Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

'Tis in my memory lock'd

During the Folger’s recent Webinar on Teaching Macbeth, a teacher asked us, “Is it important to get students to memorize Shakespeare?” This is a question that often comes up, and memorization is often cited as a task that teachers use in their teaching. I have an answer for this, but first let me give you some background.

In Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice, Kylene Beers and her co-editors  discuss the stages of literacy. They begin by stating that from Colonial America until the Revolutionary War, the ability to sign one’s name was a sign of literacy. We’ve all seen those old movies where a character can only sign a document with an X. The authors call this “signature literacy.”

From then until the Civil War, literacy was the ability to read and write, with an emphasis on penmanship. Remember those extraordinary letters that soldiers wrote during the Civil War in Ken Burns’ documentary. Some  of you may have even learned the Palmer Method of handwriting (I am still the proud owner of a Palmer pin that I won for achieving some level of mastery). But the days of teaching “proper” handwriting are long gone. 

Following the Civil War and up until World War I, literacy took on another stage. With the influx of so many non-English speaking immigrants, the sign of a literate person was the ability to memorize.  As the authors wrote, “Literate people were those who had memorized poems, speeches, soliloquies.We now look back and label this time as recitational literacy, in that literacy as penmanship was replaced with literacy as knowing a body of work.We still see the interest in this today through E.D.Hirsch’s thoughts on cultural literacy and the (rare) tenth-grade teacher who demands that students memorize something from Shakespeare. But many readers of this text will remember being in school and memorizing “Trees” or “Annabel Lee” or “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”When you asked why, you were told, “Because you ought to know these poems.” In other words, recitational literacy.”

When I first heard Kylene Beers speak of this, I had an epiphany. My father, the son of Italian immigrants, never finished high school. But I recall his ability to recite some random poems at random times. My favorite was “Casey at the Bat,” but I seem to remember his reciting passages from “Charge of the Light Brigade” and “The Raven,” as well as some other I can’t recall. I never got to ask him where he learned them and why he learned them, but clearly he was a product of a NYC school system that valued Recitational Literacy.

So that brings us back to the question of memorizing Shakespeare.

I see the answer to this three ways:

  1. If your goal is simply to have students stand at your desk and “privately” recite their sonnet or soliloquy to you so that you can put a check in your grade book, I say STOP doing it. As previously stated, this methodology ended around 1920, yet so many teachers persist in doing it. Here’s why: Their teachers did it because their teachers did it because… I even started doing it in my early years in the classroom for the same reason. Although I hated doing it in elementary and high school, I figured it was just something I was supposed to do. No one ever told me that I shouldn’t so I did it. But soon I realized that it seemed like a waste of time–both mine and my students’, so I stopped. It was only when I heard Beers speak that I felt justified in my decision. So if you have similar feeling, you have my permission to cease and desist immediately.
  2. The Folger approach to teaching Shakespeare is to conclude a unit with a performance–whether it be in class or on a stage with other classes or on a stage at a Festival. When you get to this point in your unit, memorization of one’s lines is essential. But the difference is that the student is moving on the lines, thinking about what they mean, and engaging with other actors when saying the lines. This is very different from standing next to the teacher’s desk.
  3. In between #1 and #2 is memorization for a purpose–that purpose being a competition. Each year, the English-Speaking Union sponsors a National Shakespeare Competition in NYC. Here’s what the ESU says about its program: “16,000 students and 2,000 teachers from 60 ESU Branches participate in a curriculum-based program designed to help high school students develop their communications skills and appreciation of language and literature, through the study, interpretation and performance of Shakespeare’s monologues and sonnets. Students participate in three qualifying stages at the school, Branch and national levels. The English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition first place winner will receive the ESU’s Amanda Steele Scholarship for summer study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.” So if your goal is to have students develop their communication skills in front of an audience, I would encourage you to find a Branch near you and enter the competition.

I’m sure some teachers disagree with me, and I’d love to hear from them. So please add your comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

10 Comments


  • Last year, I started having all of my students–British Lit and World Lit–memorize poems as part of the the Poetry out Loud project started 5 years ago. IT IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PROJECTS WE DO ALL YEAR. They choose a poem from the website, PoetryOutLoud.org, and recite it in front of the class. I am humbled and inspired by their choices and their recitations. I am always surprised by the ones who do well, and all of them leave my classes owning a poem forever.
    We also are preparing tableau vivants for Macbeth next month. Everyone is excited, and the play has come alive for them.

