3 essentials for teaching Shakespeare at GCSE

Students can too easily switch off from Shakespeare, says Sana Master, who suggests ways to keep them engaged

Sana Master

The Globe is staging Macbeth this summer, with the aim of introducing school pupils to the magic of Shakespeare

When you mention Shakespeare to your class, you might not always get a positive response.

I’m sure you are familiar with the comments.

The moans and groans: “He’s boring, miss!” and “Why do we have to do Shakespeare?”

Quick read: Why there's nothing like a live Shakespeare performance

Quick listen: GCSE revision: a guide to what works best

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But why do students react like this? Sometimes it is down to experience. After all, as great as Shakespeare is, he can be hard work.

Maybe students have had a horrible experience involving tedious, overworked learning. Or even worse, they have been taught by a teacher with zero passion for the Bard.

But you can turn things around. If you've had a tough first term teaching Shakespeare to a GCSE class, here are three tips to get things back on track:

1. Pre-emptive planning

The genius of Shakespeare’s plays is the universality of the themes. Love, hate, revenge, family, race – all of which we can still relate to, more than 400 years on. 

Unfortunately, pupils often fail to recognise this, asking “What's the point?”

Don’t leave them to guess, be explicit. 

Make time to explain why you are studying Shakespeare and draw attention to the timelessness of the texts.

Lead a discussion on the relevance of the themes and draw comparisons with stories they may be familiar with from modern books, films or television. 

This is important as it encourages them to develop an understanding of what those themes mean and what they look like so that they are better able to relate to the characters and the actions they read in the text.

Here's a list of modern films with roots in Shakespeare.

2. Contextualise to modernise

For Shakespeare to work, you must provide both specific historical context and modern context so that students can appreciate the emotions and actions being played out on stage.

I am about to plan a unit on Othello for Year 9. To ensure that my students are able to engage with and relate to the various conflicts present in the text, I will provide them with articles about the population in Venice during the Renaissance, its seeming cosmopolitanism, but also the peculiar frictions that existed between the indigenous population and the foreign one.

I intend to relate those concerns to our own age. I won’t mention Brexit, but I will look at how the racial frictions of our tiny island are not necessarily a million miles away from those of Shakespeare’s era. 

This will hopefully increase their wider knowledge of current affairs while also providing a bridge to those alien-sounding thees and thous.

Here are some excellent essays on Shakespeare for students.

3. Take up modelling

The plays were written to be performed and the genius of Shakespeare’s language is difficult to appreciate when read out by inexpert readers. So model it. 

Although watching quality productions with professional actors is worthwhile, it is also important that students are frequently exposed to expert readers. It is down to us as the teachers to carry out that role.

You will find that a heartfelt performance of a role often improves the level of the other readers in class. I’ve frequently found that if I take on a part, the readers of the accompanying roles up their game and try to mimic my own reading fluency and animation.

It is easy to get bogged down in some of the longer speeches, so practice is always necessary, but I know that my reading of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking speech brings her guilt-ridden conscience to life for my pupils and, despite the sense of vulnerability a role like that induces, the gains are ultimately worth it.

Here are some helpful tips for reading out loud to students.

Sana Master is an English teacher at a school in Yorkshire. She tweets @MsMaster13

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