Saturday, 2 March 2013

Shakespeare and I: Teaching Shakespeare

It was only predictable that I would get to Shakespeare at some stage in my blogging career. It just so happens that I am currently planning to teach Macbeth. In my early years of my teaching career, I had some pretty bad experiences of Shakespeare.  Shakespeare can be the source for some of the best lessons; however, it too can be the source of some of the worse lessons.  On one hand I have enjoyed watching a group of rugby lads pretend to be Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, including high-pitched 'Monty Python' voices. Then, on the other hand I have watched time stand still, as students try to read, understand and follow a scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.

From the start, I want to say that William Shakespeare is bloody brilliant. Great plays. Great characters. Great ideas, although borrowed from someone else. Great language. And, I do think Shakespeare has a place in the curriculum we teach in schools. The ideas he wrote about are still topical and relevant and they often feature in soaps on a daily basis. Sadly, the language is the barrier. I do feel that the experience of Shakespeare must be, for some of our students, like one of those French lessons where the teacher only speaks in French.  It is not a natural experience and we expect the students to tune in and accept it. At the start of my teaching career, I was told to simply read the play with them and they will tune into the language. Some did; others didn’t, and, to be honest, it wasn’t effective teaching. It was probably like watching a programme on S4C (the Welsh Channel 4) you recognise the odd word, but the rest is incomprehensible. Understandably, they were excited when we started a new topic after Shakespeare. No matter how dull it was.

At the start of teaching any Shakespeare play, I share with students an explanation of how I prepared for teaching that play. I would explain to them how I spent weeks reading the play line by line working out what it means and what is going on. All thanks to my lovely Arden version of the play.  I stress to them that: a) Shakespeare’s plots can be quite complicated; b) we don’t always know the true meaning of every line; c) it is as play so it shouldn't be read cold in a lesson - it should be performed. This shared understanding that 'it is difficult' helps, I think, to put the context that it is hard and not always straightforward. Taking away the ‘solution’ or the right answer, helps to make the reading of the play less of a puzzle and more of a journey of exploration. We work together to work out what is going on and how Shakespeare shows us what is going on. Oh, and how to perform it.

Then we get cracking on. Usually, I do a pre-reading activity which might involve pictures or names or even a list of key events for them to turn into a piece of drama. I might look at the idea of ‘battle of the sexes’ or ‘kingship’, but I always make sure that I look at an idea or thread in the story that will directly relate to them. Whatever I do, I aim to hook them in. After this, we work through the story.  

I always seem to be the one sat next to the Shakespeare-phobic adult  whose heading is spinning watching the play. I patiently explain to them who is who and what is happening every 5 minutes, because for the first-timer there is a lot of swapping and changing in Bill's plays. Therefore, I always make sure I tell the story in some way. Surprisingly, some people suggest in books that we shouldn’t tell students the ending of a story, as they might lose interest. Codswallop! The genre of the story dictates the ending, so most people can predict how the story will end. Plus, if we continue to mystify the story, then it will alienate students from Shakespeare even more. When I was a Year12 student, I studied Hamlet with Mr Powell. We knew how the play ended from the start. With that foreknowledge, we were able to build on our knowledge and learn more. Furthermore, when you have a grasp of the plot it is much easier to talk about character and language, because you aren’t just thinking, ‘Who is that?', 'Is this a comedy?' and 'Where is this going?'.  Oh, and also Shakespeare's audiences knew the ending of the plays before they watched them, because they were famous and popular stories. And, there were several version of the same story by different writers.

To teach the plot, I always do the 'instant' version of the play. The instant ‘Macbeth’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Henry V’ have all become a part of my teaching. Simply, the class act out the whole of the play in a lesson. Most people, I should think use this technique. It is brilliant. The teacher is the narrator. They read a simplified overview of the play, while students act out a ‘dumb show’ version and read out quotes from the play. Easy to make, and a great lesson.

At this point, students will know some key names, key events and a rough idea of the plot. The best starting point for exploring the text further. Then, it is the fight with the language. My lovely friend Gwen has blogged about using insults as a way into language, which is another great way to start. I tend to focus on words first. I once participated in a workshop with the RSC and they gave us a great little approach to looking at the language. It is mirrored by recent blog here.  Simply, you take key words from a scene and look at them in isolation to the rest of the language. Students then predict what the scene is about and what the character / s might be saying.  Furthermore, it makes for some fun when you give students a particular word and they have to say it, or find an action for it, or even act it out. Here's an example from 'Julius Caesar'.
Looking at the words in isolation has really helped me in the teaching of Shakespeare, as the focus is on the meaning from the start and we are exploring what is going on together. Plus, it makes reading the scene easier as it builds in the recognition of words. Also, it helps students to see if the character uses the word ‘kill’, it might mean that he is angry or plotting to murder someone. Therefore, they do not need to know things word for word, but just have a gist of what is going on

Then, the class watch me annotate a scene and copy what I have written on the board. Only joking! No, I do this in a different way. I get students to do some sticking and gluing.

In groups, I give students an A3 extract to focus on. They are then given different sheets of paper and they have to cut them out and stick them to the extract. Through the sticking of the bits of paper, students develop their understanding, knowledge and ability to analyse the language.  They do the analysis in stages. Each stage involves a different coloured sheet of paper. Each group works at a different pace. Some faster than others. I stand at the front of the class and they can only move onto the next stage, when they have completed the previous step.

Step 1: What is going on? Plot
Students match up plot points.


Step 2: What are they saying? Modern English
Students match up modern English to the equivilant in the text.

Step 3: How does the writer show us what the character is thinking or feeling? Language.

Students match up langauge points.


Step 4: Themes

Yep, there is nothing for themes as this is where I want students to be independent with their analysis. Hopefully, by this time students will feel confident enough to spot lines and phrases linking to a particular theme. I get them to highlight where they see evidence of a particular theme.

The Final Product:

The final product is used in two ways. First, I test students on things they have discovered in the next lesson by giving them a clean copy and they have to annotate it with what they can remember. Or, they write down what they think is relevant from the sheet on their own sheet.

I don’t do this all the time and I don’t do it for every extract, scene or page, but I do it a few times to build student’s confidence at digging deep and exploring Shakespeare’s language. It helps me to train students to approach the text in a way that isn’t too reliant on the teacher explaining things all the time, which is the danger with Shakespeare sometimes. Also, it is a nice bit of group work too.
Alas, poor Yorick, I have to go now.
Thanks for reading,


  1. As a private English tutor (mainly Scottish Standard Grade and Higher), I was really interested to read your thoughts on teaching Shakespeare. I couldn't agree more about giving the students a "gist" of the play first so they know what's going on i.e. sell them the plot to capture their interest. As you so rightly point out, in almost every case, the audience knows what's going to happen anyway - that was the case in Shakespeare's time, as it is now. I also encourage them to buy a copy of the play they're studying with a "translation" in modern English so that they don't get put off by the language and can easily check up on the meaning of lines that are particularly tricky when they're revising/analysing the text. Hope you have fun with "the Scottish play" next!

  2. Thanks for this post. I'll be teaching The Tempest to a class of EAL students soon, so the sticking ideas around the extract seems like a great idea.

  3. Thank you Lotte and Square Sparrow. ; )


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