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Teaching Shakespeare

“Conscience Does Make Cowards of Us All” - Embracing Your Fears While Teaching Shakespeare

(Image: Chasidy Burton)

I have a confession to make. As a high school English teacher, I have not always been obsessed with teaching Shakespeare. Yikes! I know that makes me sound sacrilegious as a lover of language, but after teaching American literature for so long, I was always drawn to the lyrical language of F. Scott Fitzgerald or the satire of Mark Twain. To be perfectly honestly, I felt a little cowardly at the thought of trying to live up to the expectation of the great William Shakespeare. All of that iambic pentameter, the puns, the historical context – it was a bit scary!


Then I switched schools and faced a new senior curriculum where the giant tragic hero of Hamlet was looming in the shadows. I knew I had to jump in – it seems every high school senior has to read Hamlet. Isn’t it some kind of initiation into the real world?


So I cruised through Hamlet, and began to see what all the fuss was about. Reading the line “The readiness is all” made my heart swoon. Ophelia’s tortured and tragic life, staying true to ourselves, Hamlet’s final soliloquy…I was all in, but my students just didn’t share the same excitement. Why could they not see how this text transcends 400 years and makes sense in our own lives? I started thinking. These “wild and whirling words” were not being delivered in a way that stuck with them. Why could I get them to appreciate the brilliance and beauty of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but not Shakespeare? What was I doing wrong?


Then an opportunity presented itself that changed my teaching life. I was accepted into the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Summer Academy and we spent an entire week not only studying Hamlet, but also ourselves. Before I left for Washington D.C. I was terrified. All I could envision were these incredible scholars who knew lots more than I ever hoped to know about the Bard, and fellow teachers who were doing a much better job at teaching Shakespeare than I was. I kept thinking about Hamlet’s line, “Conscience does make cowards of us all.” All this thinking, wondering, and questioning was scaring me to death, but I got on the plane anyway, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.


Walking into the Folger, I was scared, y’all. Suddenly my Southern accent was more obvious, I didn’t know anyone, and I felt much more comfortable in my American literature world rather than the world of Shakespeare. However, as the week progressed and I began to understand the Folger approach, my fears melted away and the questions were flying.


Why was I holding back from immersing my students into things I wasn’t comfortable with? Why was I afraid of performance? Why was I scared to try something new with my students? Why wasn’t I acting – literally or figuratively? Then it hit me. I was Hamlet! Stuck between what I was comfortable with – beginning in Act I, showing a performance, giving reading questions, taking a test and then this whole new approach of performance, language, and risk.


I don’t know if it was being able to perform as Ophelia on an Elizabethan stage or just the presence of the powerful minds at the Folger Library, but I got out of my comfort zone this year. I opened the year with Hamlet and it has set the stage (no pun intended) for this year. My students are soaking up language like never before. They still groan at the sight of a complex text, but they know how to approach it. They still roll their eyes when I make them get out of their seat to perform, but are almost always laughing and learning by the end.

I challenge you to embrace your inner Hamlet in his final soliloquy when he decides to take action. Hamlet’s thoughts may have been “bloody or nothing worth,” and yours may be just as messy as you take risks in the classroom with Shakespeare. But it is so worth it.


Start small. Try the Folger Shakespearean compliments (or insults) or have your students read famous death lines and perform the characters’ deaths dramatically in the hallway or on the lawn. Or if you are really ready to shake things up, here is my soliloquy approach. It is unorthodox and unusual, but also uniquely created to embrace the thing that matters most when teaching any kind of text – the words.

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