Discussion Post: Shakespeare for Children and Teens?

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Recently I have been looking into Shakespeare adaptations for youth, anything from picture books to young adult novels, and it seemed to me that a disproportionate amount of these adaptations are of the same plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  There are outliers, of course; there are at least a few Macbeth adaptations, at least one of The Tempest.  Histories, however, are definitely missing representation, as well as plays like The Merchant of Venice and Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Why is this?

In general, I think it has something to do with people perceiving particular plays as more relevant to teens than others.  They then teach those plays more often in high schools.  And then there’s an educational market for adaptations of those plays that makes them easier to sell than adaptations of other plays.

But is Romeo and Juliet actually more relevant to teens than, say, King Leer?  Below, I try to tease out why some people might think so.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and JulietThis is the ultimate “teen” Shakespeare play.  The protagonists are very clearly marked as teens, and they deal with problems that many of today’s youth can potentially relate to: differences of opinion with their parents, feeling stifled by family expectations, engaging in a forbidden love.  Sure, the shotgun wedding and suicides are a bit over the top, but this is drama; stuff happens.  The important part is that some of the themes are relatable; not all of them need to be.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's DreamThis has a lot in common with Romeo and Juliet.  The play opens with a daughter disagreeing with her father over what man she should marry and subsequently denying his authority over her.  From there, it’s a mad mess of romance—both returned and unrequited.  If the argument is that teens can relate to love stories and to fights with parents, this play provides everything an educator could ask for to keep students engaged.  Even better, it doesn’t have the awkward suicide ending.


hamletOphelia aside, this one stands out for its distinct lack of romance.  However, it seems to deal with the same questioning of parental authority figures that Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream do.  And while Hamlet’s exact age is often debated, a lot readers feel he at least gives off the vibe of being an angst-ridden teen.  The idea that Hamlet’s identity is uncertain, something he needs to sharpen and define, may also add to the sense that teens can particularly relate to him.

So what happens when other Shakespeare plays are adapted for teens?

Some adaptations, like Lady Macbeth’s Daughter, essentially construct a companion story, where teens and teen concerns are the focus—even if they never were in the original play.  Other adaptations try to rewrite the story in the modern age with youth protagonists, but this approach risks losing the themes and “feel” of the original play almost entirely.  For an example, check out Krysta’s disappointed review of Exposure, which changed Macbeth from a murderous soldier trying to usurp a country into a modern-day teen running for prom king. Somehow, the stakes just don’t seem as high in that scenario, and the focus on the danger of hubris starts fading away.  Can someone write a believable teen Macbeth?  Possibly, but it makes sense that authors have had more success with teen Hamlets and Juliets.

What do you think?  What Shakespeare plays did you read in high school?  Do you think some plays are easier to adapt for teens and children than others?

To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North

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To Be or Not To BeInformation

Goodreads: To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: July 16, 2013


A choose-your-own-adventure story based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Choose to be either Hamlet, Ophelia, or the ghost and then see how the play ends!


To Be or Not To Be is—well, it’s the question—but it is also a supremely clever book, a success both in the choose-your-own-adventure genre and in the Shakespeare adaptation genre. Author Ryan North first gives readers (interactors? Actors?) three character choices, and they’re the good ones: Hamlet, Ophelia, and the ghost. North covers the main character, the female character, and the supernatural character, all tempting options. Sure, someone will always have wanted to be Horatio or Claudius, but the book can’t be 1000 pages long. As things stand, the choices are pretty awesome, and from there things only get better.

To Be or Not To Be is not one of those sad choose-your-own-adventures where you frustratingly die no matter what you do, or where your story ends after two minutes. Dying is still a possibility, but so are awesome things like becoming the monarch, having a happy life, or having a mediocre life. Some storylines offer sweet surprises, like momentarily getting to be a different character, and most of the storylines are a satisfying length. The options are also good ones. There is no making simple decisions about whether you are going to walk left or right when you go to take a stroll about the palace; instead, most of the options make you feel as if you can actually put some thought into what you’re going to do and have some real agency over where your story goes.

There is some “leading.” The author has a particular brand of humor (and it imbues enough of the book that I can imagine readers who dislike this brand of humor will quickly become frustrated with the book), and he occasionally offers commentary on whether he thinks you are going to make a silly decision or whether he thinks Shakespeare’s characters made silly decisions. This is an author who has a lot to say if you play Ophelia as a meek young woman submitting to her father and brother’s commands. However, the commentary does not feel overly pushy. I can’t imagine someone not picking an option just because the author poked fun at it a bit. In fact, it might inspire some people to pick that option anyway.

In addition to providing pervasive commentary on whether North thinks Shakespeare’s characters are logical or progressive or whatever, North also throws some attention to the original Hamlet by marking with a little skull the actions that Shakespeare’s characters would have taken. So readers can interact with the play how it generally unfolds in Shakespeare’s world, or they can “rewrite” the play by taking new actions. North also gives a clever nod to the play-within-the-play by including a book-within-his-book. This is a mini choose-your-own-adventure, though as far as I can tell there aren’t too many paths to take in order to get to it.

Overall, To Be or Not To Be is both entertaining and education. I imagine someone would have to already be familiar with Hamlet to really “get” it—to enjoy the allusions, in-jokes, etc., but it functions well enough as a choose-your-own-adventure and gives enough clues as to what happens in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that familiarity doesn’t seem strictly necessary. Recommended for both Shakespeare fans and people who are sick of dying in choose-your-own-adventures.

Looking for Hamlet by Marvin W. Hunt

Summary: Hunt describes the history of criticism on Hamlet, as well the sources from which Shakespeare drew in order to write the play.

Review:  Looking for Hamlet serves as a wonderful introduction to the critical reception of what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest play.  Hunt begins by describing the sources upon which Shakespeare based his own play, thus establishing the context of the drama and highlighting the importance of changes made by Shakespeare.  He then continues by describing the earliest printed versions of Hamlet and explaining the differences among them and how those differences affect our understanding of the work.  Hunt keeps the origins of the play and the distinct versions in mind as he proceeds to explain and comment upon the interpretations of Hamlet offered by various historical eras and critics.  Readers need not agree with Hunt’s interpretation of the play to appreciate his contributions to our understanding of Shakespeare.  Rather, because Hunt supports all his assertions with textual evidence from Hamlet, readers who differ with him on points may be surprised to find the play sustain contradictory arguments so well; disagreements on interpretation ultimately testify to the richness and depth of the text. Continue reading