Why I Love Teaching Shakespeare (And You Should, Too!)

Shakespeare in the Classroom

When I was in grad school I took a Shakespearean Tragedies course and the expectation was that we were to read one play per week. We plowed our way through Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, and so many more. At one point in the semester, just as we were finished talking about that floating dagger toying with Macbeth’s mind, the professor, Clifford Huffman, turned from the blackboard and said, “it has become easier, hasn’t it? Remember when you were in high school and this stuff seemed like a foreign language to you?”

And he was right.

Reading the Bard in high school was a daunting challenge. After all, this was Shakespeare with a capital S — the greatest writer in history — with all of his thees, thous, and thines. And there was the cultural weight of 400 years of Bardolotry pressing down on those five-act plays that we all could tangibly feel adding to the intimidating atmosphere.

Shakespeare was like the Waterford crystal store when I was a kid. There was an aura of luxury and ostentation, and I was reminded by my elders me that I should only appreciate — look but don’t touch —  because my clumsy hands were ill equipped to handle something so precious.

But the aura of intimidation didn’t match the frustration of reading. Once we cracked open the plays and started deciphering lines, it wasn’t that bad; rather it was enjoyable. To my surprise, when my teachers handed me a passage to read closely, I could figure out a lot of what was happening on the surface.

Reading Shakespeare boosted my confidence as a young reader. And to my benefit, my teachers were there to show me some of the juicer things that needed unpacking. Their probing questions and close reading activities helped me understand what the nurse really meant when she said, “Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not, Jule?” and it reveled more deeply Iago’s machinations when he said, “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve, for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.”

Shakespeare hit a sweet spot and helped me become a better reader. I was able to read some of it on my own but I also needed guidance, modeling, and the questions of more experience, more skilled readers (my teachers) to help me to think deeper and with a more critical eye.

Shakespeare Under Fire

But Shakespeare isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Dana Dusbiber, who teaches English at Luther Burbank High School in California, shared her opinion on teaching Shakespeare in an article for The Washington Post.

 

I do not believe that I am “cheating” my students because we do not read Shakespeare. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior. Mostly, I do not believe I should do something in the classroom just because it has “always been done that way.”Some English teachers don’t like the idea of teaching Shakespeare?

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” I am sad that we don’t reach beyond our own often narrow beliefs about how young people become literate to incorporate new research on how teenagers learn, and a belief that our students should be excited about what they read — and that may often mean that we need to find the time to let them choose their own literature.

Isn’t that sacrilege?

This is Shakespeare that she is attacking after all.

Or does she have a point? Are we holding on to a cultural legacy set centuries ago without even questioning why we are doing it?

The Decision to Teach Any Text

Carol Jago, one of my edu-heroes, writes in With Rigor for All, about the weight of our curriculum choices. “I fear that too often in an effort to make the curriculum relevant we lose rigor. In our effort to provide students with readings that they can relate to, we sometimes end up teaching works that students can read on their own at the expense of teaching texts that they most certainly do need assistance negotiating.”

How do you know if a text is right for your students, whether it is Shakespeare or something contemporary?

This is a question that I never asked early in my career and that is a shame.

I taught the texts I was assigned to teach, following the curriculum map dutifully. As soon as I finished one book or unit, I’d march right on to the next. But I never paused to reflect on what it was about that particular text that was unique. Now I find it such a fundamental question and I’m asking it of everything that I teach. Now, when I plan a unit or consider a new work, I ask myself “what opportunity does this text present that no other does?”

Mortimer J. Adler said, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

That is what I seek to do, make each text get through to my students, not the other way around.

The question remains, is Shakespeare irreparably old and irretrievably distant from our students’ lives to have an effect?

Or, should we buck up to the challenge and display the courage that Jago advocates when she writes “there is always a reason for not doing something difficult. We owe it to our students to stop making excuses and start teaching them how to read demanding literature.”

In asking these fundamental questions the past few years, I can say with certainty that Shakespeare will  remain a part of my classroom.

Shakespeare isn’t irreparably old or irrelevant. Ben Jonson wrote in a memorial poem affixed to the first folio, in 1623 “he was not of any age, but for all time.” And it is as true now as it was then.

