How To Teach Shakespeare

Teaching-Shakespeare-to-distracted-studentsClick here for a printable .pdf download of How to Teach Shakespeare.


Most English teachers feel that they ought to do something about Shakespeare. A man considered by many to be the greatest poet in the English language is probably worth some time in literature class. But many teachers (including me, once) approach him with no clue.

The difficulties seem insurmountable; for one thing, the man is just too wordy. In our day of action-based, sub-literary entertainment, Shakespeare takes forever to say what he means to say, and it’s easy to lose patience with him. Then there are all the antiquated words and phrases to deal with, plus classical references and contemporary allusions that go over our 21st-century heads. But still . . .

“Great Literature” is not  determined  by  a  conspiracy  of  stodgy  English  teachers.  Literature survives  if  it  feeds  the  soul  as  well  as  the  mind,  and gives the reader layer upon layer of  meaning  to  think  about.  Literature survives if it throws a spotlight on life and helps us  see  more  clearly  what  desire,  love,  ambition, faith, villainy and human personality  are  all  about.  Literature  survives  if it encompasses the scope of human experience  with  the  beauty  and  power  of  language.  Shakespeare does all this in spades, and  that’s  why  he  not  only  survives,  but  thrives.  Studying  the plays today takes discipline, just like a workout at the gym. And the rewards are enormous.

Since the plays were written for their own time and place, it’s helpful to know something about the Elizabethan stage. Secular theater was a relatively new concept when Will Shakespeare arrived in London around 1588. Throughout the middle ages, drama was directly connected to the Church: religious allegories and Bible stories, performed by amateurs on feast days. Strolling players roamed the countryside, but they performed no real drama, only farces and low comedy wedged between the fire-breathing, juggling, and trained animal acts. The Protestant Reformation boosted literacy and the Renaissance elevated tastes, creating a healthy climate for the development of art in all its forms. Shakespeare arrived on the cultural scene right at the birth of modern theater, in the very city that was quickly becoming the playgoing capital of the world.

Londoners had developed such a taste for plays that within a decade after the construction of the first permanent theater in 1576, four more theaters went up, each manned by a resident acting company performing at least five plays per week, or 25-35 different plays in a single season. Obviously, there was no time for extensive scenery construction, and the players needed material written in verse because it was easier to memorize. Since it was considered unseemly for a woman to make a spectacle of herself on stage (at least in England–the Italians were getting other ideas), all female parts were played by boys, generally between the ages of 12 and 17. Changes of scene had to be indicated by speech; likewise, romance had to be spoken not performed. But this was an age when poetry was cool and turning an elegant phrase was one way to get ahead in life. And why stop at just one elegant phrase? “Less is more” was a concept that would never have occurred to the Elizabethans, especially where language was concerned.

Separated from us by over four hundred years of changing vernacular and culture, Shakespeare may seem hopelessly archaic. I suspect a lot of teachers just walk their classes through Macbeth or Julius Caesar because it’s in the syllabus, trying to keep the students awake or tranquil, as the need may be. While unlikely to produce any fans, it’s an understandable approach. Yet Shakespeare was wildly popular with all classes and ages in his own day, and given a sporting chance, he wins over teenagers even today. It just takes time to get to know him–and time is what teachers have the least of. But possibly some of the following ideas and activities will fit into your schedule.



Even though none of his plots were original (all can be traced to earlier sources or historical events), a story could consider itself definitely told after Will Shakespeare told it! Many of these stories have become so embedded in western culture that (I say with all seriousness) no one can be considered “educated” who is not familiar with the plot and major characters of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Henry IV and V, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (to name a few). The early grades are a good time to become familiar with the stories, and fortunately a number of excellent resources are available to make it possible. As a basic reference I would recommend Stories From Shakespeare, by Marchette Chute, which gives detailed synopses of all the plays. Her style is friendly and accessible for readers fifth grade and up, and she incorporates lines from the plays into her narrative, providing some exposure to the original language. Since this is an optimum age for memorization, most students can easily learn key lines, and often enjoy the way they roll “trippingly on the tongue.”

Lois Burdett, a long-time elementary school teacher, has rewritten some of the plays in verse: simple couplets that younger children enjoy and find easy to remember. Also, check out Burdett’s A Child’s Portrait of Shakespeare, which includes a four-week unit study for elementary grades. Marcia Williams’ Tales From Shakespeare presents seven of the plays in an entertaining comic book format. Her drawings show how the plays might have been originally performed at the Globe, with comments from the audience included–it’s a riot!



