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Classroom techniques to help pupils tackle Shakespeare

By Dominic Fitch

20 May 2016 - 16:23

Dominic Fitch, creative director for the Shakespeare Schools Festival, suggests a few ways teachers can help pupils get to grips with Shakespeare's plays.

When Shakespeare wrote his plays, it was for the enjoyment of theatre audiences. He probably didn't imagine that, 400 years later, school pupils would be studying his works in class and doing exams about them.

With this in mind, perhaps the best way to approach Shakespeare in the classroom is first to help pupils imagine the world of the play and the characters that live there. Here are two ways to actively involve pupils in analysing Shakespeare's plays.

'All things be ready if our minds be so'

Before introducing one of Shakespeare's play to your pupils, take some time to prepare well. This can save you lots of time and worry later on. Read through your play, making three lists as you go:

1. Facts: these are concrete aspects of the play, e.g., events, familial relationships, characters' thoughts and intentions, titles, jobs. For instance, here are a few facts about the opening scenes from Twelfth Night:

  • There has been a shipwreck
  • Viola doesn’t know where she is
  • Viola thinks her brother may be dead
  • Viola decides to disguise herself as a man

2. Questions: these are the questions that require a decision or interpretation in order to make sense of the narrative or characters. You will have more questions at the beginning of the play, which you will start to answer as you discover more facts. Again, using the example of the opening scenes from Twelfth Night, you might ask:

  • Who is Viola – how old is she?
  • Who were Viola and Sebastian on the ship with?
  • What does the island of Illyria look like?
  • What is it like to be on a ship wreck?
  • Why does Viola want to disguise herself as a man?

3. Unfamiliar words: words that your class might not know or that are used in an unfamiliar context

Often, when working with Shakespeare, we start with the unfamiliar words and leave it at that. However, we can help pupils imagine the world of the play and its characters by picking out some salient facts and asking questions such as those listed above. The questions, in particular, help stimulate yours and your pupils' imagination. You don’t need to know all the answers – simply ask your pupils. It’s far more exciting to make discoveries with them.

'The play’s the thing'

I recommend that you work with your pupils to create a playful ensemble. This playfulness is different from the chaotic play of the playground: it is creative but structured and purposeful. It enables a collaborative and fun way of working that will help you to get the most out of your teaching.

Break the play down into plot points

Shakespeare plays are stories. Here is the story of Macbeth in ten plot points, which you should use in the activity that follows:

  1. Two soldiers, Macbeth and Banquo, meet three witches who predict that Macbeth will become king and Banquo’s heirs will be kings.
  2. Macbeth writes to his wife, telling her of the prediction, which she takes to mean they must kill Duncan, the current king.
  3. Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth wrangle over whether or not to kill him.
  4. Macbeth kills Duncan as he sleeps.
  5. Duncan’s sons are initially blamed for his murder and flee in fear, leaving Macbeth to be crowned king.
  6. Macbeth has Banquo killed. He is haunted by Banquo’s ghost and returns to the witches. They reassure him with more predictions of his power.
  7. Macduff flees to England to ask Duncan’s son, Malcolm, to return and fight Macbeth as Scotland is collapsing under his rule. Macbeth has Macduff’s wife and children killed for this disloyalty.
  8. Lady Macbeth dies.
  9. Macbeth comes under attack as the witches' predictions come true one by one.
  10. Macbeth is slain by Macduff and Malcolm is crowned king.

Using 'freeze frames'

If your students aren't familiar with the idea of freeze frames, get them to imagine pressing the pause button on a DVD player. The idea is for students to arrange themselves so as to create moments of action, frozen in time and space, that tell a clear story.

Now, as a group, read through the above plot points. You may need to clarify certain points of pronunciation, particularly the names.

Next, ask your pupils to get into small groups and to create freeze frames of each of these points. It can be useful to give each group two or three points. Encourage them to work quite quickly to create the freeze frames and avoid lots of talking.

Ask them to add transitions between the different freeze frames so they are not separate moments – in other words, they'll need to re-arrange themselves from one freeze frame to the next in a way that doesn't interrupt the flow of the story. You could layer language and narration on top of these. A narrator could read the plot points aloud over the freeze frame.

Ask the groups to show the freeze frames to the other groups, and ask the groups watching to note down the things they enjoyed or found surprising.

Using freeze frames can be a good way of giving your pupils 'ownership' of the story; in other words, they can put their own stamp on. You could also photograph the freeze frames and put these up on the wall of the rehearsal room, as it will be a good way to help pupils remember the details and characters of the play.

Find out more about Shakespeare Schools Festival, the largest youth drama festival in the world, or about our Shakespeare Lives anniversary year.

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