Shakespeare is literally everywhere in the English language, and if you are an English teacher, there is no way you can avoid the Bard. However, we realise that it takes a certain kind of confidence to get started. Confidence comes from knowledge, experience and practice, so let us help you with easy-to-follow ways into some of the most famous and beautiful works in English literature.
This blog post is inspired and informed by the Helbling Shakespeare Series and the Helbling Webinar From reading to performing: Shakespeare's plays in the language class. If you would like to learn more about teaching with Shakespeare, we recommend using the Helbling Shakespeare Series currently with three titles (two more titles coming soon) and watching the webinar.
First we’ll look at why Shakespeare is relevant in the language class, and then we’ll talk about how you can work with his texts to develop your students’ language knowledge and skills. Finally, we have some tips on an enjoyable sequence that will take you from reading to performing Shakespeare in class.
The Helbling Shakespeare books and the tips and activities below are best suited for B1+ level students in secondary school.
The relevance of Shakespeare
There are a host of reasons why you should incorporate Shakespeare into your English course.
His language. If you know and use phrases like ‘in a pickle’, ‘star-crossed lovers’, ‘gossip’, ‘go on a wild goose chase’ or ‘fair play’, you are already using the Bard’s language. Shakespeare contributed to the richness of the English language in often unknown ways. By reading his plays and sonnets, your students will read and learn phrases that will enhance their English. What’s more, it’s also fun to notice phrases like ‘arch-villain’ or ‘fashionable’ in the plays.
His culture. Shakespeare is literally everywhere you go (in real life or online). His plays are continually adapted for the theatre and cinema. There are some evergreen adaptations which are always worth watching and re-watching, and there are some modern adaptations which give a contemporary perspective. Recently we have been able to enjoy the live or recorded performances of great actors at the National Live Theatre or the Globe.
If your students visit London, a tour of the Globe is a must, and, of course, a trip to Verona can never be complete without seeing Juliet’s famous balcony and statue. Knowing about these places is part of knowing English language and culture.
The main difficulty teachers face is the way Shakespeare is perceived in culture and school. His works are often seen as distant and part of a so-called 'high' culture which can only be read with expert eyes. The original plays might seem like an intimidating endeavour so we often give up on them even before taking a close look at the possibilities. We need to remember that Shakespeare wrote for his actors, and his plays were performed to entertain diverse groups of people. We need to deconstruct this abstract perception of Shakespeare’s works and make them accessible to students through engaging activities such as group reading, language exploration and drama.
His philosophy. His works deal with the great questions of life and the great questions your students face in their everyday lives. Just think about the major themes of the plays:
- Love: Will I ever find love?
- Family: How can I live with my family?
- Friends: What makes a good friend?
- Ambition: What will I become? How can I be happy?
- The BIG questions of life: How can I be a good friend? What does it mean to do good? What is right? What is wrong?
- Revenge and moral questions: Can we judge another person? Can we give ‘lessons’ to others?
The trick is to show students that Shakespeare’s texts are both important philosophical and literary works which can be studied and analysed AND engaging texts that talk about everyday questions with exciting, surprising and often shocking plots which are performed for entertainment. The activities below will give you ideas on how to do this.
Working with the texts in class
Our tip is to work with a text-driven approach. To do this, you, the teacher will need to read the whole play (or watch a theatre performance). Then, select one or more key scenes to work with.The Helbling Shakespeare Series has done that for you, focussing on eight key scenes with ‘filler’ information all scaffolded with introductory and follow-up activities and projects. But before you get started, you can have some fun deciphering Shakespeare’s grammar and vocabulary a little bit, which will make the original extracts more accessible and fun when you get to them.
Some notes on grammar
Discuss these three rules and read the sentences together. Then, do some practice exercises. This kind of grammar preparation will help your students feel confident and comfortable about reading the texts, and they also contribute to their grammatical awareness of contemporary English.
Finally, ask students to create some messages in Renaissance English.
You will find a lot more grammar and vocabulary preparation exercises in the Helbling Shakespeare Series.
Active & close reading tips
Follow these tips with any key scene you select.
1 Show a famous illustration (painting, poster or film still) of the scene. Talk about it first to create an atmosphere, then teach some basic vocabulary connected to the scene. This way you can warm up the students with a general overview, giving them a bigger picture. This is also a good way to implicitly activate lexical knowledge and associations. If you immediately focus on the nuances of the text, the student will not have a complete experience of the scene, the atmosphere and the setting. Start from the context, then talk about the given situation of the scene, and zoom in on the details of the text, always working from the out, in.
2 Tell the students what happened in the story so far (unless it is the first scene). This will remind them of the recap of the episodes they watch on television. Sharing some necessary background knowledge of the characters and the plot are essential in this reading process.
3 Read the key scene together. You do not need to translate each passage. You can simply give a short summary of what happens.
