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Teaching Shakespeare Through Film

Sharilee obtained a degree in secondary English education from the University of Calgary. She has taught in Canada for 10 years.


Shakespeare can be intimidating to students.

Shakespeare can be intimidating to students.

Movies Are an Important Resource for Teaching Shakespeare

As a high school teacher, I taught Shakespeare plays to students that no one thought could learn Shakespeare, including at-risk non-academic students. To make it work, I had to use my creativity!

Introducing a Shakespeare play to a group of teenagers can be intimidating. The language, the culture, and the characters can all seem remote from their lives and understanding. A teacher must search for ways to bridge the gap between the learner and the text.

One of the most effective tools for bridging this gap is the medium of film. Teaching Shakespeare in the twenty-first century requires more than just a dry reading of the play but an effective teacher will use a variety of resources to aid their students' understanding.

Movies are a very important resource when it comes to teaching Shakespeare because they bring what often appears to be a lifeless text to far from our modern experience. The words, which seem to be so far from the twenty-first century, are brought to life. Students of our time are visual and used to "seeing" things. It is also important to note Shakespeare's plays are just that: plays and plays are meant to be enjoyed as an acted-out experience, not just studied as text.

I am presently developing a website devoted to teaching Shakespeare using engaging methods. What follows are some guidelines and ideas I have come up with for using movies to help you in teaching Shakespeare.

Actors acting out a scene from Hamlet.

Actors acting out a scene from Hamlet.

When to Show a Movie

When you have decided to show one or more movies to the class, you will have to decide when to show the film. You need to make this decision as you plan your unit, so that you are prepared to use the movie in the most effective manner. Here are a few pointers to consider in your decision as to when to show the film to your class.

Showing the Film at the Beginning of the Unit

  • This has the advantage of introducing the film to the class and giving them the "gist" of the play before they get started. It can act as a great overview to refer to later on.
  • The disadvantage of this method, though, is that it can be too long to show to the "uninitiated" and actually turn the students off and lead them to lose interest. The other disadvantage is that showing the movie at the beginning may distract them from forming their own opinions about the play before even reading it. Some students will rely solely on what they have seen in the movie, and not pay attention to anything taught in class.

Showing the Film at the End of the Unit

  • This approach also has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of showing the movie at the end of the unit is that the students have gained prior knowledge of the film, when they see it. From their study in class, they will be able to understand a lot of more of what is going on, and be able to follow the movie much more easily. The more adept students may be able to recognize any differences between the script of the play and the produced movie.
  • The disadvantage of showing the film at the end is that students is that the students will lose the benefit of being introduced to Shakespeare before they study.

Showing the Movie in Parts as You Study the Play

  • This method has the advantage of not overwhelming the students with too much Shakespeare at once! The small chunks of film also make it easier for planning purposes because Shakespeare's plays can be very long. Doing it act by act, or even scene by scene, can be very good for discussion. as you discuss the movie part and the text.
  • Possible disadvantages of this method may be the availability of the DVD player, and that it may be a bit disjointed in your lesson planning to use film this often in your classroom.
Students watching a movie.

Students watching a movie.

Showing the Movie Twice

A fourth option is to show one movie at the beginning and one at the end of the unit plan.That way, you get both the advantages of showing the movie at the beginning and at the end. The disadvantage is that this can take away from other valuable learning activities and time is always limited in the classroom. Your administration may or may not approve of a certain amount of film time in the classroom.

Showing Clips of Selected Parts of the Play

One last option is to not show a whole movie at all, but simply show clips to illustrate certain parts of the play. This can also be a very effective strategy that will allow you to use the power of film without allowing it to eat up too much of your teaching time. I would suggest this method especially for teachers who cannot afford too much classroom time for a movie.

There are a couple of drawbacks to this idea: first of all, it takes a lot of preparation time to prepare the clips and it does not allow the students to visualize the play as a whole.

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So these are some options for deciding when to show the movies. Consider your students, your teaching style, and your other planned activities when making this decision.

Which Movie Should I Choose?

The next question you will wonder is, which movie to show? For popular plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, there are several productions available. You will have to find these resources early, to ensure they are there when you need them. Sometimes you will have to schedule around other teachers in your division who are also teaching the play or you might need to buy the resources from a teaching supply catalogue or an online book store. If you are not familiar with the film, look for reviews, talk to other teachers and preview the film, before procuring it, if that is possible.

There are three basic categories of movies you might choose to show in your class.

Word-for-Word Productions by the BBC

  • First, there are stage productions of the play that follow the play script word-for-word. These versions are usually quite long. They can be intimidating to students but they do provide an excellent overview. These productions will vary greatly in quality. They may be quite boring for students but they provide a similar experience to what Shakespearean audiences would have had. The best known examples of these are the plays produced by the BBC.

