Teaching Shakespeare 400 Years After

Last week a local station broadcast a segment where I was interviewed about teaching Shakespeare.


Clearly, my entire rationale and unit plan couldn’t fit into those 2+ minutes that made it on air. And that was not what that audience wanted anyway.

Current philosophies and time constraints suggest eliminating Bill’s works or scaling them down to just a couple monologues.  However, teaching at least one of his entire plays at some point in each high school can benefit students for several reasons.

  • The number of literary techniques you can introduce/analyze in one work is amazing.  Plot structure, poetry devices, characterization, all the ironies and metaphors… They’re all there. In one unit you can incorporate a ridiculous amount of literary stuff that you’re going to teach anyway.
  • And certainly as a root of modern storytelling, the Bard’s stories allow you to tie ins to most modern movies and books.

But there is way more that makes kids use those higher order thinking skills you are evaluated on.

  • There’s all that ambiguity that forces kids to figure out things for themselves. Is Hamlet’s ghost real?  Is it always real? Is it a good ghost or a demon? I don’t know. Make the students need to decide.
  • Text complexity. It’s harder to read than modern works. We called it “decoding, in the video” but edu-lingo calls it increasing lexile level. Students learn to read hard things by reading hard things. And reading English form 400 years ago is like learning a foreign language.
  • College readiness. When I do presentations on reaching reluctant readers, inevitably there’s a college professor in the crowd who asks me about increasing text endurance. Some professors blame high school teachers for not preparing/requiring students to read long, difficult pieces. Shakespeare fits that bill nicely.

If you want to hook the kids and keep your own sanity, try a couple of these things that work in my room.

  • Vary how they read.  Do some individually, some as a class, some in pairs or groups. Give them big questions to answer.  Witches in stories like Macbeth always give cryptic answers to the protagonist’s questions. Quote the answers and explain how they could go badly. Think of questions they the kids have to work together to figure out.
  • Show them the video as you go. Or be a rebel and show different scenes played out in different films. (Romeo and Juliet’s options are: classic, modern, singing, zombies, and gnomes.) Then ask what is different in the movies versus the text. And why? Why do directors cut Paris’s death? Doesn’t that mess up the symmetry Shakespeare set up? Hamlet is so long, nearly every director slices large chunks.  Ask the students why.
  • Acting.  There’s no time to act out the whole play.  That would kill a whole marking period.  Give groups important scenes of 100 lines or so. You will need to do some prep here counting characters and choosing where to start scenes.  Give them one period (we have 90-minute classes) to plan: assign and practice lines, block out where to, add actions, make props…whatever. For added difficulty, some groups may have more parts than actors, so they’ll need to figure  out how to solve that problem. After they perform, they have to summarize scene to audience and explain why the scene was important to the story or theme or character or whatever you like.
  • Show them Thug Notes if you dare.

So, what I should’ve said in the interview was this: Teaching Shakespeare just to teach Shakespeare is sorta pointless and a waste of time.  But using him as a vehicle to teach students things you need to cover anyway is going to benefit both you and the students.

I welcome your comments and suggestions. I love getting new ideas.


About tonyvarrato

I teach, write YA novels, take random pictures, and tell bad jokes. View all posts by tonyvarrato

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