“And too soon marred are those so early made.” – Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 2
There’s no reason the works of Shakespeare (or any other writer for that matter) shouldn’t be within the grasp of the average teenager. The difficulties that students of all ages encounter with Shakespeare have more to do with stereotype and hyperbole than intellect, and with a little bit of instruction and a little bit of practical demonstration most teens should be able to understand Shakespeare’s plays with relative ease.
Perhaps you love Shakespeare, and it breaks your heart to see your students unable or unwilling to embrace his work. Even if you don’t enjoy Shakespeare yourself it’s hard to dispute his importance as a literary figure, or the powers of creative thought and intellectual growth that the study of his works can bestow. Here are a few ideas for making sure you don’t too soon mar your budding Northrop Fryes, Kenneth Burkes and Aime Cesaires:
Introduce Shakespeare a little differently. Rather than speaking from your expert’s point of view about Shakespeare’s life and times, the sketchy details of his personal life or the supposed construction of the Globe Theatre ask the students to tell you what they know about Shakespeare.
The responses you get will probably be enlightening, at best a mixture of truths, pop-culture caricatures, stereotypes and outright falsehoods. Once you know the particular myths your class is holding about Shakespeare you will be able to dispel them.
One of the most common misnomers about The Bard is that his writing is “Old English.” In fact Shakespearean English is part of Early Modern English (Old English actually predates Shakespeare by over 500 years). Tell your students how closely Elizabethan English is to their own in the context of the entire history of the English language, and that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be able to easily converse with any one of them.
Another common stumbling block is how to speak the language, with most explanations of blank verse too over-complicated for the average learner. Instead of marking up a piece of the text with lots of dashes and lines simply read the passage aloud, then get your students to do the same. The plays are meant to be spoken, and if a student is can be shown the rhythm of iambic pentameter and allowed to speak it out loud it will make the action much easier to understand.
Of course, if you have the time and the space far and away the best way to teach Shakespeare to teens is to actually do a Shakespearean play. In performance Shakespeare takes on a whole new dimension, and acting out one of his plays makes understanding his work one of the most natural thing in the world.