Using Humor to Teach Shakespeare

Given an assignment to create a funny abridged version of a play like Romeo and Juliet, students will work hard to understand the original.

December 17, 2018

I’m an English teacher, and one of the hardest units for me to cover with my freshman students used to be Romeo and Juliet. There’s nothing more awkward than having students stand and read from a giant book. They’re not familiar with the language and have no idea about the meaning of what they’re saying, so they lack emphasis and emotion.

Despite how terrible this process is, it’s one of the most standard, traditional ways to teach Shakespeare in school—one reason the Bard is reviled by so many students across the country.

I finally got fed up and decided to take this tragedy and turn it into something amazing. Asking students to write their own shorter version of the play is a wonderful approach for Shakespeare because it has the students immerse themselves in the play they’re reading. It’s an approach to teaching Shakespeare more creatively.

After showing my students this hilarious 13-minute run-through of the play, I challenge them to create their own abridged version and share it with the class. Here’s a breakdown of the unit.

Before Reading the Play

Before they start reading, I show the clip above. Having never read the play, students still know how it ends, so this isn’t a spoiler-alert situation. And in any case the prologue lets everyone know that Romeo and Juliet die before the play even starts.

I have students break up into groups of three or four—the small group size encourages them to take on multiple roles and have some fun with the content.

Next I explain that they need to create their own—hopefully funny—version of the play, roughly six to eight minutes long. And I set benchmark days for students to finish certain acts and scenes.

While Reading the Play

After reaching each of the benchmarks, I spend a day or two discussing that part of the play and why it should or should not be included in an abridged version. This is where students become very engaged—they like to argue about what they think are the most important parts of the play.

I encourage students to take notes individually on the different acts and scenes they want to have in their abridged version, for later discussion in their groups.

After Reading the Play

Next I have students rank the top five most important parts of the play in their groups, and then share out to see what parts groups have in common and what parts they’ve left out. At this point the groups begin working on their abridged versions of the play. I usually give them four days to complete a draft.

When the groups present their abridged versions of the play to the class, I allow them to read from their scripts—they don’t have to memorize their parts—and I strongly encourage them to use costumes. I don’t record these plays because I want the students to feel as free as possible to be silly and have fun.

I don’t assess the students on their plays—instead I later have them write an essay on whether or not Romeo and Juliet is meant to be sad or a statement that young love is dumb love. The purpose of the abridged versions is to engage them in the text in a way that’s meaningful to them.

Why Does This Work?

When I ask my students why they go all-in on their versions of Shakespeare, their answers are all the same. They’re able to explore the language on their own without worrying about sounding terrible in front of the entire class. They can look up words and phrases and find out what they mean. When they choose the scenes for their group, they spend time practicing and diving deep into the text to understand what needs to happen in each scene.

They also find that watching different movie versions helps them understand what’s being said by the characters, and they’re able to use that to help them with their scripts. Since they’re allowed the time to explore Shakespeare in ways that are comfortable to them, students engage more fully in the text and are able to walk away with a better understanding of the story.

Teaching Shakespeare this way helps my students explore the deeper meaning of Romeo and Juliet and present their understanding in a way that’s engaging for them. By removing the awkward stand-and-speak aspect of traditional classroom Shakespeare, I believe I help my students fully embrace Shakespeare. As a literature teacher, that’s the best thing I could hope for with the unit.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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