Every high school student will read a Shakespeare play at some point. And how teachers approach Shakespeare initially will make or break that relationship with the Bard.
Think about Romeo and Juliet. The play opens with a fight scene in which a lot of the action is implied, there are a bunch of randy jokes, and the main characters aren’t immediately introduced. And the language!
We can’t just assume students will figure this stuff out. They’ll need help. Maybe for the entire play. But fortunately we can front load our reading with some basic skill building that will help students before they read a word of Shakespeare.
So here are 4 essential skills students should have under their belt before they read Shakespeare. You can start introducing this concepts as bell ringers while you’re finishing up the unit before. That way they’ll be ready to go.
Shakespeare frequently puts words in a strange order so the sentence follows a particular rhythm, like iambic pentameter. Here’s an example from Romeo and Juliet. How would you reword the following sentence so that it looks like it would normally appear?
“What light through yonder window breaks?”
You’d be more likely to say “What light breaks through yonder window?” But then you’d be messing with the rhythm of the line (and in some cases, the rhyme scheme as well.)
Give student a few inverted lines from Shakespeare’s plays and give students practice understanding them.
Shakespeare uses some words, particularly pronouns, that we don’t use anymore. Here’s a short list:
thee=you thou=you art=are thy=your ay=yes dost=do
Give students some sentences from Shakespeare that use these words until students know them by sight. Here are a couple of examples:
“I take thee at thy word.”
“Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”
For the sake of his poetry (in most cases for rhythmic purposes) Shakespeare leaves out letters and syllables from words like so:
’tis = it is ope = open o’er = over ne’er = never i’ = in e’er = ever oft = often ‘twas=it was e’en = even
I’m always surprised that students are better at filling in the blanks of these words, but they are. Students can practice figuring out what these words mean in context in sentences such as this one from Julius Caesar:
I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again.
Shakespeare adds “-st” to a lot of his verbs:
Hadst=had goest=go dost=does or do be’st=be wast=was or were didst=did shouldst=should wilt=will
He will also add “-th” to verbs as well:
hath=has doth=do saith=say loveth=love
You can have students practice these words by writing sentences of their own which use as many of these words as they can.
There are plenty of other techniques that Shakespeare uses in his writing (figurative language, allusions, iambic pentameter) all of which can be taught before and during the reading of a play. I have created a set of Shakespeare Skill Builder Bell Ringers that work with any Shakespeare play. With just five minutes a day you can provide your students with the extra practice they need to tackle the Bard in 25 lessons. All the work has been done for you.
A lot of students can use whatever help they can get understanding Shakespeare, so I’ve developed comics and activities for a few frequently taught plays, like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet. Many teachers have found them valuable for comprehension, plus they’re fun!
If you’d like a free Introduction to Shakespeare activity, click the box below: