Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Shakespeare Made Just As Easy

A while back I wrote Shakespeare in Other Words citing the reasons teachers should avoid using “No Fear” or “Made Easy” or any other parallel text edition in their classroom. Needless to say, it generated over 40 comments, including some from an author of “The Shakespeare Novels.”

But now I realize that simply dismissing those books wasn’t enough. What should teachers do, who not only find it difficult to teach the real stuff, but who may struggle with the language themselves? So here are a few suggestions:

  1. Since students can access the No Fear versions online for free, why not suggest or even encourage them to read them at home. And then read and teach the real text in class.
  2. Start with “baby steps.”
  3. Begin with a 15 Minute Play. There are eight of them on the Folger site.
  4. Pull out 30 juicy lines from the play you’ll be studying, put each line on a 3×5 note card, and give one to each student. Then they find a partner, come up with a scene using only the words on the cards, and perform the scene for the class.
  5. Instead of Made Easy texts, create a Made Shorter text. Using the Folger Digital Texts, copy a scene, paste it into a Word file, and edit it to a version that your students can handle.
  6. If you want to teach Iambic Pentameter, watch the video called Living Iambic Pentameter, but DO NOT SHOW IT TO YOUR CLASS. Instead, do your own version in class. No kid wants to watch other kids having fun.

Those are just a few ways to get past the fear and teach Shakespeare for Real. Post your comments below with other suggestions.


  • I agree with all of this. Less is more — don’t feel like you have to master every line of the play. When students engage with choice bits of the text, they digest Shakespeare’s language — not someone else’s.

  • I’ll echo Kevin’s statements, and note that I specifically dig #4. I’ve found great success with pulling out some “juicy” lines from Macbeth and not only doing two- lines scenes, but also tossing lines as well. My favorite outcome is when I hear students walking out of the room still delivering their lines – and then hear them in the hallway later that day, still speaking Shakespeare. When we actually get to those lines in the text, the students are familiar with them and love that it’s something they already “know.”
    I’ve often encouraged my students to familiarize themselves with plot so that we can move past that – and into the depth of the language – during our class study together. There’s no reason these texts have to be completely dismissed, however, they can never serve as a replacement for the real deal.

  • I don’t like to use the term, but as English teachers, we must “allow” students to explore the language, as challenging as it can be. Handing them “No Fear” or “Made Easy” simply tells them it’s too hard for them to understand. I don’t know of any mathematics teachers who give out made easy trigonometry. Shakespeare has never let me or my students down. Like you Jill, I toss lines with every play and I too hear them repeating lines long after class. As Kevin has said, it’s important for us to encourage students to leap into the language but not made to feel like they have to know every word, when they come away speaking lines from Hamlet or Midsummer, not unlike when they sing lyrics to songs, it’s music to my ears.

  • I think the moment I realized you didn’t have to teach every line of every play was the moment I became a good Shakespeare teacher. Like good poetry, you can’t tie a Shakespeare play to a chair and beat the meaning out of it; you have to explore and find it. A teacher and class should focus on important moments in class and not worry about getting every little bit of it. Reading Shakespeare for plot alone is missing the point; every one of my 9th graders knows the story of Romeo and Juliet when we begin reading it, partly because they’ve read Shakespeare Made Easy in middle school. One of my jobs in the 9th grade is to get kids to unlearn the idea that *this* was reading Shakespeare and get them to understand that the language is the crucial part.

  • What I like to do with the NO FEAR texts is take a small (5 line) passage and mine it with my students for literary devices that usually show up on tests: alliteration, assonance, metaphor and simile (you can get more sophisticated with AP Language students). Meaning emerges during this analysis. Then, ask students to compare this original early modern English passage to a NO FEAR passage to see what literary devices (as well as meaning) get lost (disappear) in translation. After modeling this, students can be asked to this on completely on their own.

  • Yeah, those 15 second plays in SSF are awesome and help with kids getting the big picture before we dive in. Another thing I love and find great value in are the Shakespeare dictionaries…the ones that show the (often multiple) meanings of each word. It’s so cool to see kids wrack their brains to understand something like Jacques’ “All the World’s a Stage” speech and then turn to the dictionary and see their eyes light up with understanding.

  • I felt a tremendous amount of pressure lifted when I discovered that I wasn’t a failure if I didn’t teach every word and line of a Shakespeare play. I echo what everyone else on here has already said. I like to give students passages from the play we are studying and let them dive into what is being said. I arm them with their Folger texts and a Shakespearean glossary and tell them to go to work. It is always wonderful to see them figure out lines without any of my guidance. Sometimes they become the teacher as well. They will give me an interpretation of a line that I had never considered and I realize it makes more sense than mine! Every year, to ease them into the language, I make sure they understand that I don’t hold all of the answers and people that spend their life studying Shakespeare’s texts sometimes don’t always agree on various interpretations of lines. I think this gives them a sense of relief that they don’t have to find the “perfect” answer.

  • Right. There’s no rule that says that teaching Shakespeare means teaching a whole play. Why not start with passages that share themes (the inescapability of family ties, the destructive power of jealousy) or literary devices (anaphora, assonance, metaphor, metonymy)? And why not poems, too? The compact form of sonnets makes them a great starting point. For instance, instead of handing ELLs a paraphrased play, you can guide them through close readings of a few sonnets. Not only does this support vocabulary development and sentence composing—it shows that EVERYONE can enjoy Shakespeare’s language. An added bonus: if your multilingual students are familiar with sonnets in their L1, invite them to compare a Shakespearean sonnet and an L1 sonnet.

  • I love these ideas! I encourage students to take a passage…for instance, “O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention” then make every word an onomatopoeia and make your whole body express it while you say it, even “that”. Then I ask them to close their eyes and listen and let the line take them on a mind journey as they listen. We discuss the colors and sounds suggested by the passage. Thanks for this informative blog!

  • The thing that really bothers me about the No Fears and the Made Easys is that they give the impression that there is a single “meaning” of the text, and they have decoded that meaning for students. In doing that, they remove the fun from the experience of Shakespeare. Meaning happens as they figure out what the text COULD mean. It happens when they see the different ways directors have interpreted the same line/speech. I completely agree with Mark and Mike and Chris and the rest that it is key that they know they don’t need to “get” every word. I just think the danger of the No Fear series is that it implies that there is a single meaning to be “got” from those words. When that assumption is the starting point of Shakespeare, it automatically cuts out the stuff that makes Shakespeare worth studying.

  • Another idea about how to use NO FEAR-like texts so that they are not completely out of the conversation: Ask students to provide examples of when a translation is helpful, when a translation does not make a bit of difference either way, and when a translation is absolutely unnecessary or confusing. Any predictions?

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