Fresh Ideas for Teaching Shakespeare

1. Grab their attention with a game.

Students have a lot of preconceived notions about Shakespeare, so I try to “shake” things up by starting off my unit with an attention grabber. Previously, I always started my unit with the first few minutes of “The Shakespeare Code” from Doctor Who, which shows the Doctor and Martha arriving to Elizabethan London. The Doctor “translates” the customs and habits for Martha, like pulling her out of the way of a dumped chamber pot! This is one way to get students excited right out of the gate.

Now, I have students play through a digital breakout I madecalled “The Missing Script”. Students play as Alex, an aspiring actor, and Alex helps Shakespeare’s servant find a misplaced script. The game takes students through the Globe (they look high and low – maybe the servant left it in the Galleries?), over the London Bridge, and through the Royal Exchange. They solve puzzles as they learn about Shakespeare’s London, and, if they are successful, they find the missing script!

2. Introduce Shakespeare's Language (gently)

I love Shakespeare’s language as much as the next gal and I’m capable of really nerding out about it. That doesn’t necessarily mean our students are ready to do the same. Instead of giving them a list of the two thousand words Shakespeare added to the English language, why not focus on just a few? Likewise, you can introduce a few politeness concepts like “thou” vs. “you” that carry a lot of meaning in his plays.

One of the ways I do this is to have my students complete a Webquest focused on Shakespeare’s language. They watch a brief video (3 minutes!) about Shakespeare’s contributions to English and a portion of a TED talk by Akala that explains Iambic Pentameter in a memorable way.

You can also distribute these bookmarks to your students to help them remember the basics – who doesn’t love a good bookmark? 

3. Bring your classroom onto the stage.

I love incorporating drama into my classroom, so it’s not a stretch to give students the stage in our Shakespeare units. If you’re a little hesitant about how to work this in, I’m here to tell you that you DO have time, and students WILL step up and embrace the responsibility.

I’ve been working with shortened scripts lately (I call them Shakespeare in 30 since the final show only takes 30 minutes!), and it’s amazing! Students can use these scripts for Reader’s Theatre after a class period or two to practice. They could even work a little longer and add blocking and costumes for a Staged Reading. Lastly, they can memorize their lines completely in a 2-3 week unit and perform their plays for each other. This is a great way to expose students to more Shakespeare beyond just one play – you could easily have your students in groups that each perform a different text.

4. Give your students permission to play with the language

It’s easy to think that Shakespeare’s texts should be held on a pedestal, but the reality is that he changed around his scenes all the time. Particularly in comedies, he was constantly at work to get the biggest laugh to cater to the biggest scandals of the day (think SNL here, folks). We can give students this same creative license.

One of my favorite projects from my very first year of teaching was to have students rewrite the end of Much Ado About Nothing as a tragedy. This idea came from another English teacher, and I was a little skeptical, but the kids dove in. They had such a great time giving characters dramatic monologues and forlorn glances and soap opera deaths. Another project I’ve seen in my time working with our local teen group, the Southeastern Teen Shakespeare Company (SETSCO), is a retelling of Romeo & Juliet in five pop songs. From the brawl scene (“Uptown Funk”) to the lovers’ deaths (“If I Die Young), the whole thing takes about 15 minutes and is just a hoot. Whatever way you come up with, challenge students to make the stories their own.

5. Invite new interpretations and adaptations

Lastly, challenge students to look for new insights into old texts. This is why we still have Shakespearean scholars, right? Because there’s still more to learn.

Instead of giving students one correct story, allow them to find many stories in the text. How would it change things if Claudio were perceived as a bumbling stepfather who’s really trying, but Hamlet just won’t let him in? How about if we look at Lady Macbeth through a modern lens of mental health and diagnose her with anxiety and depression? What if we examined all of Othello through Desdemona’s eyes?

Students can also create their own adaptations. One of the things that SETSCO did was to perform a mostly-mime Much Ado About Nothing. In this version, each character only said 1-2 words at a time, and meaning was conveyed through inflection and movement. This unique spin on the story amplified the depiction of Don John and Don Pedro’s manipulation of the other characters and gave the audience new insight into an old story.

Final Words

There’s no reason for students to ever consider Shakespeare old and tired. Instead, help them view these texts as a playground for imaginative analysis and creative reworking. These are a few of the things I do in my classroom and community, and I can’t wait to see what you do in yours! Tag me on Instagram at @nouvelle_ela and let me know how it’s going. :)

You can also check out these Shakespeare resources from other Coffee Shop teachers:

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