins:

Act 1, Scene 2.
A camp in Scotland.

Alarum within. Enter King [Duncan], Malcolm, Donalbain, Lennox, with Attendants, meeting the bleeding Captain.

King. What bloody man is that?

Malcolm. This is the Sergeant
Who like a good and hardy soldier fought
'Gainst my captivity. Hail, brave friend!
Say to the king the knowledge of the broil
As thou didst leave it.

Captain. Brave Macbeth -- well he deserves that name --
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution.

Not all of Shakespeare's original text is here, of course, but what is here is all Shakespeare. Cass Foster has done a superb job of cutting the text while retaining the sense of the story and the poetic rhythm of the words. Devoid of illustrations or descriptive passages, the play must rely upon the poetry of the language for its imagery, and none of that is lost in this version of Macbeth.

The Sixty-Minute Shakespeare: Macbeth provides footnotes explaining some of Shakespeare's original words and phrases, as well as suggestions for scenery and pacing.

It cries out for a stage.


But perhaps you're looking for lighter fare? Why not start your students off with A MIDSUMMER"S NIGHT'S DREAM, Shakespeare's delightful and humorous tale of feuding fairies, clueless clowns, and hapless lovers, that ends, like all good fairy tales, "happily ever after."

The Picture Book

"Once in Ancient Athens," the story begins, "a dark-haired girl named Hermia loved a dreamy poet called Lysander." And, once again, Bruce Coville has produced a tale sure to capture the imagination of students, while introducing them, painlessly, to the works -- and sometimes the words -- of one of history's greatest poets.

"The course of true love never did run smooth," of course, and the love of Hermia and Lysander is no exception. But the twists and turns of this love affair are far from tragic, and the nearly-slapstick action depicted by Coville is sure to keep students amused and enchanted from beginning to end. Miscues and misadventures abound as love potions are applied to the wrong eyes, lovers abandon one another, and would-be actors in a silly play-within-a-play bungle lines and cues. Students will delight in watching adults, both humans and fairies, bicker and scheme as they heap polite -- and not so polite -- insults upon one another. They may even join Puck when he cries, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Coville's picture book version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Dial Books) is pure fantasy and pure fun and his tale is ably enhanced by Dennis Nolan's charming illustrations. From the soft pastels of the opening love scene to the tips of Puck's pointed ears, subtle details combine to form a mood of dreamlike enchantment sure to delight students.

The Tale Retold

The version of A Midsummer Night's Dream found in Leon Garfield's Shakespeare Stories (Houghton Mifflin Company) is less light-hearted than Coville's, and once again, Garfield is more concerned with the moods and motivations of the characters than with their actions.

The story's beginning, with its emphasis on confusion and conflict, foreshadows its overall focus. "Hermia, who was small dark and perfect, loved Lysander; and Lysander loved Hermia. What could have been better than that? At the same time, Helena, who was tall, fair, and tearful, loved Demetrius. But Demetrius did not love Helena. Instead he, too, loved Hermiawho did not love him. What could have been worse than that?"

But of course, things can -- and do -- get worse.

Oberon, a "brooding king," enlists the help of Puck, "a prick-eared child with a crooked grin, whose chief delight was fright and confusion," to create mischief and disharmony among the fairies and mortals who inhabit the woods on that dark midsummer's night. Though the barbs here are more cruel, the pranks less playful, and the characters less likable than in Coville's version of the story, the ultimate outcome is the same. Garfield ends his story with the words "The play done, the married lovers went their ways to bed. For a little while the hall was empty; then Puck and Oberon and Titania, with all their gossamer train, came with glow-worm lamps to bless the house and bid goodnight." And they all lived, one can only assume, happily ever after.

Michael Forman's talents are better displayed in A Midsummer Night's Dream than in Macbeth. His black and white drawings are fanciful and fabulous, enhancing the fairy tale feel of the narrative. And his color drawing of Titania and Bottom -- an utterly serious treatment of a totally ridiculous subject -- is a delight.

The Play's the Thing

The Sixty-Minute Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream is as true to the original as an abridged version can be. It begins with Act I, Scene 1.

The Palace of Theseus.

Enter Theseus and Hippolyta.

Theseus. Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon; but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires
Like a stepdame, or a dowager,
Long withering out a young man's revenue.

This, it is clear from the start, is a love story -- with a sense of humor. And it is, without a doubt, Shakespeare's story.

Even more than Macbeth, The Sixty-Minute Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream shows how important an appreciation of Shakespeare is to an appreciation of poetry. And it demonstrates that, although Shakespeare's plays can be difficult to read in their original format, they are also well worth the effort. The rhythm may be unfamiliar and the words archaic, but the beauty is in the language and the story is more than the sum of the action.

Cass Foster's version ofA Midsummer Night's Dream is about language -- the language of Shakespeare. And it's sure to encourage students to turn finally to the original, if only to find out what they've been missing!


Cultural literacy, like the ability to read or to understand math or science, is a process. Depending on the age of your students, either of these plays in any of these formats is an appropriate, accessible, doable introduction to Shakespeare and to great literature.

The works discussed here are available at most bookstores. If your local bookstore does not carry them, however, ask your bookseller to order them for you.

  • Bruce Coville's retelling of Macbeth (illustrated by Gary Kelley) and his retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream (illustrated by Dennis Nolan) are published by Dial Books, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

  • Shakespeare Stories (written by Leon Garfield and illustrated by Michael Forman) is published by Sandpiper Paperbacks, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116-3764.

  • The Sixty-Minute Shakespeare: Macbeth and The Sixty-Minute Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream (both by Cass Foster) are published by Five Star Publications, P.O. Box 6698, Chandler, AZ 85246. (Educational discounts are available for orders of 25 or more copies.)


  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare This Web site provides the complete text of all of Shakespeare's works and includes a discussion area, links to additional Shakespeare resources, and a list of Bartlett's familiar Shakespearean quotations.

  • Shakespeare's Biography A Shakepeare bio in the form of handouts appropriate for elementary students.

  • Shakespeare's Globe Links to Shakespeare-related sites, including sources for biographies, literary analysis, famous quotations, and movies.

  • Surfing with the Bard This site includes text of Shakespeare's plays, as well as sections for students, and lesson plans for teachers.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
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