10 Tips on how to teach Shakespeare

As I stated in one of my earlier blogs, when I began teaching I thought I was teaching texts and ideas.  I know that I am still doing that but teaching thinking has become far more important.  Doing it with Shakespeare is a challenge-the language and the fact that a student can find every topic imaginable on the internet makes it more difficult to get the students to connect and to think on their own.  Here’s what I have learned:

1.  Watch it.  This is probably my # 1 tip.  It’s a play; it’s meant to be seen.  Many of the movie versions are wonderful, don’t wait until after you have read the play with the class to show them.  Either watch it act by act, or scene by scene and have the students follow along or watch the whole thing first, as we do with Romeo and Juliet.  Having a visual and seeing the acting makes a world of difference to the students.  Besides, you won’t have to explain as much.

2.  Give the students some grounding in the language.  Believe it or not, a lot of them are thrown off by the thou’s and doth’s.  Until I researched it, I wasn’t aware that the Elizabethans had a familiar and formal form of “you”.  Teachit is a great resource for activities on Shakespeare.  You have to register with them and this will give you free access to a lot of their materials.  Some exercises on the language can be found in a hand-out on the site called Shakespeare’s Grammar.

3.  Make a word wall with some of the unfamiliar words that figure prominently in the play e.g thane in Macbeth.

4.  Watch the whole play first.  Many of the plays have more than one version so when we teach Romeo and Juliet we watch the modern version of the play before we read it to give the students a visual  connection.  We then examine some main scenes within the play, which we read together or read while watching the more traditional Zeffirelli version.  The focus is on the actions of the characters and not on translating every line word for word. I actually skip over a few scenes because they are not fundamental to the play and they are not worth explaining e.g. the Queen Mab speech or Friar Laurence’s speech about herbs.

5.  Teach it from a big ideas perspective or what Jeffrey Wilhelm  calls “essential questions”.  Asking these questions and having the opportunity to process them before reading will help students make connections, see thematic elements and recognize the purpose in studying the play. When I teach Hamlet, I ask students the following as a pre-reading activity:What problems are associated with seeking revenge?  What are the characteristics of a good King/leader? What are our questions about death? What obligations do we owe our parents?  What connections are there between corruption and human nature?  These cover the most important ideas/themes/ elements within the play.  As we are going through the play, I will remind the students of our discussion of these topics and when we are finished we will re-visit them.  Students quickly recognize the themes at this point.

6.  Plan your unit with critical thinking in mind.  Have the students use Question Stems; getting them to write questions, especially those that use higher order thinking skills, will force the students to think more deeply.  Another way to ensure critical thinking is to have them use criteria to judge something.  The Critical Thinking Consortium has a publication called Critical Challenges in English for Secondary Students, a series of lesson plans/activities designed for various texts.  One of these called “Fate or Free Will” deals with Romeo and Juliet and requires students to go through the major events of the play and use a scale with Fate on one end and Free will on the other.  They rate the events as to the degree to which Fate or Free will plays a part in the outcome of the play.  The activity shows the student’s knowledge of the play as well as his/her ability to make a judgement based on evidence.  Another activity involves choosing major quotations from a play and ranking their significance based on criteria such as how the quote captures key features of plot, character or theme.

7.  Use mind maps as a form of assessment rather than the traditional test or essay.  I am not in favour of tests as a means of demonstrating learning.  Most tests are a regurgitation of what was discussed in class or worse of the student’s reading of something like Sparks’ Notes.  I do use content tests but strictly as a means to get the students to read their texts. Mind maps require the student to take information, organize it under topics and make connections among the pieces of information.  For example, my summative assessment of Hamlet will require the students to address the following topics in their mind map:  themes of the play, the character development of Hamlet, questions about the play, imagery and major quotations from the play.  You could never ask for all of that in an essay or a test.  Getting it down on a bristol board requires considerable organizational skills, knowledge of the play and an understanding of the connections among the parts.  The students usually hate doing this because it is a lot of work but it really shows their learning and is also a type of learning in itself.  There is mind-mapping  software that is available but I don’t find it as flexible as what can be accomplished by hand. Another way that I have used a mind-map is to give the students a traditional essay topic i.e the role of appearance vs. reality in Macbeth. They have to provide the same evidence in the form of examples and quotations as you would in an essay but they have to lay it out in a mind map.

8.  My biggest “don’t” with respect to Shakespeare is the outdated and extremely unfair quotation test.  When I went to high school in the 1960’s, a typical test involved identifying the speaker of the quote and explaining the quote’s significance. There are teachers who are still doing this.  This is strictly memory and a type of “gotcha” on the teacher’s part.  The teacher has likely read, studied and watched the play numerous times.  I could quote half of Hamlet to you, but how is your average 15-year old supposed to remember who’s speaking based on one reading of the play?  And if the student has been given specific quotes to study then aren’t they being tested on pure memory skills?  I do want my students to be able to explain certain lines or connect them to bigger ideas but they don’t have to do so from memory.

9.  Most teachers do some type of play-acting or re-framing of scenes from a play.  My students have done everything from sock-puppets to newspapers dipped in tea to make them look aged.  There is a value to any of these activities provided they have a clear purpose other than entertainment ( although that might be your purpose).

10.  When students find that the play connects to their lives and their world, they will acquire a deeper understanding of its value.  Romeo and Juliet offers obvious comparisons.  Love songs and music videos are a natural extension of the play.  If you had to choose only one or two plays to teach, I would opt for Macbeth or Othello.  Macbeth is the shortest and easiest play to teach; both plays connect with students on a visceral level.  And with Othello, I have never had a student tell me they didn’t like it, which can’t be said for a lot of other plays.

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3 Responses to 10 Tips on how to teach Shakespeare

  1. pbh says:

    Aye think thou doth not protesteth enuff, great stuff! A little disappointed you didn’t mention King Lear, my personal favourite, likely because I can relate to an old man’s descent to madness…which i trust is not your students’ viscera.

  2. But is there really any evidence on why we “should” read Shakespeare? Are we just reading it because some person five-hundred miles away in DC tells us to, without any reason? Read my most recent post to find out: http://cafemocha.org/the-big-questions-in-life-why-do-we-force-our-students-to-read-shakespeare/

    • Thanks for the comment. I did read your article and of course, you make some valid points. I totally agree that modern literature and choice should be offered students and I also agree that many students don’t even read half the texts that they are assigned. As for Shakespeare, we read/watch it in class, so my students are reading it, in a way. I don’t live in the States but in Ontario where S. is not mandated at all so teachers are free to not teach it if they wish, depending on the wishes of their school.
      So, why did I teach it? I think the challenge is a bit like Algebra-I have never used it in real life but I don’t regret studying it because it was harder than arithmetic. I think we should have a mix of old and new, for example, my students studied The Kite Runner along with Hamlet. And I don’t agree with your statement that the plots are irrelevant to today. There is no more appropriate plot than Macbeth or Othello. So, yeah, it’s part tradition and part challenge.
      BTW, you can throw out Heart of Darkness any time as far as I am concerned. That book is cheating 101, even for the teacher.

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