Most teenagers will tell you that they would rather chew sand than have to read yet another Shakespeare play in their high school English class. But because of Shakespeare’s importance to literature and his lasting legacy of beautiful poetry and prose, it is truly vital that student have at least a basic knowledge of his body of work. So how does one teach Shakespeare to teenagers without boring them to tears?
SKIP THE HISTORY PLAYS – EXCEPT FOR “RICHARD III”
Most of the history plays could legitimately qualify as “boring” when simply read on paper. These plays are the most essential to be seen on a stage or on the screen to make any sense of them and find them interesting. Even I, a self-confessed Shakespeare nerd, find them rather dull and dry when out of a book. With the exception of “Richard III”, which has more than enough deceit and violence to hold the interest of the gore-crazed action film fans, steer away from the history plays.
AVOID “ROMEO AND JULIET”
Why? Because they know the story. Just about everyone knows the plot of this play, and most have seen a production, film, or have even read the play itself. While a beautiful play, it is overdone. Challenge the students with a new tragedy. If they are mature enough to handle it, “Titus Andronicus” is a fascinatingly violent play with a lot of opportunities to delve into what is behind it. For a more toned-down play with an equal amount of action, “Macbeth” opens the door for lots of interesting discussions about the supernatural. “Hamlet” can be a little thick – and sometimes falls prey to the “Romeo and Juliet” disease – but a group of intellectual students may be able to relate to Hamlet, the young and tormented university student.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
Don’t just tell the students to read and report. Really get them engaged. Ask them which characters they identify with and why, what their favorite scenes are, and who, if they got to be in the play, they would want to portray. Debates over the merit of a play can be lively and passionate – often, Shakespeare can be polarizing, so if you find students disagreeing on whether the play is “good” or not, encourage a debate that includes textual evidence.
POINT OUT THE DIRTY STUFF
Shakespeare’s reputation is legendary. Just because they are teenagers, don’t assume they won’t catch the dirty stuff – and frankly, it’s good if they do, because it means they are comprehending the work. Encourage them to try and find the best “that’s what she said” line in the play. Don’t worry, you won’t get fired for this – it is highly unlikely they will find such a game to be offensive, and best of all, it will force them to read and understand the text!
ASSIGN FREE-FORM PROJECTS
A free-form project is one that has very vague guidelines. I was given one in my high school history class where the only requirement was “impress the teacher”. Assign a play and ask students to present the material (summary, most famous speeches, character analysis, etc) using whatever form of media they wish. It allows students to play to their strengths, which is essential when working with the difficult material that is a Shakespeare play.