Teaching Shakespeare comes with its challenges, from complex plots to even more complex language. With the right strategies in place, students can learn how to understand and enjoy these literary masterpieces.
Teaching Shakespeare is a rite of passage in the secondary ELA classroom. After all, he is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. Yet, teaching his literary masterpieces can be the bain of an ELA teacher’s existence. (Rock, meet hard place.)
We all know the struggle of getting our students to read. Period. Throw in some Elizabethan language and Shakespearian plots, and it might feel like you’re facing an insurmountable task. But is it?
With the right strategies, you can teach Shakespeare in an approachable, interesting, and engaging way for even your most reluctant students.
Why Do Students Struggle with Shakespeare?
Shakespeare’s plays take place in a different world and what can feel like a different language. The language is so complex and rich at times, and between irregular syntax and pronouns like thy and thou, Shakespeare has students scratching their heads.
Unfortunately, students don’t just struggle with Shakespeare. They tend to dread his work. Students moan and groan at the mere mention of his name or one of his plays. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a lost cause. Here are nine engaging strategies to help make teaching Shakespeare less intimidating and more interesting for students.
9 Engaging Strategies for Teaching Shakespeare
1. Avoid the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of “Shakespeare Fear”
Mindset is key when it comes to approaching Shakespeare. The first thought many students have when thinking about Shakespeare is how hard it is, right? How terribly dense, irrelevant, and boring the plays are. Yet, the beauty of Shakespeare is that it is relevant. But you have to get your students to buy in. So, instead of opening the unit by acknowledging how difficult the text is, consider taking a different approach to building relevance, interest, and confidence.
2. Set the Tone for the Unit
The power is in your hands. So, when it comes to starting your Shakespeare unit, remember that you get to set the tone. If you want your students to get in the right mindset, you’ll have to lead the way.
Lead by example, whether you’re providing background knowledge or reading through a play. Get into it and express excitement. And– especially if you’re tackling a Shakespearean comedy– don’t be afraid to get silly. Use voices, actions, and props to help set the scene of the Elizabethian era and the play itself. Sure, it might feel awkward at first. Over time, students will begin to take part in the fun too.
3. Get Comfortable with the Language
Shakespeare’s language is one of the biggest roadblocks between students and their enjoyment and understanding of his work. Before diving into a play, take time to get students acclimated to the language. The good news? Students are more familiar with the Shakespearian language than they may realize! I love beginning a Shakespeare unit by acknowledging the hundreds of common words and phrases we have him to thank for.
Another fun way to dive into Shakespeare’s language is through Shakespearean insults! Students love playing around with these ridiculous phrases. However, once you’re ready to move beyond the silliness, consider starting with translating Shakespeare lines and sentences into modern-day language before diving into an entire play. Baby steps, my friend.
4. Understand the Context
Literature is often a reflection of the world around it, right? But students aren’t necessarily familiar with the Elizabethan era. Therefore, throwing students into a Shakespearian play without some initial context is like throwing them in the water without teaching them how to swim. (And that’s just cruel and unusual.) To help make Shakespeare more approachable, it’s time to show them a whole new world.
Before diving into the play, spend some time learning about the man behind the words and the world he lived in. You may want to do a Shakespeare learning quest and read all about life in the 16th century. By learning more about the time the plays were written, students will be able to jump into the plays with a better foundational knowledge to lean on.
5. Understand the Plot
I know, I know. You might be worried about spoiling the play. However, many students are already familiar with the endings of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Regardless, I’m not talking about giving away all the details before diving into the play. I’m talking about teaching students the general plot of a Shakespearean comedy or tragedy. Then, they can use that general outline as a checkpoint along the way and fill in the specifics as they read.
For example, all Shakespeare’s plays revolve around order and disorder. How the disorder is handled and, ultimately, resolved is what makes it a tragedy or comedy. While his comedies typically end in celebration and parties, his tragedies end with a main character’s death and the lessons that follow.
6. Dive into the Themes
Again, this is something to do before actually jumping into the play. By familiarizing themselves with the play’s themes, students will have more insight into the plot and character motivations. But it’s not just about how the themes relate to what is in the play. Talking about the themes is also a great way to help students understand the relevance of Shakespeare in the modern world. His plays explore universal themes students are certainly familiar with, such as love, ambition, power struggles, jealousy, and betrayal.
Anticipation guides or a game of four corners are great ways to get students thinking about the themes and ideas explored in Shakespeare’s words. Of course, you will want to tailor the activity to the specific play and plot you are using, but here are some of my favorite statements to explore:
- Power eventually leads to corruption of those who have it.
- Revenge is the best way to get justice.
- Having a clear goal, and the ambition to achieve it, is honorable.
- A person’s immoral choices will come back to haunt them.
- Fate is inevitable and not for us to control.
7. Get to Know the Characters
Many students struggle with keeping track of all the characters and complex relationships in Shakespeare’s plays, and I don’t blame them. It can get complicated. That’s why I recommend taking time to learn the characters before diving in too deep. One of the best tools you can give your students is a character chart. It’s helpful for them to know who is related to whom and how. Invite students to keep adding notes to the chart as the drama unfolds– literally.
In addition to reviewing a character chart, I find it useful to give the students something to visualize. To make it even more fun, let students play the role of the casting director. Read character descriptions and have students work in groups to assign well-known actors or fictional characters to play those roles. Visualizing the characters will help students keep track as the play progresses.
8. Act it out! (It is a play, after all.)
Plays are meant to be experienced, not just read. So, help the play come to life by engaging your students in read-alouds and acting. After all, they say actions speak louder than words, right? And considering the complexity of Shakespearian language, this can be a real lifesaver! While I encourage you to invite students to take over roles, it’s helpful for you to participate too. You can model the pronunciation, pacing, language, and acting for students.
Want to take it to the next level? Encourage the use of props and costumes! Have students get creative if you don’t have actual props lying around. They can make props or use their imagination by transforming ordinary objects. It can make for a few additional laughs too.
9. Incorporate Media Throughout the Unit
Even with the strategies above, wading through complex language can be exhausting. (Doable, but exhausting.) There’s nothing wrong with giving your students a break and changing things up by incorporating media into your lessons. Show clips of performances, watch plot summaries, or even parts of movie adaptations. Sometimes it is in the best interest of your students(and your limited time) to choose the most exciting acts and fill in the rest with summaries and supplemental material.
No matter how you choose to incorporate media, it’s a great tool to check for understanding and reduce overwhelm from reading the whole play.
Try These Fun Assessment Activities
Due to the complex nature of Shakespeare, I like to avoid more traditional assessments. Instead, Shakespeare is a great opportunity to change up the game. Here are a few fun assessments you can try:
- Frame It Out: In this activity, assign each group a scene that they must adapt into a ten or twelve-frame comic strip. While I encourage the use of modern-day translations to truly assess understanding, it’s always fun to require a handful of quotes from the scene.
- 6-Minute Shakespeare: This is a fun challenge in which small groups of students must reenact an entire Shakespeare play in six minutes– or however long you’d like. The best part of this activity is that students must focus on the most relevant characters and plot points.
- A Modern Rewrite: Is this exactly what it sounds like? Yup. Students can work independently or in small groups to rewrite a scene using modern-day settings and language without losing the essence and theme. Trust me. You’ll enjoy listening to students as they present these to the class.
A Final Word on Teaching Shakespeare
As you gear up to bring one of the highest acclaimed literary greats into your classroom, one thing’s for certain: you need to take it sloooow. Don’t jump into analysis prematurely. Instead, take the time to give students the tools they need to successfully understand– and perhaps enjoy– Shakespeare’s work. Check for understanding often to help build student confidence as they progress through the play. Trust me. It can make a world of difference.
Best of luck, thou monstrous, urchin-snouted jackanape!