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To Teach or Not to Teach Shakespeare

To Teach or Not to Teach Shakespeare

The idea that Shakespeare has no place in the EFL classroom is a false one. With the right method and approaches, Shakespeare, his world and his plays, can be an exciting, invigorating subject for English learners. What better way to learn the language in the end, than from one of its finest proponents?

Much of the problem with Shakespeare is his reputation and the reputation of the plays. The very idea of reading a Shakespeare play can be daunting, let alone thinking about teaching it. However, ESL teachers have a great advantage over their English Literature counterparts; they do not have to teach their students the entire play nor do their students have to memorise long passages or be able to “waffle on” about themes and motivations. The ESL teacher need only transmit the fun of the plays and the beauty of the language and that can be a very real pleasure.

Shakespeare´s plays have persevered because they hold people´s attentions. The themes are universal, the characters compelling and the plots dramatic and satisfying. For the ESL teacher thinking about introducing a play into the classroom, this universality is the point of entry. Everyone has their own favourite or preferred Shakespeare play. Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are perennials but my own is Macbeth. I love the play and always have, ever since I was first taught it.

The Way I Teach

The way I teach Macbeth can be duplicated with any of the other plays.
I first isolate the most interesting themes, perhaps choose a famous passage, which is more or less comprehensible and then I think of ways to draw parallels between events in the play and real life. So, with Macbeth, I might begin by asking the students which of them believe in ghosts, spirits and prophecies and then go on to extract opinions. I might draw attention to the fact that people in our times are still very superstitious, for example, athletes touching the turf as they run onto the playing field, or I might ask about local superstitions and why they think they are so prevalent.

A major theme in Macbeth is ambition and this can also provide interesting points for debate. How far should one go to try and achieve ones aims? There are interlinked subjects here which are very relevant in these days of singing competitions and celebrities. How much importance you give to this, will depend on your group and their needs.

Tackling the language itself can be tricky but I´ve found that in most cases, students rise to the challenge and enjoy trying to memorise a few lines of Shakespeare. It´s good pronunciation practice, a good way of close reading a text and it’s not a bad little trick for students to have up their sleeves either. In Macbeth ,I use the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, tailoring the length I ask students to memorise, depending on their level. Everyone knows the word “tomorrow” so everyone understands where the speech starts off. A little bit of context and away we go.

If the students are responsive to the characters, there are various other exercises, which can be introduced. Students can take a chair at the front of the class and answer questions from the others “in character”, or all the characters can take part in a debate in which they defend their actions in the play. Students often find it easier to speak fluently when expressing opinions in this way, without the self-consciousness, which might arise when talking about themselves and their own opinions and emotions.

Worksheets can be produced which contain scenarios conveying the dilemmas and themes raised in the play with similar dilemmas people might face in modern life. What if you visited a fortune teller at a fair and what they told you started to come true? Do you think that power corrupts people? The questions and situations can be tailored to the student’s level and linked to whichever grammar points have been studied in the class.
In all of these cases, the exercises can be tailored to suit the plays and the students. Romeo and Juliet usually works well with younger students: themes of true love and whether love is worth dying for always elicit strong reactions. As in most cases, when the students are engaged and want to give their opinions, they will find a way. The key is providing students a way into the play which might not mean direct contact with the text itself, at least not at first.

Lastly, for the teacher thinking of introducing Shakespeare to their classes, these days, there is a wealth of material on the internet, from simplified versions of the plays on You Tube, to amateur and professional productions. There are also endless resources available for helping to compile worksheets and classes and, if you find students reacting well to the material, teachers can move in ever increasing circles away from the plays themselves. England and the world in Shakespeare´s time is a fascinating subject, as are the periods of each of the plays, especially the history plays.
The great reputation and respect which surrounds Shakespeare and his plays can be turned to the teacher´s advantage. There are worlds within worlds which can be a pleasure for ESL students to learn, and for the teachers to teach. Fear no more, indeed. Fear no more!

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