Teaching Shakespeare and historical enquiry

Sian Evans
06th April 2016
Teaching Shakespeare and historical enquiry

Use object-led and historical context resources to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death 

From anti-Semitic prejudice towards Shylock to racial discrimination in Othello, Shakespeare’s plays are grounded in Elizabethan views on religion, politics and societal expectations. Resources that explore the world in which Shakespeare wrote are great for introducing students to individual plays, provide background information about Elizabethan stereotypes and help students to understand why characters act in certain ways. Even with timeless themes of love, tragedy, fantasy and power, the plays are still of their historical era.

We’ve selected a few of the top resources from the Teaching Shakespeare hub, which allow students to discover the historical context of Shakespeare’s life and works, and to develop their understanding of Elizabethan society.

  1. Object-based resource pack: a jewel of Elizabeth I – For half the time Shakespeare was writing, he was ruled over by a strong, female monarch. Examine this artefact held at the British Museum, along with other Elizabethan iconography, using these worksheets and teaching ideas to assess the power of Elizabeth and the expectations of her subjects.
  2. Macbeth: Introduction to witchcraft context lesson – Witchcraft was a fear which dominated Elizabethan and Jacobean society; even King James I wrote a book called Daemonologie which endorsed witch hunting. Investigate Elizabethan witches with three PowerPoint presentations which delve into their use within Macbeth, and discuss how these characters would be understood by Shakespeare’s audiences.
  3. Performance video: Richard III (2012) Act 1, Scene 1– Watch this short excerpt, from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 production of Richard III, to show students the protagonist’s opening soliloquy in which he embraces himself as a villain and his own deformity. It can be used to spark debate about the reign of Richard III, perceptions of medieval kings within Tudor propaganda and opinions about disability in Elizabethan England.
  4. Post-16: Renaissance and Dr Faustus – Shakespeare was writing in a time of significant cultural change across Europe where classical study was seen as essential, and likely to be why he penned numerous classical plays. Use this overview PowerPoint presentation to introduce your students to the key thinking of the Renaissance and consider how these ideas are echoed in plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. 

Quick links

Teaching Shakespeare website

What is Teaching Shakespeare?

Primary Shakespeare teaching ideas

Teaching Shakespeare: Cultural approaches and context 

Teaching Shakespeare: Plays, themes and genre

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