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First Shakespeare Lesson

A Shakespeare Lesson for Students new to the Bard

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Guide note: Each month, our "Teaching Shakespeare" columnist writes about bringing Shakespeare to life in the classroom and drama studio. This month he shows you how to introduce the Bard in your first Shakespeare Lesson.

The First Shakespeare Lesson
by Duncan Fewins

It’s essential for teachers to make their first Shakespeare lesson practical, accessible and fun. However, there is no point “dumbing down” the workshop material by not tackling difficult concepts and language.

I always begin by focusing on the structure of Shakespeare’s writing and some of the key textual conventions. Rather than talking about these conventions, I get students on their feet straight away, before they have time to become nervous.

Workshop: The First Shakespeare Lesson

To introduce the students to the rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse, ask them to stamp out the following rhythm with their feet:

stamp-stamp / stamp-stamp / stamp-stamp / stamp-stamp / stamp-stamp

Then ask the students to stress the second beat in each pair, as follows:

Stamp-STAMP / stamp-STAMP / stamp-STAMP / stamp-STAMP / stamp-STAMP
Students can then say the following line from Twelfth Night as they stamp out the rhythm:
If MU / sic BE / the FOOD / of LOVE / play ON

They can obviously feel the rhythm of the line and the natural stresses, but what happens when they introduce Hamlet’s famous line?

To BE / or NOT / to BE / THAT is /the QUES / tion

What do they notice about the two lines? Does one flow more than the other? Although iambic pentameter is the underlining structure in Shakespeare’s verse, it is often deliberately disrupted by Shakespeare to create an effect. So, the spare syllable at the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy could suggest a hesitance in the character.

Progressing onto Text

The next section of the workshop requires copies of Jaques’ speech from Act Two, Scene Two of As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”

Start by asking the students to read the text aloud. As they walk around the room, they should familiarize themselves with the natural rhythm and stresses in the text. Gather the students’ thoughts on the verse structure. Is it regular? Why not? Why is the speech in verse?

Give the students five minutes to chose a fragment of the text and ask them to construct a mini-performance, ensuring that they pause or stop only when there is punctuation.

After watching the results, ask the students to perform the same chunk with the following instructions:

  1. Perform the speech with a chosen attitude (Boredom or Sarcasm for example)
  2. Make a definite physical change of direction at each comma, semi-colon or full stop
  3. Use strong gestures when performing

Watch and observe the difference between the first and second versions of the speeches. Why was the second more engaging and interesting?

Working on Prose

The final section of the workshop requires copies of the epilogue by Rosalind from the end of As you Like It.

Start by looking at the way the speech is presented on the page. What is the difference between this and the previous speech? The students will notice that the speech is presented in continuous prose and therefore has no set rhythm.

Again, ask the students to practice the speech aloud and perform a short section, focusing on the sound of the spoken word and the style of presentation. What do they notice about the difference between speaking in verse and prose? What are some of the practical differences from a performer’s perspective? Why might Shakespeare have written one speech in verse and another in prose within the same play?

Duncan Fewins is our regular “Teaching Shakespeare” columnist. If you would like to follow his monthly advice to teachers and students, please subscribe to our newsletter.

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