The assessment of Shakespeare in an exam isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, several exam boards are just behind the times in changing to this approach in the exam. Some people, for decades, have been teaching in this particular way. Here’s an extract. Answer a question about the language. Now, link the extract to its place in the whole text. Simple.
The question I am concerned about is: how do you teach a Shakespeare effectively over two years for the extract based question? Not a short question, but a question nonetheless that teachers and heads of department are thinking at the moment. How do I fit in Shakespeare in the plans? A Shakespeare play isn’t a nice discreet unit of work. It is a titan! A gorgon. In fact, it is probably closer to Medusa. It fixes people to stone. It is massive. Sometimes, it is akin to being snowed-in for six months of the year. Don’t get me wrong: the experience is enjoyable, but it takes so long. Just set aside two or more months for it to be done.
I am thinking of how to plan for the new GCSEs and the role that Shakespeare will take over the next few years. But in my planning, I want to make it effective and designed to increase understanding and secure knowledge, so I am looking at possible ways to teach it, and, in particular, ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
The format for the Shakespeare question follows this pattern:
 Close analysis of the extract
 Link extract to the rest of the play
 Explore how the writer has presented things (a character, a theme or an emotion) across the whole text.
Simply put: the students zoom out at each stage. They need to be able to explore aspects across the whole text. Step one can be easily drilled into students. They are taught to spot typical features of the language, but the next stages are probably a little more complex. The teaching of the whole play and not segments is what I am interested in today. So, how can we teach these aspects?
Approach 1: - The Traditional
Description: Teach the play from start to finish.
We could teach the play scene by scene. It works at A-Level so why not in Year 10 and Year 11. Scene by scene you build up the knowledge and understanding. Students get to see the whole text as it was intended, including the padding and minor scenes.
The benefit of this approach is the guarantee that the whole text is covered and no stone or character is left unturned. Once taught there shouldn’t be any need, hopefully, or re-teaching of certain aspects.
The problem with this method is the pace. Able student can handle the slow methodical pace, but less able students tend to struggle with constant ‘translation’ in their eyes.
Approach 2: - Main plot followed by subplot
Description: Teach the main plot and then revisit the play later and focus on the subplots.
The beauty of a Shakespeare play is its complexity. The main plot drives the story, but the subplot often adds texture and another layer to the original story. The love story between Romeo and Juliet is in the foreground of the family feud. What if we separated the two when teaching? Obviously, you cannot completely separate the two aspects. You would have to acknowledge the existence of the other. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. However, you could build the knowledge of the play in layers.
First, you analyse the story between Romeo and Juliet. Focus on their scenes and analyse those in detail. Then, after a period of time, you return to the play and then focus on the warring families. Focus on how Shakespeare presents those scenes. The whole is treated as a jigsaw.
Ask students to recall the plot of a Shakespeare plot and students will struggle. It is hard for an English teacher, because there are numerous threads and strands of the plot. However, breaking the story down into plots helps develop the whole understanding of the play. Ask students to explain the purpose of a plot and subplot when studying a play is hard. The problem often being that the student is too close to the text and the story telling. It is hard to see the machinations and working of the subplot when you just see it as a linear plot.
This way would hopefully keep a level of freshness to the story. The second time of reading allows for a deeper level of understanding as students start to see what the links are. Revising the play becomes a little bit easier as you are not repeating the same experience, but adding to the existing one. Plus, it helps to move the students from the personal / character driven story to the social story / context and how it drives the events.
Approach 3: - Following a character’s journey
Description: Teach the play through a character, focusing on the scenes only that character features in
This is probably more of a variation on a theme, but it is an interesting one. If I wanted to explore a play in great depth, this would be the way I’d choose. The play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is structurally different to plays like ‘An Inspector Calls’ because there isn’t one story for the characters. Shakespeare shows us several stories linking all the character’s together. We see it on stage. Priestly has all his character’s stories occur off stage. Everything about the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ is about learning and putting together the information to build the final story. Shakespeare takes all his characters on a journey. We see them start at one point and end on a totally different one. The play shows us what happens between the two points.
Imagine reading ‘Othello’ from mainly Othello’s perspective. Miss out Iago’s soliloquys in a first reading of the play and you have an interesting story. Yes, you miss out a key part of the whole, but you understand the character better. It is like ‘Big Brother’ you only get to know the characters well when they are whittled down to a number you can count on one hand. (I don’t watch ‘Big Brother’; I have just heard of it in passing.)
When studying ‘Romeo and Juliet’, you could look at so many different stories. Romeo’s. Juliet’s. The parent’s. Reading the play that way would give you three readings of the play. Spaced over the years, this could help build up the layers of the play quickly and easily.
The questions on the exam papers often focus on the presentation of a character. What better way to build the understanding of presentation is exploring precisely the presentation of things across the whole play from the start? Shakespeare’s plays are cluttered. Cluttered with characters. Cluttered with plot. Cluttered with ideas. We love them for the different levels of lots of disparate things, but the presentation of one aspect is drowned out because of the abundance of so many other things. Look at the presentation of Shylock in the play. First you have to screen out the Portia stuff and a lot of the men’s scenes at the start of the play to see Shylock.
Approach 4: - Start with the drama
Description: Every Shakespeare play has a killer scene. Start with that and then go to the beginning
The killing of Julius Caesar. The trial scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The death of Juliet and Romeo. The first wedding of Hero and Claudio. There is a scene in all Shakespeare plays where the machinations of the plot build and lead to. It is the main cog by which everything else revolves. The opening of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is especially slow and takes a bit of time to…. ummm…get going. Knowing the end point can be helpful to students so that they can see things fitting together. The complexity of the story can be daunting to students without an anchor. Starting with a dramatic moment helps to ground the plot. Oh, this links to this and that links to that. All too often, you have had a student who is on the back row of the train in terms of plot. Who is that? What just happened? Providing students with an end or middle point gives a narrative direction. Shakespeare plays, as a genre for students, are enigmatic things. They don’t know what to expect because their frame of reference is poor. I wouldn’t have a Scooby Doo of could happen in the plot if I watched a Peruvian love story, because I haven’t experience a Peruvian love story.
The problem with this approach is that you take away the dramatic mystery of the plot. You are simply giving an ultimate spoiler and hoping that keeps them going. Recently, a colleague handed me a copy of ‘Of Mice and Men’. It said on the front page in a scribble: George kills his best friend Lennie. Thankfully, the spoiler was prevented from spoiling a person’s enjoyment. But, the killer scene doesn’t always happen at the end. Plus, the audience of Shakespeare’s plays would know what usually is going to happen in a story. What Julius Caesar dies? Really? He even tells us in the opening of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that they die. He wanted us to experience the inevitable. Fate is written and we are inactive observers. True drama comes from our inability to stop things unfold. There is sense of inevitability in storytelling; we know the general events, we just want to enjoy the experience of getting to those events.
There is no one way to do things. Like most teachers out there, I like exploring the different avenues for teaching something. Aside from the mugs of coffee, free pens and teaching aspect, the planning process is one I enjoy with relish. I just know there are different ways of doing things. Some better. Some worse. Like all of us, I want to do it well and do it justice.
We are preparing for a new exam and GCSE structure and we are intrigued to see what others do. Let me know if there is an approach I have missed out.
Thanks for reading,