“Thou cockered, fen-sucked pignut!” shouted one boy, his eyes alight with mischievous glee.Kalvin, 15
“Thou mammering, half-faced hedge pig!” countered another, a typically quiet student who had now spoken aloud for the third time the whole year.Jacob, 14
As a first-year-out-of-uni teacher, my school tasked me with teaching The Taming of the Shrew to a class of year 10 students who couldn’t care less about what some ancient white dude had to say about anything. Needless to say, I was stressed about how to introduce Shakespeare!
Our rural school was racially and ethnically diverse; the town had a big divide between rich and poor, and my students’ families had a wide variety of education levels at home.
Not only that, but many of my students were reading below their chronological age, and they struggled with comprehension.
I could see the future: the lesson before lunch devolving into a bunch of blank stares, detention slips, and even my best students leaving the classroom with hunched shoulders and avoiding eye contact.
But that’s not what happened
Instead, if you’d walked past my classroom during our first Shakespeare lesson, you’d have heard two things: the death rattle of a 70s-era air conditioner trying to compete with the blanket of dry heat radiating from the desert around us, and an exchange between my students that put a huge grin on my face.
“Thou cockered, fen-sucked pignut!” shouted Kalvin, his eyes alight with mischievous glee.
“Thou mammering, half-faced hedge pig!” countered Jacob, a typically quiet student who had now spoken aloud for the third time the whole year.
The secret to getting kids excited about Shakespeare
To prepare for the upcoming madness, I read an annotated version of the play, and I found myself giggling at the insults.
My students loved to insult each other. (Luckily it was mostly good-natured!). I had found my way in. So, I jumped on Google and found a Shakespearean insult generator.
After printing out the insults, I old-school glued them to a piece of paper, and hand-wrote instructions around the insults. (Bonus: if you want a digital google slides Shakespearean insult lesson, check out this product on TPT).
Then here’s what we did:
- The first task instructed students to create three of their own Shakespearean insults to prepare for an insult battle.
- Then we had a whole-class round-robin elimination competition to find the best insult. The winner got bragging rights (and probably a small prize like a sticker or a pen). And the rest of the class got to laugh at the outlandish insults being thrown down.
- In a follow-up lesson, students did other tasks such as decoding insults from actual Shakespearean plays. I had found a list of insults online and put them on the worksheet. The students had to translate them into modern English.
- They also used a list of Shakespeare’s famous thees and thous that I had found online, and a translation of their meaning, to create three sentences using the words.
Did it actually work?
We had the BEST lesson ever.
On that stifling, hot day, right before the lunch bell rang to release the mayhem, the smallest girl in the class threw down the biggest insult.
“Thou rank, pox-marked maggot-pie!”
The class erupted in cheers – we had found a winner.
Students jostled each other out the door at the end of the lesson (normal!) slinging casual Shakespearean insults at each other (awesome!), and I even heard a few doing it at lunchtime the next day (even better!).
Not only did I have one of my best lessons ever, but students were way more open to learning about Shakespeare and his plays. They were curious instead of cautious. I can’t think of a better way to introduce Shakespeare than with curiosity.
This strategy plus my visual note-taking worksheets are my top two secrets to getting kids excited about Shakespeare.
Now, I always introduce Shakespeare unit with insults. And thanks to the smallest girl in class, I now have a new favorite to surprise my students with if they mess around in class (during a Shakespeare unit): “You pox-marked maggot pie. Put away your phone!”.
Bonus: More strategies to make Shakespeare fun
Other effective ways to introduce Shakespeare include:
- This blog post has 5 free awesome resources to teach Shakespeare
- Listen to the audio versions of the plays while reading
- Watch intro excerpts of filmed versions of the play (especially the riveting opening scenes of the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet)
- Learn about Elizabethan England and other background information by watching videos about Shakespeare’s early days, Shakespeare’s tragedies, as well as his comedies and romances
- Watch any of the excellent short CrashCourse Literature videos about Romeo and Juliet (part 1 and part 2), Hamlet (part 1 and part 2), Macbeth (part 1 and part 2), and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. If you want kids to stay tuned in and paying attention, use our Shakespearean themed bundle of visual note-taking worksheets or individual episode worksheets.