Should We Still Have to Learn About Shakespeare?

Some things you should know right away about me:

  1. I actually really love Shakespeare. Like, a lot. I have a sonnet memorized (which was read at my wedding), I’ve been in the room he was born in, seen 5 productions in England and many more in the U.S… yeah, I enjoy Shakespeare.
  2. I’m trying to be a racially conscious educator, and I am starting to ask questions about how much class time really needs to be spent on the bard, when it is most likely that few (if any) of my students will memorize sonnets, visit Stratford upon Avon, spend hard-earned money on three hour productions for fun, etc.

So far, I have taught Macbeth to eleventh graders and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to tenth graders. And I have planned really cool (okay, my opinion here) units to both make both texts modern, relevant, and engaging. Shakespeare honestly is an okay place to start with talking about stereotypes, privilege, and race.

  • Macbeth: We talk about ambition and greed. I take part of one class period to read Yertle the Turtle to them. We talk about House of Cards and act out scenarios about superstitions and prophecies and what people are willing to do to get ahead. It’s actually Shakespeare’s shortest play, and I think the goriest. Violence is appealing to some of the students, even though it is pretty awful. I let us watch clips from the Michael Fassbender/Marion Cotillard film. We collaged themes that we saw arise in the story like “power corrupts”, “blind ambition”, “things are not always what they seem”, and “superstition affecting human behavior.” Students actually came up with some great art. We toss lines around with a ball, learn about iambic pentameter, and makes jokes about the witches.
  • Midsummer: We laugh. We make character webs to learn all of the characters, and then we figure out why it’s funny and we laugh. I wear my bright pink T-shirt from the Royal Shakespeare Company that says “though she be but little, she is fierce” the day we read that scene. We start to pick up on the oddness of Bottom’s character as a donkey/ass. We toss around lines, and split into five groups to act out scenes at the end using costumes and props. When done well, performances are fun to watch and good review of the plot.

But, I am starting to question how much time really needs to be spent guiding students through a Shakespearean play. I read 8 before I graduated high school (one per grade 9-12, plus four in a semester-long Shakespeare elective that I took for fun). So of course I am “better” at Shakespeare or enjoy it. But I can think of many of my friends (and even colleagues) who really can’t stand him, and don’t use knowledge of him in real life.

 

So in the midst of trying to sort of some of these questions, I decided to skip teaching a whole Shakespeare unit this year and just give him one day- his birthday, April 23rd. Yes, part of me realizes that maybe this is worse. What about James Baldwin? Or Angie Thomas? Or all sorts of other authors and voices? For the party, we played Shakespeare games, learned sonnets, wrote in iambic pentameter, talked about if he is still worth studying, nominated modern-day innovative authors (see slideshow below), and still had time to decorate cupcakes.

 

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If you are a teacher and want to use any of the Shakespeare lesson plans from today, you can find them here.

Who else’s birthday needs to celebrated in class?

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