Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

"With every minute you do change a mind,"

Every year the schools participating in our local outreach programs, Shakespeare Steps Out  and Shakespeare for a New Generation, have to select one of Shakespeare’s plays to perform at their respective Festivals. There are always the big populars: Midsummer, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet – but sometimes the teachers are looking for something a little different, or something they can tie into other parts of their lessons throughout the year.

But how to choose?

Student Players, Secondary Schools Festival 2013
Student Players, Secondary Schools Festival 2013

Lucretia wrote a fantastic post for us on this topic in 2010. One of the things she’s seen teachers do in the past is give their students examples of a few plays and lets them decide which they’d like to focus on. Additionally, using our 15-minute plays would also give them an idea of the language and plot! Here’s an excerpt from our Romeo and Juliet:

There, at this party, is where Romeo first sees Juliet. (6. O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!) They dance. They kiss. She says, (7. You kiss by the book.) Only at the end of the party do they learn that the other is from their own family’s hated enemy.  It’s too late, they are in love with each other. Romeo sneaks away from his friends, climbs the wall into the Capulet’s orchard, and sees Juliet at her window (8. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?) Juliet, not knowing Romeo is nearby, says (9. O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?)  They confess their love to each other, but Juliet is called inside. Romeo says, (10. Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?) Juliet says, (11. If that thy bent of love be honorable, Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow.) They enlist the help of Juliet’s Nurse to send messages and Friar Lawrence to marry them.

Lucretia also gathered some great advice from veteran festival participant Sharon Rosenblatt of Gesher Jewish Day School:

When I select a play, I try to use one that has as much of these elements [outrageous humor, black magic, blood and lots of great sword fights] as possible. I also consider, of course, the number of students with which I have to work. Midsummer is great for a large cast. Macbeth is wonderful; the ghosts, madness, blood and sword fights make it fun to perform. I have recently added Twelfth Night to my selection…the idea of boys being girls and girls being boys gives everyone a great laugh and a real sense of Shakespeare.

Ms. Rosenblatt also offers up three insights from working on Shakespeare with her students over the years.

1) The plays are very confusing at first, but the more you work with them the more they understand. The more they understand the better the performance becomes. 2) Encourage everyone to take a part- the bigger, the better. It never fails that those reluctant students who selected very minor roles always regret their decision. 3) Don’t panic or become discouraged. These kids will knock you out; just give them this opportunity and step back!!

What are your favorite plays to focus on in class? Would your choices be different if you were (or weren’t) planning to perform them?

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