How to Teach Shakespeare for the First Time
For many teachers, the prospect of teaching Shakespeare for the first time is daunting. The language is unfamiliar and therefore difficult, and because experts have been interpreting every aspect of the plays for hundreds of years, you may wonder what you could possibly have to offer. Scared yet? Don’t be. Shakespeare is ultimately a playwright for the people, and his work has endured because it reflects basic truths about the human condition. The following steps will help you teach any Shakespearean play with confidence and ease.
1) Rent a film version. Plays are meant to be seen; getting the full visual richness of a work will help you appreciate the language on the page. Luckily, all of Shakespeare’s works are available on DVD. Check out the BBC’s Shakespeare collection for quality productions.
2) Follow along in the text. Time permitting, watch the film all the way through one time to absorb what it is going on. On a second viewing, follow along with your text. This will help you more thoroughly understand key events. As you watch and read, make note of anything that strikes you and that you’ll want to mention to your students.
3) Read a modern translation. Shakespeare’s language is beautiful, but archaic words and phrasing can be puzzling at times. Make use of texts that present the original language on one side of the page and a modern translation on the other. Modern translations are available here at eNotes for several plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest.
4) Use the annotations. Many texts will not only provide you with the definition of a term or word in the work but will also give you some history and critical insight. For example, Folger’s Hamlet tells us that when Polonius cautions Ophelia that she has taken Hamlet’s “tenders for true play,” he is referring to coins that “should be legal tender but are not because they are not sterling.” Understanding references such as these will help both your comprehension and that of your students’.
5) Read some criticism. Knowing what others have said about the work you are teaching will enhance your own efforts. Many of Shakespeare’s works at eNotes includes several high-quality critical essays for your consideration. Under the “Navigation” column on the right-hand side of each work, scroll down to “Criticism.” Click on “Criticism” to expand the field and then choose any topic that might be of interest to you.
6) Practice the rhythm of iambic pentameter. No one wants to look foolish in front of his or her students. It’s advisable that you actually say out loud several times the lines that you plan to cover before you teach your class.
In Shakespeare’s plays, the lines do not generally rhyme, but they do have a set rhythm. This is the meter. For example, in this line, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, / for loan oft loses both itself and friend,” Shakespeare arranges his words so that the syllables fall into a regular pattern; every second syllable is stressed. Say it out loud to yourself, and the syllables sounds like this: “dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM dah DUM.” Recognizing the rhythm of iambic pentameter will help you remember how to “hear” the lines as you read out loud to your students.
7) Timelessness. Remember that Shakespeare’s themes deal with problems of being human that everyone can relate to: love and death, betrayal and jealousy, greed and generosity, joy and sorrow. Try to connect these universal elements to your students’ lives and to your own life. The more you can say, “It’s just like…,” the more students will open up and find value in the work itself. To help you do this, eNotes has a “Modern Connections” section under each of the works. Go to the “Navigate” column on the right-hand side. Then scroll down until you see the “Modern Connections” link and click!