Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

"I must begin with rudiments of art…

To teach you gamut in a briefer sort,”
The Taming of the Shrew 3.1

students from Inspired Teaching PCS act out Shakespearean Insults

Recently, I was embroiled in a discussion of whether or not younger students could “handle” Shakespeare’s work. I, of course, insist that elementary school students can and will “get” Shakespeare. Another member in the discussion said that young students aren’t ready to deal with the entirety of any single play, and if that is the case then they’re not ready for any of it.

That is exactly the kind of thinking that we educators need to free ourselves from. When we’re teaching “Shakespeare” we don’t have to teach an entire play. “Getting” Shakespeare doesn’t mean you can recite whole passages by age 10. It means that you understood a line of text, learned a new word, engaged in dialogue between two characters. It starts with the little things. If you end with a classroom performance, the most you’ll definitely work on is 30 minutes of a 4 hour play. The rest is icing on the Shakespeare cake.

You wouldn’t hand  a student a violin and ask him to start playing without having first taught music notes. You wouldn’t ask a student to do addition if they hadn’t yet learned to count.  And you wouldn’t give a student a Shakespeare play and tell him to read without starting to play in class with unique words, with the rhythm of iambic pentameter, or with the plot of the play they’re about to work with.

Everything starts small. Learning Shakespeare does, too. For any level class – you never have to feel obligated to teach an entire play. This point has been echoed by both Scott O’Neill, one of our former Teaching Shakespeare Institute participants, and Andrea Jackson, Director of Education for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Links are to their Teacher to Teacher videos on our YouTube page.

What do you think? Where did you start with Shakespeare?


  • Younger students are definitely ready for Shakespeare…….My third grade students listen to a read aloud of Macbeth ( Lois Burdett). This takes place over a couple of weeks. We support with plot cards…. THEN the fun begins…we choral read….we move….we have sound effects….swordfights…draw….speak…..write….THEN sometime in June we perform the play (script thanks to Harvey Sardis). They are speaking real Shakespeare….they love it….the language….the costumes…..they get the big picture message from the play….We use a smart board to support the story….especailly for our audience. It’s terrific….I know my students will not be turned off or scared away from Shakespeare when they next meet him in middle or high school.

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