Monday, March 3, 2014

How to Talk to Your Kids About Shakespeare

What comes to mind when you think back to your first experience with a Shakespeare play? I can recall sneaking into my older sister's slumber party where the girls were glued to Baz Luhrmann's film version of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as reading the play aloud with my ninth grade English class. But the moment when Shakespeare finally "clicked" for me was in my junior year of college when Dr. Sherman assigned Romeo and Juliet as required reading for our class, "Plays, Players and Playgoers." What made this experience different, and what ultimately turned me from a bored student to a believer in the Bard, was the approach my professor took in teaching the work.

We didn't just read the play, talk about Iambic Pentameter, and speculate about Romeo's tragic flaw. Instead, Dr. Sherman talked to us about the political climate in London at the time. He talked to us about Lord Chamberlain's men (the original cast of the play) and about Shakespeare's favorite pub in London. He described the architecture of theaters at Shakespeare's time, which helped to inspire the lovers' famous balcony scene. We read reviews of the show including a diary entry from Samuel Pepys, who called a revival of the play, "the worst I have ever heard in my life." As an assignment, we had to write a critique of the play, comparing it to our favorite TV show at the time. We also went around the room, casting the play with contemporary actors together as a class.

All of these factors allowed me to visualize Romeo and Juliet in a new way. I could imagine Shakespeare feverishly scribbling down "O, I am Fortune's fool!" in a dark London tavern and something about contextualizing the play in this way fascinated me. Suddenly, it felt far more relevant, easier to understand and way more fun to read. Rather than assuming that Romeo and Juliet was a classic we'd automatically appreciate and respect, Dr. Sherman chronicled the life of the work and ultimately allowed us to decide what we thought about Shakespeare for ourselves.

For many of us at the New Vic, this is precisely what's so exciting about Fiasco Theater's upcoming production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The actor-driven company tells the story, which deals with dark topics and adult themes, in a way that feels extremely relevant. In artistic meetings, Shakespeare's Vienna was compared both to de Blasio's New York, and a Facebook newsfeed. We believe that the show will speak to you and your teen, hopefully bringing about thoughtful discussion, and showing just how applicable Shakespeare's work can be to our 21st century lives.

To get the conversation going in your home, we put together this set of questions that you can use to reflect as a family. The lesson here? Make it relevant! Talk together about Shakespeare's play, but also about your own lives in a major metropolis.

Measure for Measure Discussion Questions:
What do you know about Shakespeare? What do you know about his plays? Which of his plays have you read or seen?

What did you think of this show overall? What made this production unique? If you were a theater critic, what would you write about the set, costumes, lighting, music, and acting choices?

Fiasco Theater attempts to portray three different "worlds" in this play that are represented by the church, the courthouse and the brothel. Do any characters belong in more than one world?

Why do you suppose some directors choose to “double” certain characters, or have the same actor portray two different roles? How do you think this influences the production?

Which stars would you cast in your own version of Measure for Measure? What about if you cast it with real life NYC politicians/citizens? Have you ever worked as part of an ensemble? What are the qualities that make a successful ensemble?

Did you think the law that condemned Claudio and Juliet for having premarital relations was just? Why or why not? How do you think citizens would react if this became a law tomorrow in New York City?

When have you witnessed or been part of an unjust situation? Where have you observed someone abusing their power?

What is your favorite thing about living in a city? Why?

What are the similarities and differences between the Vienna portrayed in Measure for Measure and present-day NYC?

We also encourage you to try out our Family Activity based around the production, and visit our lower lobby when you come to see the show for interactive activities. There are infinite ways to get excited about Shakespeare, and we hope Measure for Measure will help to get your family started!


  1. these are terrible, inept, and uninteresting questions

    1. Thank you for reading, John. When we develop these blog posts, we always consult our education department, who are experts in their field. However, we realize that with the far-reaching appeal of Shakespeare, some of these questions might feel more appropriate than others, depending on your child's age or familiarity with the text. We'd love to hear what you might suggest as a discussion question that feels right for your family!

  2. Another approach is to start 'em young - we started taking our kids to the free "mobile" performances in the park by the excellent when they were six or seven. We could watch, they could tune in and out. Then we started going inside theaters, including the excellent New Victory (they loved that Cymbeline)

    Now they're 10 and 12, and we just took them to King Lear (the eyeball scene was a challenge). But they love a good story. Also, there was the "cash for Shakespeare" speech learning program, but that's another thing. Check out some our theories on