Lesson Tutor: Introducing Shakespeare to 10 – 19 year olds.

Teaching Shakespeare – ACT I – IV
by Rachel Mendell


PAIGE: O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention;

JON: Tennis balls, my liege,

JOEL: Pish for thee, Iceland dog, thou prick-eared cur of Iceland!

Teacher: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more . . .!

The class was “A Short Study in Shakespeare – Henry V”, I put together to run for four consecutive Thursdays in my home. The original purpose was to find a few other children to read through a Shakespeare play with my children, there by adding a little interest as well as more people for more parts. I sent out fliers, ordered ten copies of the Penguin edition and hoped that five or so would sign up. Twenty-five signed up. I made frequent trips to Barnes and Noble as the extra books came in and scheduled a second class for Friday evening.

The first night was quiet, except for conversation among friends. I bombarded them with too much background information about the Elizabethan stage, the Globe Theatre, the education of actors, no women allowed on stage, the historical facts about Henry V, and how Shakespeare deviated from them.

Becoming concerned that I would lose them that first night, I quickly plunged into the play. As the children began stumbling over those first lines, the room came alive as little light bulbs lit up: the children were catching on! I realized what I had heard was true: Shakespeare Sells Itself.

That first class – for I have moved on to teach more classes – was made up of ten- to nineteen-year-olds. Also included were parents sitting in who ended up getting involved in part reading. By the third class they were all reading aloud, begging for certain characters, and asking to do favorite scenes over again.

I would like to share what I learned from teaching that first class. I would also like to stress that anyone with a desire to “share” Shakespeare and a humility that realizes no one knows it all can teach Shakespeare. I am not specifically “trained” to teach English literature or Shakespearean poetry; therefore, these suggestions come from the experience of passionately jumping in.


DON’T spend more than a few minutes on background, history, or vocabulary at the beginning. Get into the reading of the play as soon as possible and intersperse the facts as you think they become important during the class. Shakespeare was meant to be read aloud and heard. It is best taught that way.

DO have plenty of references handy. A specialized Shakespeare dictionary, a summary of the plot, a list of characters, an explanation of setting, more than one analysis of the play, pictures of an actual production, children’s picture books (my favorite), and a good video of the play will be helpful. The BBC produces good Shakespeare videos. In the last 10 years Shakespeare movies have multiplied. You may luck out an see a college or professional production.

GIVE students a chance to practice their parts at home. Sight reading is fun, but really knowing your part is better. Choose favorite scenes to do more than once. Don’t skip over the French, Italian, or Latin. I made this mistake and disappointed a class that had worked all week to say them. Get pronunciation dictionaries and give the students a chance to feel and hear the new language in their mouths. Good editions will give paraphrased meanings in the foot notes.

DON’T worry if the play doesn’t sink in right away. I discovered that during each class one or two players had their lights turn on. The light is easy to see. You can hear it in the understanding in their voices as they read their lines, in the thoughtful questions they ask, and in the smiles on their faces as they get the joke or understand the connection or the reference.

KEEP questions basic, even with high schoolers: Name the characters in Act II, scene 1. Tell me a little bit about Katherina and what kind of woman she was. Does Henry V love his countrymen? How can you tell? What does Christopher Sly do for a living (besides drinking)? Which daughter does Baptista love more?

As I shared a play with a class, I tried to help them understand it on four levels. It is difficult to go to the next level unless understanding comes in the level before (I came up with these on my own – you may come up with different ones after you try The Bard):

* THE PLOT: Do they understand what happens in the story from beginning to end?

* THE CHARACTERS: Do they know who is related to who? Who hates or loves who? Who is the good guy or the bad guy? Do they know them well enough that they could guess what they would do in a given situation?

* THE NEW VOCABULARY: Do they understand the current and historical meaning of the new words? (Don’t try to do ALL new words – just enough to get the plot.)

* THE PARALLELS AND SUBTLE LEVELS OF DEEPER MEANINGS OF PHRASES AND SITUATIONS: Do they understand the references to Greek and Roman Mythology, the relationships to biblical stories and doctrines, and the puns and other plays-on-words?

Many students and classes never get past plot and character. This is fine, for Shakespeare can be very much enjoyed at ALL levels. The introduction to good literature is the most important thing. The understanding at deeper levels may not come until years later (I may not ever get there. . . .)

SKILLS TO COVER in teaching Shakespeare
> Plot of play
> Character’s names, pronunciations, and personalities
> How to find your way around a play book (Act, scene, line)
> How to prepare for weekly quizzes
> How to do weekly assignments
> New vocabulary
> How to memorize lines (we shoot for 30 per play)
> How to recognize and create iambic pentameter (possibly writing a sonnet)

go to act iv to get some resources . . .

Some Resources for Teaching Shakespeare

* On the net

Surfing with the Bard (videos and clips, movie reviews, pictures of the Globe Theatre, biographies) This site could be a year’s worth of literature for the homeschooler in high school!
> Sparknotes.com (synopsis, lots of other classics here as well, analysis, study guides, questions)
Shakespeare’s Globe This is a link for anyone who is interested in the Old Globe Theatre or the New Globe Theatre.  There are links to schools of research, pictures, information, and other links to related subjects. Good background information to help with the understanding of Shakespeare.

* The Penguin Editions of Shakespeare plays are helpful for their background, notes, and vocabulary helps. There are lots of others. Check them out.

* The Oxford Complete Shakespeare gives a one page synopsis before each play.

* For my study guides I used BRIGHTEST HEAVEN OF INVENTION by Peter Leithart (Canon Press). This book is geared for high schoolers, but it is possible to compensate for younger students (7th and 8th find it challenging, but not impossible). Leithart works through six plays systematically, relating each to principle in the Bible: Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew (a favorite with my last class), and Much Ado About Nothing.

* Don’t forget the children’s section of the library. There are many fine books on Shakespeare and his times – picture included. Videos are a great way to wrap up a class and for further enrichment.

It doesn’t matter that no one will ever be sure who actually wrote Shakespeare. It doesn’t matter that the language is difficult at first. It doesn’t matter that well-meaning people have made horrible movies from his plays. Shakespeare stands alone and independent of anyone’s interpretation. We learn about a special time and place: the King James Version of the Bible, the adventures in the New World, the strictness of Elizabethan England. Good guys are rewarded. Bad guys get their due – and then some. Try a little Shakespeare and see if it is true:


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