4 When you have read the scene, do some retelling together. For example, in one extract in Romeo and Juliet, you will read both monologues and dialogues.
5 As you are retelling the main aspects of the scene, focus on the characters’ feelings, thoughts, memories and plans. Always encourage students to find evidence in the original text and use them as proof for their answers. This is how students remember that all reasoning should be based on what they read in the extract (evidence-based).
6 Focus on poetic and dramatic language features. You will find a lot of similes, idioms and metaphors in each scene. Talk about them in detail, look them up in a dictionary and ask students what they mean in that context. Many of them will be picked up on in the Understand and Analyse sections of the books.
7 Collect words to describe the characters and the plot. Then, students can express their own opinions - always informed by what actually happened in the text. The Vocabulary Building pages use themes in the scenes to develop contemporary vocabulary.
Follow-up cultural projects
Each key scene offers an interesting cultural, historical or scientific topic to further explore.
Find these topics in your selected scene, and encourage students to read more.
Here are some examples from three plays.
- Romeo and Juliet: Medieval society, Medieval marriages, Medieval medicine, Medieval towns
- Hamlet: Revenge Tragedy, Miniature art and portraits, Medieval theatre, Madness
- Macbeth: History of Scotland, King James I, the Gunpowder Plot, Scottish clans and heroes, Scottish traditions, Scottish folklore, Witches and witchcraft
Doing some research will expand the students’ experience of the play and the scenes they read. It also encourages deeper thinking and analysis and promotes independent learning.
From Reading to Performing
Reasons for creating a performance
Shakespeare wrote to be performed, not to be studied in class. Once you have finished studying a scene or a text, you can start thinking about how it could be performed. The book has From Reading to Performing spreads which focus on various aspects of the theatre and include practical drama techniques and activities to raise students' awareness of all that is involved when a play is performed. However these sections also encourage the students to focus on a wide variety of aspects of the theatre and teach them a number of skills which will help their language production.
When your students prepare to perform a number of lines, a scene or a sequence of scenes, they:
- work as a group / a team,
- work individually,
- think creatively,
- develop a project approach,
- have a purpose.
Apart from these, they improve various skills which are useful for presentations and public speech. For example, they
- work with gestures
- train their voices
- learn to move on stage
- practise speaking and listening skills
- think about how tone affects meaning
Students who are interested in what goes on behind the scenes, can
- create a storyboard
- design a set
- design costumes
- choose and create props
- think about choreography and lighting
- direct a play
There are various psychological benefits as well:
- reward and satisfaction
And last but not least, there are educational benefits:
- active learning
- skills integration
It’s important to remember that we need to focus on the whole process, not just the outcome. The final performance might be the ‘real thing’ for some students, but you need to explain and show them how much they are learning about acting, production, language and themselves during this experience.
A production sequence
- Choose a scene and work on the text
- Read and listen to the text (e.g., Helbling e-zone or Helbling Media App)
- Analyze and interpret the text
- Distribute the lines (use easy-to-read texts from Helbling e-zone under the Course materials for each Helbling Shakespeare book)
- Expand your own responses and ideas. Talk about how the characters might feel, what they are thinking and what you think of the events. Use the techniques suggested in the From Reading to Performing sections of the book to develop the students’ understanding and awareness.
- Watch adaptations (e.g., scenes on Helbling e-zone)
- Start the class production: Decide your production style. Would you like to do a contemporary, minimalist or traditional adaptation?
- Either work chorally or assign different roles to the students, start casting
- Get started with behind the scenes work: choose the music, decide the costumes, design the set
- Work with a video example. Watch this performance prepared by a secondary school group in Italy. What do you like about this performance? Would you be able to do it? It is interesting to point out that:
- A prologue, a monologue, a soliloquy or a dialogue can all be performed by a group.
- You can work with minimal costume and set design.
- You need to work on your speech and movements.
If you would like to learn more about how this performance was created, you can go on Helbling e-zone and access the workshop video and notes written by actor and teacher Teresa Brett.
Presenting the scene
You can decide to perform the scene in front of another teacher, students, classes, the whole school or parents. If you can only do it online, you can record yout performance on the platform you use.
Invite students to practise dialogues and speeches in pairs or small groups. Then, when they feel confident enough, they can perform together on a shared screen.
An exciting exercise can be to get all of the students on the screen at the same time and ask them to recite a longer piece of text all together. You can give them signs as a conductor and tap the rhythm during practice sessions.
Summary of ideas
In short, if you work with Shakespeare’s texts, you will:
- promote active learning
- build language awareness and cultural knowledge
- develop your students’ vocabulary and grammar
- boost their confidence
- integrate a wide range language skills: speaking, listening, reading, viewing, thinking, performing, researching
- create a memorable shared experience for your students.
If you are interested in more ideas, check out these resources: