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Shakespeare is child's play!: picture books as theatre in primary classrooms.


Follow him, friends. We'll hear a play to-morrow.

(Hamlet II.ii.472-473)

Hamlet's instructions remind us that Shakespeare's audience would have described going to hear a play rather than to see one. Where teachers might leap on such a distinction to focus Shakespearean pedagogies on language rather than on visual registers, I want to take this opportunity to reconceptualise what we might mean by hearing and seeing Shakespeare in contemporary primary classrooms.

I have spent nearly ten years researching adaptations and retellings of Shakespeare for young readers and when I tell people so, I almost always hear an objection masquerading as a question: But, kids can't really understand Shakespeare, can they? To answer a faux-question with a question, I have learned to ask: It depends what you mean by 'understand' and by 'Shakespeare', doesn't it?

While it may be true that young readers do not have the literacy skills or life experience to understand all the nuances of a Shakespearean poem or play, it strikes me that few people of any age would be bold enough to claim that they have understood all there is to understand about a Shakespearean text. Certainly, young people can engage with the plots and characters of the plays, and can be introduced to concepts of figurative language through short examples of Shakespeare's writing. What I believe is important is the introduction of Shakespeare's work as enjoyable, open, and available--that young people 'understand' that they have as much right to engage with 'Shakespeare' as anyone else.

Some teachers may be ambivalent about introducing the ultimate 'dead white guy' into their classrooms. After all, in a plural, diverse society, we may not be keen to reproduce outmoded ideas of cultural essentialism or value. However, I am not suggesting the use of Shakespearean picture books in the service of canonical ideas about Shakespeare's oft-claimed 'universality' or 'timelessness'. I believe that introducing young readers to Shakespeare as a set of malleable texts that come to life only through their audience empowers those same young readers. Early exposure to Shakespeare's plays can help create an understanding that those texts are the property of all, and that may be more useful than a full understanding of individual lines, speeches or plays for young readers. Helping young people to establish an empowered disposition towards Shakespeare lays the groundwork for later social and educational experiences, rewarding them not only with cultural capital but also with a sense of agency towards markers of cultural capital.

The interplay of words and pictures that defines the picture-book genre lends itself to contradictory and complementary stories and meanings. This means that by their very form, picture books are both available to and potentially extend multiple literacies including the linguistic, the visual, and the multi-modal. Picture books open up spaces in classrooms for shared story-telling, meaning-making, performance, and exploration.

In an educational culture where Shakespeare is so often the purview of the Literature class rather than the Drama class, it may be productive for teachers to think about the sharing of (especially Shakespearean) picture books in especially theatrical terms:

the reading situations in which an adult performs a text for a child proposes much about the way texts are able to manipulate actor/audience relationships by placing words and noises in the mouth, and gestures in the body, of a loved or trusted adult. [...] The enacting of a picture book, like acting in a play, necessarily entails a partial transformation of the adult reader/actor. This process of semiotic shifting involves a make-believe similar to children's role-playing games. (Parsons, 2008)

I would add to this that the theatrical possibilities of reading picture books are as available to children as to adults. Just as an adult both takes centre-stage and shares authority by reading picture books aloud with and to children, a child reader can take center-stage and share authority by taking the role of main reader.

If some of the best picture book encounters are theatrical, some of the most productive picture-book encounters may well be with theatrical stories. Certainly, I believe that the most productive Shakespearean picture books are those which are as interested in theatricality as in 'plot', or indeed, Shakespeare's (often transcendent) language.

Picture books can remind teachers of, and introduce students to, Shakespeare as a theatrical storyteller who imagined and wrote stories to be told in embodied, communal ways. Shakespeare's plays were written first and foremost for performance--depending on the audience's eyes, ears, and sense of their selves as distinct from but also connected to the actors for successful communication.

Theatrical Reading

I'm not talking about the familiar concept of 'readers theatre' here--although, obviously, Shakespearean picture books are as available to readers theatre as any other picture books. Rather, I'm suggesting an understanding of the read-aloud itself as theatrical, and a mindset where 'bringing the Shakespeare' means remembering the material conditions of Shakespeare's own theatre. A useful place to start is to think about the differences between today's common proscenium-arch theatres and the open (thrust) stages of Elizabethan theatres.

In proscenium theatres, an arch frames the performance space. It creates a clearly defined literal and symbolic area within which a story unfolds for the entertainment of an observer who 'knows their place': proximate to, but not of, that story's world. Such framing may well be reassuring, especially as not all story worlds are enticing or welcoming, but the role of observer in proscenium theatres can also be limiting.

