EducationElementary & Secondary

What do we teach when we teach Shakespeare? I O, What Learning Is!

By February 6, 2015 3 Comments


What do we teach, when we teach Shakespeare? Especially when we are teaching it (“him”…?  “the plays”…?) to young people?

A big, open-ended question, admittedly.  It came to me as I read about this new production created by the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival — “Ira Aldridge:  Pioneer of the Stage.”

What do we teach when we teach Shakespeare?   I   O, What Learning Is! shakespeare news The Shakespeare Standard shakespeare plays list play shakespeare

“Ira Aldridge: Pioneer of the Stage” — a new touring production of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival

The one-man show, which will be visiting schools in Jefferson County, Ky., strikes me as a creative and smart twist on the traditional Shakespeare-in-the-schools tour, which usually features the performance of scenes, speeches, or sonnets, or perhaps even someone in a ruff collar portraying Shakespeare.

With Aldridge’s life story, students would be introduced to a fascinating historical figure, but also to a brilliant and innovative man who had a passion for performing Shakespeare, and (if I remember my Ira Aldridge story correctly) used the power of Shakespeare as best he could to open doors of opportunity.

And so I would imagine that the performance’s young audience members, in the moments when the Kentucky Shakespeare actor portrays Aldridge as he is diving into his most famous role, Othello, are experiencing two plays at once — the riveting and disturbing story of Othello and the riveting and also disturbing (due to the racism of the time) true-life historical drama of Aldridge’s portrayal of the role in that particular time and place.

So what is being “taught” here is complex and layered, and has Shakespeare’s cultural capital as its foundation.

I suppose my question is a variation on the classic query we seem to hear every few months in an article or post or comment:  “Why teach Shakespeare?”  (Alex Bezarni’s post in this section two weeks ago, “Why Does No One Talk about Timon of Athens?” set me to wondering about the “why” and also the “what” of teaching the plays.)  If you do an internet search of this question, you find a swirling tussle of those who, on one side, pose the question rhetorically and then work on persuading skeptics of the enduring value of studying our favorite author, and, on the other, those who mutter the question in exasperation, and then lay out the case for moving on from “the boring Bard” to modern literature that is more relevant for today’s youth.

(For a sampling of a few voices in the conversation/debate, you can go here, here, and here….)

The answers to that big question, you begin to notice, are all very personal.  Do they perhaps come from, or reflect, what their own teachers had as a goal or focus when they taught Shakespeare?

I can certainly see that in my own relationship to the work — it is profoundly influenced by the first teacher who “awakened” me to the power and relevance of the words in those plays.

So as teachers who introduce Shakespeare to young people — often in situations where the instruction is compulsory, not voluntary (ie, this is not a drama class, but 9th grade English, or 5th grade homeroom…) — what are we going for?

Listen to legendary 5th grade teacher Rafe Esquith in this clip from The Hobart Shakespeareans and you’ll hear what Esquith teaches when he teaches Shakespeare:  discipline, vocabulary, teamwork, the sharing of a passion for stories and words.  “It’s not about Shakespeare,” he says.  To “do Shakespeare” is to take on a challenge — which is especially valuable for the children of immigrants for whom English is often a second language.  Shakespeare, as it did for Aldridge, becomes then a vehicle, because of the work’s richness, adaptability, and, again, cultural capital.

So what do you teach, when you teach Shakespeare?  (I’m assuming for the moment that if you’ve clicked on “Education” posts you are at least interested in teaching these works….)

If you have an answer you’d be willing to share with us, please write a comment below.  I’d be interested to hear what inspires and drives those of you who continue to make room for these words, characters, stories….




Clayton Stromberger

Author Clayton Stromberger

Clayton Stromberger is in his 11th year as Outreach Coordinator for the Shakespeare at Winedale program at the University of Texas at Austin, and has worked for more than 25 years in bringing Shakespeare-through-performance opportunities to young students in the public schools. He lives in his hometown of Austin, Texas, with his wife and two children, who don't seem to mind all the Shakespeare too much. Feel free to contact Clayton at

More posts by Clayton Stromberger

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Clay Clay says:

    Just testing to see if anyone is reading this post…! If so, leave me a note! Thanks — CS

  • O4A Films says:

    Great article. I’m not a teacher per -se, but I do on occasion direct other actors which has some overlap with teaching. From my perspective, Shakespeare is a great vehicle for actors. It can help uncover potential both in the imagination and in the body and voice. Somehow there is a wide separation sometimes between actors who are very into Shakespeare and those who are scared to touch it, and I try to reconcile this gap by intriguing those more hesitant actors to try it simply as an exercise. If an actor does nothing but explore a single speech or sonnet their entire career, it can still give them some invaluable things.

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