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Balashova T.A., "APPROACHES TO TEACHING SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS". Meždunarodnyj naučno-issledovatel’skij žurnal (International Research Journal) № 5 (95) Part 3, (2020): 57. Tue. 19. May. 2020.
Balashova, T.A. (2020). PODHODY K OBUCHENIYU TVORCHESTVU U. SHEKSPIRA [APPROACHES TO TEACHING SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS]. Meždunarodnyj naučno-issledovatel’skij žurnal, № 5 (95) Part 3, 57-60.
Balashova T. A. APPROACHES TO TEACHING SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS / T. A. Balashova // Mezhdunarodnyj nauchno-issledovatel'skij zhurnal. — 2020. — № 5 (95) Part 3. — С. 57—60. doi: 10.23670/IRJ.2020.95.5.092




Научная статья

Балашова Т.А. *

ORCID: 0000-0002-0547-1309,

Санкт-Петербургский институт культуры, Санкт-Петербург, Россия

* Корреспондирующий автор (3003088[at]


Статья посвящена исследованию современных методов изучения творчества У. Шекспира в контексте обучения английскому языку. Рассматривается проблема значимости творчества У. Шекспира для молодежи в современном обществе; освещаются разнообразные подходы к изучению творчества У. Шекспира, представленные в методической литературе; предлагаются коммуникативные, личностно-ориентированные интегративные задания на основе анализа цитат из пьес автора. Результаты исследования позволяют найти наиболее эффективный подход к формированию языковой компетенции обучающихся в процессе изучения пьес У. Шекспира.

Ключевые слова: У. Шекспир, пьесы, методы обучения, историко-культурный контекст, коммуникативный, личностно-ориентированный, интегративный подход, языковая компетенция.


Research article

Balashova T.A. *

ORCID: 0000-0002-0547-1309,

St. Petersburg University of Culture, St. Petersburg, Russia

* Corresponding author (3003088[at]


The article looks at modern approaches to studying W. Shakespeare’s plays as a way of developing students’ appreciation of his works and enhancing their English language competence. The article discusses Shakespeare’s relevance to students’ everyday experience; observes various teaching techniques presented in pedagogical literature and suggests communicative learner-centred integrated classroom activities based on W. Shakespeare’s quotations. The findings provide an English language teacher with a tool for stimulating students’ profound understanding of W. Shakespeare’s works as well as an effective way of developing students’ language skills.

Keywords: W. Shakespeare, plays, teaching techniques, historical and cultural context, communicative, learner-centred, integrative approach, language competence.


Teaching the English language is hardly possible without a focus on English literature, where W. Shakespeare’s works hold a most prominent place. Reading and understanding the plays, recognizing the pleasure and value of them will go a long way in promoting enjoyable experience in one’s life-long encounter with Shakespeare in the theatre, where his plays have been popular for more than four hundred years since their first performances in Elizabethan England.

In the long run students will benefit highly from the close acquaintance with Shakespeare’s prose and poetry in terms of themes, ideas, and profound insights into human nature and the nature of human relationships. While arguing that reading Shakespeare’s King Lear makes the reader more humane, sensitive “to suffering men and women everywhere, demands not simply that we live justly and generously ourselves, but that we work to create a just society that treats every “naked wretch” with decency and compassion”, Michael J. Collins underlines the significance of Shakespeare’s plays since the questions they pose “must in the end be answered in our own lives [1, P. 261]”.

Therefore, there are two basic although challenging questions that concern English literature teachers. The first is what relevance Shakespeare’s plays might have for students living in contemporary society. Is it possible to make students understand that Shakespeare’s words give insights into our own life and speak to us of the world we live in? The second question is connected with the methods we use in teaching the plays, our choice of learning activities designed with the purpose to facilitate students’ appreciating and enjoying them.

The aim of the article is, consequently, threefold: to argue Shakespeare’s relevance to our everyday experience; to observe a number of helpful “teaching Shakespeare” techniques presented in various research papers; and to share the experience of using some of them in the classroom to address the questions mentioned.

Shakespeare as our contemporary

While lecturing to students, advocating Shakespeare’s relevance to the world we live in, the metaphoric implication of his plays, the universality of the human experience they portray becomes the most urgent task. For if the lecture lacks this particular aspect, the student’s instinctive reaction is “what for”? Why should one waste time on such pointless things as weird plots of the times dead & gone and incomprehensible language? In fact, plot retelling is the most inefficient way of teaching the plays for you need to be a storyteller of Shakespeare’s genius to avoid “scornful glances” from the student’s eyes. What does a student’s life have in common with that of the Kings (Lear, Richard III, Henry V), Dukes (Orsino), Princes (Hamlet), Thanes (Macbeth), Lords (Berowne, Longaville, Dumain), Knights (Falstaff), Merchants (Antonio) to say nothing of Athenians (Theseus), Romans (Julius Caesar), Moors (Othello), and Jews (Shylock). How meaningful is the context of the plays to the students (the play’s sources and their being written in a particular time and place, their connection with the political and social situation of the time)? Indeed, the historical as well as the cultural context is very much unlike our own, which poses a double challenge to Russian speaking students. The most probable way they will respond to the plays is as 21-century readers studying the language for practical purpose rather than for being able to read Shakespeare in the original and the teacher must take this fact into consideration by using integrative approach and teaching Shakespeare through the prism of activities enhancing reading, listening, speaking and writing skills development of ESL learners.