This year my students will encounter The Merchant of Venice and here’s why:

  • They can get up and act parts of the play. By moving, speaking, acting, and imagining, the classroom becomes less of a sedentary place and more of a dynamic environment for learning.
  • There are so many things to talk about with this play!!!!! We can have sophisticated discussions about the complex nature of persecution, justice, love, affection, revenge, gender roles, feminism, fate, loyalty, friendship, within these five acts and beyond.
  • I can show my students the dichotomies of the play. Marjorie Garber points out that in The Merchant of Venice ” Shakespeare presents a series of what seems to be clear-cut opposites, but each of these opposites begins, as the play goes on, to seem oddly alike, rather than unlike.” Hmmm… we are more alike than unalike. Now that sounds like something my high school students should learn.
  • We can study the history of the play and see how the way in which it was performance reflected the climate of the the time.
  • We can do Shakespearean Musical Chairs
  • We can observe how a character like Shylock, who appears in only in four scenes, can leave an indelible mark on the play.
  • I can teach the proper citation for a work of drama.
  • We can workshop thesis statements for a range of topics related to the play.
  • We can do character studies.
  • We can write creatively.
  • We can study genre and discuss how The Merchant of Venice, while a comedy, conforms and deviates from those conventions.
  • We can imagine which role Shakespeare himself assumed in the play.
  • I can offer my students all this and let them decide Shakespeare’s place in our culture.

Shakespeare After All

In providing an experience for my students, I hope to show them that while Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer of all time, he is not sanctified and beyond reproach. Consider the example set by Jeffrey Wilson, who teaches a course at Harvard called Why Shakespeare:

We begin with Hamlet, the most famous artwork of the past millennium. We proceed with a study of Shakespeare in the context of his sources and some modern adaptations. Previous semesters have studied, for example, Such Tweet Sorrow (a Twitter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) and “the Romeo and Juliet effect” (a social science theory suggesting that parental interference deepens romantic love). Finally, we ask the big question of this course, Why Shakespeare?, and entertain answers ranging from the cynical (Shakespeare is a dead, white male that other dead, white males have used to promote the values of dead, white males) to the euphoric (Shakespeare is universal; Shakespeare invented the human). In each of these units, students develop the skills of interpretation and argumentation that are the foundation of all academic writing in all disciplines.

I love what he does here. In an age in which everything is so ephemeral, he empowers his students to think beyond the moment and decide if something that has lasted for centuries should continue to endure. Certainly, Shakespeare was not the only writer to reveal what it means to be human, but for me, he has an unparalleled combination of thematic resonance, technical mastery, and eloquence of language.

Shouldn’t we provide that opportunity for our students? Shouldn’t part of their reading experience be with literature that has withstood the test of time so that they can appreciate how the language has evolved while seeing how little the human condition has changed? For all of our evolutions, we are not that much different than we were four centuries ago.

Rob Brown, a veteran teacher from Vermont that I admire deeply, sums it up best. “I can see why some would fain push Shakespeare aside, perhaps assuming that knowing how to use “fain” is less useful in the modern context than mastery of “so.” It seems a commonplace assumption that students need to read about themselves, not people from imagined places in far gone times. Shakespeare offers a way to stretch a narrowing language, to embrace complexity in an age of oversimplification, to teach the value of vicarious experience inspired by imagination, and to explore the rich heritage of English.”

Shouldn’t we decide which texts from across the centuries — not just contemporary, not classic — we love most and teach our hearts out? Whether it be Shakespeare or John Green, shouldn’t we help students come to their own understanding of greatness and allow them to examine these works – any work, really — from that lens?

Teaching Shakespeare: Your Turn

Do you teach Shakespeare?

Are his plays still relevant?

What have been your greatest success with his works? What have been your deepest frustrations?

I would love for you to share your opinion on Shakespeare in the comments section below.

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11 thoughts on “Why I Love Teaching Shakespeare (And You Should, Too!)

  1. I will certainly teach Shakespeare, and yes, even Hamlet until the end of (my) time. I would recommend a text, A Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Hikary K Justice (a former student) which Amazon.com says “provides an ‘infectiously readable’ and conversational introduction to reading and understanding Shakespeare in the 21st century; an analysis of Hamlet, the play, and Hamlet, the character; an examination of the myriad decisions that directors and actors must make in staging the play; and a guide for teachers of Shakespeare who wish to help their students engage fearlessly with the play and its characters. The book offers curious and passionate readers, actors, and directors several avenues for self-directed study, including sections on Drama, Shakespeare’s Language, and Character and a complete scene-by-scene study guide with questions and interludes designed to spark deeper exploration of the play’s many mysteries.”
    Justice does justice to the teaching of a Shakespeare play. And my students also love Henry IV, Parts I & II because they are all. like Hal, attracted to the cool father (Falstaff) and struggling with the “rents.”
    I wish that we were all as alive as Shakespeare!

