Ahh, Shakespeare. The Bard himself. The playwright and poet we all know we’re supposed to teach…but how?
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Perhaps you remember suffering through some plays or sonnets in 10th grade English, frantically trying to figure out what they meant for the test. Or maybe you love Shakespeare yourself, but your kids just aren’t there yet.
This book might be just the ticket!
The Shakespeare Stealer
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood is written through the eyes of an orphan boy, Widge. Growing up in Elizabethan England, Widge lived an interesting life. He had the hardships of an orphan, but he also had some unique opportunities.
In that day, many orphans were not adopted so much as they were taken on as workers or servants. It was not unusual for children as young as 7 to be trained as “prentices” (apprentices) or servants by farmers, merchants, and artisans. This is Widge’s lot in life.
“The name I carried with me throughout my youth was attached to me, more or less accidentally, by Mistress MacGregor of the orphanage. When she saw how frail and small I was, she exclaimed “Och, the poor little pigwidgeon!” From that unfortunate expression came the appellation of Widge, which stuck to me for years, like pitch. It might have been worse, of course. They might have called me Pig.” ~The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood
At the age of 7, he is taken from his orphanage in a village near Yorkshire as a servant boy. His master, Dr. Bright, taught him a form of shorthand termed “charactery.” With this tool, Widge could transcribe words as quickly as they were spoken.
Widge is told to use his particular skill for less than ethical purposes. However, as an orphan, he really had no choice. He also had no parents to teach him otherwise.
At the age of 14, Widge’s “prenticeship” is purchased by a wealthy merchant near London, and a new phase in his life begins. He comes into contact with all sorts of interesting characters, including William Shakespeare himself! The story that follows changes Widge forever. It also gives us a fantastic look into the world of Shakespeare!
Throughout the book, Widge has different views regarding right and wrong. Why is this? Do you think the choices he made were wise for his situation?
Widge had heard about London from Dr. Bright, but what he found was very different from what he expected. Why do you think Dr. Bright told him only part of the truth? What does this say about him?
When Widge first saw Hamlet, he was fascinated. He felt like he was really in the story, rather than sitting in the audience. Have you ever felt that way about a story, play, or movie? Which one, and why?
Growing up in an orphanage and as a servant boy, Widge had learned to lie to get himself out of trouble. His actions had pretty huge consequences throughout the story. Is lying ever worth it? Why or why not? What does scripture say about lying?
Discover what life was like in Elizabethan England! Elizabethan.org is a compendium of short articles, pictures, and maps all about this era. There are tons of “rabbit trails” here to enjoy!
Be sure to record Shakespeare’s life on your Timeline of the Arts. He lived from 1564 to 1616. His life briefly overlapped that of Rembrandt and Queen Elizabeth I ruled England at that time. If you haven’t yet downloaded your Timeline of the Arts, it’s free for a limited time!
In The Shakespeare Stealer, Hamlet plays a major role. One of the really fun things about this play is all the sword fights! Find out more about theatrical fencing here. It’s really fun to stage a melee in the front yard – toy light sabers work well, but duct tape swords are great, too!
Widge grew up in a small village in Yorkshire and by the age of 14, had never traveled more than a day’s journey from home. This was really common during the Middle Ages. On a map of England, find the county of Yorkshire. Do a Google search for “Yorkshire villages in Elizabethan era” to see what the houses and countryside would have looked like. (Note: as of the date this post was published, there were no questionable images on this search page.)
London was quite a journey from Yorkshire! On a map of England, find Yorkshire and London. Widge grew up near Leeds, which should be easy to find on the map. (You can find maps quite easily on Google for this activity.) Find out how far apart the two cities are. Now, imagine having to travel all that way on foot or horseback! Do you think you would have made it?
London during Elizabethan times was very different from the village Widge grew up in. Look at a map of Elizabethan England and see if you can find the landmarks Widge mentions!
All the world’s a stage, and men and women merely players. ~William Shakespeare, “As You Like It.”
Language Arts Activities
Shakespeare can seem a little intimidating because the language is so different; it was written over 400 years ago! At the time, though, it was written in the language of the common person. (This is partly why his work was so popular – it wasn’t just for highly educated nobles!) This is a great opportunity to dig into how language changes. Using a children’s prose version of Hamlet, compare how the story would be told today with how it was told in Shakespeare’s time.
Shakespeare has some amazing quotes that are great for copywork! You can find some great ones on my Shakespeare board on Pinterest. Work on one or two each day during this study and make a Shakespeare quote notebook!
Using a children’s prose version of Shakespeare, let your kids put on a scene (or several) from a play of their choice. This can be as elaborate or simple as you like! If your kids would like to build backdrops, appliance boxes make wonderful surfaces; these can often be found at appliance stores if you call before truck day. Costumes can be made with found items around the house or Halloween costumes (they’ll go on clearance in a couple of weeks!). Get creative and have fun!
The Globe Theater, like most theaters of its day, was set up more for acoustics than for viewing. Because they did not have microphones or sound systems, acoustics were very important! The “cheap seats” were right by the stage, while the expensive gallery seats allowed patrons to hear every word. Do a little digging into the architecture of the Globe to see the special features of it!
Just For Fun
Shakespeare was quite the wordsmith! He actually came up with a number of sayings that we still use today. Find out what they are and where they came from!
The Bard was also quite creative with his insults and banter; it might sound odd, but working with his phrases is actually really fun! You can get a “Shakespearean Insult Kit” free on Google. Get ready for your kids to randomly call out, “spleeny onion-eyed miscreant!” or “gleeking knotty-pated gudgeon!” out of the blue.
Shakespeare for Kids – This is a great resource! It has a fascinating biography of Shakespeare and excellent information about London during his life. It also has 21 hands-on activities to keep your kids engaged!
How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare – This award-winning guide gives you everything you need to brush up on The Bard!
Wrapping It Up
I hope you have fun with this unit, and stay tuned – more Shakespeare resources are on the way! All during November, I’ll be focusing on different writing activities, and Mr. Shakespeare will show up now and again. There’s even a unit study or two in the works, so be sure to sign up below for my newsletter to keep up with the latest info!
I’m curious: what is your favorite Shakespeare play? Or if Shakespeare isn’t quite your thing, what kinds of resources would you like to see? Comment below and let me know!