Teaching Shakespeare: The 3 Things Not to Do and the 5 Things to Do Instead (Part 1)
by Renee Tay Matheny
If you’ve been around Charlotte Mason and classical circles for a while, you’ve heard about the importance and benefits of learning Shakespeare. You may have read that he should be introduced even as early as in the 4th grade. You know that Shakespeare is supposed to be watched and performed.
But – if this is your first time teaching Shakespeare in a co-op – what do you actually DO in class? How do you bring the performance aspect of his work to your students if you’ve never acted in a Shakespeare play yourself?
You sure as heck don’t want to be that teacher who makes Shakespeare boring. How do you make his language less foreign? How do you get the students to love Shakespeare in an hour a week?
In this post, we’ll look at 3 common mistakes that I see teachers making when teaching Shakespeare, sharing broad guidelines about what to avoid. Then, in part 2, we’ll look at what we can do instead to make it way more fun for everyone and simpler for you. I’ll share a few field-tested exercises you can use with little prep that will make your Shakespeare class the one that’s filling the halls with laughter.
Mistake 1: Doing Too Much
2 years before my family joined our Schole group, the group had tried to have students put on a full play. As we learned, it was not the most successful experiment. For most co-ops that meet weekly, I would not recommend attempting to perform a whole, or even most of a play. It’s just too much. You’re likely to end up with a mixed bag of mediocre and worse scenes, and the low quality will discourage students (and you).
This is a case in which the Multum non Multa principle is your friend. You want much, not many; quality over quantity. If you’re doing a performance – which I highly recommend – you’re far better off doing a handful, or even one scene, to a high standard, than to have an hour of tiresome, painful performances that an unfortunate audience must sit through.
The end result should be something that students are genuinely proud of, and that truly entertains – and students do know the difference. Your job as a teacher is to coach them to a great performance – starting with one short scene.
Don’t be afraid of doing “too little”. It’s ok to dig deep into a few scenes and skim over others. I’ve covered plays where I’ve just given quick summaries of some scenes. I’ve had students fall in love with a play and gain a good grasp of it from rehearsing and staging just one scene to near-perfection.
Don’t be afraid to cut lines. The scripts are not holy writ.
Mistake 2: Treating Shakespeare as Literature
Wait, what? It IS literature, is it not? Ok, we all know that Shakespeare wrote plays. But the difference between knowing that in theory and honoring that in practice will make a night and day difference in how your students experience and understand his work.
Put in practical terms, do you lead with a discussion of themes, characters, historical context, and philosophical or moral questions? Or do you lead with how to interpret a passage dramatically – inflections, where to pause, breathe, posture, blocking?
Do you have students sit down and read through the play, or get up on their feet, breathing deep, raising their voices, using their bodies?
Many Shakespeare practitioners say that it was when they performed the plays that it clicked for them and they started to love Shakespeare for the first time. When students perform a scene, they are forced to make decisions on the characters’ motivations, their struggles, the central conflicts. Suddenly, they have to dig in, search through other scenes for answers, find patterns and threads, wonder and debate.
Shakespeare did not write novels. He wrote “instruction manuals for actors on how to perform” says Shakespeare scholar and practitioner Ben Crystal. Shakespeare didn’t write Moby Dick; he wrote Star Wars and Fight Club, The Office and Breaking Bad.
We study literature by talking about it. Don’t do that to the plays. If you were studying Chopin, you wouldn’t sit your kids down with a musical score and talk about it; you’d listen to his music and try to play a nocturne. If you were studying French cuisine, you wouldn’t sit them down with a recipe and talk about it. You’d make the recipe, and eat it.
Don’t make your kids sit down with a script and talk about it. Honor the nature of the thing. Enjoy it for what it is. You do that by front-loading with performance, and trusting that that will lead your students to understanding.
Mistake 3: Letting the Extras Take Over
It’s easy to lose our way in the fun, peripheral extras: models of The Globe, coloring pages, making puppets, Elizabethan England trivia, quizzes and crossword puzzles, even Shakespeare’s biography. Heck, you could even do a flower study on the flowers in Titania’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or you could get neck-deep into costumes and props.
Add the extras that you want – I’m partial to Brick Shakespeare and Good Tickle Brain myself – but keep your eye on the ball. Keep the core thing front and center: Getting into the play itself, in the original language, playing with the language and interpretive choices, performing it simply and watching others perform it. That’s where the magic happens.
In Part 2, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how to do this. Look out for that post!
….check back in October for full post!
Renee Tay Matheny
Renee 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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