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Teaching Shakespeare: The 3 Things Not to Do and the 5 Things to Do Instead (Part 2)

by Renee Tay Matheny


Teaching Shakespeare Part 2: The 3 Things to NOT Do, and the 5 Things to Do Instead

In Part 1, we talked about what NOT to do when teaching Shakespeare. Now for the fun part: the 5 things that will make our teaching more effective, simple and enjoyable.  

Once you’ve chosen your play or plays:  

1. Introduce Play  

Let your students’ first encounter with Shakespeare be a playful one.  An introduction that includes a sense of play helps students to feel that they can and do enjoy this. It helps remove the sense of intimidation and dread that accompanies so many Shakespeare classes.

These exercises can help to get students playing directly with the script: memorizing a passage, paraphrasing a passage, and maybe my new favorite, the worst performance ever. Use one or more of them.  

 A. Memorizing a passage

Memorizing helps students to make the lines a part of themselves. The process is enjoyable, and Shakespeare will belong to them. 

Ken Ludwig’s popular book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare is an easy-to-use guide to memorizing passages. It provides lots of hand-holding and doesn’t assume any previous knowledge or experience.  

B. Paraphrasing a passage

The actors at the American Shakespeare Center do this before they start to memorize their lines. The idea is to find a passage and have students render it in their own words while keeping the rhythm. This gets them to think about and internalize what it’s really saying, with often hilarious results. Another thing it does is it helps to demystify Shakespeare’s language; students experience it as something they can play with, turn over and inside out, and explore, not something they have to be scared of. 

It’s also just great entertainment. Let students compare their paraphrases. Have fun with it. Try it yourself. You’ll hear clumsy, ridiculous, awkward, even elegant paraphrases. Then try to memorize and recite the original. You’ll find it easier to memorize and you’ll likely come away with a greater appreciation for Shakespeare’s word choices. 

C. The Worst Performance Ever

When Tim McIntosh shared this with me, I thought it was genius. Then I saw it in action at his  Circe talk this summer, and I saw that it was genius. You choose a short scene or part of a scene and have students give the worst performance ever. The worse the better. Praise them for doing it badly. 

The hurdle most people face when it comes to performing is the fear of doing badly, of looking silly. Here, you reward students for doing terribly and it blows right through that fear. It takes away the pressure, helps students to relax, gets them to laugh at themselves, and it feels communal. At the end, have THEM tell you what was bad about the performances. At the last Circe conference, there was so much laughter coming out of the room at this session that people in other rooms were wondering what was going on. Genius. 

2) Introduce Characters and Plot 

After (or even before) Step 1, get students familiar with the characters and plot of your chosen play. Many people like to use a Shakespeare storybook, and there are a few good ones to fit different preferences and situations. 

I personally like to use a combination of a storybook and stick figures that I draw on a board while reading aloud. Kids seem to like them, and it helps to keep characters and plot lines more trackable. 

My own kids have been found huddled together laughing over Brick Shakespeare, a set of 2 volumes where Lego characters are photographed “acting” the tragedies and comedies, graphic novel style. Even my non-readers would ask to “read Shakespeare” with those books.   

3) Choose an Anchor Scene 

Focus on one key scene and go deep 

In every play, there are a few pivotal scenes that reveal a key character, show a transformation, or explore a theme. Narrow these scenes down to a few, then choose one that will reward your deepest dive in. 

Don’t worry that you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on that one scene. This is where your students will live for a while, get their hands dirty, learn how to break up a speech. They’ll work on interpreting the scene in the truest and best way they can, they’ll work on blocking, look up words, wrestle with what’s really going on, work on smooth transitions and their connection with the other actors and audience. 

Competence leads to motivation. The more competent a student feels about her performance, the more intrinsically motivated she is to nail her performance, and the more it drives her to understand what she’s performing. A deep knowledge of a scene also gives a student confidence and a sense of comfort and familiarity with the play that she won’t get from skimming or just reading it. 

This scene then becomes an anchor you use to explore the rest of the play. Or a home base. Or a gateway.

The choosing of one scene is for the teacher too. As you get comfortable with coaching the performance of one scene well, other scenes you add will be easier. You’ll be able to tweak your approach more instinctively and confidently. You’ll know how many more scenes you want to add, and how much time to spend on them.      

4) Watch and Compare 2-3 Film Versions of your Chosen Scene(s)

I find it helpful to show a few filmed versions of the scene(s) your students are performing, whether from movies and/ or stage productions. We then compare and contrast the different interpretive choices. 

Although watching a full movie or production is nice, this exercise is about zeroing in on the nuances and details, and using them to deepen our understanding and inspire our performances.    

Digital Theater has 400+ professionally filmed stage productions of plays and more. 

5) A Live Performance

There just isn’t a substitute for watching a live performance. If you can take your students to one, fantastic. If not, find a GOOD movie. 

Ralph Cohen of the American Shakespeare Center firmly believes that a bad Shakespeare movie actually works against you. It confirms what some students suspect: that Shakespeare really is old, irrelevant, fuddy-duddy, and boring. Shakespeare movies are in competition with Avengers: End Game, and we have to be honest with ourselves. Which would we rather watch? 

The point is, if you’re going to show a Shakespeare movie, at least make it one with real entertainment value, one you would watch if it wasn’t “Shakespeare… for school”. 

My preferred method for choosing a play is to do what we can watch live. My other method is to choose one with a great movie version.  

So there you have it – the how-to of teaching Shakespeare in 5 steps. Let me know which of these you’ve tried, what sounds most exciting to you, and if there are other great ways you’ve found to teach Shakespeare. 

Renee Tay Matheny

Renee Tay Matheny

ARenee is a homeschooling mother of 5, lover of poetry and plays, and former Schole group teacher, competitive speech coach, and English and literature tutor. Renee grew up in Singapore and now lives with her kids on a creek in the foothills of North Carolina. She has a free starter kit on teaching Shakespeare at reneematheny.com/launch

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