Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Start me up…

One of the most difficult parts of teaching a Shakespeare play is simply getting started. For generations, we began by teaching all the biographical facts about Shakespeare that exist–when he was born, when he married, how many children he had, the missing years, etc. Then we discussed Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, what London was like at that time, and finally, what people “back then” ate and how they dressed. But what we most often taught (and tested) was about every nook and cranny of the Globe Theatre. Now with the addition of  Shakespeare’s Globe in London, we could even have our class take a virtual tour of the building.

I am convinced that none of this has much to do with a student’s appreciation or understanding of Shakespeare.

Plus, they get the same facts from each teacher who teaches them a Shakespeare play.  And they still can’t recall those facts. And why should they?

So how should we begin?  Here are a few simple ideas.

  1. Begin by looking at language-based activities. You might explore denotation and connotation, stress, pauses, or inflection. There are plenty of good activities in our Shakespeare Set Free series. Here’s a sample lesson  from our Website to get started.
  2. Use some fun activities. Using insults or compliments gets words into students’ mouths and makes them more comfortable with the language.
  3. Start with a short scene–not necessarily act 1, scene 1. Every play has one of these. It’s usually short, has several actors in it, and can easily be read several times in one lesson. I like to use act 1, scene 1 from A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it is written in prose and it is about a bunch of guys who know nothing about performing and they are preparing a play. Hmm. Sounds like my class.
  4. Before you get started, consider leaving some scenes out. The only way to do performance-based teaching and not take up an entire semester is to leave out those difficult scenes. Here’s one in Macbeth my students never figure out.
  5. Drop in those factual items about Shakepeare when they pop up in a play. For instance, a character in MND says, “Let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming.”  That’s the perfect time to discuss the absence of women on the Elizabethan stage.

I hope this helps. I welcome other ideas and suggestions for starting a play. Please add your comments and tell me how you start a Shakespeare unit.


  • Of course I learned this from you – but what you just said makes so much sense. Without being judgmental, I know that there are classrooms where more time is spent on things outside of the play – than the actual text of the play – and this just doesn’t make any sense to me (well it didn’t after I learned it from the Folger). What you describe in step three – what Michael Tolaydo calls the Acting Circle – is not only the way that I start Shakespeare – but it is also the way that I now start most texts.

  • I know my students enjoyed the “tossing lines” activity that is in the Shakespeare Set Free book for Macbeth. They would get excited when we’d run across that line later as we were reading the play and the fact that we spent pre-reading time on it signaled to them that it was important without me saying, “This is important. write it down.”

  • Of course, my students are enjoying Shakespeare because of the Folger’s Institute in 1996…they look forward to the activities…those who had me the year before-beg to begin Shakespeare…THANKS SO MUCH!!!!!

  • We did tossing lines in Macbeth, and the students not only remember the lines when we come across them later, they remember whose lines they were (Hey, Ben, that was your line, remember? was something I heard recently). When I do R&J, I love to do the insults.

  • I think it is essential to start the exploration of a Shakespeare play with connecting-life-to-literature activities. My particular favorite, one that adapted for the Folger from British practices is called: “Cross the Room If…” Divide your class into two lines facing each other. Students are instructed to cross the room if what I say pertains to them. For Romeo and Juliet, I might ask students to cross the room if they ever wanted to date someone their parents wouldn’t allow them to, or, if they know families that are fighting. The latter question is great to probe. “Of those people who crossed the room, do you know WHY those families were fighting?” I sometimes jump right to the Prologue after this question to “predict” with students what the two households might be fighting about. As students monitor their predictions through reading the play, they discover, ironically, that Shakespeare never tells us why the Capulets and the Montagues are fighting. This makes for another interesting discussion. Why doesn’t Shakespeare tell us what the origin of the feud is? How many of you remember saying YOU don’t know WHY the feuding families you know are fighting? Good readers put themselves in the shoes of the characters they encounter. This simple pre-reading exercise (that can be adapted for any play) helps students make those connections and can be linked to parts of text immediately.

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