How can I make Shakespeare easy for my students to understand?

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Answered by: Megan, An Expert in the Shakespeare - General Category
If you're worried about how to make Shakespeare easy for your students, you're not alone. The most common complaint teachers have about teaching students to read Shakespeare is that they simply don't understand. Some students find the language mystifying or the plots are too complex. The answer for many students is actually a simple one: don't start by reading it.

Shakespeare's plays were never meant to be read, they were meant to be acted. None of them were published until years after his death, so during his own lifetime the only place they were seen was on the stage. If you want to make Shakespeare easy to understand, you need to show your students the plays.

The best way to do this is through theatre. There are usually multiple productions of his works staged in local theatres. Many times, in warm climates, the productions will be outside and free of charge. If you are unable to bring your students to a play, a well-selected film can help them immensely. Of course it is preferable to have a film which closely follows the plot of the play in question, but makes sure the version you select is one that your students will actually enjoy.

Part of this selection should be the selection of the play itself. Leave "Romeo and Juliet" out, forget about "The Tempest", and stop cramming "Hamlet" down their throats. They'll be more interested in a story they don't know. Try to pick one with elements that appeal to all your students. Some plays you might consider are "Richard III", "Henry V", and "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

Whatever you do, though, don't sacrifice the language. There are multiple productions which re-tell the stories of the plays, but don't maintain the language from the plays. If you use one of these productions there is no point to teaching your students Shakespeare at all. If you're looking for an original plot there are many playwrights you would choose before Shakespeare. He borrowed from classical literature and from his contemporaries.

People don't and shouldn't read Shakespeare for plot alone. They read him for the language. They read him because he was most likely the most skilled wordsmith in the history of the English language. So don't take that away from your students, just make it easier for them to understand.

The best thing to do after watching a film of the play is to read the play. Now your students will have a grasp of what's happening in the play and they'll be able to picture the characters in action as they read. Also, through listening to the actors speak the lines, they will have gleaned some understanding of what the lines mean. A properly foot-noted text should take them the rest of the way toward mastering the play in question.

If there are still difficulties, simply take a small piece of the play and go through it in class with a good dictionary or request that the Drama department provide you with some volunteers for an in-class presentation. As long as you're willing to make the effort, it can be done.

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