Teaching Shakespeare

My EDGD 824 English method students have been considering the question: how do I ‘teach Shakespeare’ and have students enjoy the experience? and I would value your input and advice.

There are more resources for teaching Shakespeare than any teacher could ever read, view or use but, of course, the plays and sonnets are what entertain. At least, they do once students overcome any negative preconceptions (largely created by the horrible way Shakespeare was once taught in some schools).

While completing my undergraduate degree it was still de rigueur to read AC Bradley’s, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). Twenty years ago I discovered it was not much practical use in the classroom but that Rex Gibson’s, Teaching Shakespeare did come in handy and gave me a few ideas. Now we have the world wide web and many more resources easily at hand, often revealing the incredible variety of productions and adaptations.

The Globe (in London)

Photographed (2011)

What have I discovered about teaching Shakespeare?

It is essential to make Shakespeare relevant, fun and accessible. There are so many good units and resources for teaching Shakespeare, the challenge is selecting the right one, for the right moment, with the right class. One needs to create, as with all units, expectation that this may be cool and fun!

Shakespeare, in my experience, is still best enjoyed as performance or as a drama unit. Staging and filming scenes from Macbeth with Year 7 – with sound effects, a smoke machine and costumes – worked as well as any unit I’ve ever taught. Recently I ran into an ex-student who – having played one of ‘the warlocks’ – said it was what made him think positively about Shakespeare. Most students enjoy a ‘great scenes’ approach which provides an introduction to Shakespeare’s best loved moments. NB that Bell Shakespeare offers great assistance to schools and teachers who wish to explore the plays in this way.

It is always great to see a production but not always possible. Employing audio recordings really assists students to engage with the play as performance and it is certainly welcome relief from exclusively ‘reading around the class’ which can be fun, depending on the class and scene. Film adaptations can really spice up a traditional textual study, especially when employing clips along the way, as the play unfolds, rather than watching the entire film. The plots and characters still engage students as long as they can overcome the initial challenge of the language. Leon Garfield’s wonderful prose versions of the plays are a useful introduction and are very accessible for younger or weaker students.

Teaching Shakespeare is often a magical experience (but frustrating when it is not going well). I particularly enjoy King Lear with senior students and Julius Caesar with boys only classes. Romeo and Juliet is great too. I have a particular approach with Macbeth that has worked well many times. I start with an anecdote about when I was burdened with a guilty conscience after stealing from my father. I commence by asking the class to remember a time when they had considered doing something wrong, thought it unwise but carried on regardless. It creates an interesting atmosphere in the class. ;)

Shakespeare is particularly excellent for teaching about appropriation and Intertextuality eg Dr WhoThe Simpsons, representation of characters in paintings…the possibilities are endless.

It is often a good idea to run similar units, wherever appropriate across stages 4, 5 and 6, at the same time. For example, Year 7 can be completing a drama unit as an introduction to Shakespeare, Year 10 might be studying Macbeth and Year 12 doing am elective/module for their HSC. Here is an idea that involves Year 10 teaching Year 7 students.

A never fail lesson that you have probably experienced in a classroom revolves around Shakespearean insultsIt is great for last period Friday when you fear motivation will be lacking. Here is a lesson I tried with Year 10 last year that gets the students ‘up and speaking’.

Shakespeare’s language

Students can often be very intimidated by the metalanguage (not just the language in the play itself) needed while studying Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, it is often the biggest hurdle for you to help the class overcome, if they are to be very successful Shakespearean scholars.

How confident do you feel as a teacher of Shakespeare’s language? What ar the best approaches you experienced as a student?

Skilful teachers can make learning about blank verse and prose fun and achievable. Check out I am a pirate with a wooden leg and this short video of a teacher demonstrating her approach. I find having students teach, using this approach, helps them grapple positively with the challenges of understanding iambic pentameter. Last year I had my class ‘teach’ the principal about Shakespeare’s language.

The following video by MC Lars works well with many stage 5 or 6 classes too (and not just while studying language in Shakespeare).

Juxtaposing scenes and productions

Revisiting scenes using different media can be very effective when trying to reveal how Shakespeare, employing a range of dramatic techniques, establishes his themes. Act II scene ii and Act V scene i provides a good example of how students can revisit the action with the script closed. Try one of the three different versions – original, plain and quick text – of this ‘interactive motion comic’ before watching Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth below. This is a very effective strategy if followed by quality discussion and students returning to both scenes using the text. Students start to see how carefully Shakespeare sets up later scenes in the play and how effective the symbolism (motifs) and imagery are in communicating ideas.

Students are very enthusiastic about adapting scenes to a contemporary context. It is important to make tasks manageable. Setting a task where a student must pitch an idea for their film, to the studio who hold the purse strings, choosing one scene as an exemplar and explaining how it will appeal to a contemporary audience, is fun.

Voicethread gives even more options for the teacher to post a short explanation, in character, and students make ‘pitch’ with the winner being awarded the kudos of some imaginary funding. ;) View this juxtaposition of scenes from film versions of Macbeth that assist students to understand what approach some directors have taken.

Other ideas

There are an ever-widening range of iPad apps like this one for Shakespeare’s sonnets or the plays, in this case HamletI have found interactive motion comics to be excellent. For the adventurous this wiki supports Virtual Macbeth in Second LifeWordle can be used in interesting ways but I prefer Tagxedo

Finally, my Shakespeare tag at Diigo has many resources you may find useful. BTW Australian teachers really should read John Bell’s, On Shakespeare

What are your tips, best resources and favourite sites for ‘teaching Shakespeare’?

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DISCLAIMER

The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Donahoo:

    I’d recommend this new app, from Bell Shakespeare who you mention at the end of the post: http://startingshakespeare.deeperricher.com/

  2. Chauncey Ridley:

    I am trying to recall the title of a film in which an African-American teacher goes insane while teaching “Hamlet.” Anyone out there remember?

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