Helping Secondary students to engage with Shakespeare’s work

Dr Anjna Chouhan

Dr Anjna Chouhan is lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, where she teaches pupils across Secondary school ages (home and international), university students, and Shakespeare enthusiasts. Anjna’s research is on Shakespeare in the nineteenth century, and her work includes: Henry Irving (Pickering and Chatto, 2012), The Shakespeare Book (Dorling Kindersley, 2015), and articles in Victorian Network and Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film. Anjna is a contributor to the Cambridge Schools Shakespeare digital resource and has written resources for Digital Theatre Plus, as well as acting as educator in MOOCs for the British Council and the RSC. Anjna is also a Shakespeare consultant for BBC Learning projects.

Follow @SBTeducation

Follow @shakespearebt

Website: www.shakespeare.org.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Originally published on 26th April 2016 Originally published on 26th April 2016

Teaching Shakespeare can be at once exhilarating and terrifying; inspirational and life-threateningly tedious. I like to think that the contradictions here echo, or at least nod, to the emotional rollercoaster that was early modern drama. When speaking to students – Secondary school and university – a common stumbling block is invariably language. Besides the archaic vocabulary – ‘hautboy’, ‘nonce’, ‘tun-dish’ and ‘fardel’ come to mind – there’s also the syntax, the distinctly Christian rhetoric, and seemingly endless concerns about marriage and death. For pupils in Secondary school these subject matters, compounded by unintuitive phrasing and words, can be a categorical turn-off.

"Simply telling pupils that Shakespeare wrote for the stage is not enough."

When you’re 14, it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that you care about unrequited love or that a man accuses his fiancée of infidelity at the altar. Much less in a story written over 400 years ago in English that seems counter-intuitive.

The key, then, is to remove or to re-appropriate these obstacles: language and subject matter. First and foremost, the language needs to be placed into context. Simply telling pupils that Shakespeare wrote for the stage is not enough. What does that mean? How does writing for the stage differ from writing for the page, and for a reader? What was the early modern theatrical world actually like? Who was Shakespeare writing for: which actors, audiences, patrons? These questions actively engage pupils in re-considering text as something living, something organic.

Understanding the language of theatre is fundamental in breaking down those unhelpful myths around Shakespeare’s poetic and terribly ‘important’ language of literature. The difference between describing a night sky to an audience in a public open-air theatre and showing one in a film is entirely linguistic. Whether we’re explaining Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’, Claudio’s jealousy, Coriolanus’ pride or Titus’ wrath, we’re talking about devised, calculatedly hyperbolic theatricality. All of it comes from the language.

As for subject matter, like language, context is the key. I find that myth-busting is a good place to start to overcome those lazy generalisations: all women were inferior, everyone got married young, nobody could read or write. Paint the Elizabethan and Jacobean Englands as rich, colourful, diverse and even scandalous places, and suddenly the street fight between the Montagues and Capulets becomes more intense, and Juliet’s marriage is actually far more troubling than romantic.

How about trying out a new type of play? Swap late-night, under-aged window serenades for vengeance and pies. Or fairies in a wood for shepherds"There are stories and characters in every play that pupils can engage with." in a forest. There are stories and characters in every play that pupils can engage with and even come to care for, if they wish. Encourage pupils to retell Shakespeare’s story in a world more familiar to themselves. How do those stories differ? Where are the cross-overs? How have film, theatre, opera and dance directors dealt with these stories? What do their versions tell you, or add to / change, about your understanding of the play? Encouraging pupils to engage with the subject matter both within and outside of its context is a fundamental step in teaching and exploring Shakespeare’s work.

The four would-be academics in Love’s Labour’s Lost agree that knowledge and understanding come from experience: “where we are our learning likewise is”. No matter what these characters do, they believe that they are learning something - however grand or trivial. This is because they are learning in a personal way: transcending the unintuitive, archaic and generally ‘old’, to recognise that context changes everything. Perhaps making Shakespeare’s language and subject matter a personal experience can, in turn, help to make ‘learning’ about his work part of a pupil’s actual world and more ‘where I am’ as opposed to ‘where I’m expected to be’. Making a pupil feel worthy or empowered to read, watch, talk about and even enjoy Shakespeare’s plays must surely be the ultimate goal of any teacher.  