  2. I have asked my students about this. They agree that Shakespeare is important, but they question if we need to read so much of it at the expense of other works. They will have read four Shakespeare plays in high school, and plays by modern authors get pushed to the wayside. Also, they argue that the lessons you learn from Shakespeare can be learned from more accessible works.

    I don’t disagree with what they say. However, because I teach AP Lit and dual enrollment I feel like Shakespeare needs to be there (plus I like to teach it.) So if our school wanted to cut back on Shakespeare, where would we do it? In the regular classes?

  3. When I first started teaching, I doubted including Shakespeare. My insecurity with teaching the material and the students’ obvious discomfort with it made me wonder if it was worth the sacrifice of time. Recently. I wrestled with this question for my AP Lit class – so much work, so little time, and Shakespeare takes so. freaking. long. Also, studying at a women’s college and then under a champion of women’s studies, I was taught to question the cannon of Dead White Guys. In the end, in all my classes, I kept the Bard. We have studied Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, R&J, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer, Richard III, and Lear. Different years, of course, but this year Macbeth is back, baby! (sorry.) Even when I taught American Lit, I tried to find a way to include him.

    We begin by discussing whether it is comforting or disturbing that human nature has changed so very little in over 400 years. Suddenly it becomes very relevant. I try to balance it with more modern literature (AP this year will also read A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, for example), but the truth is (IMO) that the difficulty is part of the accomplishment. It is part of that “grit” and “growth mindset” trending now, and students desperately need to know how to work with and makes sense of complexity. The struggle is real and important.

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful blog Brian. Let me start by saying that I love Shakespeare and have taught him at various secondary grade levels over my years of teaching. This will be the first year that I have decided not to teach a Shakespeare play in a few of my classes. Why have I decided to do this? There are a few reasons. First and foremost, timing. Certain marking periods end up losing days for one reason or another (assemblies, testing, snow, etc.). These issues often result in a rushing through sections to finish in time for students to use the text appropriately. Second, in my opinion, we over-emphasize Shakespeare. In my school, a Shakespeare play is taught in every grade level English class, even when the year’s focus is American literature. Hawthorne, Twain, Miller, and suddenly, Shakespeare. The reason given for this decision is that students need to tackle complex texts, so trot out Shakespeare. I think this attitude does our students a disservice. There are many great American and World texts that can provide just as rich of an experience as Shakespeare. Again, keep in mind I love the Bard, but even I know overkill when I see it.

    You note Jago’s comment as a defense for Shakespeare, and certainly he fits the bill of a text in which students need assistance in negotiating his craft, but so do others, perhaps not in the same way, but the rigor remains. Just because I choose something different, doesn’t mean it provides less for my students (and while I know you are not saying it does, too often educators believe it does). Dusbiber raises an important point about breaking the status quo and not teaching a text because “it is what we do.” We need to keep in mind the nature of education – it is a living thing – one that changes from class to class, year to year, student to student; this nature requires us to remain open to change, to let go of some things and to consider the many options available to us that will allow us to best serve our students.

    With that said, I defend the need to teach a Shakespeare text at least once or twice over a child’s high school years. His work remains universally relevant because it strikes at the core of our humanity and reveals how we continue to struggle with the same issues today. It reminds us that as far as we’ve come, we really haven’t changed all that much! Students love Romeo and Juliet, and love to argue about the parent’s role in their deaths, and I would say they love Macbeth and Othello with equal zeal. But we lose students over Shakespeare, too. They simply can’t get past the structure and language, and I can’t blame them; we all have authors or books we just don’t like because we don’t like their style or approach.

    In the end, I think we shouldn’t completely forgo the Bard, but we should not lose ourselves in him (or other classic authors) either. I will see what happens this year in those classes I’ve chosen to omit Shakespeare’s dramas (mind you, I’ll be pulling in some sonnets so they will still tackle him on some level) and allow the experience to drive my decisions going forward.

