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Teaching Shakespeare the Fun Way

Sharilee obtained a degree in secondary English education from the University of Calgary. She has taught in Canada for ten years.

Introducing Ten Strategies for Teaching Shakespeare

With the new implementation of the Common Core State Standards, many teachers are facing the prospect of teaching a Shakespearean play for the first time. If you are looking for some ideas for getting through one of the Bard's play without boring both yourself, and your students, to death, keep reading. I offer some fantastic strategies for teaching Shakespeare the fun way.

What are my qualifications? Well, I am a former high school English teacher and I have been told three times that "these students won't learn Shakespeare." I took those words as a challenge and smiled, "we'll see."

Perhaps you are facing a class full of students who have no interest in reading, never mind reading Thee's and Thou's. It is possible to teach Shakespeare to a class that doesn't want to learn it. Teach Shakespeare in a way that gets students interested.

This article offers ten strategies for teaching Shakespearean plays to your class You too can introduce the world's great playwright to a bunch of very reluctant teenagers who would rather have been playing video games, or texting their friends. These strategies will help your bored class turn into an Shakespearean enthusiasts.

Don't Be Afraid of the Bard!

Shakespeare can be a bit intimidating to some.

Shakespeare can be a bit intimidating to some.

1. Make it a Privilege

Make doing Shakespeare seem like something that students only get to do if they do all their work, and are well-behaved. Talk about it with excitement and anticipation. Don't worry about all the eye-rolling you will receive from this enthusiasm; that's just them being teenagers. Don't give up and make them believe that reading these plays is the absolute best thing you have ever done in your life. It works!

Director's Chair

As teacher, you get to play the director in your class!

As teacher, you get to play the director in your class!

Acting It Out

Acting it out! (Image from the Vancouver Film School )

Acting it out! (Image from the Vancouver Film School )

2. Assign Roles Every Day

The second strategy, is that for each individual scene, you should write out the list of characters on the board, and write the name of the person who will be playing that character beside it. You need to have all the characters in the scene written out, so that everyone can refer to it, and remind students if they have forgotten to say their line. It keeps everyone on track, like stage directions, and lets you focus on the play, instead of who's supposed to say what.

As well, assigning roles lets students have ownership of their characters, and gives them a sense of security. Let them choose their roles, as much as you can, and if Derek only wants to do the one-liner, that's fine. At least he has participated!

And roles don't have to be the same every day. Just, for every scene and every fresh day, assign new roles. You get to be the casting director every class!

It is also a good idea to keep a list of your cast members from each class, as a record of who read the most, and a reminder of who did what each class.

Be a little wild and crazy!

Let the students get a bit wild and crazy!  (Image from Vancouver Film School)

Let the students get a bit wild and crazy! (Image from Vancouver Film School)

3. Act It Out

Act it out as much as you can. Don't give up on this one, even if you are the only one acting. That's okay. You are the role model. By acting, I mean, use movement, and try to set up a stage at the front of the class. It doesn't have to be BBC, but just give them the idea that it is a play, and not a story, or an essay. This makes it come alive, and brings out the excitement of the plays!

As well, use props, no matter how primitive! For the fight scenes, I have used clothes hangers, brooms, yardsticks, and yes, real swords. Just grab whatever is handy. Most boys, especially, will relish any opportunity to use weapons, no matter how imaginary. Acting it out is the most powerful teaching strategy you can add to your arsenal, because it makes the play come alive before their eyes!

4. As a Teacher, Take on Roles

As the teacher, take on roles as needed. Be their role model in acting it out and acting silly. This shouldn't be some stuffy exercise: it was supposed to be entertainment!

Take on the roles that no one else wants, and read with enthusiasm. You can model the pronunciation, use of language, and acting. Even if you've never acted, you are a teacher, so you must have a bit of a ham in you!

Read More From Owlcation

For major parts such as Hamlet, share a role with one of the students, or have them share between themselves. That way, it's not too much pressure for one person. You can either alternate lines, or read until tired. Do both, depending on what works best for that day. The point is to get through it.

Shakespearean Insult Gum

Image by Colin Anderson, and No, I don't know where to get this gum!

Image by Colin Anderson, and No, I don't know where to get this gum!

4. Do Shakespearean Insults

"Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous."
- As You Like it.

You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!
-Henry IV Part 2

Yes, there are no insults like the ones thrown around in grand fashion by the characters of Shakespeare. This activity allows students to create their own insults, and is the one instance where back talk is allowed, and even encouraged. Hilarity ensues!

I was introduced to the basic bare bones of this activity during my university years by a classroom teacher who came into our university sessional, and whose name I do not recall (sorry, who ever you are!), and then I gave it my own twist. Here are the instructions:

MATERIALS NEEDED: one large piece of coloured construction paper per student, markers (at least one per student), scissors, one list of words per student

  1. Print off the list of words (found to your right here ------->)
  2. Photocopy enough copies for your class
  3. Each student receives a list, a large piece of construction paper, scissors
  4. Students choose one or more words from each column to create insults, and write them down, with markers, on the construction paper.Preface the insults with the word "thou." Students do ten insults each
  5. Instruct students to cut out each insult, creating ten different strips
  6. Collect strips. Mix them up, and re-distribute, ten to each student.
  7. Ask for two volunteers. Give ten random strips to each volunteer. Have volunteers stand in front of the class, facing one another.
  8. Have them "duel" using the insults. One person says insult. The other one rebuts, using another insult back.
  9. Have all students find a partner, and duel using their ten strips.
  10. At the end, create a display with the best insults, titled "Shakespearean Insults." Use the actual strips created by students. For further engagement, have students involved in putting up the strips themselves.

The Plays of William Shakespeare

Painting, "The Plays of William Shakepeare" by Sir John Gilbert

Painting, "The Plays of William Shakepeare" by Sir John Gilbert

6. Check for Understanding Often

Don't go very long without checking for understanding. You may be thoroughly enjoying it, but the students might be completely lost (and often are!) After a conversation, ask "what did Romeo mean here?" or "What just happened?" Then, give them some time to try to figure it out. They can check their glossary to try to understand some of the words. They can also guess, and you can take their guess, and flesh it out for more understanding.

An excellent way to check for daily understanding is to require a summary from each scene, written in their own words. This will help motivate them to pay attention, and also let you know how they are doing in their understanding.

Song from Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack

7. Sometimes, just Go with the Flow

It is important to check for understanding often, but it is also important for students to be able to experience the "flow" of a play, without always having to understand absolutely every word. I have read "Hamlet" about ten times now, but I still don't get all of it. A high school student won't either, and that's fine.

So, at time, just keep reading, even if they don't get it. This will let them experience the flow of a play, and listen to the flow and majesty that is the writing of William Shakespeare. The people in his time didn't get all of it, either, but they had fun.

8. Use Many Comparisons to Real Life

Find analogies wherever you can, between their lives and the plays you are doing. Research this if you can't find them yourselves. It is imperative for them to be able to relate, so that they don't get turned off.

Romeo and Juliet issues? Suicide, stalking, breaking up, parents not understanding, gang warfare, macho stupidity! Sound anything like today? The plays written by William Shakespeare are universal, with themes that relate well to the classroom, but it's up to you to help them find the connections!

Excellent Multi-Media Resource Introducing Shakespeare as Playwright

9. Bring in Other Media

Bring in other media, as much as possible. Your resources will vary, depending on where you teach, but try to include a variety of sources relating to the play you are doing. Try to find the most engaging version of the work you are studying, and use it. Don't torture your kids with something you would find boring.

Movies are an excellent resource, allowing the students to see the play as it was originally intended: as a drama. There are some guidelines and considerations for watching a Shakespeare film, but it can still be a very effective resource in your teaching arsenal.

Graphic novels are another excellent way to engage reluctant learners with the text. I had one student who wasn't in my class come and borrow one of our Romeo and Juliet graphic novels, and read it all, even when he didn't have to! Graphic novels give the student a visual, and are in a format that they understand and can relate to.

Another great tool to use to supplement the text is audiotape. If you can get ahold of these, they will let the students "hear" the play, which help the auditory learners in your classroom. As well, picture books are good, with visuals of the time of Shakespeare, and the costumes.

Any aids which help in the comprehension of the play will be helpful, and make learning Shakespeare fun, and accessible to all students!

