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How do you make Shakespeare appealing to language learners?

Why would you introduce a playwright who died almost 400 years ago to language learners? After all, he wrote in old-fashioned English that seems pretty far away from the way we speak today. One of the usual answers is, ‘because Shakespeare is important’, which is true but ultimately not an argument a 15 year-old will readily accept if they’ve only had a few years learning English. There is nothing more boring than a teacher telling you that a writer is important, or that reading a certain text is ‘good for you’.

In my teaching at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, I usually point out that Shakespeare is good in spite of rather than because of everybody telling you he is. In a lot of cases, the students already know some Shakespeare even though they might have never heard the name. His stories have pervaded popular culture, from Disney’s Lion King (Hamlet) to the musicals Kiss Me, Kate (The Taming of the Shrew) or West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet).

Shakespeare is everywhere 

There is no escaping the Bard, particularly not in 2016, when the entire English-speaking cultural landscape will erupt in one global celebration of the world’s most famous playwright. It’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

The British Council has launched Shakespeare Lives, a global programme of activity in the arts, education, society and English language. It celebrates Shakespeare’s work and its continuing impact today. This programme includes Exploring English: Shakespeare, a free, six-week long online course developed by the British Council and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It will look at the life, works and legacy of William Shakespeare while giving learners the chance to practice their English language skills.

Even when there isn’t a major Shakespeare ‘moment’, his plays and poems continue to inspire theatre audiences, readers and artists all around the world.

One play about an ambitious Scottish general has sparked such diverse films as Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, or Giles Foden’s The Last King of Scotland. Consequently, there are plenty of opportunities to link Shakespeare back to your own literature, or visual arts, or music to let your students see that Shakespeare is relevant to their culture too. Researching Shakespeare-inspired art or pop culture in your country could make for a fascinating research project for your students.

Make it fun

a level 40_Shakespeare LivesTake a bit of time to start with the fun in Shakespeare. Emphasise how engaging Shakespeare can be, how popular his work is in the sense of its appeal to all parts of society: the puns, the dirty jokes and the swearing as well as the great speeches and the poetry. Remember, Shakespeare wrote for everyone.

Allow your students to get creative with Shakespeare, to take his works off the page and turn them into something of their own making.

This does not necessarily have to be a drama session where your students perform scenes or dialogue sequences. Why not let them rewrite the story (or a particular scene) from the point of view of one of the smaller characters? Or if you’re focusing on Shakespeare’s biography, have them speculate on what he did during the Lost Years, i.e. the six-year period between his youth in Stratford and his theatre career in London when nobody knows what William was up to.

You will be surprised by the energy and amount of work your students are willing to put into these little projects. For example, in order to come up with a version of Romeo and Juliet performed by the Muppets, your students will have to fully understand the characters and their relationship to each other. They will engage in detailed character analysis without noticing in order to come up with a proper Muppet match for the main characters. From experience, Gonzo makes a fantastic Tybalt!

So, next time somebody gives you that look when you mention that you would like to do Shakespeare in your English classes, just invite them to an insult battle!

How do you teach Shakespeare in your English classes? Do you have any tips you would like to share?

Looking for free, fun and flexible teaching resources? Visit ‘Teaching Shakespeare Around the World’.

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  1. I didn’t realise Last King of Scotland was connected to Macbeth — I thought it was about Idi Amin, who claimed this as one of his titles.

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