Teaching Shakespeare Overview

I recently went back to my old grade school. It was surreal going back to a place I had graduated from 15 years prior. It was even more surreal walking through the halls with a baby in my arms. All of the teachers were getting their classrooms ready. Assigning lockers and desks. Putting up motivational posters. Everything was fresh and clean. Memories of the first day of school came flooding back. I loved the start of a new school year and all the promise it held.

I was there to discuss teaching Shakespeare with a teacher I know well. He teaches fifth grade and last year his students performed MacBeth. I saw a post about it on the school’s Facebook page and had to know more, so I sent him an email. He was more than happy to tell me all about the amazing success he had with this group of students. He told me how special they were and how creative they were with the assignments.

As we talked, he wondered if he would get the same results with the next group of students. I’m not a teacher, so I can’t say for sure, but I bet he will. I bet he will because he spent weeks working with the students to understand the condensed version of the play on a deeper level. The students actively participated in the play and were given creative freedom to explore the text. Based on what I’ve seen and read, he covered all the best practices with the students.

Our conversation started me thinking all weekend about what a good Shakespeare lesson would look like in a variety of classrooms. This teacher was able to dedicate three weeks to working on MacBeth, but not all teachers are going to have the opportunity to dedicate that kind of time to the Bard. Could a teacher provide a similar amount of depth in less time? I certainly think it’s possible if the students are provided with the proper scaffolding. At the very least, they could start thinking about those deeper concepts.

I started brainstorming ways I would teach Shakespeare if I had a group of young students in front of me. What information would I present and how? How would I engage the students in a meaningful way? What resources would I use?

Before I knew it, my notebook pages were crammed full of ideas outlined into three stages: The Basics, Introducing the Play, and Diving Deeper. I want to share these ideas and have a discussion with different educators to get their point of view. I think the best way to do that is through multiple blog posts. For the next three Wednesdays, I will elaborate on each stage and hopefully provide some useful ideas and resources.

Before I do that though, let’s go through the basic framework and my thought process behind it.

The Basics

The first step is to lay the foundation upon which all other knowledge will be built. I firmly believe in the importance of framing Shakespeare studies in their appropriate context. Without understanding the history behind each work, it is much more difficult to understand the nuances of the writing and theming. It is, of course, important to also discuss what makes the plays relevant to today, but without that historical base it’s much harder to have those discussions.

Anyway, back to laying our foundational knowledge. There are a few elements I think are important: Life in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s Biography, Early Modern Theatre, and the very basics of Shakespearean poetry.

Life in Elizabethan England: I would personally dedicate the least amount of time to this section, but it’s still important to touch on. You definitely could go very in-depth here, but I would err on the side of keeping things very basic.

  • The end of Elizabeth’s reign, and the fact that there was no heir.
  • The start of James VI’s reign.
  • Different societal ranks and country versus city living
  • Give an idea of what life was like in London.

Shakespeare’s Biography: Little is actually known about Shakespeare’s biography, but there are a few key points that I think are important to touch on:

  • Basic facts: birth, family, death
  • Understanding that his grammar school education would teach him Latin, Greek, and introduce him to the classics.
  • Discuss the lost years and the prevailing theories about how he spent that time.
  • It is also relevant to mention his upward mobility in the world. By the end of his life he had invested in property and the theater.
  • Finally, we can’t not talk about the will. What did it mean for him to leave his wife his second best bed?

The Theater: It is critical to have an understanding of how the plays were staged at the time of their writing. Otherwise, how can we expect students to understand the nuances of the writing?

  • First of all, we need to mention that all of the actors were men. Female characters were played by young boys whose voices hadn’t broken yet. That’s why there are so many women dressing as men in the plays 😀
  • The stage was bare bones, which is why verbal description was so important.
  • The theater had no roof and most of the audience was standing.
  • There were also paid court performances.

The Poetry: Students couldn’t possibly start working with the text until they understand some of the basic conventions.