Junior high is not too early to begin reading Shakespeare in the original, but I would go slowly at first. A typical unit-study “Introduction to Shakespeare” could consist of spending a week learning learning about the time period and the nature of the Elizabethan stage (for which my novels, The Playmaker and The True Prince, can provide some helpful background information!) The next week could be a study of the comedies, using A Midsummer Nights’ Dream or Much Ado About Nothing as an example; the third week is tragedy week (Hamlet or Julius Caesar), fourth week is histories (Henry V). Watching all or part of a movie performance can be helpful–the plays I suggested as examples can easily provide this support. It would be great if more time could be devoted to each play, but you can get a lot done in a week. See classroom activities below or How to Study Shakespeare for suggestions on studying a play or a single scene.

Also, this is a good time to begin short writing assignments in connection with Shakespeare. Describing a scene from one character’s point of view is a useful exercise for understanding both scene and character. Also try writing newspaper accounts of an event in the play, including interviews (ask characters questions that they can answer with lines from the scene!). To get more in depth, ask the students to write their own paraphrase of a famous speech, such as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” or Marc Antony’s funeral oration. (Note: this activity can be done individually, as a class, or in groups. Discuss the gist, the motive, and the purpose behind the speech. It should be plain even to a 12-year-old, for example, that Antony’s tribute to Caesar is intended to be much more than a tribute to Caesar. A further discussion on how public figures today use emotion to sway the electorate could be an interesting class exercise!)



Most high school literature curricula (last time I looked) incorporate an in-depth study of one Shakespeare play. To get the most out of it, I recommend watching the play as well as reading it, whether in live performance or (much more likely) or on DVD. (See Shakespeare at the Movies for a basic guide)  The plays were written to be acted, and a good performance draws out their peculiar power. Here’s an outline for high school students warily approaching a Shakespeare play:

First, become familiar with the story: read a good synopsis.

Before reading the whole play, consider a classroom performance of key scenes. Reading the whole play straight through in class leaves plenty of students behind; they will get more involved if you wade right in with a big set piece that has lots of characters and room for crowd reactions. Try a “script reading,” (see Classroom Activities, below) performing the scene at least twice, with different readers and different slants on the characters.

With this degree of familiarity, students will find the reading easier, though not necessarily easy. Stress to them that they don’t have to understand every little reference or metaphor; if they just keep on they’ll catch the point of what’s being said. Students at a 7th-grade reading level should be able to get through one act per day, and since all the plays contain five acts, the reading will fit neatly into one week. Each student should write a brief synopsis of each scene (just a sentence or two) after reading it.

Whether it’s best to read the play BEFORE seeing it performed is a matter of debate. Personally I think it’s more exciting to have some familiarity with the language and story before watching it, because, if they have paid any attention to prep time, watching the stage or video version will provoke lots of “aha!” moments. One interesting exercise is to make a list of famous quotations from the play, have each student select one and write a paragraph or two on its meaning, then watch the movie, listening for “their” quote in context.

Watching the play will also reveal that some of the scenes they read have been cut–sometimes a lot of scenes. Even in Shakespeare’s time, plays were seldom performed as they have come down to us in text. Hamlet in its uncut glory runs to almost four hours, but its first performances was almost certainly no more than two and a half. Performances took place in the famous circular theaters open to the sky, and depended on natural light; if a performance began at 2:00 or 3:00, it could run no longer than two hours so that everyone could get safely home before dark. As a class exercise, provide the students with copies of one scene in the play and determine where and how it could be cut, with no great sacrifice of meaning or art.

By the end of all this, a study lasting 3-4 weeks, students should at least have an idea why Shakespeare is considered one of the greats of literature. They may even find something to like about him.

Writing projects for high school might include

  • Theater reviews. Pretend you’re a critic for the Queen’s Times and write a review of the original performance of Hamlet, King Lear, Merchant of Venice, or whatever play you’re studying. Feel free to include asides about the audience reaction, gaffes or mishaps that occurred, and your thoughts about the play’s future. (i.e., “Hamlet has its moments, but who likes revenge plays anymore?”)
  • Character analysis. Pretend you’re a clinical therapist treating a character in the play. Write an analysis of this character’s problems based upon what he or she says in the context of the play.
  • Paraphrasing is a useful activity in senior high as well as middle school. One interesting project is to assign a two-character dialogue from the play to a pair of students, and have each student paraphrase the dialogue for one of the characters. Then they will read their version of the scene to the class, with one person speaking the original text while the other responds in contemporary English. This makes it easy to discuss what Shakespeare’s language adds to his drama.


