Dr Chris Lima provides the first five of fifteen top tips for teaching Shakespeare to both language proficient speakers and language learners alike.
Shakespeare is a world celebrity. His reputation as a playwright has been growing since the seventeenth century. Generations of theatre-goers, poets, prose writers, artists, journalists and scholars have contributed greatly to increase the admiration for his poetry and the growing popularity of his plays, especially in Europe and in America. However, the expansion of English as a lingua franca also means that nowadays more readers and audiences have access to Shakespeare in English. Besides that, film productions and live cinema performances are now making his plays accessible to larger audiences around the world, also contributing to transform Shakespeare into a household name around the globe.
When we think about Shakespeare, the first natural association is with the theatre. However, Shakespeare has been strongly associated with education. His work is part of the national curriculum not only in England, his home country, but also in other English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries around the world. But in spite of his worldwide influence and popularity in the twenty-first century, the perception that Shakespeare is either ‘too difficult’ or ‘too old’ – or both – to be relevant to contemporary students remains. Historically, there have been two predominant attitudes towards Shakespeare among both teachers and students: a reluctance to engage with his texts because they are seen as boring and outdated, or a reverence that treats them almost like sacred texts that cannot be touched or questioned. Both attitudes are unhealthy and unhelpful. As teachers, we should try to find ways of bringing Shakespeare to our learners that help them engage and enjoy his plays and poetry as much as readers and audiences have been doing for over 400 years.
Here are my first five tips for teaching Shakespeare to both language proficient speakers and language learners alike.
1. Make it relevant.
Start your lessons by contextualizing the main issues that the play you are studying explores. Is the play discussing friendship, jealousy, loyalty, greed, justice, family relationships, love? Connect these topics to real life situations so your students can relate the situations the characters face in the plays to their own personal experiences. One reason Shakespeare’s work has endured the test of time is that we can relate to his characters’ thoughts, feelings and emotions because they speak to what is essentially human in all of us.
2. Don’t be afraid.
Although there are passages in some of the plays that can be difficult to understand and baffle even Shakespearean scholars, most of his texts are accessible to readers and audiences as long as we stop to pay attention and think about the meaning behind the words and sentences. Linguist and Shakespearean scholar Professor David Crystal and actor/producer Ben Crystal mapped all the text of Shakespeare’s complete works and found out that his language is in fact remarkably similar to contemporary English and only 5% of his vocabulary is likely to cause any serious problems to modern readers/audiences. There is a lot of myth about Shakespeare’s language which has grown out of a lack of real contact with the texts. We fear what we don’t know. Don’t be afraid; get editions of the plays with a good introduction to help with the contextualization of the plays and then let the texts talk to you.
3. Make it memorable.
Select passages that are particularly striking to work with in class. These can be key scenes in the context of the play, such as Shylock’s trial in The Merchant of Venice; the window scene in Romeo and Juliet; the ghost scene in Hamlet. They can also be memorable because of the language in them, especially the soliloquies – those long passages where the character addresses an audience, such as the St Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V; the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ in Hamlet; the ‘sleep’ soliloquy in Macbeth. These are quite famous passages and it is easy to find YouTube videos of them, so students can watch the scenes either before or after reading the text. They are also incredibly powerful both in terms of emotions and language, and students can engage with them both cognitively and emotionally.
4. Remember: these are plays.
Hundreds of years of scholarship and studying the texts may have made us forget that Shakespeare’s plays are not novels – they are plays and were originally written to be watched, not read. Few people in Shakespeare’s time would have read the scripts of the plays. In the twenty-first century we have the privilege of being able to read the texts, but we cannot forget that these texts only really come to life in performance. If you cannot take your students to the theatre, find film adaptations and recorded stage productions of the plays and encourage your students to watch them. You will find trailers and videos of scenes from recent performances at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the RSC YouTube Channel. Select scenes and watch them in class. Put together a classroom performance so your students can become the actors. You will see that the texts do make a lot more sense in performance.
5. Explore the Internet.
There are plenty of good-quality resources on the Internet from where you can collect material to use in class and also direct your students to so they can do some independent learning. Check the box below for some of this incredible online treasure trove.
In the next article, I will be bringing five more tips to help you and your students engage with Shakespeare both inside and outside the classroom. Keep coming to onestopenglish, and don’t forget to share these ideas with your teaching colleagues.