Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Is Shakespeare Literature?

~ By Kevin J Costa

Late this fall, at McDonogh School where I teach drama and run the Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, my Institute students and I were talking about AP exams. And then one junior asked, “would it be acceptable to write about Shakespeare on an English AP exam?”

You just smiled while reading that question, right?

The rest of my class and I did, too, when we heard it. “Of course,” I said, quite surprised at the notion that Shakespeare might be off limits. But then it struck me, although she beat me to the punch, saying, “well, I just think of Shakespeare as theatre.”

writing exam

The joke, in other words, was on the rest of us. I mean, isn’t this the whole point? If we teach Shakespeare through performance, we do so in order that students will have a deeper, more personal relationship with his work. Yes, we want students to read closely, to think in “literary” ways about Shakespeare — to meet, in other words, the objectives of an ELA classroom — but, I guess, it’s more important that we understand that goal. The beauty of learning Shakespeare through performance is that it provides students a deeply rigorous interaction with a complex text at the same time that it stimulates their creativity and their ability to problem-solve collaboratively. Oh, and yes — it’s a ton of fun.Think about it: this is the kind of thing kids will do on their own time — the school play, football, chess club. It’s real work, but compelling work because it puts them at the center of their learning.

It’s understandable that, for teachers new to this approach, this can be somewhat uncomfortable territory. “If I’m not talking all the time,” a teacher may say, “am I really doing my job?” And what about quizzes, passage identifications, and critical analyses? After all, these are more objective assessments than grading a group of students performing a scene. This is true. But the simple point is this: what do you want your students to learn (and not just what someone thinks they should know)? If it’s a deep appreciation for language, for an understanding of why Shakespeare helps us to comprehend ourselves, and a respect for collaboration (and yes, to meet Common Core objectives), then performance-based learning is the very best way to meet these goals.

You don’t act or direct yourself? No worries — you don’t need this experience. Print the Folger’s one-page handout, “How To Stage A Scene,” move the desks out of the way, and you and your students are good to go. You don’t want to grade the performance? That’s fine. Have them write an essay on what they discovered by staging a scene, and you can work on their writing with them. I think you’ll find a more authoritative, confident voice in that kind of writing than a traditional analysis, for students will have first-hand experience doing Shakespeare. In other words, they’ll be talking about how they made meaning with Shakespeare texts rather than thinking they need to find hidden meaning in them.

One of my juniors wrote the following about a scene she performed in class: “The fact that I needed to make my own choices prompted me to look deeper into the text to determine the best ways to say each phrase to make the story clear to the audience and look for any clues in the text where Shakespeare might have indicated a stage direction.” Not only do good actors and English students do this, good thinkers do this. The world will always welcome better thinkers!

I’m proud to say that the English department at McDonogh School, where Macbeth is taught to the tenth grade, all engage in performance-based teaching. When that unit is on, it’s no surprise to find groups of students all over the school clutching at daggers, sleepwalking, or shouting at a bloody Banquo. It’s a thrill to see.

And yes — some of them even write about the play on their AP exams!

Kevin J. Costa is a TSI 2010 Alumni. In addition to being an English teacher at McDonogh School, he is Director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, Head of the Drama Department, and Director of Fine & Performing Arts. He also serves as the Director of Education for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and is former Chair of the Shakespeare Theater Association’s Education Committee.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)