Sneaky Shakespeare

This lesson is one of three parts that won Conor the innovative lesson competition. Conor Sneyd has just finished his third year of studying English at Trintiy College. He’s always loved English, because he’s always loved reading, and he thinks that if Shakespeare was still alive he’d be annoyed that everyone takes him so seriously.

The Aim of this lesson is to make students feel more confident when approaching Shakespeare

A lot of students are very intimidated by Shakespeare, which is hardly a surprise. The biggest problem students have with it is the language: besides using lots of old words which a modern English speaker wouldn’t recognise, it is also written in a very abstract and poetic style which means that even if you do know all the words, you still might not have a clue what he’s on about. Reading Shakespeare can be a massive challenge even for a well-read adult who usually has no problems with comprehension, so for a secondary school student, who might not read a lot, or might have major difficulties with comprehension, it can be an absolute nightmare.

But once you can get past the difficulties of the language, Shakespeare isn’t too bad. The stories and characters of his plays are usually quite complicated, but they all revolve around basic human emotions – love and hate, hope and fear, etc. – which anyone can understand and relate to. So the trick to make Shakespeare seem a little less scary and a little more approachable for students is to get them to see through the language, to realise that what’s actually going on the plays is a lot less difficult than they might think.

One way to do this is to literally get rid of the language, and to present Shakespeare in modern English. This works best with 5th year students, who haven’t done much Shakespeare in school yet, as having their confidence boosted from the very start can make a big difference in their attitude and approach to the play which they have to do for exams.

The way I’ve done this is by taking a scene from a Shakespeare play – for example a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which there is an argument between a father and a daughter over who the daughter should marry – giving it to them in modern English, and not telling them that it’s a Shakespeare play. After reading through the scene, we talk about it briefly in class, and I ask the students for their opinions on whether the way the daughter is treated is fair, should she be allowed to choose for herself, is her father being cruel or just doing what he thinks is best, etc., and then ask them to write a brief answer to a question. The students usually have a lot to say about it, and aren’t afraid to get stuck into writing answers to the question. Once they’re done writing, I reveal that it’s actually a Shakespeare play they’ve been looking at, and point out that they’ve all written really good answers to a question on a Shakespeare play which they’ve never even studied before. We then talk about why this was easier than reading a play in the original language, and I try to get them to realise that they can write really well on Shakespeare, and that even though they will have to read the plays in the original language, they don’t have to understand every single line, and that myself and their teachers are there to help them with the language as much as possible.

This might sound like a very complicated lesson plan, but the message which I hope it sends to students is simple – you can do it!