On the other hand, this very “exotic” nature of the plays may spark the interest to the unusual (1) and prove a powerful stimulus to re-examine and reassess our present-day attitudes (2) thus giving Shakespeare’s words a straight and broad path to the students’ hearts.

(1) For instance, it is interesting to observe a number of superstitions in Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” monologue about the nature of dreams: from the lines “Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat, / Not so big as a round little worm / Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid” we get to know that girls tend to get worms under their nails if they keep lazing about. Having read “O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream, / Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues, / Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are” we are amused to find out that women who eat too much sugary stuff risk having swellings on their lips as a kind of punishment for their extravagant indulgence. And the lines “This is that very Mab / That plats the manes of horses in the night, / And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, / Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes” inform us about the origin of clotted hair and the misfortunes that may follow in case one untangles it (Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Sc. IV) [9].

(2) Katharina Minola’s monologue about a wife’s duty to her husband effectively concluded with her advice to wives to “place your hands below your husband’s foot” (The Taming of the Shrew, Act V, Sc. II) [11] provokes thought about gender issues and the woman’s role in society. Does Katharina’s convincing speech illustrate her genuine transformation and overcoming her moral defects or is she being flexible and adaptive, capable of pretending and playing the role expected by society? And what kind of speech would she give today? Could it be along the lines of the 1999 teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You monologue? And what are the value and effect of setting a play in a modern historical period, into our contemporary world?

In discussing the plays students’ keen attention is drawn not to the intricacies of the plots and their peculiarities but rather to the generalizations – the issues of common concern: the conventions of the arts and the elaborately examined function of human imagination in the prologue to Henry V: “For it is your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times, / Turning the accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass”(The Life of King Henry V, Act 1, Prol) [10]; the influence of human appearance on one’s life and actions in Richard III, featuring a “deformed hunchback”, “curtail’d of this fair proportion”, “cheated of feature by dissembling nature”, “deform’d, unfinish’d”, “so lamely and unfashionable” (King Richard III, Act 1, Sc.1) [12] whose immoral nature is determined by physical deformity and the lack of human connection; striking the right balance between studying, being dedicated to hard work and hands-on experience of life, connecting with the world around you in Love’s Labour’s Lost; the fluid and ambivalent nature of love and hate in Romeo and Juliet; the effect of religious prejudice in The Merchant of Venice and racial discrimination in Othello; or in As You Like it the tension between finding your own way in life and fixed social roles cynically described by Jaques in his monologue “All the world’s a stage,/ and all the men and women merely players”( As You Like it, Act 2. Sc. VI) [13]; the betrayal of friendship for the common good in Julius Caesar; the issue of identity in Hamlet; hypocrisy vs sincerity, family dysfunction and the perils of aging, dependence and helplessness in King Lear, the pursuit of power and happiness that brings nowhere in Macbeth, life which is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing”, full of ambitions resulting in nothing but “dusty death”( Macbeth, Act V, Sc.V) [8].

These are all poignant inescapable human questions which emerge sooner or later in everybody’s life. According to Michael J. Collins “[t]he questions Shakespeare’s plays raise are those that students, like all of us, must face in their own lives, questions about death and separation; love and lust; loyalty and betrayal; the competing claims of justice and mercy; the acquisition and use of power; one’s relationships and responsibilities, both public and private, to others; the passing of the time and changes – for good or ill – it brings with it [1, P. 253]”. And reflecting on these questions we are inevitably brought to consider how generous, grateful, merciful, forgiving and unprejudiced we ourselves are asked to be. With all these questions asked about our life Shakespeare is still our contemporary. Shakespeare and modern culture are synonymous and the Bard is part of youth and popular culture – long before the issues of anti-Semitism, racism, youth rebellion, fluid gender roles became all the rage in the modern society, Shakespeare had raised them in his plays.

Methods of “teaching Shakespeare”

English literature teachers have long started to understand that teaching Shakespeare’s plays requires new methods to bring students to an appreciation of Shakespeare: “Old methods of teaching Shakespeare are akin to week-old fish. Hold your nose! [9, P. 15]”. This view started to emerge back in the late 19th-early 20th century when it was considered the teacher’s privilege to introduce Shakespeare either as an out-moded poet, dead and buried creature of a forgotten age or a clever, stimulating, dynamic, lovable and modern [14, P. 50].

