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3 Simple Tips for Teaching Shakespeare

Are you a homeschooling parent who is considering leading your student (or students) through a study of Shakespeare? Maybe you’re excited to get started, but  you’re also feeling nervous because he is, you know, Shakespeare: the father of Western poetry and drama, the guy whose plays are taught in every contemporary schoolroom. No pressure.

As someone who loves Shakespeare, studied his works in graduate school, and has tutored students in his plays and poetry, I’m going to make a guilty confession to you: I have totally “zoned out” while reading Shakespeare. I’ve done it more than once. As wonderful as his language is, it happens with antiquate language…unless you have a strategy. In today’s post, I want to share 3 tips that I’ve discovered which have helped me stay focused on, and therefore find a lot of enjoyment in, Shakespeare’s works.  If you feel like you need a little guidance, or a little more focus, while getting started with “The Bard”, I hope these tips help you out!

1. Grab Some Popcorn and Put on a Movie

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Shakespeare’s works, especially his plays, weren’t really meant to be read silently. They were meant to be watched.  The first thing you can do when reading/ teaching a Shakespeare play is to conjure up  strong visuals to accompany your reading.  Having a visual not only helps show us more clearly the meaning behind Shakespeare’s language, it also shows us that the characters in these plays are not very different from ourselves. One of the reasons that Shakespeare is still so famous today is that his characters capture the full scope of human experiences: they address, from birth to death, all of the major emotions and conflicts that arise in a person’s life.  Thanks to the dozens of films which depict Shakespeare’s works, almost anyone can experience these depictions in action.  Take advantage of this and watch some movies.

I would especially suggest checking out film versions which leave as much of the original rhetoric intact as possible while portraying the tale within a modern or creative setting, such as: Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Kenneth Brannaugh’s Hamlet (1996).   I recommend this type of adaptation because it can act as inspiration for creating your own unique visual landscape. At the same time, you are getting to see how Shakespeare’s original words were meant to be read, with the proper power, intonations, and emotions to channel them. So grab some popcorn and watch a movie!

2. Read for Themes

Create a connection with a Shakespearean through focusing on his themes, and then looking at how more specific passages support and discuss those themes.  To start out with this approach, you will need to do a little secondary source research. Discover what “big questions and ideas” scholars have pondered over for the particular work you are reading and keep them in mind as you read. This can help you to focus on Shakespeare’s wording and insight.

For instance, if you are reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you might do a little reading on the theme of “the rashness of love.” This play contains several examples of the unwieldiness of love and the crazy things it makes us do.  With that theme already in mind, let’s say you come across the following lines of the play from Act 5, Scene 1.  “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains/Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.” Because you will realize that these lines speak directly about a crucial theme in the play, you can spend a little time on them to think about what Shakespeare is saying and how he is saying it Sometimes the proper context is all you need to be able to focus in on lines like this, which can seem crisply insightful and fresh, even centuries after they were written.

3. Consider the Sound

As you discover the universality of the characters and the themes, another thing you can do to create an interactive Shakespeare experience is to learn to appreciate the sound of his writing. Shakespeare was a master of iambic pentameter, a pattern that most of his writing follows.Iambic pentameter means a pattern of five “iambic feet,” each containing an unstressed/stressed syllable which flows like “baBUM.” Therefore, the beat of, “baBUMbaBUMbaBUMbaBUMbaBUM,” is similar to the rhythm of most of Shakespeare’s writing.

Once you’ve got a grasp on the pattern, read some of the lines you are studying aloud to yourself and see if you hear it in the flow of the words.  Try this with your student. Can she tap the iambic beat of a line while reading it aloud? You might be surprised by how getting involved involved in the sound of the language can connect you to it in a new way.

Once you (and your student) are comfortable with reading in meter and hearing the beat of Shakespeare’s words, you can really start to get “fancy,” with your Shakespeare discussions by beginning to think about how meaning and sound come together.  How?  Look for places where the language breaks the pattern. For example, are there lines that, when read aloud, throw the beat off? Are they just a little too short, too long, or forcibly crammed together?

Considering Shakespeare as a master of both poetry and a playwrighting, ask yourself and your student why he might have decided to change the flow at that point.  How does the music alter to the storytelling? Even today, Shakespeare sets the bar for the deliberate interaction between meter and meaning.  In asking these kinds of questions about his text, you are not only exploring the study Shakespeare, but also the art of poetry itself.

Actor Craig Wallace said of performing Shakespeare: “It’s not easy. When we get it and convey it, it’s a beautiful thing for us and it’s a beautiful thing for the audience to hear. And that’s why Shakespeare endures.”

Today, as readers and teachers of Shakespeare, we have a similar challenge, though the play we perform is mental.  Getting past the language differences may be difficult, yet there is beauty in the discovery that Shakespeare’s characters and stories are still relevant today. The music in his language and words also allows each generation to breathe new life into his work every time it is read. It’s a valuable experience and a beautiful one to share through teaching.