Do you use these tactics? Share your experiences below.

Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support us.
When you register, you'll join a grassroots community where you can:
• Enjoy unlimited access to articles
• Get recommendations tailored to your interests
• Attend virtual events with our leading contributors
Register Now
Login

Latest stories

  • How to handle stress while teaching in a foreign country
    How to handle stress while teaching in a foreign country

    Teaching English in a foreign country is likely to be one of the most demanding experiences you'll ever have. It entails relocating to a new country, relocating to a new home, and beginning a new career, all of which are stressful in and of themselves, but now you're doing it all at once. And you'll have to converse in a strange language you may not understand.

  • Is Learning Fun for You, Teacher?
    Is Learning Fun for You, Teacher?

    Over the weekend, my family of five went to an Orlando theme park, and I decided we should really enjoy ourselves by purchasing an Unlimited Quick Queue pass. It was so worth the money! We rode every ride in the park at least twice, but one ride required us to ride down a rapidly flowing river, which quenched us with water. It was incredible that my two-year-old was laughing as well. We rode the Infinity Falls ride four times in one day—BEST DAY EVER for FAMILY FUN in the Sun! The entire experience was epic, full of energizing emotions and, most importantly, lots of smiles. What made this ride so cool was that the whole family could experience it together, the motions were on point, and the water was the icing on the cake. It had been a while since I had that type of fun, and I will never forget it.

  • Free recycling-themed resources for KS1 and KS2
    Free recycling-themed resources for KS1 and KS2

    The Action Pack is back for the start of the brand new school year, just in time for Recycle Week 2021 on 20 - 26 September, to empower pupils to make the world a better and more sustainable place. The free recycling-themed resources are designed for KS1 and KS2 and cover the topics of Art, English, PSHE, Science and Maths and have been created to easily fit into day-to-day lesson planning.

  • Inspire your pupils with Emma Raducanu
    Inspire your pupils with Emma Raducanu

    Following the exceptional performance from British breakthrough star Emma Raducanu, who captured her first Grand Slam at the US Open recently, Emmamania is already inspiring pupils aged 4 - 11 to get more involved in tennis - and LTA Youth, the flagship
    programme from The LTA, the governing body of tennis in Britain, has teachers across the country covered.

  • 5 ways to boost your school's eSafety
    5 ways to boost your school's eSafety

    eSafety is a term that constantly comes up in school communities, and with good reason. Students across the world are engaging with technology in ways that have never been seen before. This article addresses 5 beginning tips to help you boost your school’s eSafety. 

  • Tackling inequality in EdTech
    Tackling inequality in EdTech

    We have all been devastated by this pandemic that has swept the world in a matter of weeks. Schools have rapidly had to change the way they operate and be available for key workers' children. The inequalities that have long existed in communities and schools are now being amplified by the virus.

  • EdTech review & The Curriculum Lab
    EdTech review & The Curriculum Lab

    The world is catching up with a truth that we’ve championed at Learning Ladders for the last 5 years - that children’s learning outcomes are greatly improved by teachers, parents and learners working in partnership. 

  • Reducing primary to secondary transition stress
    Reducing primary to secondary transition stress

    As school leaders grapple with the near impossible mission to start bringing more students into schools from 1st June, there are hundreds of thousands of Year 6 pupils thinking anxiously about their move to secondary school.

  • Generation Z and online tutoring: natural bedfellows?
    Generation Z and online tutoring: natural bedfellows?

    The K-12 online tutoring market is booming around the world, with recent research estimating it to grow by 12% per year over the next five years, a USD $60bn increase. By breaking down geographic barriers and moving beyond the limits of local teaching expertise, online tutoring platforms are an especially valuable tool for those looking to supplement their studies in the developing world, and students globally are increasingly signing up to online tuition early on in their secondary education schooling. 

  • Employable young people or human robots?
    Employable young people or human robots?

    STEM skills have been a major focus in education for over a decade and more young people are taking science, technology, engineering, and maths subjects at university than ever before, according to statistics published by UCAS. The downside of this is that the UK is now facing a soft skills crisis and the modern world will also require children to develop strong social skills as the workplaces are transformed by technology. 

In order to make our website better for you, we use cookies!

Some firefox users may experience missing content, to fix this, click the shield in the top left and "disable tracking protection"