By Sachel S. Bise

William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in the history of British literature. The author of 37 plays, 154 sonnets and five poems, Shakespeare wrote for the people in a way no other author had before. While on the surface his works may seem too difficult for young students to grasp, Shakespeare can be understood and mastered with the guidance of a great teacher. Mastery of Shakespeare comes with a battery of skills that can be applicable and useful for anything from mathematics to history.

This article is not the first of its kind, by any means. There are teachers, researchers, scientists and scholars who argue in favor of the need for Shakespeare to remain in schools, as well as those who believe the Bard’s works do not belong. Those who argue to keep Shakespeare out of schools contend that his content is too mature, complicated or irrelevant, while those who argue to keep Shakespeare in schools conduct studies to prove the importance of his texts.

Studies demonstrating the positive effect of Shakespeare’s use of language on the brain were conducted by the University of Liverpool. The positive impact of Shakespeare on young persons with autism were supported by research at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Research on Shakespeare’s value for all students was conducted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a theater company based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s work needs to remain a part of public education because of its unique language, character relatability and interdisciplinary applications.

Identifying with the characters

While it is true that the works may not be interesting to everyone, there is most certainly a character in every play that could connect to every reader. That connection to characters is what keeps readers coming back for more, along with the complex language and consistent subplots that drive entertainment and humor in his comedies, as well as the intrigue and wonder in his tragedies and histories.

Shakespeare is clever in his composition as he makes sure to include nobles and common people in his plays. Nobles were included because the plays were most often written for the royal families, but the inclusion of common people makes them more relatable to contemporary and modern audiences.

Consider Queen Elizabeth, who reigned during the time Shakespeare wrote. Elizabeth influenced many of the female characters in the plays, such as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Viola in “Twelfth Night.” The queen’s love of Shakespeare’s plays drove his contemporary popularity, leading other writers of the time to borrow from his works and weave his ideas into their pieces. This leads some people to believe that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare, although that is a story for another day.

Shakespeare grew up in poverty as the son of a shoemaker and a previously noble woman. His childhood experiences influenced the inclusion of common people in his plays, such as the mechanicals Bottom and Quince in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “Hamlet.” Students recognize the humorous antics of the mechanicals, and the fear of Hamlet’s trustworthy friends and relate to those emotions. If students can connect themselves to specific characters, the text becomes important to them. Shakespeare’s inclusion of multiple types of people ensures that.

Making the brain work harder

Shakespeare’s language is undoubtedly complex. Considering that Shakespeare created approximately 7,000 new words for his works, there is no shock that his writing would be difficult to read. However, it is what Shakespeare did with his words that makes his texts appealing to readers and so much more important for students to read.

According to researchers at the University of Liverpool, Shakespeare “uses a linguistic technique known as functional shift,” which is when one element of grammar is intentionally altered. Shakespeare used functional shift frequently, especially when using nouns as verbs. When the brain sees this, there is “a sudden peak in brain activity and [it] forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.” (See study reference in sidebar.)

Shakespeare’s language forces readers to develop stronger skills in order to understand what the text means. Those skills are vital to becoming a strong analyzer in math, science, history, and English. It can also help with social skills when adolescents are trying to figure out what their peers mean in the confusing and complex situations in which teenagers often find themselves. Students also develop stronger language skills that can be used in social interactions when peers use sarcasm or metaphors without realizing it.

Shakespeare as art therapy

While Shakespeare is literature, it first and foremost is art. Children learn from art therapies, and Shakespeare can play a part in such therapies. The Royal Shakespeare Company conducted a study to understand how Shakespeare affects youth of all ages. The students used “rehearsal room approaches to studying Shakespeare,” exploring the text through physically acting and working through the play as actors, or as Shakespeare might say, players. The studies showed a range of results from an improvement of test scores to a positive change in behaviors. (See study reference in sidebar.)

An Ohio State University study was conducted with a group of students with autism spectrum disorder used rhythm-based language and gestures to understand Shakespeare’s language in a “social skills intervention known as Hunter Heartbeat Method.” For one hour every week, the students started and ended the class with a tapping rhythm on their chests and played performance games in between. The students worked on essential skills “such as facial emotion recognition, eye contact, gross motor imitation, affective imitation, pragmatics of dialogue exchange” and more during the class. After ten weeks, the students showed improvement in these skills. Shakespeare not only evinces joy from students but drives children of all ages to improve academically and socially. (See study reference in sidebar.)

Shakespeare is essential to everyday life beyond its use as literature. Shakespeare is not only relatable to readers, but it improves brain function, test scores and social skills. When Shakespeare programs remain in schools, students gain the best advantages.

Teachers want students to succeed. If there is an opportunity to train students and improve just about every essential skill before and during adolescence, it should be taken. Teaching Shakespeare is a great way English teachers can help students secure strong, healthy minds.

Till morrow, good scholars! 

Sachel Bise was the 2019-20 publications chair for NJEA Preservice and served on the NJEA Editorial Committee representing preservice members. Bise is currently a long-term substitute for English and special education at Edison High School and a tutor at the JEI Learning Center in Mount Olive. She can be reached at achelbise@gmail.com.

Studies referenced in the article

University of Liverpool. “Reading Shakespeare Has Dramatic Effect On Human Brain.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 December 2006. bit.ly/scidailyshakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company. “Research suggests that young people get the most
out of Shakespeare’s plays when they experience rehearsal room approaches.”

 See also: bit.ly/rscrehearsalroom

Margaret H. Mehling, Marc J. Tassé & Robin Root (2017) Shakespeare and autism: an
exploratory evaluation of the Hunter Heartbeat Method, Research and Practice in
Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 4:2, 107-120, DOI: bit.ly/osuhunterheartbeat

See also: nisonger.osu.edu/clinics-services/child/shakespeare-autism

Resources for teaching Shakespeare

Shakespeare Week
I love this website because it is specifically designed for multiple grade levels and offers options for all kinds of learners. shakespeareweek.org.uk/resources

Shakespeare’s Globe
You can never go wrong with teaching resources from the Globe. There are videos, tours and more. There are even professional development opportunities. shakespearesglobe.com/learn/teaching-resources

British Shakespeare Association
This website has tons of different links to great resources for teaching Shakespeare. britishshakespeare.ws/education/teaching-resources

Royal Shakespeare Company
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s website has many amazing activities and ideas, as well as videos that can make learning Shakespeare fun and multisensory. rsc.org.uk/education

Cambridge School Shakespeare
This is probably one of the best Shakespeare teaching resources I can share. I love these books and grab them whenever I can because of the information they contain as well as their interpretations and ideas. cambridgeschoolshakespeare.com

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has plenty of great resources that are downloadable ranging from language to text to history. shakespeare.org.uk/education/teaching-resources

Folger Shakespeare Library
The Folger Shakespeare Library has podcasts, audio, text-specific guides, and so much more. There’s a membership fee, but I think it’s worth it. folger.edu/classroom-resources

BBC
The BBC offers videos for teaching Shakespeare organized by grade level. The videos offer stories and biographic information.  bbc.in/2UpA6Zb

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