A Guide to Teaching Shakespeare Part 2 - Break it Down

Shakespeare in Primary School

So you’ve told, read, re-read and re-told your story. Everyone knows what’s happening. (Finally!) Great.

(If in fact the story isn’t clear, take a look at Part 1 of this Guide which focuses on how to approach Shakespeare through his stories.)

Safe with an understanding of the overall story from a narrative version, it’s time to transfer your students’ knowledge to a script version and discover how Shakespeare really brought his stories to life.

Whether you’re braving your own performance or simply want to see how it’s done, the BBC have created some excellent versions of Shakespeare’s plays (making some into musicals!) which can be found here.

For both performance and/or classroom study No Sweat Shakespeare have great downloadable scripts for kids. (These are still written in a narrative form but provide lots of dialogue so that the narrative can almost directly be transferred to stage directions.)

And of course, the first thing I want you to do on selecting your script is to break it down into manageable sections. Working chronologically is not a necessity here, whether enjoying Shakespeare as class study or with the intention of performing it. “Let’s start at the very beginning” isn’t always a very good place to start.

Shakespeare is famous for his dramatic endings, whether romantic or tragic, therefore I find selecting sections with obvious plot points leading up to that climax are more fun to play with.

Some of my personal favourites would be:

  • Titania and Oberon’s argument, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene 1.

  • The Witches’ first appearance, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1.

  • Introduction to Montagues and Capulets, Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1.

Having decided upon a section to work with, you can really get to grips with the language utilising the following three top tips!

1. Edit and edit and edit!

Shakespeare loved to go on. (Let’s be honest.) Perhaps the most famous wordsmith ever, he was indeed a wordy lad. And we don’t want to bore the kids.

Find the key sentences that develop the plot, and that’s really all you need! If there are a few fun sentences you think your students will enjoy, of course keep them. Otherwise - chop!

For older/advanced students, editing could be their job! Give them a scene each and ask them to edit it. This is a great collaborative project, involving negotiation in pairs or groups. They also then have ownership of the play as it becomes their own class version.

Once chopped, be sure the story is still apparent and makes sense, and that students still fully understand the plot of that particular section. (To be sure, why not utilise some of the activities from the previous blog Tell A Story to check!)

2. Dissect the language

Create a class Shakespeare dictionary!

Begin by reading some famous quotes from your chosen play together. Can students interpret the overall meaning correctly?

Next, invite them to suggest meanings of some specific Shakespearean words through context. Common words like thou, thee and art are a good place to start.

Then, have students analyse their own section of text and create a two lists of words; the Shakespearean word and the modern translation of it.

Finally, combine these lists together and you have yourself a class Shakespearean dictionary!

(To help us teachers out, and to ensure our students have the right translations, here’s a great one someone else made earlier - Understand Shakespeare's Words)


3. Re-write the scenes!

Remember, ‘Shakespeare is not untouchable’. And our aim is for students to engage with Shakespeare. Let’s ensure we’re making that as easy and as enjoyable for them as possible.

Invite students to re-write their scenes in modern day language. How would these conversations sound today? (This is a great exercise for if you are working towards a performance of a piece.

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1.

Original:

When the hurly-burly’s done,

When the battle’s lost and won.

Modern version (Example from No Fear Shakespeare):

We’ll meet when the noise of the battle is over, when one side has won and the other side has lost.

Ask students to perform their modern-day versions. Being more familiar with the language helps students to associate and relate to the intended emotions of the text more easily. They can use their found performances and apply them to the original language later.

You’ve chosen a play, you’ve got the script. Sections have been chosen and divided out. Students have just about got their heads around the language. (You’re doing great!) Now for the really fun part… Get physical with it!

Follow me into Part 3 as I guide you through fun and creative ways to get your students up on their feet, and putting everyone’s hard work so far into action!

- Sarah