I teach Shakespeare to worried and uninterested teenagers, and I love it.
I love watching a fifteen-year-old boy come to the conclusion that Shakespeare is cool. I can tell by the smile on his face and his raised hand that he’s thinking, “Pick me for a part! I want to be Mercutio.” I can tell that reading Julius Caesar or Macbeth has rocked his world because he can write an essay on what he read and learned, and the essay will be articulate and analytical and best of all, free of Spark Notes plagiarism.
But I get ahead of myself. Here are five specific reasons I love teaching Shakespeare—and, I would suggest, five good reasons for any person, no matter how terrified, to read the Bard of Stratford:
- The language. Crazy, I know. I grew up reading and memorizing the KJV Bible, so I was at least familiar with thou and cleavest and words like that. I love the dramatic effect of telling kids that Shakespeare is written in modern English. I take them to a line of poetry and show them how to decipher it: we look at the vocabulary to decode unfamiliar words, at the context to guess a probable meaning, and at the verbs to take off the st on the ends. We read some Shakespearean sonnets and psalms to give us a sense for the language without a plot attached. We look at inverted sentence patterns and dialogue structure. Some literature teachers would deplore this next recommendation, but I stand by it (especially for “Millennial” kids): I require that their text be the No Fear Shakespeare version, published by Barnes and Noble. Like a parallel Bible, each full-page spread contains the Shakespearean text on the left and the corresponding twenty-first century English “translation” on the right. In class, we read Shakespeare’s original words, but I like struggling readers to use the modern version to read for homework. (Nobody ever liked something they couldn’t understand.)
- The poetry. I teach my students about iambic pentameter, blank verse, and sonnet structure. We take a portion of their reading and label rhyming patterns (end, slant, internal). We find similes, metaphors, personification, hyperboles, puns, imagery, and alliteration. I watch them marvel at the genius of poetic structure. I give them assignments to write their own poetry; they struggle and emerge with something delicate and personal (or awkward and meaningless). Either way, their estimation of Shakespeare grows. To truly appreciate poetry, I think you have to give it a try. You have to wallow in attempting to say something profound and lovely in few words using regular rhyme and meter. (Measured torture produces respect.)
- Shakespeare himself. In only twenty years, William Shakespeare grew from a struggling actor to a successful entrepreneur, from a boyish wannabe poet to the greatest playwright in the history of the world. I shock them with the enormity of his accomplishments—thirty-seven five-act plays (not counting his co-authored ones) and 154 sonnets, all in verse! He changed the way drama was performed and how theaters were built and run (we learn all about The Globe’s history, too). Shakespeare entertained royal and poor, literate and illiterate, men and women through the written word—often with a turnaround time of only a month or two, while often acting in his own plays. Since the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s craftsmanship has brought audiences to tears and laughter, to self-analysis and imagination. Teenagers can’t help but respect a man who managed to relay relevant issues throughout countless generations, cultures, and languages–eighty languages, to be specific, over a four-hundred-year period. Plus, he was famous and wealthy during his own lifetime—not typical for an artist, especially back then.
- Plot and character. To an English teacher, any opportunity to dissect a story’s framework is as delicious as a chocolate truffle. It’s what we live for. Shakespeare’s plot lines are well-crafted, even if an occasional comedic ending feels contrived. His character development is nearly always satisfying, his story arcs are solid (the climax is always in Act 3), and his themes are morally sound, or at least the way we like them. Good people are rewarded; bad people are punished; developing people get another chance. (Literature, after all, is about escapism.) But for a teacher, the themes of love, revenge, greed, redemption, and choice provide a solid platform for class discussion and argument. And the dreaded expository essay assignment.
- The hands-on activities. Nothing is more fun than acting out Shakespeare. Teenagers (and younger kids, but that’s another blog post) love reading the lines, they love dressing up, and they most certainly love all the stabbing and dying. They are sometimes embarrassed by the romance, but I’d bet they like that, too. Rare students catch the sexual innuendos (which also shows relevancy). One fun twist is letting the boys read the girls’ lines and vice versa or contemporizing scenes through paraphrase and colloquialisms. Teachers can find fun projects to go along with any play. One of my favorites is the mock trial. When we read Julius Caesar, I divide my classes into prosecution and defense teams. We try Brutus for Murder One—in the brutal slaying of his friend Caesar. Every student has an assigned role as an attorney or a witness. I play the judge; I wear a robe and I brush up on the lingo with Law and Order. The project provides a forum for writing persuasion, research, judicial process, public speaking, debate, analysis of motive and morality, and their knowledge of the play. The students love it! The actual trial takes up two class periods, and students come in courtroom dress, ready to argue. The winning side plans the next class period (a party).
Shakespeare had the enormous ability to show us ourselves—at our best and our worst—and embrace the value of living life. He inspired greatness, revealed vice, and celebrated love. What better values can I share with teenagers as they re-evaluate their personalities, their purpose, and their futures?
“If we are true to ourselves, we cannot be false to anyone.”—William Shakespeare, Hamlet