Shakespeare’s plays are a staple in high schools across the country. Unfortuntately, when most students hear the name “Shakespeare” they react with a mixture of dread and anxiety. They worry they won’t “get it” and chances are they won’t get a lot of it. I think that’s okay. Do I understand every line of Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets? No. Does that mean I don’t enjoy them? No. Shakespeare’s words are beautiful and his plays are captivating, even if I don’t understand every turn of phrase.

So, when I teach a Shakespeare unit, my goal is to make sure my students enjoy it! I want their first experience with Shakespeare to be a positive one. Hopefully, one they will remember.

In class, students get roles, rehearse outside in the quad with peers and perform on our makeshift stage. Although some students are initially nervous, most end up loving the physicality of actually moving, gesticulating, and interacting with peers as they perform.

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I’m not a drama teacher, but I know enough about acting to guide my students. Before assigning roles and giving them time to rehearse, I remind my students to do the following in their acting troupes:

  1. Read through your lines and talk about what is happening in your section of the scene.
  2. Figure out who you should be talking to and looking at.
  3. Identify the emotional undertone of your lines.
  4. Practice your movements, gestures, and intonation.
  5. Face your audience and stay in character even when you aren’t speaking!

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The result of asking students to put themselves out there and perform is that they are more likely to really think about what is happening in the play. To bring a scene to life, they need to understand the characters…their fears, their motivations, and their relationships to other characters.

There is also an element of “making” in this approach to teaching Shakespeare. I am not telling the students what to do or how to tackle a scene. Instead, students work together to build a scene. Often they construct basic props to help the audience follow the action in the scene. It is exciting to see them get into character and have fun with it. I’m amazed by how willing they are to take risks. I believe that is a direct result of the safe space we’ve created in our physical classroom.

Here are some short clips of my students’ performances!

My next blog will be about the creative soundtrack project my students complete while we read Shakespeare!

17 Responses

  1. I agree! I teach MS and we have a lot of fun and amazing learning with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. Goal is to send my students to HS loving Shakespeare. Karyn

  2. One of the saddest days of my teaching career was when they told me I wouldn’t be teaching 9th grade English any more, after 30 years of Romeo and Juliet! For years, my kiddos have acted out key scenes and made videotapes of their performances. For really motivated classes, the students rewrite the play in a different setting, rehearse it, film it, edit the tape, present to the classes, and then there is voting and our own “Academy Awards.” One spectacular group of girls did “‘”Girls in the Hood” in rap.
    This is always their first experience with Shakespeare and my motto is “do no harm”-make it something fun. One thing that always happens when we get down the costume box (things I find at yard sales, etc.) that is strange is that the 9th grade boys always grab the gowns, stuff their “bosoms” and want to wear them in the halls! Freshmen–gotta love them!

    • Agreed! I thoroughly enjoy teaching 9th and 10th grade. They are totally entertaining.

      I also love the idea of having students rewrite the scenes. I have to try that! So fun.

      Take care.

      Catlin

  3. I love to see other teachers taking this approach to Shakespeare! How do you get your students to read the text so fluently? Mine really struggle with reading Shakespeare out loud, especially because it’s in poetry form – they want to read as though every line has a period at the end!

    • Hi Jennifer,

      I always give my students 15 minutes to rehearse. I emphasize the importance of running through lines so they are comfortable reading them. As they rehearse, I encourage them to work together to figure out what is happening in their scene…Who are they looking at? What emotion are they feeling? How can they move their bodies to help the audience understand the scene? I also tell them it’s okay to mispronounce a word here and there. Shakespeare is challenging. I’m more interested in seeing them commit to the role!

      Catlin

  4. Catlin,
    I just stumbled upon your blog this morning – I love it!

    Quick question about performing Shakespeare in your class: how do you assign the text to your groups? For example, say you are having the students perform Act I of Romeo and Juliet – do you assign five groups a scene? Group 3 who is assigned scene three would not read scene one until Group 1 performed it (and follow along with them). Is that correct? Hope my question isn’t confusing.

  5. I am looking forward to trying this with my 8th graders reading Hamlet. Thank you for posting this and making Shakespeare fun!

  6. Shakespeare’s Globe Education Department, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival are just a few fantastic resources for performance-driven Shakespeare instruction. I’ve had the honor of learning from practitioners from these and other groups, and I love sharing these strategies with other teachers. A couple of texts to check out:
    Shakespeare Set Free series (Folger)
    Creative Shakespeare by Fiona Banks (Globe)
    Also, look for announcements about the annual Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays conference, hosted by UC Davis School of Education. Next one is slated for April 2018.

  7. I’d really love to have students act out Hamlet in class. Some questions:
    -Most scenes only have a few characters. How do you make sure everyone is involved?
    -If students are assigned a scene in advance, are they expected to practice outside of class? Do you give everyone time to practice their scene in advance even if they haven’t read or watched what comes prior? I’m trying to structure my calendar to make sure everyone has enough time to practice, but also stays engaged.

    • Hi Alan,

      I break them into acting troupes and assign each troupe a part of an Act to rehearse and perform. They spend an entire block period reading, discussing, and practicing their scene (or part of a scene, if they are long). Then we spend the next 1-2 block periods performing with the act with breaks between scenes to discuss, debrief, and record notes.

      When we finish an act, we start the process over again.

      I hope that helps!

      Catlin

  8. Hello Caitlin! I really enjoy reading your articles, and often find useful tools to try in my classes. I’m a MS Drama teacher with a specialization in Shakespeare. There are many great tips in your article! It is so important to emphasize the physicality of Shakespeare, especially as a way to understand, embody, and communicate his works to a 21st century audience. I do want to quickly address how you have your actors discuss the emotional undercurrent of a scene, and perhaps give you a different framework for discussion.

    Dramatic texts, as you’ve pointed out in your article, are meant to be performed, not read. While an untrained reader of a dramatic text might interpret a text for emotion, a performer does not. They are actors – not feelers – which means they are reading a dramatic text for verbs.

    This does not mean we throw out emotions entirely. Emotions have their place (the same as everything else) used by directors and designers to explain and convey the general mood of a scene, but they are simply not very useful tools for an actor in the long-run.

    Actor’s make choices in performance not based on their character’s supposed emotions, but instead on their character’s Objectives, Obstacles, and Tactics – what their character wants, what’s in the way of what they want, and what they’re going TO DO to get what they want.

    For example, instead of saying “In this line, my character is angry,” they would instead say “In this line my character is DEMANDING justice.”

    The teacher or director might then prompt “How does your character use their gestures/levels/vocal variety to convey that action to the audience?”

    Hope this provides some context on character analysis and performance from a drama teacher’s perspective!

    • Thank you, Jessica! I love learning from an expert. I always felt I was muddling through since I have no training in theatre (beyond the couple of plays I was in during high school).

      I appreciate you taking the time to share your expertise!

      Catlin

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