If you’ve read my previous post about introducing Shakespeare to teens, you’ll know that a Shakespearean insults lesson is the BEST way to engage students in Shakespeare at the beginning of a unit.
If not, read on! This post goes into more detail about how to prepare for a Shakespearean insults lesson.
The first time I taught Shakespeare I was anxious about how I would teach Shakespeare in high school. How could I get teenagers to love (or tolerate) the bard?
My stomach fluttered whenever I looked at my planner and saw that The Taming of the Shrew was drawing closer. And I still had no idea how to teach Shakespeare.
Our school setting
Our rural school was racially and ethnically diverse; the town had a big divide between rich and poor. 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. The class was boisterous and boy-heavy, with a few leading personalities who liked to get up to mischief.
I could see the future: the lesson before lunch devolving into a bunch of blank stares, detention slips, and even my best students abandoning the classroom with hunched shoulders and avoiding eye contact.
That is until I stumbled on the idea of doing a Shakespearean insults lesson to begin the unit. My students loved to throw shade (luckily it was usually good-natured!).
So, I made some old-school worksheets from an online Shakespearean insult generator, copied them, and drew a competition tree on the board. I opened the door to the students, apprehensive about whether it would actually work.
“Thou cockered, fen-sucked pignut!” shouted Kalvin, his eyes alight with mischievous glee.
Kalvin, his eyes alight with mischievous glee
“Thou mammering, half-faced hedge pig!” countered Jacob.
Jacob, a typically quiet student who spoke aloud for the third time the whole year when he threw this down
Well, the glee with which my students insulted each other was amazing. I grinned (on the inside) for a week because I overheard snatches of Shakespearean shade being thrown for DAYS after the lesson.
What sort of students does this lesson work for?
In my experience, most classes love a Shakespearean insults lesson. I have had particular success with boisterous, boy-heavy classes. I think the budding machismo of teenage boydom means that boys love to rib each other.
Classes with lots of kids who are a bit rough around the edges seem to enjoy this lesson too. The chance to swear or insult in class, even if it’s in Shakespearean English, rates pretty highly on the enjoyment-meter.
A caveat to “most classes love a Shakespearean insult lesson” would have to be classes containing lots of sensitive students. I haven’t ever had a class with LOTS of sensitive kids, usually just a couple of quiet kids who didn’t like to talk in front of the class.
Students had the option to let another student in class read their insults aloud during the competition. So, the shy kids still participated but didn’t have to do something they found uncomfortable.
When should you have your Shakespearean insults lesson?
Personally, how I love to start to teach Shakespeare is by introducing the unit with a Shakespearean insults activity. Why? Because it makes Shakespeare seem fun instead of intimidating. And students become curious instead of cautious when reading his work.
Students tend to listen better to the play and read more closely when they think they could uncover an epic insult.
This Shakespearean insult lesson also means students understand the jokes in the plays more easily. It also familiarizes students with the language of the plays in a non-threatening way.
Having said this, I also know of teachers who have used this as an ending activity to a Shakespeare unit. If you’d like to do this, you would have the advantage of students already being familiar with the language, a fun bonus activity at the end of the hard work, and students leaving your classroom with great memories of Shakespeare.
How can you set up your Shakespearean insults lesson?
I used to do a round-robin competition and the person who had the best insult won stickers or something.
But really, the chance to throw some teacher-sanctioned shade and swear (even in Shakespearean) was the real reward for the lesson. That and the bragging rights if you happened to throw down an epic insult.
But having a competition is not the only way to do a Shakespearean insults lesson. If you have to teach Shakespeare online, you could:
- do a class slideshow presentation with each student contributing their best insult to the slideshow and then watching it at the end of the lesson or the end of the unit. And laughing.
- have each class create an insult slideshow and then hold a competition between classes. You could show the slideshows during a year-level meeting or parade if you are in-person teaching.
- If your school arranged in a way where classes are competitive (like in Harry Potter), you could award points to the winning class.
