Teaching Shakespeare, for everyone

Teachers have been teaching Shakespeare forever. It was part of my education back in the 70s and a core part of the English examinations at 16 and 18. That was a very different world in terms of most student expectations, as well as many teachers’ understanding of how they should be teaching Elizabethan drama.

In my day, you read the play in the same way that you read Dickens or Romantic poetry – behind the desk, learning the important bits that you would need for the examination and copying notes from the board. The only difference when you got to A Level was that you were expected to make notes from teachers’ lectures about what the play meant.

You cannot blame the teachers, because they were not given the training or the resources to make Shakespeare’s words come off the page and live in character’s mouths and actions. Today, teachers not only have access to training that utilises the approaches of the rehearsal room, they are also blessed with rich paper and digital resources to help them teach Shakespeare in ways that excite and engage their students.

Spreading inspiration

Globe Education has just finished training over 200 teachers from London state schools on ways to teach Twelfth Night – the tenth of our annual Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank productions which have accompanying CPD for teachers and workshops for students. The production is designed especially for 11 to 16 year olds and every state secondary school in London and Birmingham is offered free tickets each year to the Globe Theatre. The teachers’ response to the Twelfth Night sessions has been amazing, with teachers determined to transfer new concepts to their lessons: “[The workshop] brought the play to life with lots of practical approaches perfect for the classroom.”

We offer twilight training for individual teachers and whole departments because we know the pressure is on to keep teachers in front of their classes. Teachers arrive tired after hours in the classroom and within minutes are animated about exploring ways of telling the story of the play using WHOOSH – individuals, pairs or trios are invited to tableaux a part of the story, hold for two seconds and then whoosh, the next group moves the story on. Using this before you even read a word of the play is one way of getting all your students to know the bones of the story in five to 10 minutes.

One of the most powerful ways of exploring how language affects characters is an activity where every teacher has a different comment about Malvolio (all of them unpleasant) and they shout their line as they circle a lone figure playing the part of the steward. At first the lines are spoken quite softly and then as the harsh words resonate in the air, they get louder and the tone becomes more scornful and aggressive. When the teacher playing Malvolio can stand it no longer he breaks out of the circle shouting “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

The discussion that follows, on what it felt like to be part of the mob taunting Malvolio, can be very revealing – pleasure, excitement, no responsibility because others were doing it too. The brave person playing Malvolio describes feeling fearful, confused and ultimately angry. Very quickly they get to the heart of being that character.

Contextual evidence

To support teaching we create a play specific microsite with dynamic teaching resources that reflect the demands of the Programme of Study for English at Key Stages 3 and 4. While not a written scheme of work, we offer a range of activities that will develop students’ knowledge, understanding and skills in order to support them in discussing, thinking and writing about the play.

What is very exciting about each of our five Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank microsites is that they follow the creation of each production so that students see the play being brought to the stage by the directors, actors and set designers. Young people follow the weekly rehearsals and hear how the company works together to interpret the themes of the play and the way they want to play their parts. This demonstrates that there is no set interpretation and hopefully encourages them to develop their own personal response to the play.

When I studied Othello for A Level the accepted interpretation was that Othello was a great man laid low by one tragic flaw – his jealousy. You were not encouraged to see him in any other way. In our 2015 production, our training and digital resources challenge this and ask students to consider whether Othello is driven by a culture which condones honour killing – he excuses his murder of Desdemona by saying “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour.” This is a very relevant issue in the societies in which many young people live.

We have interviews with the actors playing Iago and Othello; they discuss how they see one another and what propels them to act in the way they do. Similarly, we have video footage of the actors playing Amelia and Desdemona talking about the historical context of the play and what was expected of women in terms of the duties of being a wife. We currently have five microsites – Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Twelfth Night.

New directions

On another part of the Globe Education website we have a programme which allows students to direct a scene in a number of ways. Staging It offers them the same scene played in different ways and they can decide which interpretation they want. This can be downloaded from the website as a whole class activity and works equally well as group work. Watching a group of students clustered around a screen discussing whether Lysander’s intentions to Hermia are honourable when they are lost in the woods, is exciting. A student from Aldworth Science College, Basingstoke, commented “I like how you can alter the performance, so you’ve got the different emotions and you can see how different actors would do it [interpret a scene].”

They have to think about what is being said, how it is said, how the characters react to one another when they hear the words and how their body language and facial expressions extend or add another layer of meaning to the action. The programme allows students to explore the possibility of characters having more than one intention and hearing the same lines spoken in different ways shows them that there is no one way to say these words. Four plays are currently on the Staging It site – Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Next year we aim to launch a dedicated site for teaching Shakespeare where we can draw in materials from the archives of twenty years of Globe Theatre productions, along with new materials created especially for teachers. Ultimately, our aim is to make it as enjoyable for students to learn about Shakespeare’s plays as it is for teachers to teach them.

About the author

Georghia Ellinas is head of learning, Globe Education, Shakespeare’s Globe. She leads and manages the learning team which devises and delivers projects and workshops for pupils and teachers throughout the UK internationally. Georghia has written several books on teaching Shakespeare and is an expert in curriculum design and delivery.