By Mike Klein
Year after year kids in my classroom have strikingly similar reactions to my announcement, “Tomorrow, we’ll be starting Shakespeare.” That reaction is usually a series of “Ughs,” or “Oh nos!” or “Whys?” The most dreaded by English teachers everywhere is, of course, “I hate Shakespeare!”
Perhaps I am different, perhaps I’m a masochist, but I relish these answers. I see them as my opportunity to do what I set out to do when I decided to become a teacher – change minds.
Teaching Shakespeare in my class begins by starting not with books, but with words. Not just any words, Shakespeare’s words. The most effective method of getting kids of any age (I know because I do these lessons with my middle school drama kids!) comfortable with Shakespeare is by leaving the books on the shelves. Books can be cumbersome and have copious notes and footnotes so I begin by giving them a single page of lines from the play I’m going to start them with.
Almost any play works with an exercise called “Three-Dimensional Shakespeare,” outlined by Michael Tolaydo in Shakespeare Set Free. I use it for Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing.
When I start Hamlet, the class gets into a circle and I give everyone Act I Scene I. Then we read around the circle. Hamlet works well because many of the lines at the beginning of the play are short, declarative sentences, such as “Who’s there?” and “Stand and unfold yourself!” Even shy readers will want to be part of the action, and it won’t overwhelm them.
The first time through the scene, I usually stop at the ghost’s entrance (I, i 46). I then start asking questions: “Who are these guys?” “What are they doing there?” “What time of day/year is it?” All of these questions are indicated in the text. After my students have answered the questions—which they do easily—I ask them why they know what time of year it is, and someone will point to the words, “’Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart.”
The conversation about the difficulty of Shakespeare’s language is exposed: It’s not all that hard to read Shakespeare, and they’ve learned it themselves. We continue the scene until all the information is revealed, and they’ve figured it out on their own!
The next step is getting the scene on its feet. Now that the students know the whos, whats, and whys of the scene, they are in charge of performing it in class. Volunteers for the characters are usually not a problem, but getting the more reticent students involved may be a challenge. The students not involved directly with performance might become directors.
The truly quiet student can be part of the scene if you simply ask him or her a yes or no question, for example, “From which side should Barnardo or Francisco enter?” The student says stage left, and suddenly that student has made a decision and seen it performed. Other students can be in charge of sound effects as a group, singling no one out, creating wind, rain, etc. The whole class is involved, and the fear or dread of Shakespeare has been dispelled.
These exercises can be applied to any play; I use it with success for Midsummer with the “rude mechanicals” (“What are these guys doing here?”) and for Kent and Gloucester in Lear (“What are the initial conflicts of the play?”). These lessons are more than just a brilliant introduction to the plays; they also introduce students to Shakespeare’s language.
Kids who are convinced Shakespeare is too difficult often never even give the plays a chance. Letting Shakespeare speak for himself is always a success and turns many of those “Ughs” and “Oh Nos!” into “What play are we reading next?”
Michael Klein is a 2008 TSI Alum and is a member of the Folger Teacher Corps which is responsible for presenting teachers with Folger sponsored, performance centered teaching methods. He is currently teaching 12AP and 12 Honors English at Sachem North High School on Long Island.