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Ten Ways to Celebrate Shakespeare

A list of things to do with bits and bobs of Shakespeare...

It’s time to celebrate Shakespeare. Here are ten appoaches to his drama and his poetry - all easy to incorporate into planning and classrooms as one-offs or to make links with longer learning units.

  1. As a whole class, in a round, read the opening scene of Macbeth, enforcing only two rules: 1. The people on the other side of the circle have to be able to hear you. 2. Each line’s reading must be different from the last. (Depending on the age or class, provide some suggestions for intonation and performance: whisper like the wind; shout like an army general; say it with a cunning smile in your voice…)
  2. Chop up a soliloquy into half-lines. Get students to find the partner whose line completes theirs and learn it off by heart. Then reveal the order of the speech and read as a class, with each student reading their own half-line. Repeat and rehearse, building to a full performance including appropriate gestures, movements, tone of voice and moments of stillness.
  3. Visit the National Theatre’s Shakespeare on demand site and sign up for free. Watch some Shakespeare and marvel. (Later, access the teacher resources for help planning engaging activities around specific speeches and engaging students with Shakespeare’s language.)
  4. Make a list of some of the different things that happen in the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s plays: preparations for a wedding (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); a triumphant army gets home (Much Ado About Nothing); witches chant in a deserted place  (Macbeth); a storm (The Tempest); two feuding gangs meet (Romeo and Juliet); riots on the street (Coriolanus); two watchmen guard a castle (Hamlet), and so on. Rank these openings on a scale of 0-10 for excitement and audience appeal.
  5. Don’t forget this familiar but lovely activity using Shakespeare’s insults: give out example insults such as these collected at No Sweat Shakespeare; put learners into teams and see who can deliver the words with the most bawdy abandon, most violent vitriol, or most menacing whisper. Then create some balancing compliments (for example, using this collection of phrases and expressions or by getting pupils to create their own bank. You could then write scenes in which tension is heightened or decreased by trading insults for compliments, and vice versa.  
  6. Set a preparation research homework asking pupils to find out about how plays were staged in Shakespeare’s times (daytime performances, no electricity, open air staging, all male casts etc). Allocate a classic Shakespearean scene (choose those with lots of action) and assign each to a group of students. Each group must present how the scenes might have been staged at the original Globe, as well as a no-holds barred proposal for modern staging guaranteed to entertain a 21st century audience.
  7. Take the “Once more unto the breach” speech (Henry V) and analyse its persuasive elements. Compare with Obama’s inaugural speech to find a definitive list of features of campaign talk. Model your own silly example (Come on – let’s all use coloured loo roll, or similar) and then get students to choose their own topic and write a speech that ticks all the boxes.
  8. Divide the class into groups and allocate them a character “type”. For example: kings, servants, fools, wives, villains. Ask each group to research examples of their “type” (typical depictions, archetypal lines, famous portrayals etc) and to present their learning to the class in any way they wish – for example, through performance, a presentation, a display or a quiz.
  9. Hand out examples of some sonnets, including the one that marks Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting ("If I profane with my unworthiest hand", Act I, scene v). Ask students to identify the patterns and connections they see across all sonnets and to write a guide on How to Write a Sonnet – including instructions for following and (purposeful and judicious) breaking of the rules.
  10. Teach grammar with the bard. Demonstrate the power of the list with the “sceptred isle” speech (John of Gaunt, Richard II). Explain how the structure of the speech works, building noun phrase upon noun phrase, modified by adverbials and relative clauses and embellished with alliteration, antithesis and imagery. As always, link reading to writing: have students write their own celebration of a place or object (you can link this to Pablo Neruda’s wonderful Odes) or, more darkly, a Gaunt-like prophecy of doom.
  11. And finally. Take any couplet. Say it any which way you can. Try it with emphasis on word one, word two and word three. Watch an array of wonderful actors model this with Shakespeare's most famous lines and a future King of England, and laugh.