Teaching Shakespeare

Top Tips for Teaching Shakespeare

Teaching Shakespeare
Teaching Shakespeare. Photo © InFocus Multimedia

Teaching Shakespeare can be one of the most challenging, yet enlightening jobs ever because there are always new techniques to try and fresh perspectives to discover. There is nothing more satisfying than when you get a student to engage with Shakespeare because you know that experience will stay with them for the rest of their life.

However, Shakespeare gets an undeservedly bad reputation in schools.

I think that those with negative feelings about Shakespeare are more vocal than students with positive experiences. I think teachers also need to recognize that the Bard's reputation for being somehow difficult and irrelevant proceeds him. Teachers need to develop techniques to tackle this head on!

So, here are my top three teaching Shakespeare tips – and I welcome contributions from Shakespeare teachers worldwide. If you think I’ve got something wrong or would like share your own advice with fellow Shakespeare teachers, please share your thoughts and top tips with us.

Teaching Shakespeare Tips

  1. Relate it to their experience. The great thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that they speak across the ages because the themes are very human. For example, love in Romeo and Juliet is as relevant today than ever before, and Hamlet’s emotional turmoil remains psychologically engaging to a modern audience. This timelessness creates an opportunity for students to engage with Shakespeare. Start by talking about modern events that parallel the events and themes of Shakespeare’s plays and slowly introduce the text.
  1. Don’t ignore the language. Currently, there is a trend in teaching that suggests students work from modern translations of Shakespeare’s texts. Although this is a great way to help those new to Shakespeare to access the narratives, it removes the best thing about Shakespeare’s plays: the rhythm and the poetry. Without the poetry, Shakespeare’s plays become nothing more than stories. Try to use these modern translations as a springboard into Shakespeare’s language and use practical exercises to help you explore the rhythm of his verse.
  1. Read it aloud. I passionately believe that Shakespeare’s plays should be read aloud and performed, not silently read. After all, a play text is a mere blueprint for a stage production and should be treated as such. For a young student or someone new to Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing can seem lifeless (perhaps even terrifying) in book form, but can be hilarious in practice! Students need to have fun with Shakespeare, and what could be more fun than trying to get your tongue around: “What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?”
  2. Never admit it is difficult. Young people can throw up barriers to Shakespeare very quickly, and these barriers are very easy to trigger. The moment a teacher admits that Shakespeare is difficult, they provide an excuse for the student to disengage. Language like "Shakespeare was using everyday language - it is just that everyday language has evolved since the plays were written", and my personal favorite, "Shakespeare wrote in English. We all speak English. Shakespeare just has a thick accent!"
  3. Understand the rhythm in the language. Students will of heard of scaring-sounding long terms like Iambic Pentameter. Tackle these early on - preferably before you even mention Shakespeare! If students do a practical lesson on rhythm and meter first, and then have Shakespeare introduced to them, they are often much more open to learning. For a great practical introduction to iambic pentameter, please try our resource on the first Shakespeare lesson.