As we celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth this year, English tutor and resource writer Genevieve White responds to some of the common problems teaching Shakespeare in the English language classroom.
I can still vividly remember the crushing boredom I experienced reading The Merchant of Venice as a fifteen-year-old high-school student. My classmates and I took it in turns to read aloud in a mumbled monotone, while our teacher dozed in her chair (occasionally waking up to summarise in simplified English). It was an uninspiring introduction to Shakespeare’s work. Sadly, I suspect it was not an unusual one.
Why on earth would we want to bring the Bard into the classroom? Most English language teachers I speak to admit that they have never considered teaching Shakespeare, while some are openly appalled at the notion.
Teachers cite numerous reasons for giving Shakespeare a wide berth. Here are some of the most common and why I disagree with them.
I just don’t see what Shakespeare’s got to do with the lives of my students
The playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) said of Shakespeare: 'He was not of an age but for all time', an appraisal I wholeheartedly agree with. If we want our learners to engage with Shakespeare’s work, we need to show them how relevant it is to our own lives.
Who hasn’t, like Juliet, fallen in love with the wrong person or, like King Lear, hurt the one they love the most? Open any newspaper and you’ll find proof of Shakespeare’s contemporary relevance.
In our world today, people do terrible things to achieve their ambition (as did Macbeth). Murders are committed (see the tragedies) and prejudice and inequality continue to thrive as they did in the lives of Othello, Katherine and Shylock.
Simply identifying commonality between Shakespeare’s times and our own isn’t all our learners can gain from studying the Bard’s work. Shakespeare can offer practical assistance in our everyday lives. Take Lady Macbeth, for example. How does she get that nice husband of hers to kill King Duncan? By using every rhetorical trick in the book, that’s how. Flattery and reassurance are Lady Macbeth’s favourite persuasive tools – and isn’t the art of persuasion one we would all like to master?
Teaching rhetorical devices through Shakespeare’s plays not only provides an introduction to the most compelling characters and plots in English literature, but also equips learners with the skills they will need to handle a range of everyday situations, from negotiating time off work to asking a favour of a friend.
It takes me a long time to decipher Shakespeare. How can we expect our students to cope?
When I read Shakespeare I need glossaries and footnotes to help me understand unfamiliar words and historical references. How then, can we expect our learners to decode his works? In fact, there are a number of ways to make the language of Shakespeare more accessible to learners of English.
- Keep exposure to Shakespeare’s language short and sweet, locating simpler passages for use in class whenever possible.
- Use mix-and-match exercises where a line in Shakespearean English corresponds with a translation in modern English. A great site to help you with this is No Fear Shakespeare.
- Focus on the similarities between Shakespearean and contemporary English rather than the differences. Shakespeare coined many idioms still in use today, for example: 'good riddance to bad rubbish' and 'all’s well that ends well'. See this video for inspiration.
- Lower-level learners can still enjoy Shakespeare’s work if it is packaged in a more accessible format. Check out this tabloid report on Romeo and Juliet, for example.
- Although this may sound like an alarming amount of work for a busy English teacher, the good news is that you can find a range of ready-made Shakespeare resources on our Teaching English site.