Why I Still Teach Shakespeare

Why I still teach Shakespeare, and why all English teachers should too.

I’m an English teacher, and I still teach Shakespeare. I always will. 

Since I enjoy teaching Julius Caesar, I research new ideas each semester. I search for fresh pieces to add to my unit. During my searches, I’ve read many blogs and online forums where teachers do not teach an entire Shakespearean play – they teach pieces. Other times, teachers disregard teaching Shakespeare altogether.

I don’t understand that. Students can understand Shakespeare, and they can enjoy the plays. Shakespeare appears in standards because students should understand how his plays influence what they read and watch today.

As I reflect on this, I can think of two main ways students benefit from reading Shakespeare.

Teaching the entire play is worthwhile for students- mentally.

I don’t teach famous parts of the play without teaching all of the play. During my research for Julius Caesar, I found forums where teachers only teach Mark Antony’s famous speech. Teachers pull the famous speeches and cover rhetorical devices that way. I too teach asyndeton, proemium, and other rhetorical terms as part of my Julius Caesar lesson plans.

I teach them in context though.

ELA teachers should consider the ramifications of only teaching pieces of a a Shakespearean play. What are we teachers telling students if we don’t cover the entire play? Are we telling them that studying a difficult piece in its entirety is not important? That they can’t do it? That they should just pick the fun parts of all literature?

Students feel a sense of accomplishment when reading Shakespeare, and they should. Reading a Shakespearean play is tough. Students realize they can read complex and trying texts. They can read materials that others say are “over their heads.” They experience success after perseverance – a life lesson I hope all my students take.

And? In a culture where students struggle to recognize fake news, I will teach my students to look at all of a resource. The context matters. It matters that the plebeians just trusted Brutus five seconds ago and now agree with Antony. Teachers should highlight Antony’s famous speech, but students should have a chance to read all of the play. Teaching “bits” echoes the problem with students merely looking at “soundbites” from today’s culture and making decisions based off that.

Why I still teach Shakespeare - all of a Shakespearean play - even if other teachers don't.

Teaching the entire play is worthwhile for students- academically and culturally. 

The last time I taught Julius Caesar, a student blurted in class: “This is some Frank Underwood stuff!”

It sure is.

The rest of Shakespeare? I am not a Shakespearean scholar, but countless times during dramas and comedies, I will stop and smile because the plot reminisces of a Shakespearean play. Television shows and movies follow the story lines of Shakespeare’s plays. To understand a large picture of our culture and themes throughout our stories, students should have knowledge of Shakespeare.

Here’s another reason:

I taught at an alternative school for a year, and the students had rough (and heartbreaking) life experiences. “Macbeth” was in the senior curriculum, and even though I questioned the success of teaching it, I forged ahead.

My students seemed to understand the play, and we continued to read it. I still doubted if the themes were coming through, but the students didn’t seem to mind it. One day, a girl raised her hand and said, “I know lots of girls like this.”

Lady Macbeth? Yep. Why?

Well, this student knew lots of women who had gone to jail for helping their boyfriends with illegal activities. She knew lots of females who struggled with being loyal to their boyfriends while being concerned with the actions of helping their boyfriends.

Shakespeare’s storylines and themes apply to life today! All lives. The themes are timeless.

Teaching  any other Shakespeare play is not easy, and sometimes I stop and give my students a pep talk. Shakespeare is hard!

This is all the more reason to teach it to our students, because they can understand it, and they deserve teachers who believe they can. Our students deserve the challenges and rewards of reading Shakespeare.

This is why I still teach Shakespeare. What about you?

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  • Tina

    Just recently our principal, a former middle school English teacher, told us in a faculty meeting that kids don’t want to read stories written in iambic pentameter by “old white men in tights like Shakespeare and Thoreau.” Why she believes Thoreau wrote in iambic pentameter, who knows? However, I am in agreement with you. These plays are timeless. Their themes are still relatable today. So I will continue to teach Shakespeare, because it is valuable and my students love it!

  • Melissa

    Oh my gosh, that is hilarious, Tina! Sometimes you just have to laugh.

  • Sebastian

    Hi, loved your insight. I am a Honduran teaching English for 11th and Senior class. I have stubbornly insist on reading Romeo and Juliet for ninth, Julius Caesar for tenth and Hamlet for 11th. Yet, my peers seem to differ. They rather read the contemporaries (which is completely fine and).
    My country is a constant Verona, Rome and Elsinore. There´s a hundred reasons why those books should be read here. I believe it is our reponsability to embrace, at least one of Shakespeare´s works.

    • Lauralee (author)

      Thanks. I too think that the contemporaries should be taught, but we can’t forget Shakespeare. Students see his themes in modern pieces and find success in reading his challenging pieces.

      Thanks for coming by my blog. Cheers!

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