How to bring Shakespeare to life in the classroom

Anna Roslaniec
Anna Roslaniec
A girl holding a pile of books smiling in a room with large sheves of books.

The 23rd of April marks the birth (and death) of William Shakespeare: poet, playwright and pre-eminent dramatist. His poems and plays have been translated into 80 languages, even Esperanto and Klingon.

It is remarkable how Shakespeare’s iconic body of work has withstood the test of time. More than four centuries on, his reflections on the human condition have lost none of their relevance. Contemporary artists and writers continue to draw on his language, imagery and drama for inspiration.

But, despite the breadth and longevity of his appeal, getting students excited about Shakespeare is not always straightforward. The language is challenging, the characters may be unfamiliar and the plots can seem far removed from modern life.

However, with the right methods and resources, there is plenty for teenagers and young adults to engage with. After all, love, desperation, jealousy and anger are feelings we can all relate to, regardless of the age group, culture or century we belong to!
So, how can you bring classic Shakespearean dramas like Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth to life?

There are many ways for your learners to connect with Shakespeare and get excited by his works. Here we’ll show you three classroom activities to do with your students and some indispensable resources to ensure that reading Shakespeare is as accessible and enjoyable as possible!

 

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Three ideas to shake up Shakespeare

1. The Bard’s epic burns

The very word ‘Shakespeare’ is enough to strike dread into the hearts of some youngsters. That’s why it’s so important to highlight the lighter, more humorous side of his work from the very beginning. Based on some of Shakespeare’s finest insults, this activity will help transmit a crucial idea: these plays were designed to entertain.

The Bard was renowned for his linguistic creativity; nowhere is this more evident than in his clever put-downs. Some of them still sound as hard-hitting as they would have done back then. Take these for example:

“Thou crusty batch of nature!” (Troilus and Cressida)

“Go, prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, thou lily-liver’d boy.” (Macbeth)

“I do wish thou were a dog, that I might love thee something.” (Timon of Athens)

Once your students have tried some Shakespearean slurs and enjoyed some gentle verbal sparring, you can draw their attention to important grammatical differences.

For example, in Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, there were various ways of saying ‘you’. As the subject of a sentence, it would be ‘thou’ (for example, I do wish thou were a dog). As the object of a sentence, they would say ‘thee’ (e.g. …I might love thee something).

We certainly don’t want to encourage name-calling among students, but if conducted carefully, it’s a great way to give them a feel for the jocular power of Shakespeare’s language.

If that’s not enough, you can let them loose to compile their own Shakespearean burns with this English-to-Shakespearean translator and table of insults.

2. Use film adaptations

Not only has Shakespeare inspired scores of artists and writers, but many of his plays have also been adapted to film. Showing students a cinematic version of one of Shakespeare’s best works is a surefire way of creating interest and promoting an appreciation of the plot. It is not a substitute for a more in-depth text analysis but can be an effective complementary activity.

Video and audio are more familiar formats for many young people. Here are some more recent adaptations that you might consider showing in class:

  • Hamlet (1996) – This is Kenneth Branagh’s excellent remake of the tragedy about justice and revenge.
  • Romeo and Juliet (1996) – Shakespeare’s classic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, is recreated in the hip modern suburb of Verona.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (2012) – Directed by Joss Whedon, this is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic comedy about two pairs of lovers with different takes on romance.
  • Macbeth (2015) – Justin Kurzel’s take on Shakespeare’s tragedy about power, ambition, deceit, and murder.

3. Practice the sounds of Shakespearean English

Another great way to engage your students is to get them performing! It’s easy to forget that most playgoers in Shakespeare’s time would have been illiterate. His words were written not to be read but to be performed and watched.

To begin with, you can present your students with a selection of phrases first coined by Shakespeare or, at least, recorded for the first time in his works. They can put on their actors’ hats and make short sentences with these phrases, pretending they’re on stage at Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre.

As their theatrical confidence grows, you can move on to longer texts. Shakespearean dialogues offer an excellent opportunity for pair work. They can practice their lines in pairs before performing in front of the class.

Here are a couple of scenes that lend themselves well to this type of activity:

  • Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2
  • Othello, Act 3 Scene 4

Literary resources for your classroom

Engaging and effective classroom activities depend on having quality resources. When it comes to using Shakespeare’s work with learners of English, accessibility is everything.

So, instead of diving into the original text, your students can experience Shakespeare’s iconic plays as Pearson English Readers. These are abridged versions of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies and comedies, with carefully-graded language that stays true to Shakespeare’s unique style. Students can develop their language and communication skills by reading, listening and performing these plays.

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