Authored by Juliana Siok (PED 3177 C)
Making Shakespeare Relevant

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"A false conclusion: I hate it as an unfilled can."
Twelfth Night, 2.3


An ongoing issue in present-day English classes revolves around students’ disinterest in studying Shakespearean drama. While high school English teachers are usually required to teach a Shakespearean play as part of the course curriculum, they find it challenging to invent creative ways to motivate students to enjoy and understand these works. The purpose of this wiki page is to explore some of the reasons for which many high school students share abhorrence for the study of Shakespeare. Furthermore, I wish to provide future intermediate/senior English teachers with creative resources that will enable them to make Shakespeare more relevant and enjoyable for their students.

*Please note that all Jstor articles to which I refer can be accessed through the University of Ottawa Library Database: Simply type the title and author of the article (which I provide) in the Jstor search engine.

Understanding the Issue: Exploring the disconnect between Shakespeare and High School Students

  • “Teaching Shakespeare” by Ben Renz (The English Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1, Jan 1942, pp. 56-58):
  • “Teaching Shakespeare in School” by Winifred Smith (The English Journal, Vol. 11, Mo. 6, Jun 1922, pp. 361-364):
  • Teaching Shakespeare through Performance. ed. Milla Cozart Riggio. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999.
  • Teaching with Shakespeare. ed. Bruce McIver and Ruth Stevenson. Toronto: Associated University Press, 1994.

The underlying claims:

  • Why students resent Shakespeare:
    • High school English teachers’ exploration of Shakespearean drama is often traditional, dry, and boring. This causes students to lose interest in the bard’s work, to fail to grasp the play’s meaning, and to develop a general abhorrence in regards to Shakespeare in general.
    • Students struggle to understand the meaning of single words and overall passages in Shakespearean plays: Line after line, sentence after sentence, is clogged with terms and phrases that convey no meaning to them, or else a false meaning. Therefore, many students misread Shakespeare.
    • There are allusions made to events and topics which were familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences but which are unknown to the 21st century reader. It is human nature to hate what one cannot understand.
  • Solutions for regaining student interest in Shakespearean drama:
    • Teachers must cut and translate unintelligible portions of the dramas before offering them to students.
    • Since Shakespearean drama was never designed for silent reading, present the plays orally: “An interpretative reading of the play by a skillful reader contributes much toward vitalizing it.” Students learn more through hands-on experiences than through seat-work
    • The use of visual aids allows students to gain a better understanding of the Elizabethan/Jacobean time periods and the scenes which Shakespeare creates.

Tools for making Shakespeare more Relevant in our Classrooms:

  • “Student Recommendations for Teaching Shakespeare in High School” by Richard French (The English Journal, Vol. 57, No. 3, Mar 1968, pp. 350-355):

As teachers, we try to invent creative lessons in order to make Shakespeare more relevant to and interesting for our students. Perhaps the best way of building our understanding of what our students need is to learn from the students themselves. This article is composed of the opinions of students preparing to teach English in high schools. They were asked to recall and critique their own experiences of being taught Shakespeare in high school. In this next section of my wikispace, I have extracted some of their key points and supplemented them with creative resources and mini-lessons that will guide future English teachers in making Shakespeare a more enjoyable and productive experience for students. In addition, I have provided references to some of the curriculum’s specific and overall expectations that are fulfilled by way of the activities I provide. Please note that, though the exploration of Shakespearean drama is not implicitly required according to Ontario curriculum documents, teachers can use the study of Shakespeare as a means of meeting overall and specific curriculum expectations.

Source: Ontario Curriculum for grade 11 -12 English

Motivation: Many students loath Shakespeare because he is often presented to them as dull, dry, and old-fashioned: It is the teacher’s task to kindle a small flame lighting Shakespeare up

1) Ignorance of the Times:

One of the factors which contribute to high school students’ difficulty in understanding Shakespeare is their ignorance of the times in which the plays were written. The teacher can supply the class with general background information about the history of the bard, the times, the physical appearance of the theater etc., thereby transforming Shakespeare from an obscure and ancient figure into someone more familiar.

2) Universal Themes:

The themes of Shakespeare’s plays are universal and timeless and the students will better appreciate the value of the plays by relating them to personal experiences in their own lives.

3) Shakespeare’s Characters as Real People:

The greatest injustice a teacher can do to Shakespeare is to handle the plays as if the characters are not real people but, for instance, exaggerated figures. A character analysis of the plays’ main characters will enable the students to make connections between themselves, the characters, and the Shakespearean drama at large.

