5 Things to Avoid While Teaching Shakespeare

— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff on

Introducing Shakespeare to high school students is daunting. Getting them to care about Shakespeare is even more intimidating. Though we often have the best intentions, many of us fall into the following teaching traps when we turn to the Bard.

I'm certainly guilty of doing this, and I've tried to make up for these transgressions by doing things a little differently. Let's look at these five (extremely common) things to avoid doing while teaching Shakespeare to high school students as well as how I've tried doing things instead.

1. Force Students to Read the Play Aloud as if They Were Actors

The theater lover in me opens Shakespeare and wants my students to experience the magic firsthand. Have students read it aloud; have them perform it! They will make it their own and fall in love with the characters the way I did in the theater.

This seems like such a good idea. But, it's actually an easy way to make your students cringe at the mention of Shakespeare's name and fake sore throats to get out of reading.

What I love about seeing Shakespeare performed in a theater is how well the actors perform the lines and make them easy to understand using the right inflection. Students approaching the material for the first time have a hard enough time working through what the text is saying, let alone performing in a way that is entertaining and meaningful to everyone else in the room. (Not to mention it generally embarrasses the more introverted students and makes them feel quite negatively towards the play.)

Instead, I try to let professionals, like Branagh, take the stage:

  • Find a recording of the play and have students follow along while the tape reads. You'll be surprised to find how much better the students are able to understand the language in the play when it is performed properly.
  • Stop the tape frequently to discuss the metaphors and ask them questions about the text.
  • If you want students to perform the lines, assign them a particular scene to learn and memorize. This will help them fully understand how the language works and make the material their own. Win win!

2. Consider (or *shudder* call) Shakespeare's Language "Old English"

All of my students start off calling Shakespeare "Old English" because it seems so alien to them. However, Old English is actually an entirely different language.

Beowulf was written in Old English. It looks like this:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

Shakespeare is written in Early Modern English. Arbitrary, technical, and unnecessary distinction, you might say? Think again!

Telling your students that Shakespeare is not Old English but Modern English can help make the text more accessible. He does use some archaic puns, metaphors, and vocabulary, but what students are calling "old" is his syntax and poetic phrasing, not so much his language. They don't have to learn a whole different language to understand the play—they just have to figure out how he plays with the language they already speak (which is so much easier!).

I try to dust off the old language with the following:

  • Do a lesson on iambic pentameter and poetic phrasing (Shakespeare's weird syntax). If students know why the language sounds so strange, they will feel more competent approaching it, instead of dismissing it as something "old" that they don't think they can understand.
  • Analyze something like hip-hop or lyric syntax to help students understand how Shakespeare played with the language. In other words, people in Shakespeare's time didn't necessarily talk like this, but they understood his language the way we understand songs today.
  • For a fun way to help them play with Shakespeare's syntax and form, have students try to write a Shakespearian sonnet in iambic pentameter. Proposing they write about particularly absurd topics (Sonnet to a Squirrel) makes this exercise informative and entertaining.

3. Read the Play for Its Plot 

The best part of a Shakespeare play in the theater is watching the characters and plot unfold on the stage. But what's even better is being able to break down all of the metaphors, irony, allusions, and off-the-wall metaphors. And there is no better place to do that than an English classroom!

While spoilers for Game of Thrones may be blasphemy, spoilers in Shakespeare allow students to get into the really fun bits of these plays. Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots from historical events, mythology, or other playwrights. The fun of Early Modern Drama was not what was depicted, but how it was depicted.

I try to indulge in spoilers:

  • Encourage students to look up a synopsis of the play online before reading it as a class.
  • Create a plot outline and post it somewhere in the classroom (or online) so that students know exactly what they are reading about when they get lost in the language.
  • Spend class time focusing on the specific metaphors, irony, characters, etc. This will help students remember the play and its themes long after the class is over.

4. Treat Shakespeare Like the Almighty Bard and Master of the English Language 

This one was really hard for me to accept. As an English teacher, theater lover, and metaphor enthusiast, Shakespeare is the almighty master of the English language. However, my tendency to nerd out over Shakespeare's brilliance before my students even got to the text tended to make them less open to reading (or loving) it.

Why? Because Shakespeare already comes with a lot of baggage. Chances are, your students have associations that align Shakespeare with high-class, complicated, and unquestionably brilliant literature. When in reality, Shakespeare was the "low," popular entertainment of his time. Shakespearian theater was performed outside the city walls near bear-baiting pits and whore houses.

Treating Shakespeare texts like they contain all of life's answers will dissuade students from engaging in, questioning, and appreciating the text for what it is. Shakespeare is full of body humor, insults, innuendos, and, yes, flaws. If you introduce Shakespeare as undeniably great, your students will miss all of this (or worse, think they can't talk about it).

I try to put Shakespeare back in the bear pit:

  • Introduce Shakespeare in his Early Modern context.
  • Bring in modern books, short stories, or play adaptations by authors with ethnically diverse backgrounds to show students how authors have taken up the same themes as Shakespeare (many even doing it better).

Fun Fact: the Bodleian library (one of the most famous libraries and the site where they filmed Harry Potter's library scenes) originally rejected Shakespeare's plays. Sir Thomas Bodley claimed that he had built the library as "an ark to save learning from the deluge" and had to keep out "very unworthy matters" such as Shakespeare's plays.

5. Lecture About What the Play Meant to Say

Many of Shakespeare's plays are extremely controversial (see The Merchant of Venice) or extremely cryptic (see King Lear). When I first started teaching, I thought offering a resolution to these problems would help students better understand and connect to the story.

It did not.

Resolving textual problems only solidified the idea that the text was perfect rather than helping the student learn. Grappling with these controversies and inconsistencies can be one of the most rewarding and empowering exercises a student can do in an English class.

I tried to get cozy with ambiguity:

  • Hold a classroom discussion or debate about what is going on in the text and why.
  • Rather than offering solutions, ask students a lot of questions and never resolve the problems. The question is often better than the answer anyway.

Even if you avoid all of the don'ts and do all of the dos, some students will never get happy feet when you pull out a Shakespeare play. But, if you give the students the space to engage with the plays, they will leave the class with something even more valuable: critical eyes and confidence.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do to teach Shakespeare is to make it fun for your students and yourself. Who knows, you might even create another anglophile.