We are so familiar today with the prosceniumarch theatre, that even when we know about the open (thrust) stage of Elizabethan theatre we often reproduce 'proscenium conditions' for our picture-book read-alouds: asking children to sit in rows or semi-circles in front of (and often below) the teacher as star-performer. As mediator, performer, and page turner--or, as star and director--we invite young audiences to consume, and perhaps even to respond, to our performance but we also establish a logic of cultural authority where there is a mediating reader 'between' the world of the story and the world of the observer.

An open-stage theatre has a 'raised platform built against one wall of the auditorium, with the audience on three sides ... Most of the new all-purpose theatres make provision for open-stage productions, which call for different techniques in acting, staging, setting, and lighting from those used on proscenium-arch stages' (Hartnoll & Found, 1996). Open-stage performances place observers around, and sometimes on, the stage with performers and storytellers--without a curtain or archway to distinguish the world of the story from the world of the observers, a kind of bleeding and merging of those worlds is invited.


An open-stage picture-book reading also invites the audience as observer-participants into the world of the story being read. Perhaps there is no one actor/ director, but a cast of reader-performers; perhaps the sharing of story is less about strict adherence to the words on the page, and more about the sharing of an emotional and intellectual experience. My agenda is to encourage teachers to invite Shakespeare into their classrooms, and to invite students to feel empowered as readers of Shakespeare. As the theatrical impresarios of the classroom, teachers have a wonderful opportunity to shape young people's relationship with Shakespeare.

Proscenium Picture Books

There are visually engaging retellings that offer understanding of and familiarity with individual plays. For independent readers, comfortable with extended prose narrative, these books will provide effective introductions to Shakespeare. It is in this sense that they most fully resemble proscenium theatres: the production will best serve those already competent in the conventions of its presentation.


Margaret Early's retelling of Romeo and Juliet (1998) exempliies what I am describing as prosceniumarch picture books, and to the extent that it invites a read-aloud at all, invites a proscenium read-aloud. While the language is engaging, the length of the literary text militates against reading the book aloud. Similarly, the illustrations are aesthetically pleasing and complementary to the prose, but militate against using them as a springboard to re-reading or challenging the story on offer.

On the facing pages of each opening, readers are offered a page of text on the left-hand page framed (and contained) by a coloured border which is repeated on the right-hand page as the frame for painted images which are flattened to suggest the perspective of both stage flats and early-modern art. As Isaac (2000) notes:
   Early's book recalls the illuminated manuscripts of
   the Middle Ages ... Wallpapers, tiled floors, elaborate
   gowns, detailed bed-hangings, and leafy trees are
   each rendered in exquisite detail. A careful attention
   to architectural forms (archways, windows, columns,
   and ceiling beams) further enhances a very measured
   sense of depth in these paintings. Early's human
   figures, on the other hand, are all quite static, almost
   one-dimensional. (p. 16)

In other words, the book itself has a visual culture in keeping with a proscenium-arch logic of storytelling: the reader is invited to read or hear the story of Romeo and Juliet but is also kept at a respectable (and perhaps respectful?) distance from the play.

In Bruce Coville's retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, readers are more fully invited in to a storyworld where words and pictures each contribute to understanding the story. Dennis Nolan's spectacular illustrations are dense, detailed, and rich; they reward close scrutiny and extend Coville's engaging prose. As with Early's Romeo and Juliet, however, the visual codes often suggest a demarcation between the world of the story and the world of the reader.

Despite best intentions, these books may work against their own goals: in the pursuit of introducing young people to Shakespeare, they inscribe a sense of distance from or subordination to Shakespeare. Like an audience at a proscenium-arch theatre, the reader is invited to observe but not necessarily participate in the unfolding story. The dispassionate, painterly illustrations of these books are in different styles, but share a sense of distancing the reader from the world of the story, and by extension, from Shakespeare.

Open-Stage Read-Alouds

For those teachers wanting to introduce a more open-stage logic to their Shakespeare picture-book read-alouds, there are books available which both visually enact and invite readers to an interactive meaning-making experience. These books introduce young readers to Shakespeare, and do so in ways that offer a strong sense of agency to those young readers. To read these books aloud is to need help from the audience--on which part to read next, how to read it, and what it means. The collaborative logic of these books coheres with the communal and collaborative nature of Shakespeare's theatre.

