The Emperor’s New Clothes

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fun story, with little magic and nothing scary in it. The title links to Virginia Lee Burton’s classic picture book.

There are online versions:

  • The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a story by Hans Christian Andersen.
  • You can hear it read aloud here. At that last site, there is a choice between reading along and listening to or downloading an MP3. The sound quality of the read-along option is not as good as the MP3.

The story tells of two swindlers who come to the town where the emperor lives. They persuade him that they can make clothes which can only be seen by people who are wise and suited to their jobs. The emperor, who pays more attention to his clothes than to his people, is excited about getting special new clothes, and also about the opportunity to find out which of his people are foolish or ill-suited to their jobs. He hires the swindlers to make him a suit of clothes.

They put on an elaborate show of making these clothes, and the king and his court pretend that they can see the clothes. At last, the king puts on the imaginary clothes as best he can and sets out, stark naked, for a grand procession to show them to everyone. A child in the crowd says what everyone is thinking: “The emperor has no clothes!” At this, everyone else in the crowd admits this is true, and the emperor himself realizes that he is naked. However, in a poignant final sentence, his pride causes him to continue the procession, with his counselors behind him carrying his imaginary train.

Once you have read and the students have understood the story, have them retell it. This is a good story for acting out in tableaux. Divide the story into episodes, and divide the class into small groups. Assign one episode to each small group. Each group should write a narration for its episode. Have them place several students in positions showing the action of the episode while a narrator reads the narration they have written. Give time for practice and perfection of the tableaux, and then have the small groups present their tableaux to the class.

With the story thoroughly understood, it is time to move on to cross-curricular connections.

Character Education

  • One of the themes of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is self-confidence. People pretend to admire the clothing because they secretly fear that they are stupid and incompetent, and don’t want others to realize it. If they were confident of their skills, they would be able to speak honestly. Have students make collages showing the areas in which they are self-confident. Discuss good reactions to feeling less confident.
  • The story makes some points about leadership. The emperor is vain, self-centered, and concerned with appearances rather than with his subjects. Have students compare the emperor in the story with the kind of leader they would admire. If you are at that point in your studies of history, challenge them to compare the emperor in the story with historical leaders they have studied. This would be a great opportunity to practice brief oral presentations.
  • This story is also about peer pressure. The onlookers all pretend to see the clothes until one brave child  speaks the truth. Even as the clothes are being produced, each highly respected person who claims to see them persuades the next person to do the same. No one wants to be the only one too stupid to see it. Sometimes students hesitate to ask a question in class or to speak up when they disagree. Assign descriptive or narrative paragraphs about how this feels.
  • “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is also certainly about honesty. Discuss why the child is more willing to be honest than the adults in the story. Also discuss the saying, “You can’t cheat an honest man.” Could the swindlers in the story have pulled off their trick if the emperor and his courtiers had been honest?
  • Finally, this story is about pride: the emperor is unwilling to admit having made a mistake, even when he realizes that he is walking naked in front of all his subjects. Have students write a poem expressing their feelings about that kind of pride, and how it differs from positive pride, such as being proud of yourself or others when they do a good job.

Social Studies

  • The swindlers get paid for their supposed work, and they also charge a lot for their supposed materials. This is a good opportunity to introduce or to review basic economics concepts such as resources, profit, and value.
  • There are other stories about people being deceived into thinking they have clothes when they do not. Click to read stories like this from Scotland and Denmark. The point of these stories is quite different from that of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
  • “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is often understood as political satire, and the name of the story is frequently  used in political writings. Have your older students do a web search for political stories using this theme. There are lots!


  • Current Biology includes a short essay on an ethical issue in science: should scientists speak up when they see shoddy research? Using “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as a framework for the discussion, the author presents the question. Middle and high school students can  read and respond to this essay.
  • If the magical clothes were real, they would be a sort of intelligence test. Alfred Binet pioneered intelligence testing just over a century ago. Read about the history of IQ testing, some of the controversy surrounding it, and the theory of multiple intelligences. Encourage students to take this opportunity to analyze and synthesize information and to use what they learn to write a classic essay. Challenge them further to use “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in their introductory paragraph as a hook.


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One Comment

  1. Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

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