See This Site for More Multi-Media Ideas

Journalling is a Good Strategy

Have the students journal their way through the play. It helps them to clarify their thoughts and respond to the play.

Have the students journal their way through the play. It helps them to clarify their thoughts and respond to the play.

10. Use a Daily Journal

Daily journals for Shakespeare study are very effective, because journals can become part of the routine, and therefore are more likely to be done by all students. You can use the journals in many different ways. A couple of the uses that I found most effective were the following:

a. Use the journal for daily summaries of the scenes that were read in class. This keeps all the summaries together in one place, and allows the student to go back to previous scenes to check for information.

b. Use the journal to write "diary" entries, from the point-of-view of one of the characters in the act that you are studying. Writing from a character's viewpoint helps them to relate to the characters, and helps develop empathy.

A journal can be used to achieve whatever your desired outcomes are for the course, but are good because they give the students a special place to do their Shakespeare study, which encourages ownership of their work.

Hey, get Thee onward, to teach these abhorrent damsels and gentlemen the said manners and methods found therein the bowels of this great and honourable William Shakespeare!

Shakespeare Quotes Quiz -- From Which Play are the Following Quotes?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night till it be morrow
    • MacBeth
    • Romeo and Juliet
    • Hamlet
    • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  2. Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it i
    • Henry V
    • MacBeth
    • The Tempest
    • Hamlet
  3. To be or not to be, that is the question
    • Hamlet
    • MacBeth
    • Romeo and Juliet
    • The Merchant of Venice
  4. Beware the ides of March
    • Julius Ceasar
    • The Merry Wives of Windsor
    • Hamlet
    • Romeo and Juliet
  5. The course of true love never did run smooth
    • The Merry Wives of Windsor
    • The Merchant of Venice
    • A Midsummer Night's Dream
    • Julius Ceasar
  6. How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!
    • The Merchant of Venice
    • Romeo and Juliet
    • Hamlet
    • King Lear
  7. Out, damned spot! out, I say!
    • MacBeth
    • King Henry the Sixth, Part III
    • A Midsummer Night's Dream
    • Romeo and Juliet
  8. This above all: to thine own self be true
    • MacBeth
    • Hamlet
    • Merchant of Venice
    • As You Like It
  9. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool
    • As You Like It
    • Romeo and Juliet
    • Julius Ceasar
    • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  10. Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
    • Romeo and Juliet
    • As You Like It
    • Hamlet
    • MacBeth

Answer Key

  1. Romeo and Juliet
  2. MacBeth
  3. Hamlet
  4. Julius Ceasar
  5. A Midsummer Night's Dream
  6. King Lear
  7. MacBeth
  8. Hamlet
  9. As You Like It
  10. Romeo and Juliet

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 3 correct answers: Yikes! Have you even heard of William Shakespeare?

If you got between 4 and 6 correct answers: Not too bad! You must have been paying attention in at least some of your high school English classes!

If you got between 7 and 8 correct answers: Thou dost impress me with thy precious wit and said understanding!

If you got 9 correct answers: My goodness! You are a regular Shakepeare scholar! What other hidden talents do you have?!

If you got 10 correct answers: My goodness! Unheard of! Have you considered teaching Shakespeare?


Gordon on February 23, 2018:

All good suggestions!

Sandy on June 19, 2017:

Which of Shakespeare's books would you recommend for 8th graders?

SayaEducation on October 20, 2015:

Great stuff!

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on September 23, 2012:

Travel Man, that's a great comparison! Thanks so much for the comment.

Ireno Alcala from Bicol, Philippines on September 16, 2012:

Wow! It's like Flip Tap, a lyrical and well-rhymed insult rapping that is now a fad among hip-hoppers and often recited with the help of a group or team along the streets.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on May 04, 2012:

Idy, that is so great that you enjoy Shakespeare! It's good to hear of someone reading his works on their own. Have a wonderful day!

Idy Asuquo on May 03, 2012:

Reading shakespear book gives me much joy.its interesting and fun.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on December 04, 2011:

Oh, Deborah, you're so sweet! I had so much fun teaching Shakespeare, and the kids really liked it, too! I am sure you would be a most excellent student, and a great asset to the class. Thank you so much for the votes and comment. Take care.

Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on December 04, 2011:

wow you can teach me anytime you want to.. I would love to sit in one of your classes..excellent article and videos and pictures.. thank you for putting all of this together.. and researching..I vote up and excellent

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on October 31, 2011:

JL, I love it! I have not used this approach but it's brilliant. Thanks for the great comment!

JL on October 30, 2011:

Make it really interesting by teaching them that it is really a comedy making fun of teenagers! I am astounded by the irony of having teenagers take seriously something that was intended to make fun of them. Read with sarcasm and exaggeration and you get the story.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on June 15, 2011:

Ken, that is so cool! You must have been such good students to have in her class -- no wonder she gave you and automatic "A."

Ken Barton on June 14, 2011:

Actually, she gave us all "A's", when she came to one of our rehearsals she realized that we all had memorized all the lines to the entire play, not just the actors; so, she told us to forget our next exam, we all got "A's"! Dr. Kay was an awesome teacher at Toccoa Falls College, Ga.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on June 14, 2011:

Ken, thanks for the feedback. That must have been quite the play! And then you had the whole town came and saw it, too. I hope she gave you a kicking mark for that performance! You have a good day, too!

Ken Barton on June 13, 2011:

Nice Hub, I remember when I took Shakespeare in college and our teacher let us put on a Play for our primary project. We had a blast putting on "Taming of the Shrew" for our friends on Campus. Then a week later for the whole town of Toccoa, thanks to someone reserving the theatre in town for us. Have a great day!

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on March 05, 2011:

Docmo, thank you so very much! You are very kind and I am moved by your generous comments. Thou hast performed much proudly on this the very test of knowledge and entertainment from sir bard Shakespeare! And all the best to Thee! Take care.

Mohan Kumar from UK on March 05, 2011:

What an absolutely cracking strategy to teach Shakespeare. As a medical teacher and lecturer I have tried to use techniques outside the box to teach humanities and consultation skills- these brilliant strategies will certainly help many teacher not only for Shakespeare but also for topics that some students may not find endearing-

It is not the subject matter as you have proven decisively here, it is the teacher and the methods that make any subject enriched!

I scored 80% in the quiz and I am 'chuffed to bits!'

Thou dost impress me indeed, prairie princess! voted up & awesome.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on February 12, 2011:

Jimmiewriter, thank you so much! And so nice to meet you. That's great that you are going to do some Shakespeare with your daughter. That's a great advantage of home schooling: that you can start things earlier if they are ready! Take care.

Jimmie Quick from Memphis, TN USA on February 11, 2011:

I've been browsing your hubs, and, WOW, are they great! My daughter loves Shakespeare (retellings so far). She'll be in 7th grade next year and I think we'll start to tackle an original Shakespeare.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on January 16, 2011:

Thank you, Sharky! That is such a great idea to help break things up! Take care and thank you for the comment.

Sharky on January 15, 2011:

A good method of keeping students awake is to make a joke or two about the characters, while not losing track of the main story. This works alarmingly well in the tragedies, for some reason.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on December 20, 2010:

Cookingdiva, I didn't like Shakespeare, either, in high school, so it's funny that I ended up teaching it, AND loving it! I'm glad you've discovered the joys of Shakespeare later! Take care and thanks for the comment!

kashmir, thank you so much. It is nice to see students still studying the classics, isn't it? Take care!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on December 19, 2010:

Shakespeare was a great writer and his works are important has any other writer's. It is so nice to see today's students embracing all his plays !

cookingdiva on December 19, 2010:


I remember not liking to read Shakespeare when I was in high school, as written words were hard to comprehend in poetic way it is written. Now as an adult I appreciate the genius behind the man. I wish had read this hub then. Better late than never!

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on December 17, 2010:

Ken, I agree that it is SO useful to study Shakespeare... for all students! Thanks for your comment, and I'm glad you did so well on the quiz! Take care.

Ken R. Abell from ON THE ROAD on December 17, 2010:

Enjoyed this a great deal. Your strategies are creative & quite interesting. Shakespeare remains desperately needed in education. BTW, I took the quiz & missed one. Voted up & useful.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on December 16, 2010:

ssaul, that's great! He was such an amazing writer and thinker. Thanks for the comment.

ssaul on December 16, 2010:

love Shakespearean theories, and his ideology

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