A review of literature devoted to the issue reveals some general trends specific to teaching Shakespeare. The first one is literary-aesthetic – emphasis on reading the text for enjoyment, rather than thorough interpretation. One of the earliest sentiments proclaiming “less method, less teaching, and more Shakespeare [18, P. 334]” is alive and kicking a hundred years later: to make Shakespeare “fresh” for the reader it is suggested to read selections without any explanation, because constant “line-by-line” interpretations can spoil poetry. The teacher dictates a piece of poetry and the students transcribe it in their own handwriting to recite the passage together the following day. Not until the class has become very familiar with the readings are there any explanations [15, P. 17].

The second popular Shakespearean pedagogy is a “stage-centred” study of Shakespeare – merging the world of the reader into the world of the text through performance. This idea takes the pedagogical world by storm in the 80s, as Peggy O’Brien points out discussing appropriate methods of teaching Shakespeare “the current dialogue resonates with more discussion of performance-based methods than any other single pedagogical approach [7, P. 196]”.

The third scope of ideas suggests providing students with communicative, language-based activities such as interviews with characters to make them “real, transcend time and become meaningful to the students [4, P. 318]”; student-centred approaches, providing manageable activities based on one particular question or stylistic device (like irony, pun, onomatopoeia, etc. [3]) discussed through analyzing one particular passage from Shakespeare’s plays [19]. Particularly inspiring suggestions have been attempts to integrate studying Shakespeare to practical language skills developing – such as writing, and to invite Shakespeare’s vocabulary into our speech [16].

And finally, putting to use a plethora of Shakespeare-related electronic resources [5], [6], [17] that digital natives may find appealing is considered of no less importance.

Dealing with the pedagogical approach to Shakespeare, R.A Cohen provides some useful guidelines in terms of “dos and don’ts” of the learning experience in the classroom, tentatively rejecting attempts to cover the whole play, assign research papers to beginners, make students memorize the speeches, watch films or videos, read long passages in class. What the author does recommend is connecting the works to the teacher’s own personality, stressing the teacher’s own problems with the text, staging short (80 lines) scenes with the students, dealing with small moments, small speeches and specific words. The last suggestion appears to be the most inviting as in Shakespeare’s plays everything is connected to the whole, and even one line or one word may reflect and support the whole play. Being able to see this connection will provide discussion resulting in elucidating the essence and significance of the work [2].

Another issue the teacher has to combat – the common assumption concerning the inaccessibility of the highbrow language the plays feature, four centuries old and queer, is effectively addressed by the same author in a tip to look for the clearest speech of the plainest speaker in the text and give that passage a lot of attention in the classroom, making it a case study of the modernity of Shakespeare’s language [2].

Taking all the things previously discussed into consideration as a general outlook on teaching Shakespeare’s plays some of the useful and easy to implement communicative, learner-centred integrated teaching techniques can be suggested to supplement some of the more “orthodox” approaches.

All Shakespeare’s plays are known to contain one or more particularly insightful lines that in a most concise way capture the focus (or one of the numerous foci) of the play. These quotations can be used for the purpose of speculating not only about the meaning and the message of the play but also as a tool of drawing attention to some disturbing problems that run rampant in our society as well as issues of common concern (usually discussed in speaking practice classroom). The quotations we have chosen for this speaking activity stimulate a discussion of child-parent relationship, gratitude, discrimination, ambition, the meaning and purpose in life, responsibility, mercy vs revenge, overcoming difficulties and becoming stronger/wiser as a result, etc (Table 1).


Table 1 – Discussion hand-out (abbr.)

Shakespeare’s quotation Discussion focus
‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!’(King Lear Act 1, Sc. 4) child-parent relationship; gratitude
‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? … And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’ (The Merchant of Venice Act 3, Sc. 1) shared humanity; discrimination; revenge
‘Life’s … a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ (Macbeth Act 5, Sc. 5) ambition; the meaning and purpose in life
‘Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course’(Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Sc. 1) overcoming difficulties; becoming stronger/wiser
‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ (Hamlet Act 2, Sc. 2) assumptions, beliefs and preconceptions shaping our views
‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones’ (Julius Caesar, Act 3, Sc. 2) responsibility; memory
‘Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge’ (Titus Andronicus Act I, Sc. I.) mercy vs revenge


Following the warming-up discussion exercise the teacher distributes the quotations among the students and instructs them to prepare a short speech (3 min.), explaining how the quotation fits into the context of the passage/the play, what its message is and in what way it can be meaningful for them personally. This speaking activity with a learner-centred slant proves effective as it requires returning to a play and the close reading of the surrounding text to identify the function of the quotation within the context combined with a personal response to it, which results in some of the creative feats from the students (Table 2).


