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January 3, 2022

Classroom Activities for Teaching Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, the world’s most famous and influential writer, has long served as the poster boy of ELA curriculum. Some students get a kick out of all the droll melodrama, sharp-tongued insults, and sword fights. Others find the Bard tedious, a reaction most teachers hope to reverse.  

What if you could teach these plays in a way that helps your students tap into a love and appreciation for literature, history, and even humankind?  With these fun and engaging classroom activities for teaching Shakespeare, you’ll accomplish that mission.

Build a Character

What makes a character uniquely Shakespearean? For centuries, these personas have sustained as cautionary tales and pertinent reflections of modern events. And that’s because the Bard used a strategic formula for creating his characters, a template that storytellers continue to borrow today.

In this Shakespeare classroom activity, students will create their own character. Adaptable for a wide range of age groups, this endeavor could take the form of a trading card with stats and short bios or a short play your students pen and perform. As long as students grasp the concept of literary attributes, this lesson will prove successful.

The recipe is subject to change, of course, but suffice it to say, the Bard built his characters based on:

  • Strong desires and principles that drive the action forward.
  • A fatal flaw or hamartia that either impedes a goal or causes a downfall.
  • Complex motivations that often make them sacrifice their morality, question their loyalties, or go through uncomfortable changes.
  • A tragic waste that gives way to a moral lesson or catharsis.

Pop Culture Connections

You’ve seen the Lion King, right? In case you need a refresher, the movie’s about a prince who loses his father, flees his home, gets visits from said father’s ghost, and returns to honor a legacy. In other words, Simba is Prince Hamlet.

No doubt Shakespeare’s influence on pop culture and modern storytelling endures. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records reports 410 cinematic renditions of the Bard’s plays. Some are direct adaptations while others are more subtle or otherwise modernized to reflect what the world looks like today. West Side Story, My Own Private Idaho, Ran, and 10 Things I Hate About You represent a small sample of modern reimaginings.

If your kids don’t jive with lofty Elizabethan language, perhaps they’d connect with a teenage romance or a superhero. For this classroom activity, we recommend your students write profiles of existing fictional characters and draw thematic lines between shared traits.

Here are some pop culture icons and movies that you can use to illustrate parallels between modern society and drama from the Sixteenth Century:

  • Batman is a crusader version of Hamlet, a character whose mission involves honoring a dead parent.
  • Walter White is an ambitious and cutthroat individual who continues lowering the moral bar to gain power, a modern foil for Macbeth.
  • Kat Stratford (10 Things I Hate About You) is a sardonic and hyper-critical individual who becomes the gatekeeper of her sister’s social life. The movie is a loose but honorific adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Shakespearian Insults

Yes, we know, teachers are supposed to discourage name-calling. But the scathing attacks Mr. Shakespeare penned bring such sheer delight that it’s hard not to partake in a little verbal warfare.

In the spirit of fun, you can facilitate the development of Shakespeare insults. For starters, let’s take a look at some of the Bard’s most acidic roasts:

  • “Come, come, you froward and unable worms!”
  • “I am sick when I do look on thee.”
  • “I’ll beat thee, but I would infect my hands.”
  • “More of your conversation would infect my brain.”
  • “Thine face is not worth sunburning.”
  • “Your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage.”

In terms of classroom activities, you can divide your students into groups, have them write over-the-top (ahem, clean) insults, and then take a vote on different categories, e.g., funniest, most original, etc.

Sidebar: for a little inspiration, the internet has a handy Shakespearean Insult Generator.

Kinesthetic Reading, or “Exit, Pursued by a Bear”

This author did not intend his plays for silent reading, and yet that’s how many students become acquainted with his work. Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies were meant to be performed and experienced, and there’s no place like the classroom to reverse the trend of silent reading and dry recitation.

If you’re a major Shakespeare aficionado, you’re probably familiar with literature’s most famous stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear. Imagine the fun you can have in your classroom, simply by following the plays’ directorial notes.

No one expects teachers to erect elaborate stages, but it’s more than possible to have kids participate in kinesthetic reading. Yes, we mean the students get up, move around, and perform the stage directions. Here are a few simple ideas for using everyday classroom items as impromptu stage prompts.

  • Use a desk as cauldron substitute for the prophecy scene in “Macbeth.”
  • Use an apple or random trinket as a makeshift skull for the gravedigger scene in “Hamlet.”
  • Use a water bottle to represent poison in the death scene in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Making Headlines

Living in the information age means our society craves a bite-sized synopsis of all newsworthy happenings. Can you reduce Shakespeare’s complex work to a shareworthy soundbite? The assignment might prove challenging, but nevertheless fun. Here are a few of examples that your students can use as inspiration:

  • “After Seeing Father’s Ghost, Prince Avenges Wrongful Death” (“Hamlet”)
  • “Retiring King Makes Grave Error in Power Disbursement” (“King Lear”)
  • “Wealthy Dynasties Make Truce After Family Tragedy” (“Romeo and Juliet”)
  •  “Mischievous Fairy Creates Dangerous Love Triangle” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • “Roman General Gets Culinary Revenge on War Prisoners” (“Titus Andronicus)
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