Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

shakespeare-big-willy-funny-posterOk, so the plays are over four hundred years old and the language is difficult.  Kids will let out an audible groan whenever the teacher announces that Shakespeare is next.  So why are Shakespeare’s plays still on almost every high school English syllabus?

It’s a question that a colleague of mine asks on a regular basis.  He is a fabulous English teacher who loves to teach poetry. He is also our drama teacher.  Not a likely candidate for someone who would like to remove Romeo & Juliet from his to-do list, eh?   His problem with the bard, and his omnipresence in our curriculum, is that there are so many good modern plays out there that are so much more accessible.  The kids find Shakespeare difficult and inaccessible, so why not make a change?  I agree with him on most counts–there are other great plays out there.  The kids do find it difficult.  But I still think we should teach it.

The fact that the kids find it difficult is a non-starter for me.  We want to give them challenging work so they can reach beyond where they are; if we don’t, there is no growth.  We don’t keep lifting the same five pound weights at the gym if we want to get stronger, and we can’t expect our students to become better critical thinkers if we don’t add some mental weight to their tasks.

However, his point that students find Shakespeare inaccessible is the one I have the biggest problem with.  Every year when I start Macbeth,  I hear the groans.  But I don’t let them throw me off.  I ask my students to give me–and the play– a chance. I think one of the biggest problems with the study of Shakespeare is in the way it is delivered. Pages and pages of scene questions and quotation analysis are not going to do much to help students fall in love with Shakespeare.  Instead, we need to find ways to make the story relevant to their lives.  I mean, really, how many of us have struggled with temptation? How many of us have made a mistake that we regretted later?  And, how many of us have succumbed to outside pressures, doing something that we know we should not?  Poor old Macbeth is definitely someone a modern-day teenager can relate to!

When I teach Shakespeare, I use an inquiry approach, asking a question before we start, one that students will use for their investigation of the play.  The question is this: What can we learn about human nature and how can we apply these lessons to our own lives?   We will still do some traditional activities, like looking at quotes, understanding character development, etc., but with everything, we will be looking through this lens: how can we learn from Macbeth?  Then, when we are finished, students will complete writing assignments and projects that illustrate their learning.  They will still read, write and present. They will still need to use quotations from the play.  But they will do so in a way that is much more relevant and interesting.

Now, I can’t say that I win them all over.  However, every semester I hear students tell me that they liked the play a lot more than they thought they would.  What more can a teacher ask for?

I’m starting Macbeth today (I’m so excited!!) and will begin with this case study .  I don’t tell the kids what it’s for; we just read it and discuss the questions at the end.  Then I tell them that Jarrod’s situation is exactly like Macbeth’s, minus a murder or two.  It’s a great hook to start the play.  You can also find my complete inquiry unit for Macbeth here.

So what do you think?  Is Shakespeare still relevant?  If you think so, how do you hook your students?

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4 thoughts on “Is Shakespeare Still Relevant?

  1. OK, so this is where I will hang my head in shame and admit that I am a terrible English teacher who does not appreciate Shakespeare. The plots are fantastic, which is evidenced by the way they’ve been retold countless times, but I hate to read it. I think there are plenty of texts that can stimulate student thought and meaningful conversation that do not illicit such negative responses from students. It’s a battle I don’t wish to fight, likely because it’s a battle I still have not won in my own mind. I feel like it’s one those things I’m supposed to like but don’t. Don’t throw things at me! 🙂

    • Ha! I won’t throw things at you and you aren’t a terrible teacher! I think it’s important that we teach what we are passionate about so you should teach something else! There are good texts out there and the most important thing is that the kids get inspired and turned on to learning.

  2. I teach Romeo and Juliet each year to my ninth graders because it is so relevant. Young lovers who disobey their parents is part of my students’ daily lives. I cut down the scenes and we only read the most important scenes, so that while it is still in Shakespeare’s original language, the play is not too long or overwhelming. Every year my students tell me Romeo and Juliet wad their favorite part of the year.

    Brynn Allison

  3. Totally agree, Brynn. I find my students will say the same at the end of semester. They are apprehensive when we start Macbeth, but afterward, most will say they really enjoyed it.

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