Summarizing Shakespeare

For years, loyal readers know, I’ve been telling Shakespeare stories to my children. Sometimes as a bedtime story, sometimes by request, and sometimes to entire classrooms of elementary school children.  Thus far it’s been fairly straightforward, and I’ve been able to tell most of them off the top of my head.

This month is got complicated.  My daughter, at 11yrs old, is in middle school (sixth grade) and starting down the theatre road (she’s playing an orphan in their production of Annie next month).  What’s interesting is that in the high school, just three short years away, they do Shakespeare.  This year it’s Hamlet.

I thought, “I know! I’ll write up a Hamlet intro/guide/summary/cheat sheet that’s not just an off-the-top-of-my-head summary, but an actual short ebook that would be advanced enough for middle school kids to understand. My goal : a middle school student reads my book, then goes to see Hamlet, and actually gets a better experience because of it.” I even told my daughter that I’d have something for her, and that if we thought it was good enough, maybe she could forward it around to some of her friends. My true goal would be to go straight to her teachers, of course, and distribute it that way.

And here I sit, word processor at the ready, half a dozen attempts started and restarted.  How do you summarize Shakespeare?  At one end you just collapse it down to the essential plot line, leave out most of the interesting bits, and end up with something that could as easily be the Lion King. But at the far end of the spectrum you get something in the “modern English translation” category where you’re so afraid to leave out even a single bit that you go through the play word by word, “updating” it in the hopes of making it easier to understand? Does that ever work?

I’m looking for advice.  I don’t want to do some sort of novelization where I’m reinventing setting and dialogue.  I want to tell enough of the play, presumably to an audience that’s not yet seen it, that when they *do* see it they’ll recognize what’s going on and be able to pay attention to details that I’ve told them ahead of time to watch for.

Right now I’m going scene by scene, almost as if they were on flash cards.  That at least gives me a baseline to treat the entire play on equal footing (rather than front loading it with all the introductory stuff and the whipping through other scenes too quickly).  I’m not sure how that will format in the final version.  I’d also like to something more character driven.  I definitely believe in the “short attention span” approach, and would like to serve up Hamlet in a number of bite-sized, more easily processed bits.  If my reader wants to absorb them in random order, that’s fine with me.

How would you summarize Shakespeare?  Would you swing more toward the “less is more” side, cutting out everything that gets in the way? Or is every detail important, and it’s all a matter of how succinctly you explain them?

5 thoughts on “Summarizing Shakespeare

  1. Apologies for how long this became…

    First of all, I think that too much Shakespeare is taught "In order", so that the students might read the first scene of Hamlet and talk about what's going on, then move on to the second scene, etc. When the play is taught this way they spend too much time trying to learn and remember the plot. If you can get a decent sort of clinical understanding of the plot or "roadmap" of the play into their heads I actually think thats very valuable. One of the most fun parts of discovering Shakespeare can be that the more you study the final scene of a play, the more you have to play with in the first scene. I think a lot of students miss out on that under the current learning structure.

    That said, I agree that you have to avoid just breaking down the mechanics of the play into who's on stage, where they are, and what they do. I also agree that trying to make them familiar with what is said in those scenes is not helping them. I think you have to come up with a character driven plot summary that focuses more on the intentions and circumstances that drive the action than the action itself.

    So for example, rather than,

    "Macbeth and his friend Banquo are walking in the woods when they encounter three witches called the weird sisters. The witches make a prediction and tell Macbeth that he will be promoted to Thane of Cawdor and that someday he will be King. They tell Banquo he will never be King but that someday his family will have a line of seven kings. The witches dissapear and Ross comes with a message from King Duncan…"


    "The first thing Macbeth says is 'I've never seen a day that was such a good day and a bad day at the same time'. Banquo asks how far they have to walk. Then three witches appear and say 'Greetings Macbeth, the Thane of Glanes and Cawdor, who will be king!' (Macbeth doesnt know yet that he is the Thane of Cawdor) Banquo says "Macbeth you seem scared, but the said you might be King!" Banquo asks if he will get to be King, but the witches say 'No, but your children and their children will be, for seven generations.'…"

    I think something like,

    "Macbeth and his best friend Banquo are very tired after a long battle. They won the battle, but a lot of people were hurt and even killed, so it was a good day, but a bad day too. They are walking through the woods, which are kind of creepy anyway, and suddenly three weird sisters appear. They are like witches, ghosts, and all kinds of scary things wrapped up together. The sisters tell Macbeth that he is going to get a promotion, and then another promotion to be King! They also say that Banquo will father a line of kings, even though he wont be King. It seems like good news, but Macbeth knows that the only way he could be King is if a lot of people died who are ahead of him in line. He also knows that if he becomes King and then Banquo's son becomes King, that would mean Macbeth died or was killed before he had a son of his own. So it is a very complicated prediction that the sisters make. It is good and bad; and Macbeth and Banquo arent sure if they even believe in that stuff anyway. But then a messenger comes from the real King to give Macbeth some good (and bad?) news: Macbeth really is getting a promotion!"

    Basically, I would want the students to have a basic idea of what the characters want and how they feel about what's happening, and so the students could focus their classroom time on how all of it is expressed through the language. I'd want them to approach a scene thinking, "Okay I know Macbeth is a military man who just won a battle, but he's also tired and a little scared. How will he say that? 'So foul and fair a day…' Hey, thats kind of tired and creepy and stoic at the same time! Wait a minute, didn't I just see those words a few scenes ago?…"

  2. i think what CRS wrote and suggested sounds great. i would probably read that (tough to remember exactly how i would've felt about in middle school, but it seems really good!)

    another approach, something that comes up a lot in my job (i'm a graphic designer) is that you can have different levels of information. such as: an introductory paragraph, follow up text, a sidebar with bullet items, a significant quote pulled out and highlighted, etc.

    this gives readers different ways to access the information and options to read everything or just a little and still get something out of it.

    i'm not saying this is a superior approach; just throwing it out there as an idea. it can depend a lot on your audience, as well as what YOU are interested in creating.

  3. I know that pain, Amy :). I've published ebooks, and mobile apps, and web pages. Every single time I want to get information across to a group of people my brain does a dizzying dance of "What can I accomplish in each one? If I did a book I would get the widest low tech audience but print or ebook? With ebook what format? How interact and cross linked could I make it? If I make it a web app I could make it really linky but then design is a huge issue as I try to determine how people will interact with it. Maybe a mobile app? That would be the hardest technology to implement for the smallest audience but I'd be completely flexible to do it however I want!" You get the idea. ๐Ÿ™‚

    For this project I want to write an "ebook" (whether it's PDF or Kindle or other I don't care so much) that has the largest chance at getting circulated around my daughter's age group friends. What I can accomplish within that medium, I have yet to fully explore. Stay tuned, and see other NaNoWriMo post ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. "Who's there?"

    That's how I would start an explanation of Hamlet for middle schoolers. Tell them that's the first line in the play and that the whole story is about that, Hamlet finding out who he is. Kids that age are very involved in finding out who they are.

  5. I went a different way with it, Tom. I've told myself for years that when I ultimately write a guide to Hamlet I'd begin it thusly:

    Hamlet's father died.

    Let that hang there. There's another thing that's all too true about kids these days – there's a whole lot of families without the father in the picture. Worse, a "mom's new boyfriend" situation. Too many kids have an Uncle Claudius that they have a real problem with.

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