Shakespeare in the Classroom

Shakespeare in the Classroom

Have fun with Early Modern English by introducing your students to the puns and insults in Shakespeare’s plays.

Students find the prospect of delving into the plays of Shakespeare daunting. They balk at the language and find it incomprehensible. One method of breaking through this resistance is playing with the language. If you can start the task of teaching Shakespeare with an introduction to the language, in the form of puns and insults, you will find that it will be a much more enjoyable experience for you and your students.

Shakespeare Made Simple for Students

Students have no patience for learning the rules and rhythms of Early Modern English, and breaking through this barrier is no easy task for English teachers. When you start thinking of ways to reach your students remember that Shakespeare wrote for everyone, and much of what Shakespeare wrote appealed to the groundlings, or common people.

Shakespeare’s Groundlings

The common people usually had no formal education and would miss the intricate plays on language and subtle innuendo that would not escape the nobility. Too poor for a paid seat, the groundlings stood in front of the open air stage. Puns and playing with the language delighted the groundlings, who appreciated the bawdiness or slapstick nature of the jests. We all have a bit of groundling in us.

Playing With Puns and Insults, Some Ideas:

  • Consult an excellent guide for generating online insults. Have fun generating such stylish epithets as: “Thou artless boiled brained barnacle,” or “Ye infectious hasty-witted horn beast.” This site also contains many other period language references.
  • Have students leaf through Shakespeare’s plays looking for words they find humorous
  • List the words in three columns (prepositions, adjectives, and nouns) on an overhead or on the board
  • Have students place the words from the three columns into a coherent phrase or insult
  • Divide students into groups and have them create brief scenes using Shakespeare’s characters (or have students develop their own characters) using dialogue containing the insults they have created. Use this opportunity to discuss character motivation. Ask your students, what type of situation would generate an insult or pun?

Classroom Performance

Shakespeare’s plays are made for performance. Have groups of students take turns acting the dialogue they have created in front of the class. Students may feel more comfortable if they have a “rehearsal” period. Visit each group to give direction and advice. More gregarious students may enjoy reading their dialogues in front of the class, while quieter students may enjoy direction or editing tasks. At this point in time you could discuss acting techniques and portraying emotion on stage.

Easing into Shakespeare

Educators should have an easier time teaching Shakespeare’s plays once students become more comfortable with Early Modern English. After this language barrier is broken you can then turn your attention to more complex issues such as plot and subplot, symbolism, or historical analysis within the plays.

Useful Sources in Analyzing the Language in Shakespeare’s Works:

Crystal, Ben and David. Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002.

Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001.

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