Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

A plague a both your houses!

~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger

Most teachers might think that arming students with a host of insults and asking them to hurl them at each other is NOT a good idea. But, in teaching Shakespeare, it can be the beginning of a fun learning activity.

I had the opportunity today to watch two master teachers gather students on the Folger stage and teach them what it means to play with Shakespeare’s language. The plays are full of insults, and these are marvelous sound bites to help students connect language, expression, gestures, and meaning.

In the first activity, two students faced each other, each with a short insulting phrase. Students had a few moments to review the words, determine meaning, and think tone and gesture that would really get that meaning out to the audience. Then, one pair at a time, students hurled the insults.

I use the word “hurl” because the delivery of the lines was physical—in fact, it was palpable. The students threw themselves into the activity, making faces, shouting, narrowing their eyes, turning toward or away from the other person—all movements that reinforced the meaning of the words.

The second activity gave students a chance to build a scene. The teacher provided a more extended disagreement between two characters. A small disagreement grew into a shouting, gesturing match as students literally built on the words with their actions. By the end, there was no doubt about meaning and emotion spilling off the stage.

Using insults and arguments is a great tool for helping students take words off the page and give those words real meaning. They are able to make strong connections through their emotions—something students have an abundance of during school years. They all know what it means to feel angry, hurt, frightened, furious; it’s not a huge task to think of voice volume, facial expressions, or gestures to demonstrate those feelings. Acting out Shakespeare’s insults creates a great opportunity for students to explore the connections among language, tone, gestures, and meaning.

There might be an extended benefit as well. A teacher told me once that she thought students using Shakespearean curses in the halls at school would be a great upgrade from the language she typically hears.

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