I was talking with the P. Family mom this morning because P20 is playing Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream next weekend at Moody Bible Institute. As we were talking, she mentioned that she has found that people are making a really big deal about the fact that this group of students is performing Shakespeare and that there has been a big push to emphasize that people really will be able to understand it and should come and see it. We both agreed that we don't quite get it.
This could be because our children have been immersed in Shakespeare for a very long time. At least for our family (and I'm pretty sure the P. family has been doing the same thing because I vividly remember P20 finding a complete collection of Shakespeare at some sort of book sale and she was so excited about it that the seller gave it to her for free), we have been sharing the plays of Shakespeare with our children since they were very, very little. M. went to her first play at the age and of two (and B. was a baby) when we took them to see her aunt in a festival performance of As You Like It. She knew the story and watched the entire thing. B. didn't enjoy it as much, and the adults all took turns pacing with him well away from the stage. (It was an outdoor theater, otherwise we would have never done that.) B. redeemed himself at the age of 3 when we took the two of them to see a production of Midsummer Night's Dream at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Both children were entranced through the entire show and it was only later that we learned they actually have a minimum age that we missed by a long shot. M. was so taken with it, that she and P20 created an imaginary game which they called, "Pucks and Fairies" and which they played with their friends for years.
(Now, in all honesty, there is no way you could pay me to take G. and L. to an adult theater at this moment. They are different children being raised in essentially a different family and that is not what we have been focusing on. But don't feel too sorry for them, they will have plenty of opportunities to see stage productions watching their older brothers and sisters perform in various plays.)
This is all a lead-up to say that children really love Shakespeare and if introduced early, before they imbibe on the modern idea that Shakespeare is 'hard', then it will be something always available to them. There are all sorts of resources out there to use and they don't even require that you understand Shakespeare yourself. When introducing a play to my children I always read them the versions from Tales from Shakespeare by the Lambs and Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by E. Nesbit. Be forewarned, these books are not twaddle. They were written at the end of the 1800's so by now, the language might seem more inaccessibly than Shakespeare's. Read them out loud and read in big chunks. You will be amazed at what a child can accustom their ear to and they will understand. If it makes you feel better, you can stop and summarize every so often, but after the first few pages, this shouldn't be needed.
This will acquaint them with the stories. From there, find a stage production to see. To appreciate Shakespeare, you really need to see it in the form it was meant to be enjoyed. With a strong background in the story, most children can appreciate what is going on on stage, even if they don't pick up every single word. As a last resort, I would show a recording, but this is a far second choice. If you live in the Chicago area, a matinee production at Moody would be a perfect 'first play.'
Then, let your children memorize and perform some Shakespeare. Yes, they can do it. Look for a condensed script, invite some friends to join you and have fun saying the words and enjoying the language. Heck, you could even help bring back play-reading as a fun family entertainment.
And for the curious, here are some links to photos from various productions my children have been in over the years. In 2004, M. was in Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. (She was 11.) Sadly, I don't have pictures from those. In 2008, A. and P.'s group also performed Midsummer Night's Dream. In 2009 M. and B. were in As You Like It. They were also in Taming of the Shrew in 2010. That year also brought Much Ado About Nothing which A. was in. Last year, there was another performance of Midsummer Night's Dream, but this time with the youngest group which TM., D., and P. were a part of.
Really, introduce your children (and possibly yourself) to some Shakespeare. Your children can enjoy... and so can you.