Approaching Shakespeare

Last weekend I went to school to watch a student production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  Although I am on maternity leave, I didn’t want to miss the performance, so I took my two month old daughter to see her first Shakespeare production.  Leaving the building, two things came to mind. First, it was very apparent that this show was one that the students had a hand in creating and it was fun.  Two, so many people think that our children today don’t like Shakespeare, or can’t like it, or won’t like it. Those skeptics are wrong.  

Source: Shakespeare and Company’s facebook page

I have been working with the Shakespeare program as a faculty liaison for many years, as the school I work for has been opting to buy into a program that brings in visiting directors and ends in a festival.  The school has been participating in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare for nearly twenty years.  It is a program that is run by Shakespeare and Company, a professional theater company in Lenox, MA. Ten schools in our region participate.  Students work together with the directors from Shakespeare and Company to create a unique production of Shakespeare that is performed at the Fall Festival on Shakespeare and Company’s stage.  It is a wonderful program that helps students bring Shakespeare’s works to life today in a way that is relevant and fun.  And of course, students learn a whole lot more than a piece of classic literature, just as they would in creating any theater production.

I have met a few English teachers over the years that tell me that they “don’t like Shakespeare.”  They don’t teach this classic literature unless forced, and even then they don’t do such a great job at it.  (Their words, not mine.)  So how does this onstage success that I spoke of above translate to the classroom if you are an English teacher who doesn’t have such a program in your school and you are not in a position to run a whole production on stage?  Having taught one of Shakespeare’s works in every course I have ever taught in the high school, I can tell you that students can and do love and embrace Shakespeare’s work.  

(Video Source:  Video taken by Donna Hilbrandt at a Taconic Hills High School rehearsal of Richard III which was performed as part of the Fall Festival of Shakespeare several years ago.)

Here are a few thoughts to start you thinking (or rethinking) about your approach to teaching Shakespeare:

Students think that they don’t understand the language and that Shakespeare is “too difficult.”

At the start of teaching a unit on Shakespeare’s work, I always give my students a short anticipation exercise which includes the question: Write one thing you think you dislike or fear about Shakespeare or his work.  (I don’t know is not an acceptable answer.)  Without fail, the answer to this question tends to be a string of answers that show that students don’t think they will understand the language.  They think it is Old English.  They also fear boredom, which I address below.  

With the idea hanging in the air, I address the language before we even begin.  Shakespeare is poetic and a bit old fashioned, but it is not Old English.  Sometimes, if students challenge me on that front, I show them a document written in Old English so that they can see that Old English is foreign to us, where as Shakespeare is just more formal, old fashioned, and poetic.  However, it is English.  Plain English that we all can read.  

I also address the idea that Shakespeare’s work will be “too difficult.”  I express to students that there are people who study Shakespeare’s work for many, many years.  These plays have layers, and it is our job as a class to uncover a layer or two.  I explain to them that I have been teaching Romeo and Juliet for over ten years, sometimes several times a day, and they I often find and discover new things when I read and study it again.  I give them a goal to merely understand the basic story line and to understand the main characters.  We often go much deeper than this as a class, but as we anticipate the study of a work of Shakespeare, this goal feels approachable to students.

Students think that the story of the play won’t be relevant to their lives.

When I approach teaching a Shakespeare play, I take the time to make it relevant for my students.  I read a children’s story version of the play with them so that they know the basic story line and can start to connect to that story.  (I use Tina Packer’s Tales from Shakespeare.  See the Amazon link above.) I use anticipation guides or have a discussion about the big ideas that I know will be relevant to them.  For example, in Hamlet, Hamlet’s devastated by the hasty marriage of his mother to his uncle.  I ask students, “how would you feel if you were Hamlet?”  They can connect to that for sure!  Or when I teach Romeo and Juliet, we discuss young love and lust and being a rebellious teenager.  High school students can definitely see the relevance in those ideas.

Students think it is boring and old-fashioned.

On this front I am direct.  There is nothing boring about sword fights and plots to kill the King.  There is nothing boring about love at first sight and feuds between families.  I tell my students that if they are bored, it is because they are not paying attention.  They can disagree with me, but it won’t get them far, as I believe boredom is self-inflicted and I tell them so. I also have a two standing rules in my classroom:  1.  I expect students to come to class with a positive attitude and approach. 2. I tell students that I reserve the right to fail any student who disses the subject of Shakespeare, as it is one of my great passions in life. The first is a real expectation.  The second I do say, but of course I do so with a smile and tongue in cheek.  However, they see my humor and my point, and I rarely have to deal with the subject of boredom after that.

(I receive no compensation for my plug of Shakespeare and Company.  I just believe that they do great work.

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