Top ten tips for teaching Shakespeare
- One - get students up on their feet. The most important thing whilst teaching Shakespeare is to make the lesson practical rather than academic. The worst you can do is sit everyone down and ask them to read Shakespeare out loud. This instantly turns off students’ creativity and interest in Shakespeare. (It’s what a lot of schools do, although this is changing, thankfully!) If you’re teaching Shakespeare, play drama games, create improvisations inspired by Shakespeare and perform his work with spirit!
- Two – make it relatable. Take situations from the text you’re working on and make it relatable to your students. Shakespeare has so many relatable characters and themes; this is one of the things that makes him such a genius! Make your examples as specific as possible. For example, in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet is trying to get information from the nurse, she sweet-talks the nurse in an attempt to get information about Romeo. Ask the students to share examples of times they wanted information from someone who was holding back. Ask the students what tactics they used to get the information that they wanted. You could even ask students to improvise these situations. Then, when you ask them to perform the Juliet nurse scene they will have a much better understanding of the feelings behind the scene and will therefore be able to perform it better.
- Three – explore Shakespeare’s insults. If you want to get students to enjoy Shakespeare’s language, introduce them to his legendary insults! This will get your students listening. Find some of Shakespeare juiciest insults and ask students to perform them. Maybe even ask students to perform an improvisation that includes at least three of Shakespeare’s insults. Here are just a few of many: "Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous."; "Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile."; "Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes."; "You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.”
- Four – teach in bite-sized pieces. It’s far better to work on a small manageable excerpt than put students off with pages and pages of text. Take one small scene or monologue and encourage students to play, improvise and explore the text. If they can fully understand a scene, this will give them the confidence to look at the whole play. However, if you try and teach too much at once, you run the risk of your students not understanding and being put off Shakespeare for life!
- Five – paraphrase the text for students. Don’t be afraid to tell students your interpretation of what the text means. After you give them your ideas, ask them what they think the text means too. It’s really important that when performing, the student knows the meaning of what are saying; of course, the meaning can be different for everyone, but they need a meaning.
- Six – watch performances. If you can take students to see a live performance of Shakespeare, go for it. The Globe and Stratford are the top choices, but if you can’t get there, maybe someone’s putting on Shakespeare more locally. And, if you can’t manage a theatre trip, there are many great films of Shakespeare’s work.
- Seven – play. You will often hear students perform Shakespeare in a serious monotone voice. Sometimes his work is thought of as sacred, writing that should be treated very seriously. Tell the students this is not so and that Shakespeare would have wanted them to have fun with his work. Encourage the students to play with their voice, improvise and experiment. It doesn’t matter if students make mistakes or mix up words. It’s much better that they make mistakes and perform with life. As Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “We will meet; and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously.”
- Eight – ask for favours. When you say you’re teaching Shakespeare to children or teenagers, people like to help out. I directed a production of Romeo and Juliet for Chippeneham Youth Theatre and a few emails later, a local amateur dramatics company said they’d costume my cast for free. Laycock Abbey (where they filmed some of the Harry Potter scenes) said I could put on the show at their venue for free. Plus the head of English at a top private school said he’d come and help my students with the text for free. People will bend over backwards to help get young people interested in Shakespeare. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; you may be surprised with what you end up with!
- Nine – perform. Shakespeare was written to be performed, so if you can put on a performance then do so. Whether it’s a few scenes, a modern day version, or a full blown Shakespearean show. Do it. Invite people. Perhaps even charge for tickets. His plays are out of copyright, so you’ll have no licensing fees. Use music in your performances, get costumes, make it psychical and include stage fighting. If you can put on a cracking show your students may well fall in love with Shakespeare for life. Now that’s a gift worth giving.
- Ten – the RSC. The Royal Shakespeare Company have lots of incredible teaching resources to help bring Shakespeare to life in the classroom. Check out their website: https://www.rsc.org.uk/education/teacher-resources
Check out our Shakespeare Duologues and download
Author: Sam Marsden
By Lynn Beaumont