For 12 years now I’ve been teaching English Language Arts to high school students, and with most ELA course loads inevitably come a healthy dose of Shakespeare. Throughout my career, I’ve taught the following Shakespearean works:
- Romeo and Juliet
- Julius Caesar
- King Lear
- The Taming of the Shrew
- Henry VI, Part I
- Much Ado About Nothing
- Twelfth Night
…plus numerous sonnets. In my experience I’ve discovered several methods that have helped me market Shakespeare to high school students as an enjoyable, relatable author.
Read aloud in class
This one goes directly against the number one suggestion from another ELA blogger, but I have never had success with students reading Shakespearean language at home. At times we’ll need to finish a reading as homework in my AP Lit class, but even they have a lot of questions when they come back. But sophomores? Freshmen??? Have you ever tried to teach them poetry, let alone archaic poetry in iambic pentameter? No, thank you. I firmly believe that plays are meant to experienced, if not on the stage then at least through reading them aloud.
This is why my students study Shakespeare’s words in my classroom. We assign parts. We reenact scenes. We discuss quotes, dissect lines and even words. But it all happens together. By reading together, we can learn it together, and I don’t have to recap and summarize entire scenes that were assigned as reading.
Watch a Production
I don’t teach a drama class so our short reenactments are crude and often for sake of engagement rather than drama. But Shakespeare’s works are masterpieces, and students need to see them acted out. For each unit in my Shakespearean Lit course, we spend half of our weekly block periods watching a movie that goes along with the play we’re studying. And I mean an actual Shakespearean production, not a teen movie based loosely on a plot line. Sometimes the productions are straightforward and classic (Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996), sometimes they’re a bit more interpretive (Rupert Goold’s Macbeth, 2010). I am also a fan of Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995), Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Franco Zeferelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Trevor Nunn’s King Lear (2008), and Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996). I also suggest you watch it in parts as you read the play, rather than reading it all the way through, taking the test, and having a “reward” by watching it. Just today we watched the first 45 minutes of Macbeth, and one of my students said, “This helps so much. It helps to see it.”
Use Labels & Character Maps
Back when I first started teaching Julius Caesar, I realized right away that my students were struggling with keeping track of everybody. I don’t blame them; that play has 35 characters, not counting those labeled as “servant” or “messenger.” After the first act, I worked much more actively to help students keep track of characters. Each student was assigned to at least one JC character, then given a paper placard with the character’s name, description, and a color attributed to it. Tribunes got one color, senators another, servants another, and so on. Likewise, in my Shakespearean Lit course my students often ask for a character map. I sketch out the characters on the whiteboard (poorly; I’m not artist) and show relationships between everybody. We update the character map as we read, indicating deaths and changes in relationships. Students have told me that even though this is a pretty rudimentary method of instruction, it helps to have a quick map to refer to throughout the unit.
Make Connections to Modern Times
One reason modern interpretations like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man are so popular is that they take an ancient story and show it updated to reflect modern conflicts. But Shakespeare’s stories already reflect so many universal and relevant themes. By making connections to our modern world, students will find relevancy to the Bard’s words, and suddenly a 400-year-old work seems personal. They just might need some help finding the connections.
Consider the following theme connections for some of these works:
Romeo and Juliet – Love vs. lust, cliques, gossip, infatuation
Macbeth & – The corrupting influence of power
Julius Caesar – Ethics, politicians’ use of rhetoric
The Taming of the Shrew – Gender roles, sexism, marriage roles, feeling pressured in relationships
Hamlet – Depression and mental illness, coping with grief, friendship, betrayal
These don’t have to be spelled out for students, just suggested. Ask them the right questions near the beginning of the play, build on them, and soon students are making connections left and right. I can’t tell you how interesting it has been to teach Julius Caesar in this political climate!
These are just some of my suggestions to make teaching Shakespeare more rewarding and engaging. What tips would you offer to fellow ELA teachers? Please comment with any tips you may have!
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