Are you teaching Shakespeare in high school? Are you looking for some tips to get your students into the bard?
We get it, Shakespeare can be HARD! Especially if you are a first-year teacher.
The thees and thous. All those characters. The ambiguity of meaning. Iambic pentameter.
And the ever-present question (read: complaint), when am I ever going to need this/use this?
Today we are going to give you some tips if you’re wondering how to teach Shakespeare in high school.
We also have some great links for Shakespeare activities high school students love.
1. Why teach Shakespeare?
One of the most annoying, and most annoyingly frequent, questions English teachers get when they embark on the Bard is
When am I every going to use this/need this in REAL LIFE?
Said every student ever when confronted with Shakespearean English
My advice? Confront it head-on. Explain why you teach Shakespeare. Aside from the fact that you may have to because it’s on your curriculum.
It might be a fantastic experience you had when you saw a play as a teenager. I remember seeing Shakespeare for the first time performed live.
Our class caught a train to the city and watched a university production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I still remember the prologue had actors dressed as traffic wardens, who set up the play-within-the-play device.
Other reasons you might choose to teach Shakespeare include a love of the language, an appreciation of the complexity of Shakespearean characters, or a wicked sense of humor that revels in watching your students understand the dirtiest of Shakespearean jokes.
Whatever your reasons for teaching Shakespeare, explain them to your students.
And beyond that, explain to your students why they should learn Shakespeare. You could take a few different routes with this question:
- Explain that hard things are important to learn because they help you learn to think. By learning to understand Shakespeare, students are practicing the skill of learning to understand complex texts with difficult language. This skill is applicable to reading cell phone contracts, understanding the terms and conditions of competitions, and working out wtf is going on in a Christopher Nolan movie like Tenet.
- Discuss the complexity of Shakespearean texts – they cover a wide range of themes, have diverse characters, and have the filthiest jokes around (if you can understand them).
- Explain the neologisms Shakespeare created (see here for more info) and the sayings he created (see here for a list).
- Did we mention the filthy jokes? He made some great jokes, many of them insults to characters (and their mothers).
Which leads us nicely to our second point, a fun way to introduce Shakespeare is to have a Shakespearean insult competition.
2. Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?
A fantastic and fun way to introduce Shakespeare is to do a Shakespearean insults lesson.
I’ve written about this a few times before. But an insult competition is a fun, low-pressure way to introduce Shakespearean language. And students love creating the best insult.
By removing the fear around Shakespeare, you can show students that one reason Shakespeare was (and is) so celebrated is his ability to play with language.
By making the language fun instead of scary, you can help remove one of the biggest obstacles to teaching Shakespeare to high school students: fear.
3. Create context for the play or poem you are studying
Another important tip for teaching Shakespeare in high school is to provide your students with some context.
Your students may never have heard of Shakespeare and have no idea about Elizabethan England.
They might not know about how a tragedy is structured or the difference between a history or a romance. So you need to teach them and provide some context.
My favorite way to do this is to use the Crash Course Theater and Drama videos about Shakespeare.
Crash Course does an amazing job producing high-quality, engaging, free videos on a wide range of topics. And a few videos, in particular, are great at providing context for teaching Shakespeare in high school
- Straight Outta Stratford-Upon-Avon introduces Shakespeare by giving a brief biography of his life. It explains what historians think happened during his missing years. And it touches on the debates surrouding the authorship of his plays. It also gives a little insight into life in Elizabethan England and how theater companies were organized.
- Shakespeare’s Tragedies and an Acting Lesson explains the struture of tragedies and differentiates them from historical plays. It also looks at how Elizbethan theater companies were run and how plays were staged. The video also discusses a few of Shakespeare’s tragedies, paying particular attention to King Lear
- Comedies, Romances and Shakespeare’s Heroines discusses the structure and themes of Shakespeare’s comedies and romances. It also examines how Shakespeare’s heroines are portrayed. The video also discusses a few of Shakespeare’s comedies and romances, paying particular attention to Cymbeline.
