Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Columbus Day

Teachers often ask me how to justify teaching a Shakespeare play in an American Literature class.

My answer is simple: Teach The Tempest. Many scholars believe that The Tempest was inspired by the real-life shipwreck of the Sea Venture off the coast of Bermuda in 1609 on its way to Jamestown. The account of that incident written in a letter by William Strachey  reached England in 1610. Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote The Tempest soon afterwards. In addition, the plays deals with different views of Colonialism–a good stopic for classroom discussions.

You can hear Sam Waterston and scholars talk about the storm and the survivors in this Podcast from our series, Shakespeare in American Life.

There are plenty of teaching resources for The Tempest on our Play-byPlay section of the Folger Education site.

If any of you teach The Tempest, please add your comments below.


  • I do teach The Tempest, nearly every year. One of the very cool things with teaching this play in an American context is to put the students in a position where they can discover a metaphorical link between Caliban and Arial with the ideas of a field slave and the house slave (respectively). But I also tell the students (after we discuss this) that the comparison gets a bit tiresome when you’ve seen it in too many productions of the play. There are a number of lessons and handouts on The Tempest at my website: http://www.awaytoteach.net

  • In my class last year, we looked at the parallels between Caliban and Native Americans. Stephano controls Caliban by giving him alcohol and making him serve as their “servant monster”. It served as a jumping off point for some great discussions on imperialism.

  • I teach The Tempest as part of a larger colonialism-themed curriculum. We talk about the shipwreck, etc. which leads us to Aime Cesaire’s play, A Tempest. We talk about the implications of Caribbean colonialism, etc. and always include a discussion about Malcolm X (as Cesaire’s Caliban has re-named himself “X”). I’m not sure this is the strongest connection to American literature, but it is interesting and fun!

  • Though I’ve never taught The Tempest I most definatelty think it can serve as an allegory for the colonial treatment of Native Americans. I think it can also be a great opportunity for students to use the postcolonial lens. I just read a YA book called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that deals with a teenager who is caught between his reservation and the rich community in which he attends school. He’s forced to choose between abandoning his culture and “serving” the whites or remaining “savage.” I think carefully selected excerpts from this novel could help illuminate the language and meaning of Shakespeare’s work in a more “American Lit” sort of way.

  • If you think about it, Caliban’s “you taught me your language and my profit in it is that I know how to curse” sums up the entire 400 year nightmare of imperialism in one sentence.

    Teach Tempest–you won’t be sorry!

  • I think “The Tempest” can be a great classroom tool for English teachers. Not only is the play entertaining with various story lines occurring, it is also educational. Especially if a English teacher can coincide the teaching of this Shakespeare play with an American history class. By pairing the classes together the students can gain background knowledge of colonialism which can enhance their understanding of this play. The students will see how Shakespeare can relate to reality and thereby making The Tempest more accessible to students.

  • Hi, folks:
    I teach The Tempest with immigration issues. In the lesson plan I wrote for the Folger in conjunction with Shakespseare in American Life: http://www.shakespeareinamericanlife.org/teachers/lessonplans/plan7.cfm I highlight what I feel are the three significant immigration issues the play touches upon though its characters: 1. People’s reasons for and/or circumstances around coming to a new land 2. People’s dreams about the possibilities (or lack thereof) of their futures in the new land, and, 3. The denial of resources by established immigrants to the new ones. The website takes you through steps to link the stories of the lives of Shakespeare’s characters to the stories of the lives of your students. Enjoy!

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