Teachers love Shakespeare! The complex plot lines, the dramatic irony, inventive characters, rich language and elaborate forms of speech sends an energy of excitement through the teacher - however, this all falls flat when the name Shakespeare sends some students running, it can conjure thoughts of dread and anxiety and immediately generate the feeling of defeat - and this is all before they have even read the play!
It is important to understand what the obstacles are, which causes today's generation to feel apprehensive and concerned about the Shakespeare component of their study.
Initially, students tend to find the Elizabethan language as their biggest barrier. It is very complex and at times ambiguous; this can be down to the fact that Shakespeare's characters were written to speak with great wit, communicating through the use of metaphors, similes and double entendres; each line is formulated to fit the structure of iambic pentameter, therefore words were abbreviated in places that we no longer recognise in our modern day version of the English language. Once this is all combined, there is no doubt as to why a student in the 21st century deems Shakespeare's work as somewhat daunting.
This being said, it is important to highlight that Shakespeare actually explores many themes and subjects which are relevant to today. These would include: gender roles within society, power and social hierarchy, politics, family/domestic dynamics, colonialism, religion, race and ethnicity, sexuality, mental health and many more.
He is also the inventor of around 1700 common words we use today in both standard and non-standard English; a few examples are:
Elbow (as a verb) - used in King Lear 1608
Green-eyed (to describe jealousy) - The Merchant of Venice 1600
Unreal (imaginary) - Macbeth 1623
Assassination - Macbeth 1623
Swagger (to strut your stuff) - A Midsummer Nights Dream 1600
How to help
By breaking the plays down, systematically, into neat and digestible categories - characters and themes - it will allow your child/students the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the play and its concepts.
In my experience, it is best to highlight key facts, in the order that they occur in the play, from each act and label its corresponding scene. Within their notes, it is advisable to also label and cross reference, which theme(s) the fact may relate to. The themes can be then written up into detailed notes making references to which characters it applies to and where they display evidence of this. It may also be advantageous to ask your child/student to write up a synopsis of the plot for the purpose of solidifying the story-line in their mind and ironing out any confusion or discrepancies that may occur. Context is a also a key area that must be researched, it will enable your child/student to understand the social and cultural conventions set during the time that the play is set in. This undoubtedly contributes towards the development of the play and the reason for the manner of the interactions between the characters.
There are many sources available to guide you and your child/student along the way; visit the recommended books page to find the guides that you need.
Once they feel familiar and confident with the play, they can begin answering some exam style questions.These are set out as an extract with a two part question. The first part will ask the student/child to identify a particular theme or a character's attribute through the given extract. The second part will ask them to discuss how the theme or character's attribute is portrayed in the play as a whole.
In the exam they are recommended to spend 50 minutes on this section. For the purpose of practice, to begin with, you can allow as much time as necessary for your child/student to complete the essay. Once they are confident then you can begin to set a timer so that they are training themselves to complete the question in the allocated time, ready for the exam.
Act 4 Scene 3 - Theme of kingship and tyranny