Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

All Students Deserve Shakespeare

In my January 5th  Blog entry, Shakespeare in Other Words,  I ranted against using “modernized” or “Shakespeare Made Easy” versions of the plays. But those well-meaning teachers who use those books are at least trying, and I suspect, with a bit of help and some quality professional development, they will toss those books and get to what Shakespeare actually wrote.

But an even bigger problem is those schools and ELA teachers who just don’t teach Shakespeare at all. So thousands of students are graduating from high schools across the nation having never experienced a Shakespeare play.

Here, I think, are the reasons:

  1. There is a lack of preparation in pre-service Methods courses in graduate and undergraduate programs.  Whenever I lead a Shakespeare Set Free Workshop for teachers, the first question I ask is “Who taught you how to teach Shakespeare?”  Most veteran teachers laugh at that question and most newer teachers get very nervous. The reality is that there are only a handful of university courses in Teaching Shakespeare and Shakespeare rarely comes up even in a basic English methods class. If any of my readers here have had some good college training in teaching Shakespeare, please add your comments below.
  2. The emphasis on testing (which doesn’t include specific texts) scares teachers, so they avoid Shakespeare if they can.
  3. Many school administrators actually discourage teachers from approaching Shakespeare except in AP classes for reason #2.
  4. Many ELA teachers had a bad experience with Shakespeare when they were high school students. When I poll my Methods students at Stony Brook University, most of them either have bad memories or no memories of learning Shakespeare in school. The very few who had a teacher who used performance and had them “doing” Shakespeare, report that they had a good experience.

Even though the Common Core State Standards are rather specific about incorporating Macbeth and Hamlet into 11th and 12th grade curricula, we suspect that some schools just ignore them.  Here’s what the Standards say (emphasis mine):

  • RL.11-12.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.) and
  • RL.11-12.7Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.
We know from so much research that reading and decoding rigorous texts has significant benefits that are lacking when we teach YA novels. Carol Jago makes a great case for Shakespeare and other difficult texts in With Rigor For All. And Kylene Beers, in an NCTE Report called The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor makes a more serious case for what she calls, “Segregation by Intellectual Rigor.”

So here we are, with so many students for so many reasons, never getting the opportunity that their AP colleagues get.

Here’s something relevant that was posted on The Daily Beast in December. See #18:
31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012 “Reading the Bard has been shown to engage the brain more actively than most contemporary texts, but watching him can’t hurt either. This winter, go see Titus Andronicus in New York City or The Two Gentlemen of Verona in Washington, D.C.”

To sum up, I believe that all students deserve Shakespeare. So what should be done?


  • I have a very good memory of studying Shakespeare in high school. We read Julius Caesar and at some point, the teacher had students stand in the back of the room acting out the parts. I remember being Cassius in his discussion with Brutus and we found, while reading it out loud that we were able to inflect it more and use emphasis. We got grins from the teacher and the students but everyone understood it better. That was the teacher that inspired me to take four courses in college. I took two of Shakespeare and two of Elizabethan drama (other than Shakespeare).

  • I went to school in the UK and from a young age we learnt about Shakespeare. We had the oppurtunity to go on school trips to the theatre and even a ballet in the case of Romeo and Juliet. We had an amateur drama group come into school and get us involved in scenes from Macbeth and all that was before I went to high-school. In Secondary school we had Shakespeare on the National curriculum for Y9, the GCSE compulsory English course (School leaving certificate of education) and then I chose to study literature for A level (2 year optional post 16 course) where we had two Shakespeare modules. I love Shakespeare and we explored the original (or as close as possible) texts often with notes for students to aid understanding as well as watching modern-day interpretations. I cannot imagine the English classroom without a Shakespeare element but think it should include both the Shakespearean versions and ‘Shakespeare made easy’ or modern-day Shakespeare texts/films/theatre productions because no everybody has the capacity to understand and ‘decode’ original Shakespeare and should not be expected to. Our modern vernacular is not exactly as English was spoken in the 16th century… Let’s face it – I live in Canada and half the time I have to ‘translate’ my British English!

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