Table 2 – Examples of students’ speeches

(Student A) ‘Nothing will come of nothing.’ (King Lear, Act 1, Sc. 1)

W. Shakespeare’s quotation from King Lear highlights one of the pivotal messages of the play and gives key to its understanding. When Cordelia refuses to speak sweet words that would please her father’s ears just to “draw a third more opulent” than her sisters, she does it because “[her] love is more richer than [her] tongue”. What she means is that words would ring hollow and actions speak louder than words. This idea is supported throughout the whole play showing how characters’ words fall short of their actions. Another meaning of the line in the context of the play may be in Lear’s cruel and unjust decision about his daughter that sets in motion the tragic events that follow. If Lear had been wise and endeavor nothing, nothing tragic would have happened. In a more general sense and in a wider context, in my opinion, the line should be understood as a call for being responsible for our actions towards others and not putting too much emphasis on the words you hear.

(Student B) ‘HERMIA: I would my father looked but with my eyes. THESEUS: Rather your eyes must with his judgment look.’ (A Midsummer Night’s dream, Act 1, Sc. 1)

The quotation is derived from the exchange between Hermia and Theseus, the characters of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by W. Shakespeare. The quotation reflects two topical issues – misunderstanding as a result of generation gap and what happiness is. Egues is convinced his daughter is his property, so he can rule her life and make her marry the man he has chosen; otherwise she must be punished with death. Concerning the problem of children and parents, at all times parents want their children to be happy, but they forget what it means to be a child. They measure happiness from the point of rationality, while children measure happiness according to their wishes and feelings. In my opinion, parents’ and children’s views represent two extremes and both may be wrong. Adults are too reasonable, children are too emotional. The solution is to listen to each other, not to be self- centred and meet half-way”.


The conducted research and the extensive work on using various techniques with the students in order to overcome difficulties connected with studying W. Shakespeare’s plays enables us to come to a number of rewarding results:

1) bringing students to understand W. Shakespeare’s plays as able to articulate if not the answers, at least the questions worth discussing;

2) leading students to an encounter with human questions and evoking their personal response to them;

3) making the learning process meaningful for the students in terms of internalizing the magnificent Shakespeare’s world while enhancing their language competence: reading, speaking, listening and writing skills.

Конфликт интересов

Не указан.

Conflict of Interest

None declared.

Список литературы / References

  1. Collins M. J. For World and Stage: An Approach to Teaching Shakespeare / Collins M. J. // Shakespeare Quarterly. – 1990. – Vol. 41, no. 2. – P. 251–261.
  2. Cohen R.A. ShakesFear and How to Cure It: The Complete Handbook for Teaching Shakespeare / Cohen R.A. – Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. – 400 p.
  3. Lau L.C.M. Teaching Shakespeare to ESL Students / Lau L.C.M, Tso W.B.A. –Springer, 2017. – 150 p.
  4. Lee E. To hell with Shakespeare / Lee E. // Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences. – 2010. Vol. 7©. – P. 317-327.
  5. Much ado about Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  6. No Sweat Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  7. O’Brien P. “And Gladly Teach”: Books, Articles, and a Bibliography on the Teaching of Shakespeare / O’Brien P. // Shakespeare Quarterly. – 1995. – Vol. 46, no. 2. – P. 165–172.
  8. Project Gutenberg’s Macbeth, by William Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  9. Project Gutenberg’s Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  10. Project Gutenberg’s Project Gutenberg’s The Life of King Henry V, by William Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  11. Project Gutenberg’s The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  12. The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Works of William Shakespeare [Cambridge Edition] [Vol. 5 of 9], by William Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  13. The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Works of William Shakespeare [Cambridge Edition] [Vol. 2 of 9], by William Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  14. Rust D.A. Give Shakespeare a Break / Rust D.A. // The Journal of Education. – 1939. – Vol. 122, no. 2. – P. 48–50.
  15. Smith E. B. Fresh Fish or More Shakespeare? / Smith E. B. // American Secondary Education. – 1993. – Vol. 21, no. 3. – P. 15–18.
  16. Sedgwick F. Teaching Shakespeare to Develop Children’s Writing / Sedgwick F. – McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 2014 – 282 p.
  17. Shmooping Shakespeare [Electronic resource]. – URL: (Accessed: 13.04.2020)
  18. Tappan E. M. On Teaching Shakespeare / Tappan E. M. // The Journal of Education. – 1898. – Vol. 48, no. 20 (1204). – P. 334–335.
  19. Thompson A. Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose: A Student-Centred Approach / Thompson A., Turchi L. – Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. – 192 p.

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