How to teach Shakespeare to high school students: A few basics from one who does it

by Mr. Sheehy

Recently my student aide was telling me about his classes and mentioned his notes for anatomy and physiology. I got curious about these notes: What are they like? How does this teacher convey such heady information? I opened them up to see for myself and laughed at the disparity between this teacher’s content and my own. Just that day I had shown a five-minute segment from How the Grinch Stole Christmas in an effort to explain character foils, but down the hall my colleague was introducing her students to fibrous pericardium.

Fibrous pericardium? Wow. Did you know I teach in the same building as this woman? That we have generally the same students? That we get paid the same? Yet if a great catastrophe hit and the public closed the school system, she could get a job doing something where people know the difference between oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, and I could write a really witty poem for my cardboard sign.

I exaggerate, of course. My poetry isn’t that witty and the best I could muster would be a Shakespearean allusion or quotation. Shakespearean quotation is something I can do, or at least Romeo and Juliet quotations. Just the other day my freshmen and I were blocking the first scene of act III (where Tybalt kills Mercutio) and as I talked students through it I found myself quoting a large portion of the text (“Okay, this is where Tybalt enters and says to Romeo, ‘Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford no better term than this: Thou art a villain'”). I suppose that is what happens when you read something three times a year.

It’s these times, when I teach students Shakespeare, that I especially feel like a rightful peer to my colleagues in the science department. One might say I have even developed the beginning of an expertise for teaching teenagers Shakespeare. It’s not a rare expertise, granted, but it suits me fine, and I thought I’d share some of the tips I’ve amassed through five years of teaching the Bard. If you like, call them rules for teaching Shakespeare to high school students, or if you’d rather, call them an attempt to justify my being employed in the same building as the science teachers:

Rule 1: Have students read it aloud. There exist CDs of the full text, and while on these CDs all the words are pronounced correctly, these audio dramas cannot foster a love of a great text. I am convinced that if students get to read the words themselves they are much more likely to appreciate the text and fall in love with it. Hearing a performer say, “Where is my longsword, ho!” will engender no laughs, but when one 15-year old seems to call another a ho, you can’t stifle the giggles. Yes, the giggle misunderstands the text, but it indicates that the audience is listening and that they are eager to enjoy the play. They are so eager, in fact, that students who have no hope of passing English will fight over who gets to read Mercutio. I don’t know why this is, but it is this way every time, and my colleagues confirm it.

Now I should add that many of us English teachers have bail-out options or warning systems. For example, I offer to students that if they turn the page and their character suddenly erupts into a page-long monologue (the Friar makes a habit of this) they are welcome to start it and then pass it off to me when they have had enough. I’ll then read through the monologue and the student can take the character back at the next line. It seems to work well–I have read the Queen Mab speech quite a few times–and it is somewhat surprising how infrequently students pass off the long sections.

Exactly how students read it, or how much, can depend on the class and is a secondary issue. Some of my colleagues have students recite all the lines “on stage”; I prefer reading with our desks in a circle. As far as I am concerned either of these are great if the students are given the chance to speak the text.

Rule 2: Paraphrase the text for students. How this is done matters little, I suppose, but I have found the greatest success when I explain it orally as we go, pausing briefly between lines and stopping to explain monologues ahead of time. I have written a large Sparknotes type of handout for my classes that I call “Making Sense of Shakespeare,” but I often use it only for the reading questions I have embedded in it.  I have always done this paraphrasing with my Shakespeare units, following the good example of a college professor, but then I later discovered a wealth of reading strategies that suggest teachers do this same thing for any difficult text–explain it ahead of time so students have a framework in which to understand the text. Then when they read something they’re not totally lost (just thoroughly confused).

Rule 3: Be an expert. Sometimes when we talk about constructivist teaching we go crazy about the teacher being a fellow explorer. I find it crucial that teachers think of themselves with a good deal of humility and as co-learners, but that does not mean there is no place for them to be experts. Students need a guide through something so thick as Shakespeare, and if the teacher is not confident in the basics of the text, he or she is not going to be able to guide students well enough to make them feel comfortable, or safe. By now I do not need to read Romeo and Juliet before my students, but I have not been teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream long, and to make sure I guide students well, I will need to study the text in advance of my unit.

Rule 4: Focus on key lines. Students will not comprehend all of Shakespeare’s lines on the first (or second) reading, even with paraphrasing, but they can catch the key lines. I find it helps for them to dwell on these lines, for me to point them out to them and have them find them on their own, so they can see how capable they are of comprehending something so challenging. One way I have communicated this is by taking key lines from favorite scenes and compiling them into a series of power point slides, laying them over thematically similar photographs. I put up a picture with the key line as we read that scene, emphasizing the line and helping students attach added significance to it.

Rule 5: Don’t hide anything from them. When the Nurse makes a dirty joke, I don’t hide it from students. Students love it and it helps them understand crucial relationships later in the play. I don’t mean I explain every double entendre or crude pun, but seeing how obsessed the Nurse is with sex not only amuses us, it deepens our appreciation for how she later betrays Juliet. The Nurse’s inappropriate jokes and the Capulets’ servants’ immature brawling hook and amusesmy students, drawing them into the play; then, when the mood changes and tragedy enters, they are affected and even overwhelmed by it. Surely Shakespeare did this to us on purpose, and I would lessen the text if I hid these things from high school students.

Rule 6: Be passionate. I don’t walk into my classroom and think ahead of time, “I’m going to act like a nut today,” but somehow when my classes and I get to reading Romeo and Juliet and I encourage them to read it with more passion, and as I try to communicate the depth of feeling in characters’ lines . . . I tend to get worked up. Students pick up on that, I know, and we often leave the classroom more excited than we were when we entered.

Rule 7: Be convicted that reading Shakespeare is important. If we who teach Shakespeare waver about the importance of teaching Shakespeare to students, the students won’t last long. Reading Shakespeare can help my students with reading skills, especially close reading of difficult texts. The strategies we use for examining passages can give them confidence for  future confrontations with other difficult texts. The enveloping story solidifies their understanding of time-honored literary devices like plot elements and irony. The familiarity with the great stories of Western culture makes them a tad more literate.

Teaching Shakespeare is a great endeavor and I heartily endorse it. It is, in fact, one of the only things I do that might leave even a science teacher wondering, “What?”

Thanks for reading.