How to Teach Shakespeare for the First Time

For many English teachers, the prospect of teaching one of William Shakespeare’s plays for the first time is daunting. Shakespeare’s language and allusions are often difficult to understand, and the settings and cultures depicted in his plays are often unfamiliar. However, following these strategies in approaching the text with students will help you teach any Shakespearean play with confidence. 

1) Read some literary criticism.

Survey some literary analysis of the play. Knowing what critics have said about the play will enhance your understanding of it. Literary analysis will often direct your attention to key elements in the play—such as characterization, conflicts, and themes—to include in instruction. Literary analysis also often situates the play in literary or historical context or in the context of Shakespeare’s other plays, which is helpful background knowledge to provide for students. 

Our eNotes study guides for Shakespeare’s works include high-quality critical essays and other types of literary analysis. Visit the “Critical Essays” section of each study guide to access this material. 

2) View a film version of the play in class. 

Plays are written to be acted on a stage and seen by an audience. Since Shakespeare’s stage directions are brief, the action can be difficult to visualize just by reading the text. Watching a film of the play helps students understand the setting of each scene and how the play can be staged according to Shakespeare’s directions and the director’s interpretation. Students can draw inferences about the plot and characters from the actors’ body language and tone when delivering dialogue. Also, in pacing instruction, you can use film clips in directing students’ attention to particular acts or scenes, giving them (and yourself) a break from lectures and discussions.

3) Listen to a recording of the play in class. 

As students listen to actors dramatize the dialogue, have them follow along in the text. Hearing the dialogue in dramatic context enhances students’ understanding of Shakespeare’s words and phrasing, and after a while, his language will seem less foreign to them. Similar to watching a film version, listening to a recording scene by scene will help to pace and break up the lesson. As you listen and follow the text with your students, note passages you will want to discuss with them later. 

4) Provide students with a modern translation. 

Use a parallel text that has Shakespeare’s language on one side of the page and a modern translation on the other. A parallel text translates Shakespeare’s colloquialisms, allusions, vocabulary, and sentence constructions, increasing students’ comprehension of challenging passages. 

Check out “How to Understand Shakespeare’s Language” for our ten reading strategies that will help you better understand the Bard’s language.

5) Study the annotations. 

Many texts feature annotations that will not only provide students with definitions of obscure words in the text but will also explain allusions. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with allusions to history, mythology, biblical texts, geography, superstitions, and cultural beliefs and practices in his English society. Additionally, annotations may offer critical insights, pointing out characters’ motivations or literary devices used in text passages.  

Annotated texts are available here at eNotes for several plays: A Midsummer Night’s DreamHamletJulius CaesarMacbethOthelloRomeo and JulietThe Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest.

6) Introduce the rhythm of iambic pentameter. 

Explain to students that in Shakespeare’s plays, the lines do not generally rhyme, but they do have meter, or a pattern of rhythm. Each line in Shakespeare’s plays has five unstressed syllables or beats and five stressed, a rhythm that mimics the sound of a heartbeat. This is called “iambic pentameter”: “iambic,” referring to the pattern of unstressed followed by stressed syllables , and “pentameter,” referring to the five beats per line—though some Shakespeare lines only follow this meter generally, not perfectly. Read some passages aloud for students, encouraging them to focus on the rhythm of the lines. Follow up by having students read passages aloud to feel the rhythm of the iambic pentameter.

7) Focus on the relevance of Shakespeare’s themes. 

Students may ask why they should read Shakespeare, doubting that what he wrote centuries ago could relate to their lives in any way. Explain that Shakespeare’s themes deal with aspects of being human that everyone can relate to: love and death, jealousy and betrayal, cruelty and kindness, greed and generosity, joy and sorrow. While studying a Shakespearean play with your students, connect these universal themes to their lives and to current events.

As you teach a Shakespearean play for the first time, including these seven strategies in your lessons will make the experience more satisfying for you and for your students. They will help you teach more effectively and with more confidence as you guide students through the text into Shakespeare’s world.

For more step-by-step guides on teachings, reading, and writing, visit eNotes’ How To Series.