My thinking about open-stage read-alouds draws on Shelby Barrentine's account of 'interactive storytelling'. I am emphasising the theatrical and performance aspects because where Barrentine is interested in literacy broadly, I am focused here on a specifically Shakespearean literacy. In interactive storybook reading, 'engagement refers to the points at which the listeners have opportunities to respond personally and interpersonally with the story and with the process and strategy information used to make sense of the story' (Barrentine, 1996, p. 38); in open-stage read-alouds, audience engagement is not just available, it is demanded. These books cannot be read aloud by one person and 'make sense' without that reader either differentiating their performance (by changing their body and/ or their voice to indicate different roles) or calling on other performer-readers to help them, or some combination of the two.

In a primary classroom, the teacher is going to have to embrace reading aloud as a theatrical performance, and/or call on their audience to help them out with the performance. Thus, these books not only invite an open-stage reading, but also make the very concept of a proscenium reading difficult, if not impossible!

Gregory Rogers' The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard (2004) is a wordless picture book which uses the visual conventions of comics to tell the story of a contemporary boy travelling back in time to Elizabethan London. Indeed, when the boy arrives in the past, he appears on-stage at the Globe theatre during a production of one of Shakespeare's plays, and in so doing, literally escapes from a prosceniumarch theatre to an open-stage space. The playwright is so enraged by this interruption to his play that he chases the boy through the streets of London. Along the way the boy rescues a bear from a bear-baiting pit, a baron from the Tower of London, and meets Elizabeth I.

As an introduction to Shakespeare's world, The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard demands interactive and theatrical reading. While there is clearly a narrative plot available in the book, the absence of words and the lexibility of the images mean that multiple interpretations can co-exist. Rogers' use of shifting perspective and child-led action potentially extends to readers feeling a sense of agency and centrality in the meaning-making process. Rather than young readers 'running to keep up' with Shakespeare, Rogers tells a story of Shakespeare chasing

the child!

Marcia Williams' Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays (1998) also uses the visual codes of comics. Readers are exposed to simultaneous channels of communication, which include comic-strip illustration, direct quotations from Shakespeare's plays, prose descriptions of the stories, and commentary from audience members (who appear around the edges of each page). In bringing together the familiar retelling strategies of Shakespearean picture books, and a vibrant sense of the Elizabethan theatre's audience speaking back to the actors and to each other, Williams models and invites a model of reading Shakespeare which is as interested in reactions to the plays as in the plays themselves.


Ironically, given Rogers' book is wordless where Williams' book has multiple channels of verbal communication, these two books present similar challenges and rewards to classroom teachers. The impossibility of pursuing a single, focused storyline disrupts the reader's status as star-performer and encourages shared interpretation. As with the open-stage, these books are best read with several people around the book, each bringing their ideas and performances into play. While such a scene of reading may be alarming to some, I believe the sense of cultural empowerment which accompanies such experience makes them worthwhile.

Both Rogers and Williams extend interactive possibility into theatrical necessity. In encouraging children to 'speak back' to Shakespeare, however, such books may seem confronting to teachers not entirely comfortable as collaborative performers.

For those teachers who may wish to encourage a sense of agency in relation to Shakespeare without fully committing to an open-stage model of collaborative read-aloud, a middle-ground is available in Lois Burdett's series of Shakespeare Can Be Fun! picture books.

Burdett's books emerge from her many years of experience staging adaptations of Shakespeare's plays with and for her elementary-school students in Canada. The books include Burdett's own adaptation of playtexts, using contemporary English and rhyming couplets to retell the story. This poetic lines appear alongside texts and illustrations produced by primary-school students. In Macbeth for Kids, for example, every opening includes material produced by young people. As well as pictures, there are letters, diary entries, maps, and newspaper articles about the characters and plot of Macbeth. Like the depicted audience members who break the frame between story and real worlds in Williams' stories, the multiple voices and perspectives inside Burdett's books model and invite the inclusion of multiple voices and perspectives outside the book.


In addition to offering interactive entrance-points for an open-stage read-aloud, Burdett's books model not just ways of speaking back to Shakespeare but also ways of writing back to Shakespeare.

Taking an open-stage approach means that reader-performers are going to need to share their ideas and perspectives in order for the group to make sense of the stories contained in but not by these books. The picture books of Rogers, Williams, and Burdett tell theatrical stories and can help turn classrooms in to theatres; they depend on but also disseminate the authority of Shakespeare without subordinating readers to that authority; and, they not only remind us that literacy is a social practice, but also reward social literacies.


Barrentine, S.B. (1996). Engaging with reading through interactive read-alouds. The Reading Teacher, 50(1), 36-43.

Burdett, L. (1996). Macbeth for Kids. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books.

Coville, B. (1996). William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. New York: Puffin.