  • Iambic pentameter
  • Imagery and other poetic language
  • Poetry vs Prose
  • The meaning of common words, such as thee, thou, and wherefore

And with that, we move on to stage two:

Introducing the Play

Now that students have an introduction to Shakespeare in a general sense. It’s time to dive into a specific play. While some specific activities could be better suited to particular plays, there are general concepts that could apply to all plays.

Understanding the Plot: Even today, when I see a play I have yet to read, I like to read a brief synopsis of the play. I have found that the language resonates more with me, if I’m not trying to figure out what is happening on the most basic level. I think this could help new students have an easier time with their first Shakespeare play. It is pretty easy to find unique adaptations of Shakespeare plays for any age groups.

  • There are picture books for little ones.
  • Short story adaptations for younger kids.
  • There are a surprising number of film and television adaptations.
  • You can even make your own adaptation!

Meeting the Characters: Most of the plays have a lot of characters that are all connected in different ways. It can get confusing.

  • Read out a cast list as you assign roles and provide a brief description
  • Do a character map, where students draw physical connections between the various characters to identify their relationships.
  • Start with short, critical exchanges and let students try different roles
  • Draw a character diagram!

Memorize a soliloquy: Memorizing a key speech can be a great way to unlock the language for the students.

  • Break it down into a digestible format.
  • Translate the literal meaning
  • Figure out where the emphasis lies through techniques that actors use
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Make it your own

Put on your own production: Giving students the opportunity to act in their own mini production gives them an introduction to the story and lets them starting delving deeper.

  • Use a pre-produced condensed script or make your own.
  • Assign roles to each student, double up roles if needed
  • Work through scene by scene
  • Memorization is optional

Delving Deeper

Okay, so now that the students understand the basics of Shakespeare and a specific play, it’s time to start analyzing the text in a more meaningful way. Students, even young ones, have the capacity to understand and communicate complex ideas in regards to the plays, if given the chance.

Themes: Each and every Shakespeare play has multiple themes that subtly and not-so-subtly work thorough the text. Challenge students to identify these themes.

  • Brainstorm possible themes as a class in an open discussion.
  • Identify key passages and scenes relevant to the themes.
  • Explore some of the nuances with each theme (ex. Revenge as a path to destruction in Hamlet)
  • Provide the perspective of a specific character in regards to the theme.

Character Motivations: Getting inside the mind of a character is an excellent way to get students to understand the text on deeper level.

  • Explore conflicting motivations or ideal through a fake debate.
  • Bring the thoughts of two characters to life through dual voice poems
  • Have students write letters or diary entries as a character.
  • Have students write asides about a character’s inner dialogue and put them into a specific scene that they act out.

These are my general thoughts. I look forward to exploring them further with you! How do you teach Shakespeare in the classroom? What activities have you tried or want to try? What am I missing? Let me know in the comments down below.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Shakespeare Overview

  1. Interesting post. Many of your ideas mirror my own–or used to mirror them, as I’ve shifted over the years. Some key questions: What grade level are you thinking of here? And what ability level? And what are the learning outcomes–especially the essential ones? I’d separate the “must know” items from the “nice to know.” For me, the must-knows center on the play itself. A lot of the background is nice-to-know, maybe for enrichment, but not essential. And the most essential outcome: get the kids to not hate Shakespeare. This should be fun, especially if it’s their first exposure to it.

    • For the most part, I am thinking grade school/middle school. More importantly, I am thinking of complete novices. This proposed lesson being their first introduction to Shakespeare. You make a good point regarding the “nice to know” versus the “must know” points. I will definitely incorporate that into my more detailed breakdowns. I agree that most of the background would be a “nice to know,” especially the life in Elizabethan England stuff (that was probably me nerding out about my love of Tudor history. However, I think that some of the background can serve the most essential outcome, as you stated above: get the kids to not hate Shakespeare. The play itself can support this outcome, but I think the outcome can be more easily reached by having some background knowledge. For example, some understanding of what the globe productions were like, I believe, can lend some insight into the text itself.

      As I thought about my response to this, I also came to the conclusion that I had a secondary objective: resisting the anti-Stratfordian argument. ;D

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