Spicing Up Shakespeare: 5 Ways to Add Some Pizazz to your Shakespearean Unit

Spicing Up Shakespeare: 5 Ways to Add Some Pizazz to your Shakespearean Unit
Shakespeare might be a crowd favorite for us English buffs, but the average high school student seems to be less than enthusiastic about the concept. Let’s be honest though, if they knew just how many inappropriate jokes the Bard included in his plays, they would find it just as entertaining as we do. (And as a side note, yes. Yes I am the English teacher who likes to point out the naughty nuances throughout his plays). So how do we convey to our students the genius of Shakespeare without taking time out of Romeo and Juliet to explain the nurse’s comment about “Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit” (I.iii.45)?

I have compiled five ways to modernize the old Bard’s words so the students can enjoy the work on their own.

1. Act it out.
This is the age-old tool utilized in high school classrooms across the nation. And why? Because it works. But this means doing more than just reading Hamlet out loud together. Get the kids up and moving, have them make big dramatic gestures. Show them first-hand how depressing it is to be around Hamlet as he mopes around the castle. Buy some foam swords at the dollar store and have students recreate famous dueling scenes. Shakespeare was meant to be experienced, not read from behind a desk.

2. Listen to music inspired by Shakespeare.
There is a hit Broadway musical called, Something Rotten!, which is all about Shakespeare! The most popular song is “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” and it essentially lists every complaint students have ever vocalized about Shakespeare. It could be a great ice-breaker for the unit. Though be warned, it is a Broadway song, so there are some curse words in the song. Other songs referencing Shakespeare to show your class are: “Love Story” by Taylor Swift (talks about Romeo and Juliet), “Ophelia” by The Lumineers (references Ophelia’s personality in Hamlet), and even “Take a Break” from the Broadway hit show, Hamilton (Hamilton compares his life to the play Macbeth).

Spicing Up Shakespeare: 5 Ways to Add Some Pizazz to your Shakespearean Unit
3. Make it a competition.
This is a straightforward one to do with Romeo and Juliet as you can split the class into two groups; in this example, the Montagues and the Capulets. Have them earn points for their “family” based on quizzes and answering questions about the play in class. You can even add in some positive behavior points rewarding the family who is all on time to class or who volunteered to read aloud. Your students will be so excited to learn and understand as much as they can about the play if they feel that there could be a prize at the end of the unit.

4. Encourage the use of SparkNotes.
I am in no way condoning the use of SparkNotes instead of reading, or even instead of profoundly analyzing the text. Students need to discover meaning for themselves rather than read an analysis online. And while SparkNotes might be the bane of every English teacher’s existence, they do have an excellent tool for Shakespeare. They call it “No Fear Shakespeare,” where they do is put the original play on the left side of the screen with an updated version on the right. It is always exciting when your students realize that some phrases are even better in Shakespearean English. The site also highlights passages they think are particularly hard or need more explanation, allowing students to get the background they need for the play quickly.

5. Watch a revamped movie based on Shakespeare.
How many times has Hollywood desperately tried to recreate Shakespeare in the modern age? Enough that this point could earn its own post. And while Kenneth Branaugh is brilliant in his role as Hamlet, the movie is very long and still in Shakespearean English. Many movies attempt this, and it could be a turn-off to Shakespeare for your students. Instead, try finding other updated versions can keep the students interested. One good option is 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). This is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew starring many actors your students might recognize, like Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Gabrielle Union, and Joseph Gordon Levitt to name a few. It is entirely in modern English and is also a fun movie to watch. A few other options include: She’s the Man (2006, based on Twelfth Night), Forbidden Planet (1956, based on The Tempest), and Warm Bodies (2013, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet).

Shakespeare does not have to be as dull as students like to make it out to be. There are always ways to get Shakespeare to feel new and exciting to students so they can understand the real magic of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Teaching Materials: