Once I found myself engaged in a conversation about what really needs to be taught. Strictly speaking, I have found myself engaged in conversations on this topic many many times, but I am thinking of one particular occasion. Shakespeare had crept into the discussion. Shakespeare, one speaker claimed, was only taught out of habit. There was nothing useful about understanding Shakespeare in the modern world.
I was arguing for cultural literacy. Someone, I suggested, might quote Shakespeare in a job interview. If you didn’t catch the allusion, you’d be branded as an ignorant lowlife, and wouldn’t get the job.
At this point, the UPS driver arrived with a shipment of math manipulatives. She heard our discussion and entered right in.
“I would never have known about Shakespeare,” she told us, “if I hadn’t studied him in high school.”
She is a big fan now. She attends the festival in Ashland regularly. Shakespeare’s words bring joy into her life. She would not have this great pleasure had it not been for her high school introduction to Romeo and Juliet .
On another occasion entirely, a truck driver bringing a shipment of paper confided that he wrote poetry, and was bringing out a CD of his works. I don’t want to overgeneralize here, but at the very least it ought to make us rethink our ideas about preparing kids for the workplace.
Anyway, let’s say that you’re going to teach Shakespeare. Here’s what I would suggest:
Make it easy on yourself by choosing a play that has been made into a popular movie. The Merchant of Venice, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew, among others, have all been filmed in accessible forms without excessive violence or nudity, and both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are downright popular with students. The producers of these films have put a lot of effort into making the stories clear in spite of the difficult language, so you might as well take advantage of their efforts.
Continue to make it easy on yourself by choosing a play for which there are ready-made materials.
Teacher Created has a unit on A Guide for Using Romeo and Juliet in the Classroom. TCR’s lit units always have vocabulary and content quizzes, plus cross-curricular projects. They used to do Julius Caesar in this series, too, so you might be able to find a copy if you ask up and down the hallways. Novel Units does some, too, including Midsummer Nights Dream.
We have great lesson plans and resources for Othello.
You can watch the film version of one of the plays and then settle down with your book of reproducibles and study a different one intensively. After that, your students will be on a roll and you can do something more obscure. There is not a single play that isn’t worth studying. I’m just saying that starting out with Troilus and Cressida is just making the whole thing harder than it needs to be.
Spend some time with the language. It takes a while for modern ears to get accustomed to the sound of Shakespeare’s English. I’m saying “ears,” not “eyes,” because it makes sense to do this part out loud. Part of that can be watching the movie, but there are other options:
- Hear Sonnet 71, beautifully read, at World English.
- The BBC has a collection of “60 Second Shakespeare” video clips sent in by schools.
- Wired for Books has a number of choices.
Edplace has a Shakespeare’s language worksheet. While it is only printable by members, it will give you an excellent lesson which you can do with a pocket chart. Or, of course, sign up and print it out.
Move in close. It’s more effective to do intense study of a few scenes than to read superficially through an entire play. Pick a section that’s relatively easy to understand and do some analysis. Use those lit units discussed above. Check out No Fear Shakespeare for a modern translation, after you’ve gotten properly steeped in the glorious original.
Get up and do it. Plays aren’t meant to be read; they’re meant to be acted. Divide the class into groups and let each group have just a few lines to work on and present to the class. Have the group explain to the class what their scene meant and how it fits into the plot of the play.
Have fun. There are a lot of fun things online that are at least tangentially related to Shakespeare:
- Shakespearebot is not up to the standard of the original William Shakespeare, but it’s fun and can be a good starting point for a science and technology lesson, if you want to squeeze one in.
- I’m a fan of The Reduced Shakespeare Company. See their Macbeth on YouTube.
- A Googlearth map of all the sites in Shakespeare’s plays adds a social studies component.
- Shakespearean Bingo has characters from the plays on bingo cards to print out. I’d call the name of the play and have students match the characters, or possibly even describe the character in simple terms (“She was murdered by Othello”), rather than just recognizing the names, but it depends on your population.
We’ve also collected, after serious amounts of research, what we think are the most useful free online resources for studying Shakespeare.
Have a little fun with some of these ideas, and your students may end up with a lifelong love of Shakespeare, too. What a legacy for you!