Much Ado About Shakespeare

Lesson ideas to introduce pupils to the life, language, and works of William Shakespeare.

By Dawn Dodson

William Shakespeare

Many historians believe that William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564. This often-quoted poet and playwright’s legend extends over centuries and across cultures. The mystery surrounding his life, as well as the debate over authorship of some of his works, only add intrigue to this literary giant. With this in mind, April is the ideal month to introduce pupils to William Shakespeare and his literary works. Considering the vast amount of available information about Shakespeare and the number of memorable works he penned, guiding pupils through an author study can be an enormous task. However, focusing on a few key qualities may allow young readers and writers to successfully experience the person, language and time period of William Shakespeare. Here are some lesson and project ideas for middle schoolers that explore both the life and works of William Shakespeare—with the addition of a little modern fun.

Studying Shakespeare’s Life

The life of William Shakespeare is surrounded in mystery due to the lack of records from that time period. I suggest using the Biography Channel website as a clear, concise tool for introducing this fascinating man to your learners. It has articles and a video that describe his life, works, and the lack of historical record in an easy-to-understand format. Using the information from the website, pupils can find aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works for further research. They will enjoy gathering interesting information about Shakespeare’s life and Elizabethan England. Logging these facts in journals, or on graphic organizers, can help keep information in chronological order. In small groups, have pupils share their information and work together to create their own biography of William Shakespeare. They can accomplish this by creating either a timeline or an illustrated picture book.   

Explore Shakespeare’s Language

Both an interesting and fun Shakespearian fact is that Shakespeare is credited with creating an estimated 3,000 English words. Why? Out of necessity! He needed to find the right word for the literary pieces he composed (The Biography Channel). Oftentimes, with my sixth graders, I have found that they can become lost with the language of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In an effort to prevent this from happening, a game using Shakespeare’s words is an entertaining way to gain experience in navigating these sometimes-rough waters. The game itself isn’t new, and can be found online or in instructional supply catalogs. It’s called Shakespeare’s Insult Kit. The online version my sixth graders play is Pete Levin’s Shakespeare Insult Kit. It has four drop-down categories which allow insult throwers to choose a Shakespearian put-down of their preference. We complete a couple of insults together on the Smart Board, and then pupils break off to computers in order to independently create their own insults. This is a great way to warm up readers to Shakespeare’s language.        

Reading Shakespeare’s Works

Difficult language isn’t the only obstacle I face when trying to instill a love and appreciation for Shakespeare in my sixth graders. Warming up to his various works can be a little intimidating for some. I have found that getting their toes wet, so to speak, with some discussion surrounding the themes of Shakespeare allows pupils to gain pre-reading comprehension while also building anticipation for works such as King Lear. One way to accomplish this is through an activity we call Shakespeare Today. After a theme is identified in one of Shakespeare's works, pupils recreate that theme using modern day characters, situations, and settings. A short story is composed and an accompanying illustration of a scene is created. This helps to emphasize the timelessness of Shakespeare’s literature.

In order to introduce pupils to as many works as possible, and to facilitate understanding of the breadth of Shakespeare’s work, I have my students read excerpts, rather than full literary works. To create order and keep track of the reading, they keep a log of the plays and poems from which they have read excerpts. The log requires the title, theme, and reader’s reactions.

Culminating Pupil Learning   

After reading and studying Shakespeare’s life, language, and literature, pupils need a way to bring together all the information gathered over the course of the unit. Below are a few ways to accomplish this daunting task:

  • Create a Web Page: Working in groups, pupils create a web page that displays the facts, information, and resources about Shakespeare that they have discovered throughout the author study.
  • A Shakespeare-Inspired Newspaper: Students produce a newspaper that includes feature articles and headlines portraying and conveying the life and language of Shakespeare. They especially enjoy including a comics section as a clever means for displaying Shakespeare’s work.
  • A Class Museum: Kids create a museum depicting facts and displays about Shakespeare’s life, Elizabethan England, and a collection of literature.
  • Shakespeare Scrapbook: For an independent project, pupils make a scrapbook of their learning. You can outline specific requirements, or keep requirements loose in order to see their creativity blossom.

ELA Common Core Standards

More Lesson Ideas:

Figurative and Literal Language through the Study of Shakespeare

Beginning with children’s literature, this resource guides pupils’ learning towards Shakespearian examples of figurative language. Pupils complete graphic organizers and utilize a variety of resources over the course of the study.

Shakespeare and Poe Teach Writing

Pupils read and evaluate a variety of stories, plays, and poems. Using the six traits of writing, they learn to distinguish the traits in the example readings.

It’s Elementary! Stomping and Romping with Shakespeare

Here is a great way to introduce Shakespeare to elementary learners. Using Dr. Seuss books to introduce structure and various rhythms, pupils march around the room to the stories. This activity is repeated with two Shakespearean songs.