Other ways to run a Shakespearean insults lesson online include:
- Getting students to create insults, then placing those insults on photos and creating Shakespearean insult memes. This Buzzfeed article has a bunch of funny insults gifs that might help your students visualize what you’re looking for.
- Asking students to create (fake) Instagram pictures with a short story and a hashtag insult.
- Getting students to create Shakespearean insults tweets or text messages.
- Asking students to use TikTok to record their performances of Shakespearean insults.
What can you do to prepare for a Shakespearean insult lesson?
Preparing for a Shakespearean insult lesson will depend on your class and your situation.
You can teach Shakespeare online and run an insult battle using slideshows. Although, watching students thrown down the insults is half the fun.
Previously, I suggested ways to run the lesson if having a face-to-face battle isn’t going to work for your situation.
Preparing before class:
- Create a round-robin tournament by either projecting a competition tree onto a whiteboard or drawing it on a chalkboard/whiteboard.
- Find an insult generator online and create a worksheet or slideshow with the insults students can pick from on it
- If you’re doing a round-robin competition, ensure students who don’t get along well are not facing off against each other.
- If you want the lesson to extend a bit longer, and give students practice reading actual Shakespearean lines, create a translation activity by listing Shakespearean insults and asking students to translate them into modern English.
- Try to keep the mood light, fun, playful. A thing I like to do is write something on the board like, “You can insult me today . . . if you do it in Shakespearean English.”
- Or you could play Macklemore’s Thriftshop on low and write this on the board: “I’m gonna throw some shade, Only got Shakespeare in my pocket, I, I, I’m hunting looking for an insult, This is freaking awesome.”
- If you’re brave, you could sing it to your class once they’re in the door and sitting down. But I’ve never been that brave.
Setting up the activity in class:
This Shakespearean insults activity is so much fun, but it does have the potential to go wrong because students are creating and saying insults.
I’ve never had students take it too far, mostly because I think they were having too much fun. But a good way to ward of trouble is to prepare students adequately by clearly explaining expectations before you begin.
To set up clear expectations before beginning the activity, consider the following:
- Reinforce that students shouldn’t direct insults at people in the class.
- Reinforce the type of language that is acceptable in your class. This is important if you have a follow-up activity such as translating Shakespearean insults into modern English.
- Explain the consequences if someone takes it too far.
Running the activity:
Once you are prepared, either hand out the worksheets you’ve created, or assign the task on Google classroom/email students the link to the activity (if you are online).
As a follow-up activity, you could find a few Shakespearean insults for students to translate, and put them on the slideshow or document too.
If you want an EASY way to run a Shakespearean insults lesson?
Click through to my TPT store and buy my Google slides Shakespearean insults lesson.
Students can use the lesson digitally with a drag-and-drop insult creator and a translation activity. You also get suggested teacher instructions and a competition tree to write students’ names onto if you are running the lesson as a competition.
It comes in color and black and white, in A4 or slide-show size, as well as an easy-to-print pdf version.
How can I build on this Shakespearean insults lesson?
Having a fun introductory Shakespearean insults activity is a great hook to get students engaged, but moving on from there is your goal for your students. Below are some ways to build on the lesson:
- List insults from the play you’ll be studying, get students to translate them.
- As a pre-reading activity, ask students to explain what they think might have happened before and after insults from the play.
- Give a brief synopsis of the play you’ll study.
- Start reading – or listening – or watching a play.
How can you manage it if things get out of hand?
Again, this has never happened to me. But, if it did happen to you, you could:
- Shut it down
- Once calm is restored, you explain why you shut it down.
- Get students to do calm work for a while to get everyone chilled out – silent reading is a good choice because nobody can talk!
- If you wanted to attempt the lesson again at a later time, you might like to offer it as a reward for good behavior at the end of the unit.
Other blog posts you might be interested in:
5 awesome free resources to teach Shakespeare has excellent free resources to use when teaching Shakespeare. It has loads of links to:
- YouTube videos about Shakespeare
- videos about Shakespeare’s plays and poems
- audiobook versions of his plays
- recorded live performances of his plays
My other blog post (mentioned at the start of this post) details my first Shakespearean insults lesson.