Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

4 Fresh Ideas for Teaching Familiar Speeches

By Dan Bruno

"To be or not to be"  (Folger's Luna)
“To be or not to be”, 2004 Folger Shakespeare Library

Often, when talking with colleagues, I find that a difficult part of teaching well-known plays like Hamlet is making the recognizable, highly quotable speeches seem fresh and alive with possibility. Here are some activities to help students discover the originality and complexity of familiar speeches from Shakespeare:

  1. Make It Personal: Have you seen this take on the familiar speech? This parody opens many possibilities for teaching the speech. Consider this: first, your students read Hamlet’s soliloquy aloud, working through the difficult spots where the meaning is shrouded by so many possible variations. Now, show them this or another parody, letting them see what is possible. Then, ask them to pick something about their life as a teenager and to consider it as Hamlet makes his considerations. They could ask: “To date or not to date,” or “To post or not to post.” Afterwards, compare their writings to Hamlet’s original language. Invite a discussion around the central problem and tone of each speech. (Young philosophers especially love this.)
  2. Make It Alien: That’s right, go Jabberwocky on it. Students are familiar with “To be or not to be,” but they have never seen “Iz fi o nit iz fi.” The benefit here is having students analyze the relationships between the words without the intimidation of the unfamiliar language.
  3. Make It Comparative: As master teacher and author Mike LoMonico would say, if you are going to teach Shakespeare, teach Shakespeare. But “modern translations” have their place, in very small doses and with very specific purposes. One of the great ways to use that watered-down approximation of Shakespeare is to reveal how much the language lacks in comparison to the original. For example: “or to fight against all those troubles” just doesn’t have the same epic quality as “take arms against a sea of troubles.” Have students examine the imagery, diction, and figurative language in each version. Let them see for themselves why there’s no substitute for the real thing.
  4. Make It Live: Find tidbits of action in these soliloquies and bring them to life as miniature stage plays. How might one act out the first five lines? Once the plays are over, connect each back to the language of the soliloquy. Now there is a concrete anchor for all of Hamlet’s abstractions.

Hamlet’s famous speech about indecision and existence is a great start, but feel free to try these ideas on any speech from Shakespeare—from Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger…” to Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”


Dan Bruno has been a high school English teacher for nine years. He has a Master of Education in Social Foundations of Education from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He also has a National Board Certification in Adolescent/Young Adult English/Language Arts. In July 2014, Dan was a participant in the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute. He currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two sons. 


  • Hi Dan, I appreciate the idea of quick inroads to teaching Shakespeare to students, but I have a couple of points of contention to raise with the suggestions in this post. I have to start by identifying myself as Director of Education at the American Shakespeare Center, and warning you that I have some passionate thoughts about the way we teach Shakespeare.
    First, certainly, in a single class meeting, it may be necessary to consider a single scene, sometimes that may end up with us devoting a lot of time to a single speech. When, thought, we teachers take speeches out of context, we miss the possibilities they present for response or playing. This speech is a fascinating study when we consider where it happens in the play (even more so when we consider that the placement changes from one early modern version to another). It is also fascinating to consider who might be hearing it by looking at the stage directions in the versions available. Asking both of those questions and showing them to students, raises questions of state of mind, the opportunity to determine or discuss if he means what he is saying or if he is acting for his on stage audience, and to play it both ways. Teaching textual variants both destabilizes the text (and returns editorial authority to students) and gives students a tremendous array of tools across all disciplines as they begin to see text as a product.
    Second, let me tell you, you are absolutely right: that first line is the most famous in Shakespeare (I’ve confirmed with that with hundreds, maybe thousands of students ranging in age from 9 to 90 over the years). The rest of the speech, however, isn’t known to students or even very many interested fans. So, starting with a “famous” speech is actually starting with a famous line and building your students’ knowledge from there. If you give them the chance to look at the speech like Burbage (the first guy who played it) would have, you give them tools that actually apply to every speech in the canon–and are ones that actors use. Consider the meter…where is it weird? what does that indicate about pace of thought? Consider the rhetoric, is he mixing up thoughts? choosing words that directly connect to others? Why? what does that indicate about his state of mind?
    Third, I believe that students (and actors) want to act the scene, not the lines. Those first five lines are not a play–and actors who would play them so will find difficulty getting cast. Students who try to will find themselves frustrated. These speeches, like the plays they are in are scores or blueprints for action, we don’t have to invent it–it is already there. If there are breaks in the speech, changes of thought or action–that is where students can ask what is happening to the character and try playing the text to indicate it.
    Fianlly, while I can see and appreciate comparing the text (unfavorably) to the NoFear series (and it is something that master teacher Ralph Cohen recommends, too), I agree with Mike that we need to tackle Shakespeare’s language, neither jabberwocky nor parodies will give them the same insights that an introduction to the background of this speech (OED is great, as is the take on early modern philosophy that Mr H would likely have gotten at Wittenberg–you might skim http://dspace.lafayette.edu/bitstream/handle/10385/1022/Cefalu-ELH-vol67-no2-2000.pdf?sequence=1) gives them the Shakespeare and the genius–instead of pointing up its “difficulty” (in quotes because when we encourage students to change Shakespeare to make it more relatable, we are teaching them that it is too difficult if we don’t, which it isn’t if they have the tools to address it).
    I find a real danger in avoiding the text in favor of activities, especially when there are so many activities that can make the text spring to life in the context of what these were written to be: Play.

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