Whenever I show those videos, I like to get students to use these visual note-taking worksheets. It helps them take notes but also encourages their creativity.
4. Create a ‘dictionary’ of Shakespearean words
Another tip to make teaching Shakespeare in high school more enjoyable is to create a dictionary of Shakespearean words.
All those thees and thous become much easier when you know what they mean!
And keeping a list of unfamiliar words helps build students’ vocabulary, while also helping them better comprehend what they’re reading.
Easy ways to do this include
- getting students to create a defintions list in their books
- asking students to create vocabulary posters for commonly used words (including the word, definition, synonym/antonym, pictures and/or sentences that show the meaning)
- asking students to create acrostic poems showing the meaning of the words
5. Watch the play or scenes from movie adaptations
Another idea for how to teach Shakespeare in high school is to watch the plays. Go to a production of the play if possible. Watch a movie adaptation if not.
And if all else fails, use an audiobook to listen to the plays.
Not only will seeing or hearing the play aloud help with student comprehension, but it will also speed up the amount of time it takes to get through the play.
If you still want your students to read the play, remember that you can always alternate scenes between watching a video/movie and reading the play in class.
Whatever you do, don’t make the rookie, first-year teacher mistake I did . . .
6. Use modern adaptations too
Not only can you watch adaptations of plays in Shakespeare’s original words, you can also watch modern adaptations of his plays.
Interesting modern adaptations include movies such as
- She’s the Man (2006)
- 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
- O (2001)
- The King (2019)
- The Lion King (1994)
- West Side Story (1961)
- and the 2005 ShakespeaRe-told adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing
Modern adaptations open up interesting questions that students can explore, such as
- what is similar to/different from the original to the adaptation?
- how has the adaptation treated themes compared to the original play?
- what scenes from the original are kept/omitted and why might that be?
- how has the adaptation constructed characters compared to the original play?
- is the adaptation as good as the original play?
- should students still have to read/view/watch the original play as well as the adaptation?
All of these types of questions make students ask the kind of higher-level thinking questions that lead to better analysis and understanding.
7. If a play is too daunting, study a poem
Now, if an entire play seems like too much, you might be wondering how to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets in high school. An interesting way is to pick and choose a few sonnets to read and explore.
Students could then use those sonnets to create blackout poetry. A great of example of that is Nets by Jen Bervin.
Another activity to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets could be to compare Katarina’s monologue at the end of 10 Things I Hate About You to Sonnet 130.
A third activity could be to look at several of Shakespeare’s sonnets and how they describe time (for examples Sonnets 12, 19, and 49).
You could compare Shakespeare’s sonnets to each other or to other prominent poems about time, such as Emily Dickinson’s A Clock Stopped or I had no time to Hate.
Or, you could watch the Crash Course Literature episode about Shakespeare’s sonnets. The episode explains the structure of Shakespearean sonnets and also discusses Sonnet 18, Sonnet 116, and Sonnet 130.
Want more Shakespeare?
If you are looking for more links, activitities and ideas for how to teach Shakespeare to high school students, check out some of our other blog posts.
- Fun, engaging, and easy Shakespearean insults lesson you have to try – this post goes into more detail about how to run a Shakespearean insults lesson/competition
- 5 awesome free resources to teach Shakespeare – this post has links to 5 great free resources with Shakespeare activities high school students enjoy
- Worried about teaching Shakespeare? How to make it fun + easy – this post explains my first attempt at teaching Shakespeare as a first year teacher
- 13 easy, engaging lessons for Romeo and Juliet – this post has lots of engaging lessons and resources for teachers wanting to teach Romeo and Juliet
- 12 excellent teaching resources for Macbeth – make Macbeth easy – This is a great resource with activities to help you when you’re wondering how to teach Shakespeare’s Macbeth to high school students
And if you’re looking for activities and resources to teach Shakespeare, check out the Shakespeare section of my TPT store.