How to Teach Shakespeare to Teenagers

Teaching Shakespeare to teenagers can be challenging and rewarding in equal measure.  However, your students may feel apprehensive about studying an author’s work which is often seen as complex and remote. Here are some practical steps that you can take to encourage your students to approach the Shakespeare’s work with confidence and enjoyment:

Motivation and challenging fears

Why should a group of teenagers care about an old English guy’s plays in the first place? This can be a defensive reaction from less able students who worry that they will fail their assignment and fail to find meaning in Shakespeare’s writing.

Think of it from their perspective. Often, a teenager’s perception of Shakespeare is a dreary, complicated one. The language seems impenetrable and therefore not worth the effort trying to understand.  These are fair perceptions and worries. Recognise this and work with your students to overcome these fears. 

A good, fun way is to this is introduce a lesson on Shakespearean Insults, which will help familiarise your students with Shakespeare’s language, showing them that his work is far from dry and dusty. Why not ask them to come up with their own Shakespearean-style insults, to really let them get messy with the language?

Challenge preconceptions

Introduce Shakespeare for who he was: a teenage father, one enjoyed writing about sex and drugs and rock n’roll (just look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Discuss the tumultuous time he was living in: the Renaissance, the bloody Reformation, the ‘Virgin’ Queen Elizabeth. These are meaty, exciting topics for teenagers to get their teeth into – much more so than dry facts such as his date of birth, where he is buried and what town he was from.

Use multimedia

Before you begin your series of lessons, show your class a DVD of the play you have chosen. This will give your students the advantage of knowing the play’s plot before having to analyse its structure and language.Try and find the most up to date version of it, avoiding black and white productions. Think Leonardo Di Caprio, not Lawrence Olivier.

Focus on key scenes

When thinking of your series of lessons,  focus on just five or six key scenes. There is no need to pour over every precious line – look at what you need and be selective in what you choose to focus on. Otherwise, you run the risk of bamboozling less able students with sub plots. When looking at these key scenes, replay the relevant scene from your DVD to refresh your students’ memories.

Make the stories and characters relevant

If you have a choice of play, try and choose a one with a plot that would appeal to your class. The issues within Shakespeare’s plays are timeless, and your class will relate to them, given the right guidance.

For example, if you have a lot of young men in your class, consider teaching them a play incorporating power struggles, war and violence. ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Othello’ are excellent plays for this purpose.  If your class has a lot of young women, why not look at plays with a prominent female character, such as ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Twelfth Night ‘or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Even a class faced with social discrimination outside class may find interest in Shylock’s struggle in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’

Be patient with your class – they will enjoy the sense of achievement that comes with studying Shakespeare, just as much as the plays themselves. Be selective, sensitive to your class and above all passionate about his plays. After all, it is your passion that will drive them through it.