Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Sneaking Shakespeare

~by Gregg Long

These days, Shakespeare has a rather furtive presence in my classroom. Like designer jeans smuggled behind the Berlin Wall, we pull out our copies of Hamlet or the sonnets on the side, with an eye cocked towards the door. Not out of any guilt on our part: you can use The Bard to teach any number of composition or grammar tips you can think of. But having juniors yell “Now God, stand up for bastards!” in order to cover the interjection, can be so easily misunderstood.

My material for my writing classes have more or less crowded out the file folders, packets and binders covering the Renaissance, poetic meter, interpretive exercises and, sadly enough, the plays of Shakespeare. But I am nothing if not subversive.

Because I’m in the midst of putting together a new binder: “Sneaking Shakespeare.”

I’ll add to it as I progress, but the idea is to find ways to use the Bard’s language that are copacetic with writing, grammar and mechanics instruction.

For example, once I realized that, in my lifetime, I had picked up more literature through simply being surrounded by it rather than force-fed the material, I decided to give the students a back door into the world of Shakespeare’s language, rather than giving them explicit instruction. So on the first day of class this January(my seniors have me one semester at a time), I’ll be sneaking in some Shakespeare by handing out small scraps of verse as they come through the door.

passing notesSome of the verse I hand out will be done completely arbitrarily, but for the students I know, I pick the lines with care. “But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man,” perhaps, if I think the kid has a talent for irony. Or “Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!” for the guy who comes in yelling about having to write another paper.

Judy, in the second row, who has mentioned a preference for contemporary jazz, might get “Give me some music; music, moody food of us that trade in love.” And when Ruttiger, whom I was gracious enough to loan lunch money to last fall and who still has not paid me back, gets one of my favorites: “Base is the slave that pays.”

Once they have their slip of paper, I ask them to read it. Recite it. Share it with a neighbor. Share it with me. “Good,” I say. “Now, as to the course materials, here’s what you’ll have to…”

“But what does the line mean?” they ask.

“Never mind that,” I respond.

“Why’d we look at it in the first place?” asks another, not unreasonably.

“Never mind that either,” I respond breezily. It’s about now that they start looking at their schedules warily, wondering exactly what they were thinking when they signed up for the course.

And so we forget about Shakespeare for about a week, until we start in on the basics of argument, and how grammar and syntax helps prove our point. Or the week after that, when we cover claims and unstated warrants. Or powerful diction. Or figurative language. Or just about anything.

I can’t claim this is some miracle cure to restoring the humanities in the face of an overbearing preoccupation we have with an extremely narrow measurement of skills, but for my part, once they have the words down cold, the language of Shakespeare is easy enough to hone and polish lessons on the fundamentals of writing and communication. It’s pretty painless, actually.

For example, when covering modifying phrases, I have Judy recite her line and ask the class what the second part of the sentence is doing to the first part, and what would happen if it weren’t there.

And when we have to cover passive voice and when to use it, I call on Ruttiger (who still hasn’t paid me back  yet, the mooch) to read his line and try it in active voice. They inevitably prefer it in passive. So do I.

It’s an ongoing process throughout the semester, and it necessarily takes a back seat to many other components of the class: the persuasive essay, the modes of persuasion, the structure of writing and what to do when you’ve cut all your evidence from Wikipedia out of your research paper and have only a page left. But the funny part is, after about a month, when the students have their own and several others’ verse more or less committed to memory, some of it winds up appearing in their writing.

“Even a brief glance at how much hazing happens on campus is enough to make your ‘knotted and combined locks to part, and each particular hair to stand an end like quills upon the fearful porcupine,’” writes Lisa. (Yeah, I helped out. But it was her idea.)

“More money is needed to study ways to combat psychological stress experienced by soldiers home from these wars,” writes Ruttiger. “Until Congress loses the ‘base is the slave that pays’ mentality, the problem will not get better.”

The thing is, it’s rarely my idea for them to include such gems, and it almost always has them asking about the plays and stories that prompted such lines in the first place. And every once in a while, I wind up lending one of my copies of Hamlet or Henry V. I get the impression they think they’re doing me a favor by using and pursuing the language like this.

No matter. I’ll take it.

After a lackluster introduction to Shakespeare in high school, Gregg developed a love of the Bard through teaching his works to his high school students. He revels in teaching his students Shakespeare through modernizing themes and relevant analogies to make the works more accessible to a modern generation. He holds an MA in English from Northern Illinois University. Gregg currently teaches Journalism, World Lit, and American Lit at Lake Park High School.


  • You don’t act or direct yourself? No worries — you don’t need this experience. Print the Folger’s one-page handout, “ How To Stage A Scene ,” move the desks out of the way, and you and your students are good to go. You don’t want to grade the performance? That’s fine. Have them write an essay on what they discovered by staging a scene, and you can work on their writing with them. I think you’ll find a more authoritative, confident voice in that kind of writing than a traditional analysis, for students will have first-hand experience doing Shakespeare. In other words, they’ll be talking about how they made meaning with Shakespeare texts rather than thinking they need to find hidden meaning in them.

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