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adaptable to grades 6-12

1) Divide the class into 2-4 groups and have each group work up their own interpretation and performance of the same scene. All drama leaves room for interpretation, but Shakespeare leaves more than most, especially since the plays contain very little in the way of stage direction. Ask the students to add gestures or actions and make facial or physical responses to what the other characters say. A question that directors often ask is, “What inspires a character’s first line?”

For instance, consider the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene in Hamlet, Act III. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, his treacherous uncle and old Polonius are spying on him, and using his girlfriend Ophelia as bait. When Hamlet meets Ophelia (directly after his “To be or not to be” soliloquy), she is reading a book–presumably a devotional book, for his greeting to her is, “Nymph, in thy orisons (i.e., prayers) be all my sins remembered.” At some point during the scene, Hamlet apparently realizes that he and Ophelia are not alone (his seemingly incongruous line, “Where is thy father?” indicates this). But when does he know this? In the Kenneth Branaugh movie, it’s from the beginning; in the Ethan Hawke version, it’s when he tries to kiss Ophelia and discovers that she’s wired for sound. In the BBC version with Derek Jacobi (available on DVD; your library may have it), Hamlet notices immediately that she in her distraction is carrying the book upside-down, and guesses that he’s being set up. The “orizons” line is heavy irony, and their relationship goes downhill from there. Or, could it possible that Ophelia is giving him eye signals to indicate, “Dad’s listening”? If so, what explains his apparent anger at her? A single gesture or facial expression, missing in the text, can point the scene in an entirely different direction.

2) Divide the class in groups of 5 or 6 and ask each group to determine the time setting, overall design, costumes and music for the play they’re studying. (Of course, this works best if you have artistic or musical students to contribute their ideas.) Comparing key scenes from Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet with Kenneth Branaugh’s or Mel Gibson’s should give them an idea of the range of artistic interpretation.

3) As a class, determine movie or TV actors (or musicians–why not?) to fill the cast roster of a new production of the play you’re studying.

4) Make a list of contemporary movies that are based on Shakespeare plays, such as O and 10 Things I Hate About You. (Shakespeare-related websites might help in doing the research.) In small groups, students might compare the contemporary movie with the play, draw a contrasting characters chart, and make an oral presentation showing how the plots diverge.

5)  Script readings. This activity involves some prep time for the teacher, but I’ve found it to be worthwhile. Choose a Shakespeare scene that includes several characters, plus room for crowd reaction. Prepare a script for each character that consists only of his or her lines, plus cues (5-12 words from the previous speaker).

For instance, The assassination of Julius Caesar (Act III, Scene 1, up to the entrance of Trebonius) includes eleven speakers, eight of which get to carry daggers!  (Plastic or cardboard) I’ve done this several times with class groups and it’s always a hit.  And to help you get started–

BONUS!  Here’s the Assassination of Julius Caesar in a downloadable .pdf!

Other good group scenes are

  • The “Pyramus and Thisbe” play from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V, 1, beginning with the second entrance of Philostrate and ending with the exit of Theseus). Eleven speakers, including the lion; always a crowd-pleaser.
  • The duel and death of Hamlet (V, 2, beginning with the entrance of the King and Queen). Eight speakers; Hamlet and Laertes need swords.
  • The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V (IV, 3) Eight speakers, and plenty of cheering for the rest of the class.
  • The banquet scene from Macbeth (III, 5). Only five speakers–plus Banquo’s ghost who doesn’t say anything–but the Lords chime in from time to time.


Online versions of Shakespeare’s plays can be downloaded to your word-processing program and edited from there. I usually cut long speeches to a more readable length and change a few words that would be unintelligible to a modern audience.

Here’s the procedure:

After handing out the parts, explain that in Shakespeare’s time, actors did not receive an entire script of the play to study; each player was given only his part, which was called a “side.” Explain a little about the context of the scene and the motive of each character, then read it with very basic blocking, as the principle characters stand in front of the class. I’ve done this with sixth grade on up, and find that even mediocre readers who stumble over the language can get into the emotion of the scene. Having only their part forces each reader to listen for his or her cue, and attention is less likely to wander.

Of course, the more enthusiasm you have for Shakespeare, the more likely your students are to catch it. If you’re familiar with the Bard, but just don’t like him, c’est la vie–but some of these ideas may make your classroom study a little more bearable. If you suspect your dislike is due more to ignorance and educated distaste, give yourself a chance, as well as your kids. He may surprise you.