When a creative work clearly reveals the common struggles that all humans face, it is able to stand the test of time. Shakespeare goes even further, showing the natural consequences of our choices. This, I believe, is an important reason why the writings of Shakespeare remain timeless classics and thus, are worthy to pass on to future generations.
The plays, however, were not performed for children, but rather adults. Does this mean a child shouldn't be exposed to them? I think most of us would say, 'not without some omissions.' Isn't that what we do with the Bible? After all, it contains many disturbing themes such as adultery, sibling rivalry, witchcraft, graphic murder and the like but we edit it for our young children so that they are at least exposed to suitable parts because we want to familiarize them with the storyline, realizing that this exposure prepares them to understand the deeper issues when they are introduced to the Bible in its entirety at a later stage. In other words, in spite of the mature themes, it is worthy. I would never equate Shakespeare's plays with the content in the Bible, but nevertheless, I believe the same principles apply because Shakespeare is worthy. It it helpful to introduce it to our children with edited versions so that later they will be ready to further appreciate and think upon ideas that all humans have in common. There are other excellent reasons explained in Rev. Ralph Smith's excellent article . Here is an enthusiastic introduction to Shakespeare for parents and high schoolers.
That said, I believe that you should find edited versions of Shakespeare movies if you have younger children. A picture often plays more powerfully upon the mind of a child than the written word, so we tread on dangerous ground. Personally, we have avoided watching the movies as a family but let our older children, around 10 yrs of age, begin watching the comedies that have been tastefully done. My teenagers have begun to study the tragedies and histories. That is why I am gathering a list of suitable movies from those who have gone before us.
The following list includes suggestions from my own personal experiences and also from previous commenters, online forums, and a book I own and recommend called Brightest Heaven of Invention. I did not include recommendations from those who had not watched the particular movie they suggested. I also did not include suggestions with vague reference points, for we need specific titles and versions. The ratings were derived from all the sources and determined by the general consensus,not necessarily what is printed on the DVD box. I hope that every parent and teacher previews EVERY Shakespeare movie before they allow child viewings, regardless of G ratings given by others. (I do this with ALL movies in our household, including renderings of the Biblical tales) So, without further ado, here is the list….
WELL KNOWN COMEDIES
As You Like It
Laurence Olivier (1936) "a cute, sweet, funny version." G rating
BBC version starring Helen Mirren. G rating
A Midsummer Night's Dream
(1935) with Mickey Rooney and James Cagney "funny and whimsical. The king of the fairies is a little scary-- we weren't sure why he was dressed so like the devil. His henchman are dressed like bats. But they don't come into it much." Black and white G rating
Film produced by Joseph Papp. G rating
1999 film starring Kevin Klein; Michelle Pfieffer, PG 13 rating
1968 Royal Shakespeare Company version -nudity, Not recommended for children.
Shakespeare for Kidz (for those in the UK)
Much Ado About Nothing
(1993) with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. "We greatly enjoyed it. (gratuitous nudity, the other with strongly implied fornication which is merely hinted at in the play)." PG 13 rating
The Thames Shakespeare project - "a filming of the actual play, good." G rating
The Taming of the Shrew
Starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor "well done" "some bawdy parts may need to be fast forwarded for younger viewers" PG rating
A Winter's Tale
Royal Shakespeare Company w/Sir Antony Sher. "Excellent", but "rude, obscene scene during the sheep shearing party that we fast-forwarded." PG rating
Merchant of Venice
BBC version with Warren Mitchell; Gemma Jones. "It was very tasteful in Elizabethan costume." G rating
Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons. "Excellent version for adults....female frontal above the waist nudity and sexual situations (brief) I love this version and fast forward through the few seconds of nudity to enjoy the richness of this movie and story." R rating
HISTORIES AND TRAGEDIES
Laurence Olivier (1955) "was very good, but had some rough scenes for sensitive souls." PG rating
http://www.berith.org/hsres/shak/shak06.html has further comments on various movie versions of Richard III. Excellent source.
Laurence Olivier (1948) "Excellent. Ophelia's death scene and funeral were very tragic, and, again, rough for sensitive souls." "a little dated" PG rating
By Franco Zefferelli starring Mel Gibson. "There is a Freudian interpretation of the play and *not* appropriate for children (although it went over all our heads a few times!); can fast forward." PG rating (not recommended)
http://www.berith.org/hsres/shak/shak05.html has further comments on various moive versions of Hamlet.
Kenneth Branagh's version. "Sweet courting scene at the end between him and Emma Thompson." "The battle scenes are quite realistic, and in slow motion. Plus, it is the young boys, not the men, that get slaughtered by the French." PG rating, possibly PG-13 rating for sensitive viewers. We liked this version very much.
Starring Lawrence Olivier (1945), "excellent" PG rating
By Joseph Mankiewicz (1953) "One of the very best." Not rated
Starring Charlton Heston. Good. "Nothing objectionable." G rating
Orson Welles (1948) "nothing objectionable" but the theme is geared for older audiences, PG rating
The Royal Shakespeare Company 1978 by A&E starring Ian McKellen. This is not a movie but a play. The acting is excellent, the props are sparse. Nothing objectionable, but the theme is for older students. PG rating
Romeo & Juliet
CBC production starring Meagan Follows (from Anne of Green Gables). PG 13 rating
It seems to be the general consensus that BBC versions are almost always suitable for family viewing but more enjoyable for older students who are used to Shakespearean language. The plays are unedited, using the old language. At about 10 years of age plus, my children enjoyed viewing these while following along with a book. Unfortunately, they are expensive to purchase, but renting the movies are a good option.
We've also enjoyed some of the free online and edited versions hosted at Ohio University.
Shakespeare: The Animated Tales are nice edited versions for young children.
You can find most of the above recommendations over at our book store.
I hope this information has been helpful for some of you. I know it has helped me to put it all together in one place. I will add to this list as I find new information.