Realistic Interpretations

  • Secondly, there are plays that follow the story quite closely but try to be more realistic in their production by moving away from the stage and making it more like an actual movie. An example of this is Mel Gibson's Hamlet.

Movies That Use Part of a Play

  • A third choice is movies that take parts of the play but do not attempt to reproduce the whole thing. These films may be set in modern times or be in animated form. They are often modern interpretations of the old stories. William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is an example of this type of movie.

Movies Inspired by Shakespeare

  • One more choice is to show movies that refer to the play but are not actual reproductions of the play itself. An example of this is the movie, Ten Things I Hate About You.

Decide what kind of film to show, based on the needs of your class and your own individual teaching style. You may even show more than one film, or part of more than one film. Consider if you want a detailed overview of the play or just a general overview. Decide what you think will hold your students' attention and what your learning objectives are, and let this guide you in deciding what movie to show to your class.

BBC Classic

Resources to Use With the Movie

Finally, you might ask yourself how to use the movie most effectively. What resources and teaching strategies can you use in conjunction with the film to be guide the students in their understanding? Rarely do I recommend simply showing a movie without some other teaching methods.

Following are some strategies you can use, along with the movie:

  • Give a worksheet that is fill-in-the-blank with answers directly from the film. Give a small amount of marks for filling in the sheet. This will keep them watching for their answers and discourage sleeping during the movie!
  • Give a pre-learning sheet, with all the main characters and a summary of each act, or section of the movie. Go over this as a class together before beginning the film. Stop the movie and refer back to the sheet from time to time, to keep them on track.
  • Have section, or act questions, and stop to fill in the questions after each part. This will give students a break and allow time for discussion.
  • Stop the movie throughout and discuss and ask questions to check for understanding.
  • Give students some comprehension and application questions to do at the end of the film but pre-read these questions so they know what they are looking for. This really helps in retention of information and you will notice some of them completing the questions as the movie progresses.

Scenes from "Shakepeare's Romeo and Juliet"


Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on January 09, 2017:

I absolutely agree with novel approaches to teaching, as a retired music teacher you have to find ways to engage that audience who would walk out if they were able. What you advocate here is very similar to my own ways to overcome problematic resistance, misunderstanding and boredom. Bring the subject to life with whatever tools you have at your disposal, I say!

I saw the film Romeo and Juliet at school, the one with the film score by Nino Roti. It helped and I passed my 'O' level. I went on to do 'A' level which I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't had that injection of confidence.

I used all manner of props when teaching music. I've just joined HubPages and have written a hub about how teaching the recorder might be pepped up.

Great hub, will be reading more!

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

Lightlee, thank you! I appreciate your feedback, especially being a fellow teacher. I enjoyed your hub, too. Those lesson plans look good. Take care! Welcome to Hubpages.

Lightlee from United States on November 14, 2011:

Wowee.. boy did you put together a really thorough hub. I guess I have an idea of what I should aspire to now. I think it is a really cool idea. Thanks for creating this page.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on November 13, 2011:

Rebecca, it's so nice to see you! Yes, clips are a neat idea for adding some film to the class but not taking up to much time.

Thanks so much for commenting and stopping by! Take care.

Rebecca E. from Canada on November 12, 2011:

This is very neat and i found it very interesting to note that you can show parts of the play. Well done!

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on November 09, 2011:

Denise, thank you! I am sure you were one of the students the teachers appreciated! But for many students, Shakespeare is something that really intimidates them. Thanks so much for reading and take care!

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on November 08, 2011:

Wow! This is a wonderful hub and filled with great tips! I really enjoyed reading how you came up with options on how to present the material. I recall this part of English, which I enjoyed, and found that it was a challenge to teachers in holding the kids attention.

Movies are always a popular way to go. Voted up

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on November 08, 2011:

@Stephanie, that's so great to hear that your teacher helped you to appreciate Shakespeare. I don't think I really loved it until I started teaching it and found I had to teach in a way that was engaging. And yes, students do struggle with it these days. Thanks so much for commenting and it's so nice to meet a fellow Shakespeare fan! Take care.

@Lisa, thanks, I appreciate the confirmation. Yes, I think the movie does add a needed dimension because the texts are so difficult. I am glad you did enjoy it in school! Take care.

lisa42 from Sacramento on November 08, 2011:

Great tips for teachers. I enjoyed reading Shakespeare in school, but there were definitely times it was hard to follow, and a movie would have been helpful.

Stephanie Das from Miami, US on November 08, 2011:

I think this is a great hub. Today, as the language is so different, kids have a rough time getting into Shakespeare. But if it's taught well, they can see the beauty in it and I think it help them grow in maturity. I for one hated Shakespeare until I had a great teacher who explained it to us, and now I'm a fanatic. Great hub. Voted up, useful, funny (because Shakespeare was funny!), awesome, beautiful, interesting... :)

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