Early, M. (1998). Romeo and Juliet. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Everett, J. H. (2008). Rolie Polie Olie ... meet William Shakespeare!: How to make the most of reading picture books to children. The Reading Tub. Retrieved from pdf

Hartnoll, P., & Found, P. (1996). Open Stage. In The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford: OUP. Retrieved from html?subview=Main&entry=t79.e2278

Isaac, M.L. (2000). Heirs to Shakespeare: Reinventing the Bard in Young Adult Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook.

Parsons, E. (2004). Starring in the intimate space: Picture book narratives and performance semiotics. Image & Narrative, 9. Retrieved from http://www.

Rogers, G. (2004). The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Shakespeare, W. (2006). Hamlet. London: Thomson.

Williams, M. (1998). Mr. William Shakespeare's Plays. London: Walker.


For those who lack confidence in their own theatrical abilities, check out J. H. Everett's tips on 'How to Make the Most of Reading Picture Books to Children', available at: http:// pdf Everett offers simple tips on preparing for a read-aloud as a performance!

Including students as performer-readers may be planned in advance--by assigning particular roles to particular individuals; or, a role within the story may be assigned as 'rotating', that is, students take it in turns to play a part. Don't hesitate to incorporate simple props or costumes (such as hats) to help everyone keep roles clear.

Rogers' book offers countless opportunities for prediction and extrapolation. Make time during the reading for inviting student feedback and gauging interests. As Shakespeare is only one of the key characters here, be prepared for students to be just as interested in pursuing the bear, the baron, the queen, or someone else entirely rather than the bard.

Take some time to find out when and where else your students have been an 'audience--they may or may not have been in theatrical spaces, but remember that audiences also attend cinemas, go to assemblies, and of course, listen to read-alouds. Encourage students to recognise themselves as experienced audience members.

Erica Hateley teaches children's and adolescent literature in the School of Cultural and Language Studies in Education at Queensland University of Technology. She would be thrilled to hear from teachers who are using Shakespeare in their classrooms! erica.
The Key to a Great Theatrical Performance is Preparation and
Rehearsal: Tips for Your Shakespearean Classroom Debut

Preparing for successful            Adding some Shakespearean/
interactive read-alouds.            open-stage flavour.
(Barrentine, 1996)

1. Read the book several times to   Remember to read words AND
yourself.                           pictures; to read to yourself AND
                                    aloud; ask a friend or colleague
                                    to read sections aloud to you.

2. Think about the reading goals    Think about what you would like
you have for your students and      your students to learn 'about' or
identify the process and strategy    'from ' Shakespeare via a given
information at work in the story.   story. Take some time to work out
                                    what you think a book has to say
                                    about Shakespeare; also be
                                    prepared to have those
                                    interpretations challenged by your
                                    students' interpretations.

3. identify where students'         With a work such as Rogers, you
predictions about the developing    might like to consider
story should be sought and          establishing a pattern or rhythm
shared.                             for seeking audience predictions
                                    and responses.

4. Anticipate where you may need    Remember that students may never
to build students' background       have heard of Shakespeare at all.
knowledge.                          You may wish to take advantage of
                                    this by filling in historical and
                                    cultural contexts; or teaching
                                    about theatre more generally,
                                    before introducing 'Shakespeare'--
                                    even while telling Shakespearean

5. Think through how you will       I repeat Barrentine's reminder
phrase your questions and           that you'll never be able to
predicting invitations, and         anticipate all responses
anticipate student responses.       (sometimes you'll be lucky to have
                                    anticipated any); be prepared for
                                    left-field questions or responses;
                                    take audience response seriously--
                                    the picture book may be a kind of
                                    script, but as Williams shows, the
                                    audience may not view your
                                    interpretation as the most

6. After you have planned the       Be prepared to be unprepared. If
read-aloud event, be prepared to    your goals are about a theatrical,
relinquish your plans.              collaborative experience for your
                                    students, be willing to allow that
                                    to happen. Be open to your
                                    students' ideas and

7. After reading, devise            Think about ways of capturing your
opportunities for students to       students' developing Shakespearean
explore stories in personal and     literacies--perhaps in textual
exciting ways.                      ways such as those modelled by
                                    Burdett's books. Perhaps by
                                    mounting a class production;
                                    recording oral responses; or,
                                    collaboratively producing visual
                                    artefacts (such as posters or
                                    digital portfolios).

Two inconspicuous but important     Give yourself and your students
details are at work in successful   ample time and space to engage in
interactive readalouds: time and    open-stage read-alouds.
good judgement.
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Author:Hateley, Erica
Publication:Practically Primary
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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