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.