Teaching Shakespeare in the Classroom

David Tennant in Hamlet
One of my favorite actors in one of my favorite roles!

Shakespeare has been taught in English classrooms for a long, long time.  Students are also exposed to Shakespeare’s plays from an unbelievably early age, it is surprising just how much of what we see daily is based on Shakespeare.  There are so many movies, plays, TV shows, etc. that either reference Shakespeare or are based of his characters and plots.   But still so many students do not enjoy studying Shakespeare in the classroom, it is often seen as being boring, or hard to understand, or too complicated.  The moment you mention that you are going to study a Shakespearean play, you hear the groans and you can see the students ‘check out.’

Why is this?  Shakespeare is such a part of Western Society, but why don’t students like studying or reading Shakespeare?  And how can we help students to understand Shakespeare and theatre in general, better?

I have written before about teaching theatre, especially Shakespeare in the classroom, and the main point I made was that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not merely read.  I, myself, have trouble sometimes just reading a play, it needs to be seen and heard.  But that’s not always practical, you can’t always show films of Shakespeare in class, many students will fall asleep.  There needs to be some combination of multiple methods, I think.  Students need to learn how to read the text, even if the language is sometimes hard to understand.  And they need to learn how to translate the text into a performance – I would love to allow students to act out certain scenes.  And sometimes part of a play can be shown in class.  Personally, I would shy away from showing an entire movie in class (but then, I’ve not actually taught a class yet, my opinions may change with practical experience), I just think that too often students see watching a movie in class as either the teacher was too lazy to prepare an actual lesson, or as an excuse to sleep, since they’re not learning anything anyway.

There has to be some way of engaging students with a play, even if it is shown as a movie in class.  And I am also very much against worksheets as accompaniment to films.  That’s just busy work and only serves to annoy students.  I would like to show certain scenes and then discuss them as a class, talking about themes and characters, of course, but also about anything else that grabs students’ attention.  I guess it depends on what the focus of the class is.   I had a theatre class in college that was focusing on the design elements of theatre: color, light, set, costume, etc., and we watched several clips of movies, usually no more than 5-10 minutes, and then we discussed what elements we saw and how it added to the overall effect of the movie.  That could work, even in a high school classroom, if the class was talking about such design elements.  If the class is a regular English classroom, you could still discuss plot, character, action, dialog and the other formalist elements of a play.

There are so many great filmed productions of Shakespeare’s plays out there.  I would love to start building my collection (and I have, the first film I own is the RSC Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart), but I don’t think I would ever show an entire Shakespeare play straight through to my class.  Maybe I would on the couple of days before Christmas break, or the end of the semester, maybe, as a reward for good student behaviour, but, I would stop the movie occasionally and discuss with the class.  Keep them involved.  

Maybe that’s just my personality showing through – I am a huge nerd and I love to discuss movies and TV and books with people.  My wife (very loving and patient with me) allows me to talk about design elements, plot, characters, and themes as we watch movies or TV together.  She is very kind and indulging of me, especially when I go into ‘teach mode’ and start explaining something to her that she already knows, or that I have said before.  But I really do love discussing what I have experienced, I love conversation.  I love talking about what I’ve noticed and seeing what others have noticed.  And I’ve realized that the more you talk about these sorts of things when watching movies, the more you recognize them when watching other movies.  My film and theatre classes in college have completely ruined going to the movies for me! I find myself noticing light and color and how they are being used to manipulate my emotions.  It’s the same way when reading – once you begin studying archetypes and motifs you begin to see them everywhere!  By talking with students we help them start to analyze not just theatre, not just Shakespeare, but any move or play they go to see.

One thought on “Teaching Shakespeare in the Classroom

  1. I was watching Shakespeare on PBS long before we got to it in school. I did a three week teaching practicum in a 6th grade classroom where the teacher had taught her young students Macbeth, normally not done until 12th grade. She used an appropraitely well done comic of the play for her students and they learned all the same concepts normally taught to the seniors. Sometimes I think the American education structure seriously underestimates the abilities of children. These rare, stand-out teachers are able to get young kids through materials no one else would try because they approach it the right way.

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