Student Engagement

4 Activities That Enhance Shakespeare’s Plays

A variety of engaging strategies allow teachers to guide students toward a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

July 3, 2024
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Whether in a classroom or a professional theater, anyone who tackles Shakespeare faces a balancing act. How do we keep audiences engaged without simplifying the poetic language? How can we foster appreciation for historical context while embracing relevant reinterpretations?

I also want students to recognize that so many nonverbal elements—acting, props, set, lights, sound, costumes—are part of a play. As a blueprint offers a vision for a house, Shakespeare’s language provides a beautiful but inherently unfinished foundation for a show. 

Here are four strategies I’ve used to help students appreciate both the history and the malleability of Shakespeare, adding variety and creative interpretation to our study of his plays. I’ve tried versions of these activities with different grades, course levels, and plays; I hope they offer a useful blueprint for other classrooms, too.

1. Designing Symbolic Tattoos

This one-period activity is helpful for studying indirect characterization and symbolism, and it’s a nice way to change pace after reading a longer scene early in the play.

I give these instructions:

Draw a symbolic tattoo for one character, and include a response paragraph explaining how your design represents the character. The design should be an image as opposed to one word or quote, although it may include wording. Combine multiple symbolic elements in order to convey the full depth of this character, and discuss multiple artistic choices—images, color, shape, overlap, size, shading—in your response.

The activity is low-stakes, but it still requires creativity, articulation of ideas, and comprehension. Because they’re reading a script, students are forced to rely on indirect characterization through the language, making assessments about a character’s attitude, relationships, and personality. This exercise also pushes students to think about symbolism and other artistic choices, putting them in the driver’s seat with Shakespeare’s characters.

2. Writing Diary Entries

To help Shakespeare stop sounding like a foreign language, I use this creative writing activity, which not only requires that students understand the complex relationships and character attitudes in the play, but also challenges students to use Shakespearean syntax and wording.

These are the instructions I give:

Choose a character and write a series of three journal entries from his/her perspective. These entries should show how the character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences have changed over time (you may include events from before Act I). You are encouraged to create moments that aren’t explicitly in the play as long as they do not contradict it.

My favorite part of this activity is watching students realize how much creative license they have; often, it leads to a better understanding of character voice as well. Can I write about Romeo getting his heart broken by Rosaline? Sure! Can I show that Polonius always rambles and thinks too highly of himself? Of course! 

I warn against Shakespeare “translators,” as they focus on product, rather than process. It’s important for students to go through the process of writing and incorporating Shakespearean language manually, which leads to deeper understanding. So, I scaffold with this list of common Shakespeare words. To incorporate more advanced study of sound and meter in AP Literature, I challenge students to write in iambic pentameter; I’ve even seen a few creative sonnets!

3. Changing Performance Tactics

This strategy is based around Stanislavski’s acting technique; when using this approach, actors chunk scenes into “beats” and identify the “tactics,” or action verbs, that the character uses to reach an objective. I’ve seen directors incorporate some variation of this exercise, but it’s just as valuable in the classroom as onstage.

I like this activity most for two-character excerpts, especially ones in which the characters have an ambiguous relationship, like the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene from Hamlet. Students pair up for the scene; then, each character is given a different tactic verb. Hamlet may need “to antagonize,” while Ophelia’s tactic may be “to seduce.” 

Students are encouraged to convey their tactic through a variety of choices—tone, body language, facial expressions, etc.—while reading with their partners. We go through the scene a few times, rotating through three to five different tactics. 

Afterward, we discuss which tactics and nonverbal choices make the most sense for each character. I’ve found that this approach opens a strong conversation about motives, and it helps students feel that they, too, have some interpretive power in their understanding of the characters. As a bonus, I love the opportunity to get all students involved in a low-stakes format that lets students who need more support practice Shakespeare’s language, while extending analysis for those who are more comfortable with it.

4. Comparing Interpretations

Many teachers use film to support Shakespeare units, and understanding how directorial and actor choices affect a play is clearest through comparison. Additionally, comparing versions of the same scene from different interpretations reinforces that there is no single “right” way to perform a play.

When I teach Much Ado About Nothing to my 10th graders, I particularly like to highlight the way these five directors each present the famous “Battle of Wits”:

After watching each version, students compare with three questions: What is different; how are those differences created by the actor and creative team; and (most important) why do those differences matter for interpretation of character, relationships, or thematic ideas?

Another benefit of this exercise is that it offers the opportunity to spotlight multiracial casts, expanding students’ vision of who inherits the literary canon. This activity also familiarizes students with multiple versions of the play, making it easier to incorporate clips from varied productions later in the unit.

Rising to the Challenge

When we first start a Shakespeare play, I tell my students that their final project will be to reinterpret and perform their own version of a scene (complete with costumes, props, and memorized lines). They are, understandably, intimidated.

However, after several activities that showcase the different ways that Shakespeare can be performed and interpreted, I’m always impressed by my students’ creative ideas and willingness to rise to the challenge. Whether this is my students’ first Shakespeare play, their last, or somewhere in between, I’m proud to empower them with the confidence that they, too, can build on Shakespeare’s legacy.

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  • Student Engagement
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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