Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

How to convince your students that Shakespeare's language is accessible

During our first office hours on Twitter last week, we received this question:

@FolgerED How does one get buy in through the language, when it’s a language irrelevant to modern pop culture?#folgerofficehours

We needed to know more, of course . . . so the middle school teacher who had asked it clarified in a second tweet that it’s her students who feel that the language is irrelevant. “… many students may not see the connection to their lives today & I wondered how that is being addressed.”

The language buy-in is way easier than you anticipate if you remember a few things:

  • Not all language written by Shakespeare is complicated.  He used more monosyllabic words than any other writer in English.  And he wrote tons and tons of language that is, in fact, very easy to understand.  Lines like these:

My love!  My life!  My soul!

Then came each actor on his ass.

Thou shalt be my queen.

These clothes are good enough to drink in.

Thou art the best of the cut-throats.

Get thee gone and follow me no more.

Come, come, away!

Get thee gone and follow me no more.

Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?

And there are loads, loads more.

  • Start with this very accessible language.  For a moment, don’t worry about the play you’re studying and don’t even think about meaning, because your students can figure the meaning all by themselves.  And they will be surprised and delighted that they can speak Shakespeare and understand it all on their own.  Begin with giving students a chance to put together their own Shakespearean insults (http://www.folger.edu/documents/KidInsults.pdf) and shout them at one another.  For slower readers, pair students into teams and they can verbally hurl insults at other teams.  It’s fun to say that stuff, it’s middle school, and it’s starting to seem not so archaic.
  • Use lines like the ones above, written one per index card, and have students pair up and work on two-line plays.  They each figure out a physical action to go with their line, and say their lines to one another.  A two-line play!
  • Once you have all dispensed with the belief that the language is impenetrable and complicated, you can have some fun talking plots:

–Boy and girl madly in love even though their families despise each other, run off and get married, try to figure out a plan so that they can be together in spite of all the death and violence that surrounds them

–Brave warrior wants to be king. His wife really wants him to be king.  Why?  Because a bunch of witches have told him that this is his future.  To make this happen, warrior and wife work together to plot and murder, but they end up being the victims . . . both dead.

–A prince has no interest in becoming king.  He’d rather keep on doing what he loves best–hanging out in bars, drinking and planning robberies with his criminal friends.  His father the king is not happy with his son.  How does this all work out?  Or does it?

Let the language roll in your classroom and have fun!

Peggy O’Brien is the Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Follow her on Twitter at @obrienfolger or send her an email at pobrien@folger.edu.