Sunday, 8 June 2014

Demystifying Shakespeare

One of the questions I use again and again (and again and again) in English lessons is: Why do you think the writer did that? The ‘that’ could be a technique, a plot point or some clever thing. But, we constantly ask students in lessons the question. We disguise it many different ways, but it is still the same question. The recent English GCSE exams showed the same question but disguised it in a number of different ways. Compare how the writers use language for effect. Explain how the picture is effective. They all, in a nutshell, ask the same thing. They just wrap it up in a nice little phrase that make students think before they answer the questions they always answer. But still, they are answer the questions:

What did the writer do?

Why did the writer do it?

Over the last year, I have experimented with this in a number of different ways, thinking how I could get students to answer these questions in an effective and interesting way.

I would be a rich man if I got a pound every time a student asked me: ‘Do you really think that the writer thought that when he was writing the text?’ A lot of what we do is guessing work. In fact, it is guessing work. Unless, I conveniently, by a massive stroke of luck, have the writer and the group of kids in the same room, we will never know the answer. Unless, I start conducting séances in the room. That would make a great lesson. Starter: get the Ouija board out. Main: Request a conversation with Charles Dickens in the spiritual world and ask him questions that students had already prepared. Plenary: Students write up the answers given. The more I think about it, the more that idea has legs (fairly translucent legs) – I joke, dear reader.

We all know the phrase: write like a reader and read like a writer. I have taken that phrase to heart and started working on making students read like writers. So, often, I give students a context for writing rather than dive straight in with the analysis.

How would you write a death scene of two lovers in a bedroom? The man thinks the woman is having an affair. However, he still loves her but feels driven to murder her.

Students then offer their suggestions. Strangle her. Poison her. Wait for her to sleep. They reason with their choices. Strangling is too aggressive maybe. Poisoning might not be dramatic enough. He might kill her when she is asleep, so she doesn’t know the ultimate betrayal. The discussion is great – loaded with ideas, thoughts and opinions. If I have time, I will get the class to write the script for it. If not, we then speed on to the scene.

We look at the specific scene and compare our ideas with the writer’s choices. Why did the writer do this? Why did the writer do that? This for me, is far better, than looking at the text and working it out that way. Use the imagination first. What would you do? Then link in the text. All too often, we expect the imagination to come second. Imagining what someone else is done is far harder than what we would do. I know what I would do; I don’t know what my mate Steve would do. I could guess, but you know I would have more to say about my ideas than someone else’s.

I give students a context for writing and they discuss what they would do in that situation. Then, we compare to what the writer would actually do. By doing this they go through the thought processes a writer would in this situation. They evaluate the possibilities, the inconsistencies, the flaws and other things.   

I have done with Years 7 to 11. Recently, I have done it with a Year 7 introduction to Shakespeare’s language. In the past, I have always done the decoding of Shakespeare’s language. Again, I have employed the imagination after the text. What do you think this means? What is he saying? This year I changed it:

At the start of the lesson, I showed students an extract from ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Students tried working it out. I told them that in a nutshell it said: ‘I think she is hot.’ Then, before we started analysing an extract from one of the plays, I got students to write like Shakespeare.

1: Each table was given a phrase to work on.

I love you.
They are dead.
I do not want to be your friend.
You are an idiot.
Will you marry me?

2: Students were told to improve the verbs used.

Example: I hate you.

I loath you.

I despise you.

3: Add an unusual simile.

I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water.

4: Add a list somewhere in the line.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water.

5: Add a metaphor linked to animals to the line.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water and my hatred is a dangerous wolf.

6: Add a connection to a well-known story.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe you like an oil slick cannot be near water and my hatred is a dangerous wolf in Twilight.

7: Add some words of the time.

Foul smelling, bad breathed idiot, I loathe thee like an oil slick cannot be near water and my hatred is a dangerous wolf or werewolf. 

There were so many more things I could have added, such as repetition or a question. Here’s some that the students came up with:

Beautiful being, I adore thee like I adore the summer weather. My love for you is stronger than a monkey eating a banana. Even stronger than Shrek.

You beautiful, sweet smelling woman. Will thou be my wedded wife? Can you be the piece to my puzzle? One’s love for you is more powerful than thou’s love for chocolate or like Romeo’s love for Juliet.

The great thing about this was that students started to see what makes Shakespeare’s writing so good. The density of ideas and thoughts can hinder our understanding as novice readers but the more we unpick it the more we understand it. At the end of this lesson, students were able to see why and how it works – by doing it on their own! By understanding how it is written, students will hopefully feel more confident in their analysis.
Imagination first then analysis!

Thanks for reading,



  1. This is to get them to predict , speculate before we launch in ...never thought of approaching Shakespeare like this,, thanks for sharing

  2. This is brilliant ! Will use when teaching Twelfth Night


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