By Genevieve White

06 March 2014 - 16:24

'In our world today, people do terrible things to achieve their ambition.' Photo (c) Andrew Smith, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'In our world today, people do terrible things to achieve their ambition.' Photo ©

Andrew Smith, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

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.

Sorry, but there are way more interesting things to read with your students. I’ve always found Shakespeare pretty dull.

Shakespeare certainly can be dull and boring if his work is taught in a dull and boring way. If, however, English learners experience a challenging, lively and rewarding introduction to Shakespeare, it is highly likely they will want more!

  • Think of your favourite English teaching activity. Do five-minute speed debates work well with your learners? Then why not discuss an issue central to a Shakespeare play? Focus on Macbeth and debate the motion: 'Too much ambition can be dangerous', for example.
  • Alternatively, try a Shakespearean balloon debate. Find a list of the top ten Shakespearean villains, give each learner a villain card with character information and get them to prepare a case for why they should be released during an amnesty (in which only eight villains can go free).
  • The drama technique of 'hot seating' is a fantastic way to promote speaking and allows learners to get under the skin of the most intriguing characters in Shakespeare. Divide learners into groups and give each group a set of character cards from a play. Each learner should have some character information: not too much, but enough to give them an initial picture. The rest of the group then asks questions, for example, 'What did you have for breakfast? What do you do on a typical Saturday? Do you love your wife/husband?' The learner in the hot seat should answer all questions in character.

Far too much sex and violence – a lot of Shakespeare is simply inappropriate for classroom use.

Teachers generally know their learners well enough to decide what is and what is not appropriate for classroom use. Shakespeare’s work can be shocking at times, but doesn’t this also provide welcome respite from the safe and anodyne world of the course book?

Don’t be frightened to bring the Bard ('Boldness be my friend!) into your classroom. Some of the most enjoyable and rewarding lessons I have experienced in my sixteen years of teaching have been courtesy of the Bard. Preparing lessons needn’t be a chore. The web is awash with ready-made Shakespeare resources, teaching ideas and video clips.

Theatre is an interactive medium, and a truly engaging lesson on Shakespeare should also allow plenty of opportunity for learner interaction, role-play and discussion. Bear this in mind, and Shakespeare’s work is (as the Bard himself might have it) your oyster.

Visit our Teaching English site for Shakespeare lesson plans.

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