4) A Personal Interpretation:

Shakespeare is open to interpretation. Teachers must therefore allow students to reach their own conclusions. The student should be steered in the right direction but not be made to believe that there is only one correct interpretation.

5) A Performance:

Acting out scenes affords students a closer kinship to Shakespearean drama and makes the play more enjoyable. It can also stimulate participation in students who might otherwise remain uninvolved in, for instance, a traditional class-wide reading of a Shakespearean play.
  • Assignment idea: Students will choose a scene from one of Shakespeare’s plays and re-enact the scene in a modern setting. This re-enactment will be recorded using digital video. Students will add commentary to the video. Throughout this commentary, they will discuss why they chose the scene, its importance to the overall play, and reasons why they chose to modernize the scene as they did.
  • Curriculum: Oral Communication: Listening to Understand: 1.4 Demonstrating Understanding of Content: pp.92

6) Incorporating Technology:

The use of innovative audio-visual technologies provides students with a newfound motivation to explore Shakespeare. Audio-visual tools are useful in improving the students’ overall understanding of the play, as well as in introducing them to the beauty of Shakespeare’s verse and to point out rhyme and meter.
  • Audio-visual clips of Shakespearean Dramas:
  • Mini-lesson and activity: The following is designed as a small group activity to help students appreciate Shakespeare's art as well as reinforce literary terms and concepts. Students begin to appreciate Shakespeare's genius as they struggle to compose six lines in iambic pentameter, knowing that he wrote tens of thousands in his plays:
    • Curriculum: Reading and Literature studies: Understanding form and style: 2.1 Text forms: pp.97.
  • Curriculum: Oral communication: Listening to understand: 1.7 Analyzing text: Pp 43.
  • Curriculum: Oral communication: Listening to understand: 1.5 Interpreting texts: pp. 92.

Additional Resources:

The following is a list of excellent lesson and assignment activities acquired from the website

I have taken the liberty of creating direct links to the lessons and assignment I believe to be most interesting and relevant to our future intermediate/senior English classrooms:

  • Hamlet scene quizzes:
  • Chop bard (These audio podcasts are dedicated to picking apart the works of William Shakespeare, scene by scene, offering a fresh and entertaining look at some old goods- it is the cure for boring Shakespeare):
  • A way with Words or say what? (Shakespeare invented over 2,000 words and expressive phrases. In this lesson, students use drawing and pantomime to identify and analyze some of Shakespeare's phrases. They then write a story using the newly-identified words, lines, and phrases):
  • A character life box (Students work in pairs to create a "life box" of a character in the play, The Shakespeare Stealer, based on the book of the same name. They collect five props, a costume piece, or clues about the character and write a poem about the character. Other students must interpret the clues and determine which character is represented by the life box):
  • "Divinity of hell!": Soliloquies, Cutting and Computers (This lesson sets students loose on the language and gives them permission to cut Shakespeare down to size. In the process of reducing a soliloquy to half its former length, students get a clearer understanding of a character's thoughts and intentions. In debating what is essential to the soliloquy and what is expendable, they discover how the language of the soliloquy works):
  • Examining Tone in Parody and Tragedy (Some scholars have suggested that the scene in which Juliet is discovered by the Nurse and is presumed dead (Act IV sc v) is at least, in part, a parody. In this lesson, students entertain this idea and explore how the scene might work if presented as parody):
bard.gif For useful and age-appropriate activity ideas, refer to the following books, which are available at the University of Ottawa Education Resource Room:
  • Ackroyd, Judith, Jonothan Neelands, Michael Supple, Jo Trowsdale. Key Shakespeare: English and Drama Activities for Teaching Shakespeare to 10-14 Year Olds. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.
    • (reference number 822. 3307.K491998)
  • Ackroyd, Judith, Jonothan Neelands, Michael Supple, Jo Trowsdale. Key Shakespeare: English and Drama Activities for Teaching Shakespeare to 14-14 Year Olds. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.
    • (reference number 822.3307.K4921998)
  • Examples of the types of activities provided in the above-mentioned books (see books for more detailed directions):
    • Dramatic structure: In groups, student investigate a segment of Act I and identify locations, characters, and actions. This information is used to construct a 'map' of the play.
    • I was There: Using cards with character names and locations, students narrate, in role, the actions of the play. This is a plot revision exercise.
    • The Many Faces: Students create character tableaux, physicalising aspects of character from the clues given in the character's language.
    • Know your Place: Students position characters in hierarchical order, offering justification for their decisions.

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