Classic Remarks: What Shakespeare Play Would You Teach in High School?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

If you were to teach a Shakespeare text in a high school classroom and could not choose Romeo and Juliet, which play would you choose and why?

Logic says that I ought to choose a play like Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello–a Shakespeare play that has become culturally embedded and that students should be exposed to if they intend to continue studying English literature in college.  However, plenty of colleges still require a Shakespeare course for an English major to graduate and such a course will probably include most of the more famous plays.  Therefore, I would have to choose between Henry V and Cymbeline.

Henry V is, of course, the one history play that most people who read or study Shakespeare will eventually be exposed to, which tempts me to choose Cymbeline–a totally underrated because absolutely bizarre romance that includes a jealous lover, missing princes, a disguised princess, and the descent of an actual god.  I find it great fun, but I have to admit that it would probably make high school students think Shakespeare was more than a little crazy.  Best then to go with Henry V.

Henry V, of course, poses its own challenges, such as the fact that it is considered the last part of a tetralogy and students would get the most out of it if they could follow the ideas of kingship presented in the earlier works, and if they could have met Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II.  Still, it works well enough on its own and one can fill in some of the gaps with a brief lecture before reading.

I think students would appreciate a history play in which the protagonist appears (to many) to be a hero.  His youth and his desire to find his place in the world and solidify it might appeal to many.  Furthermore, film versions such as the ones starring Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston could provide another avenue for students to access the works.  And, of course, the play raises rich questions about kingship, leadership, the way we retell history, etc. for students to discuss.  It might be a nice change from another year of Romeo and Juliet.

Participating this week?  Leave your link in the comments!

Krysta 64

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32 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: What Shakespeare Play Would You Teach in High School?

  1. boyishbookworm says:

    What a coincidence!!! I’m a Hungarian/English teacher and guess what was the topic of my MA thesis at uni? Exactly this: Why is it a good idea to teach Shakespeare’s historical plays in high school and how I would do it. I even used these three plays (Henry IV part I and II and Henry V) to demonstrate my ideas. I actually touched upon all the points you mentioned in your post! Students would love Hal and the Eastcheap lads :))

    Ronnie @Paradise Found

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      That sounds like such a fun paper topic! I honestly don’t know why we keep teaching R&J. Students seem mixed about it, probably because it can come off as melodrama instead of tragedy if not taught effectively. But who doesn’t love Hal?

      Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s pretty common for most people to have read only one or two Shakespeare plays. That’s pretty much what you get in high school and most people won’t go on to study Shakespeare in college.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. SERIESous Book Reviews says:

    Hamlet is my all time fave to study! We did Othello in my high school and I liked that one do.

    Cymbeline would be a good one. I would also suggest A Winter’s Tale. I studied that one in university and there are so many layers to it!

    Like

  3. Dennis Fleming says:

    I really like henry IV part one. Its two threads interweave nicely. It’s fairly self contained. Though I do remember that when I first read it in high school I had trouble with all of the characters and how they were politically connected, but such are the problems when dealing with British royalty.
    I think the comedies are the best bet. They tend to be straight forward, constant pace and often funny even for someone in high school. I think As You Like It or Twelfth Night would fit the bill.
    Having said that, when I read Macbeth, I was amazed how readable it was and how compelling the plot pushed me forward. Plus they can watch Throne of Blood as a compare and contrast.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think it sometimes helps to have some sort of British royalty cheat sheet! And then it gets worse because you can have several characters across plays called, say, Buckingham, but they are not the same man, they are just the current Duke of Buckingham for that play!

      Yes, I think that high school students might enjoy a comedy. Much Ado might also work well because it’s so fun and witty (ignoring the awful Claudio plot, I suppose, which people tend to do).

      I think Throne of Blood would be interesting to watch, but I have to admit that I’m not sure I could successfully engage a high school class with a foreign film from the 1950s. Their pacing is often different from what U.S. viewers are used to and it can be difficult for them to adjust. I think you’d have an easier time showing that to college students (and maybe even upper level, not freshmen, who tend to be like high school students in their expectations of college).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The Reading Bug says:

    Really tricky question – can I have three answers? For comedy it would be 12th Night, History Henry 4 pt 1, and tragedy Macbeth. 12th Night can be genuinely funny, whereas a lot of Shakespeare’s other comedies don’t work so well on the page (where of course they were never intended to be in the first place – they are plays!); Henry 4 pt 1 for an introduction to the Histories, and to the wonderful Falstaff; and Macbeth because I think it is the most accessible of his tragedies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      All excellent choices! I do think students tend to find Macbeth more engaging than R&J. I’ve seen a lot of teachers unsuccessfully engage with R&J, making it seem like a melodrama, but Macbeth’s blood seems to appeal to teens for some reason.

      And yes to Twelfth Night and Henry IV, Part I!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lee says:

    Can I just say, I feel like Romeo and Juliet should be taken out of high school curricula… Like not because it’s a badly done novel, but because it’s a badly taught novel. And also because it’s been so overdone that you pretty much lose your audience’s interest the second you say, “Okay class, we’re going to read Romeo and Juliet.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I do think, based on how people describe their experience learning R&J, that instructors do seem to be struggling to teach in a way that doesn’t make it come across as melodramatic and silly. And I think there’s also a problem where a lot of it is very sexual but high schools teach it as if it is not. It’s just a strange choice for high schoolers, I think, and I don’t really understand the motivation behind teaching it at that level.

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      • Lee says:

        Me neither! But I suffered through it in 3 different grades, each time getting more boring. And it’s always presented as a straight-forward romance, not the comedy/tragedy/romance that it really is.

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        • Krysta says:

          I only learned it once, not with a very good teacher. Only the interpretation she favored was correct in her class. But I think it’s difficult for teachers to explain something like a blend of generic features to students when they’re used to working with one genre at a time. And many students don’t even understand that a comedy is not something that’s funny for Shakespeare, but something with a happy ending. So you’d have to cover ALL those genres with representative examples before you could even move on to analyzing R&J.

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          • Lee says:

            Honestly, I wish high schools would make Shakespeare an Elective course or something… That way they could get a parent permission form to talk about things that would normally not be up for discussion in a class (sexual content in a book), and they could take more time, not look at them in such a generic way. And they could pick like a set number of works which represented his most common styles or themes, or something along those lines. It would be so much better. I know like 10 people just from my AP English class who would have gladly signed up for that.

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              I’m sure it depends on the size of the school, availability of teachers, etc. If you don’t have a free instructor or enough students for a separate course, it’s difficult to offer an elective like that.

              Like

            • Lee says:

              There’s also a lot of policing, at least here in Texas, over what teachers are allowed to talk to students about. The banned book list was massive for my school. And like we didn’t even have sex ed. In fact, your parents had to sign off for you to attend the parts of Health class that talked about breast and testicular cancer.

              Like

            • Lee says:

              Because they had to say “breast” and “testicle” and that’s baaaaaad… You can’t see, and words cannot describe, how hard I’m rolling my eyes right now.

              Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Most instructors use multiple avenues to introduce Shakespeare to students including reading the play aloud, watching a film version (Branagh’s a classic but The Hollow Crown could be appealing with Tom Hiddleston’s star power), using graphic novels, making audio performances available, etc. I think the theme of a dissolute young prince taking on a role of maturity is one that will naturally appeal to high school students, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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