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5 great ways to teach Shakespeare

Trying to get your students engaged in any kind of material can be challenging enough, especially if it’s close to the holidays, spring break, or the summer, after or before a weekend … It’s particularly difficult when you’re dealing with an older language that your students might not understand. Shakespeare’s plays, of course, are a clear example.

As a teacher, you need to balance making the plays understandable with retaining the original context, without modernizing them so much that you dilute the meaning.

I’ve covered a variety of Shakespearean plays during my years of teaching, from Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Merchant of Venice to Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Based on that experience, here are five ways to help your students appreciate, and maybe even enjoy, Shakespeare.

5 ways to introduce your students to Shakespeare 

Classical Shakespeare theater croud

1. Make sure the language is understandable

Probably the biggest block for most people when it comes to Shakespearean plays is the language. The words Shakespeare uses can be so different from modern English, or they can be the same words, but with different meanings dating back to the 1600s. I highly recommend using an edition of Shakespeare that’s annotated, with explanations of all the unusual words and turns of phrase in modern English.

I’ve personally found that editions that have the older English on one side and the definitions or more modern English versions on the other are most helpful. There’s even a particular brand of books called No Fear Shakespeare that follows this approach. I personally prefer a slightly more toned-down version that gives the meanings of words and phrases on the left side because it preserves the intent of the play while still making it accessible for students.

If you’re required to use a specific edition of Shakespeare at your school that doesn’t have notes, you might consider putting together your own list of words and phrases for your students. Through a quick Google search, you may also find that there are resources already out there explaining the challenging words and phrases of the Shakespearean play you’re teaching.

2. Read plays aloud

I feel that this second step is essential. Students love something different, and reading out loud is a good way to break up the occasional monotony of literature class. I normally allow my students to speak with an accent if they like, as long as they are consistent and appropriate. I’ve found that even my quietest students love to read parts out loud.

If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could have your students act out a scene or two. One of my coworkers used to do this for Romeo and Juliet — he picked a couple of scenes that he wanted the students to act out throughout the unit. This really helped them in understanding significant scenes in the play. I observed one of his eighth-grade classes when the students were acting out the window scene between Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene II), and I noticed how they were asking him thoughtful questions about that scene so they could adjust their theatrics accordingly.

You’ll have to figure out what works best for you, but I liked to read the majority of the play in class, and then I would send the students home with discussion questions based on the scenes and/or acts we read that day (or the day before). This way, they had the opportunity to think about the play twice: while reading it out loud at school and while completing homework.

3. Be prepared to discuss challenging topics

Shakespeare covers many complex issues in his plays, so you should be prepared to deal with them. And each play is different. You can have a discussion about race if you teach Othello, or you may have to discuss the treatment of Jews in A Merchant of Venice. Of course, there is the theme of honor in Hamlet and love in Romeo and Juliet. In any case, identify the major themes and hot-button issues of whatever Shakespearean play you’re reading and be prepared to discuss them.

Students love the opportunity to take what they can sometimes consider boring, old stuff at school and see how it could apply in their everyday lives. One assignment I gave my students — and they really impressed me with their work — was writing an essay in class analyzing Lysander’s line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The course of true love did never run smooth.” I told my students that I wanted them to spend at least one paragraph discussing how this was true in the play but mentioned that they could spend the other two discussing relationships more generally and broadly. I found that this assignment allowed them to take a line from Shakespeare and actually think about the challenging topic of love on which many teenagers have a lot of thoughts!

4. See a Shakespearean play

If you’re able to see a Shakespearean play performed, especially if it’s the one you’re teaching, do it! This is one of the best ways to make Shakespeare understandable (and memorable) for your students — because his plays were meant to be acted out! At my school, we always took a field trip in the fall to see a Shakespeare play. Two of those years, it lined up with plays I was teaching (once before we read the play and once after we read it), and it always helped the discussion.

This opportunity will get your students out of the classroom — they always love that! — and they will get to see Shakespeare as it should be: performed, not read. You can have a variety of discussions after that: Do you think the actors did a good job bringing Shakespeare’s words to life? Did they take too many liberties?

In addition, we live in a very visual culture, and a performed play may be more understandable (and engaging) for students who likely spend a lot of time on electronic devices. And by sitting and watching for a somewhat extended period of time of usually a couple of hours, you kind of get the hang of Shakespeare’s language. From personal experience, I know that the language of Shakespeare’s plays sounds strange and funny in the first few minutes, but after that, it’s much easier to understand once I’ve become immersed in it.

5. Ask lots of comprehension and analysis questions

In the end, one of the best ways to ensure your students understand Shakespearean plays is to ask them lots of questions — specifically ones that test their comprehension and analysis skills. Fortunately, there are a plethora of resources available online for every single Shakespeare play. Unlike other less well-known plays, poems, and books, Shakespeare’s plays are well documented and analyzed, so you’ll rarely have to create original discussion questions!

I personally like to ask comprehension questions orally in class as a way to review scenes and acts that we’ve already read. Then, if the students are having difficulties, I can reread a section out loud or explain what’s going on. I normally like to assign analysis questions as homework to see what the students can do themselves on synthesizing material that we’ve already read. I would sometimes use the comprehension questions from the guides I found on Shakespeare, like the Penguin guides, and create my own analysis questions.

‘Fear no more’ the challenge of teaching Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be challenging to comprehend, but it doesn’t have to be if you use some of these suggestions to make it more digestible for your students. By making sure your students understand the language, reading the plays out loud in class, taking them to see a live Shakespearean play, and asking lots of comprehension and analysis questions — even about challenging topics — you’ll find that teaching (and understanding) Shakespeare isn’t really all that difficult!

Photo credit: ID 12019; Wokandapix / Pixabay.com

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