  • Don’t forget Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest. This too is a tool to teach our students how to read and understand poetry. I use it to teach tone and as a preface to performance for my Shakespeare unit later in the year. My students always enjoy the contest and we celebrate everyone’s efforts in performing their poems.

  • While I do think that Poetry Outloud is a great project, what I’d really like to know is if anyone who had to memorize stuff in school still feels it was worthwhile. Or are we just perpetuating a technique that is 100 years old?

  • I was not forced to memorize any of it, but I was forced, as much school students, to read it aloud as we studied the various plays. Being new to the Bard at the time, I feel that this, along with being told what was about to happen in the scene we were reading, helped a great deal in following the language. In that sense, we were more “literate” for having done so, than just being forced to memorize speeches with no context added.

  • I’m going to second Leslie Healey. I still have “My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose” memorized from high school. I own it. A parent on curriculum night recited some lines from the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. One of the things they discussed on curriculum night is how that memorization helped them own the work in a way that other activities didn’t. A lot of mine have the Queen Mab speech. I had my students perform a sonnet last year, and it was great. I’m not sure I’d ever ask them to memorize and recite at my desk, but memorize and perform, for sure. And then there is this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ORccj9HosA

  • As a college student, I think memorization of Shakespeare’s monologues is extremely important. Sophomore year of high school, my class was assigned to choose any speech from Macbeth and memorize it to perform for the class. Our teacher added that he would award extra credit if we performed the monologues with emotion. Although this was driven by the desire for extra credit, it drove my fellow students to look for the subtext and truly understand what the character was feeling, and what power each word carried. As a performer, I learned to judge how I thought the character was delivering the speech; as an audience member, I got to see multiple interpretations of the same speech by my classmates.

    I agree that recitational literacy is a thing of the past, but there are few things that replace memorization in terms of understanding a monologue and taking it into yourself and truly discovering the importance of it.

  • I grew up in New York State in the 60s. At that time, state law required each student to memorize 120 lines of poetry, which could be broken up into say,3-4 poems or not, depending on the teacher. Most teachers required Shakespeare, and so many lines I still remember. I think it’s iportant to learn from Shakespeare, the beauty of poetry, the way poetry can express visions of words and worlds in a way prose cannot. Then there is the business of insight, learning the depth of great poetry can actually change our world, our minds, our circumstances.

  • I teach Macbeth to ninth graders. I don’t think they truly grasp Shakespeare until they have the chance to memorize and perform a piece. We can talk about iambic pentameter being the heartbeat of language but I think they get it when they internalize that rhythm with the intent of performing. We currently do a soliloquy project in which the students choose one of three soliloquies to perform (vaulting ambition, dagger speech, and Lady Macbeth’s 1.5 soliloquy pieces combined.) The students act as directors and decide the time period, place, and identity of their characters. Before performing, they create a Playbill for the soliloquy which includes their own modern translation of the soliloquy and an interview with the director in which they explain how the director’s choices are designed to illuminate the character. The Playbill has an overall design that reflects the director/actor’s vision of the piece. The students then memorize and perform their soliloquies in costume. The project has worked well, but our ninth grade team is considering replacing the soliloquies with scenes next year. As long as they memorize and perform a chunk of the play, I’m happy – Shakespeare is in their bones.

  • Great points and an important topic. You’re right on the money about the waste of memorizing for a solo performance for the teacher.

    However, there’s some great research on Executive Function–a collection of related cognitive skills that studies have shown to be a better predictor of school success and happiness than IQ.

    One skill that looms large is ‘working memory’, the ability to hold ideas in your head and do stuff with them (say like perform a scene).

    Check out this video on dramatic play and executive.

    ttp://being.publicradio.org/programs/2009/learning-doing-being/ss_questacademy/index.shtml#video

  • I had to memorize a passage from Shakespeare in 10th and 11th grades — many years ago. I still remember them. Memorization came in very handy in class when teaching one play and being able to recall a passage from another that fit the moment. It was a good source of comparison/contrast. When my colleagues and I were fortunate to study modern poetry through an NEH grant the school district received, Galway Kinnell urged (required?) us to memorize a poem before his session. Throughout the day we spent with him, we were invited to recite our poem and talk about it. The discussion that resulted from our recitation stays with me. I agree that memorizing for the teacher — one-on-one — makes little sense pedagogically, but as a means of entering into a conversation about literature, priceless.


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