    Thanks again for an interesting read!

  5. We never read Shakespeare when I went to school. Nada. I panicked when I learned I would be teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo Juliet. I had no background and no ideas, just a textbook. Fifteen years later I am now a Bardinator. I’ve attended FolgerShakespeare and teach beyond the requirements and have even started a campus Shakespeare club. I learned to enjoy Shakespeare because I started from nothing, just like my students. The key to success? It’s not teaching the Bard–it’s experiencing his works. Go to Folger Education and have a Shakesperience. A favorite classroom moment: we had just finished our Hamlet unit and one of my strugglers, the ones who try but comprehension doesn’t happen easily, stays after briefly. “I’m going to miss Hamlet. I looked forward to him. My dad doesn’t get Hamlet and I can’t talk to him about it. Here I can.” This young man could relate to Hamlet’s struggles of indecision. So is Shakespeare still reveling? Forsooth, indeed.

  6. I have read Carol Jago and the Adler pieces before and totally agree. For those who don’t like to teach Shakespeare, don’t; you have to LOVE what you teach if you want to engage your students. If they smell even a hint of ambivalence you lose. Some of my colleagues disagree with my classic choices, but I know I am challenging my students to move beyond “I like” or “I don’t like.” And if it’s the name that’s scary or bothersome, go with the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It’s not the name on the work, it’s the work and all it inspires.

  7. I love teaching Shakespeare! I think that he is relevant for all of the reasons that you said, and I think that it is good to expose our students. I tell my students at the beginning of each year that I hope they get a text that they don’t like or that is extremely difficult and have to power through it because that is the important reading that a lot of them will be doing when they leave school. No one wants to read the contract when they buy a house, but they will be held responsible for the content of it when they sign it. So many of my students read only what they like; this can’t be their approach to reading.
    I also love the opportunity to help me students get to know Shakespeare – to break down some stereotypes (not a bad lesson for them to learn either).

  8. My barrio students used to love to “translate” Shakespeare into “hip hop speak.” Just another way they related to him on their own–and these are kids who most people felt would never be interested in Shakespeare. In fact, many didn’t even speak English that well. But they demanded to be taught the same literature the other kids were taught, and I think they gobbled it up even more eagerly. But I’m mostly weighing in because I can’t believe this debate is still raging. You can always find, in all great literature, themes and excerpts that ring true to young folks! My kids were most enamored of “The Taming of the Shrew,” because it gave us a chance to discuss relationships and what men REALLY look for in a woman. Or, that’s what they thought we were discussing. But it was deeper than that. And boy, the battles we had as the girls took on the superficiality of the replies the boys gave, and how much more fascinating and feisty Kate was, compared to Bianca. My girls were able to really delve into their own self-images, and what the media teaches…all that. In the end, the “ideal” woman was Kate, in their eyes. And sometimes the boys agreed. Sure, we could’ve gotten there without Willy, but realizing that this argument, like the “should we teach Shakespeare” one, was THAT old always astounded them and lent even more depth to the discussions.

  9. I love teaching Shakespeare and made many of my students love him too! The classes would often go dead quiet as we read through. The high schools I have taught at have covered the “requisite 4” as I like to call them (12th night, R&J, Macbeth, Hamlet) and kids groaned every time. I, myself, always taught ‘other’ especially in the higher grades. They did Macbeth, I did Othello. They did Hamlet, I did Lear. And, yes, I managed to interest them in the problems of an old man.
    Shakespeare is always ALWAYS relevant – you just have to get them there.

    I have looked at and used the Folger copies of the plays and some of the activities off their website. But I like the Cambridge versions somewhat better. There are a variety of activities on opposing pages that refer directly to the text opposite. There is writing, analyzing, acting, “hot seating”. And I take a luxurious 5-6 weeks to get through the play. Not bad in a semestered school where the average semester is 16 weeks. I combine the play with whatever book they are reading independently for literature circles.

    As to the language, we do a bunch of things: ignore the ‘eth’; thee, thy, thou all mean you; put up slang of 20 years ago and show them that the language is equally incomprehensible even though it is newer; figure out that the important things are written in plain English (If ever you disturb our streets again, Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. – for example); read it out loud.

    And we start off with “why do we still read shakespeare?” or “Why do you hate Shakespeare”? and have that discussion.

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