Okay, wait. Teens engage with superhero movies, and epic fantasy quest stories, and Rom-Coms. But do teens really engage with Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies?
Believe it or not, yes! The trick is getting them to give old Will a chance. Here’s how to make it happen:
Teens Really Engage with Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies
I was a mom with a theater background. I also had homeschool high schoolers who were theatrical themselves. But NONE of us found it easy to engage with Shakespeare. How embarrassing!
What’s worse, other parents in our homeschooling community assumed I WAS a Shakespeare groupie, so they asked me to teach a Shakespeare class in our local co-op. How silly! What a comedy! (see what I did there??)
Suddenly, I was motivated to find out why my kids and I weren’t devotees of The Bard. In addition, I needed to figure out if we could do anything to change that.
Eventually I discovered something so simple. We hadn’t yet found Shakespeare to be engaging, because we hadn’t understood that what Will did incredibly well was TELL STORIES. In fact, his plays told stories about really interesting people, people so much like ourselves that we couldn’t help but relate to them!
Now, one word that you don’t often find in a high school Shakespeare curriculum is “relatable.”
But that is a tragedy (see what I did there??), because his characters are actually so easy to relate to. The settings in which they find themselves may not be familiar to readers, and the Elizabethan language feels unfamiliar for sure, but the characters are so fascinatingly, familiarly human!
What do teens find engaging about superhero stories?
Well, teens see evil in the world, and their growing understanding of events and culture, their exposure to extremes of opinion, and their sense of outrage at injustice all draw them toward a hero who will fight for the right and vanquish the wrong. If that hero also has a heartbreaking backstory, or is an underdog who has to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, or if our hero is misunderstood by the very folks who need their help, then that’s all the better!
As a matter of fact, the stage of human development in which our teens find themselves carries with it a growing sense of identity and a calling in life. Therefore, teens often long to fix what is wrong with the world, but often they feel too small to take on the task. And so they hope – beyond hope – that there lies within them a greatness that would be up to the challenge.
Shakespeare wrote about superheroes.
His superheroes don’t wear spandex (although they did wear tights), but they include people who notice injustice, choose to fight it, and find a strength inside themselves they never knew existed. Take, for example, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who refuses to be held down by a chauvinistic society and believes in her own worth and wit, even though she is a woman. She stands up for her cousin when powerful men speak unjustly against her. In addition, she is willing to sacrifice deeply in order to stay true to her principles…and in the end, vindication comes to her cousin, she proves her cause true, and Beatrice WINS, against all odds.
What do teens find engaging about epic, fantastic quests?
Our high schoolers love a good quest story! Travel through Mordor to return the ring, Frodo. Find your way across the galaxy to destroy the Death Star, Luke. Find a way to survive and make sense of the elusive truth about what happened to you on the lifeboat, Pi. The idea of having to travel far and work hard in order to find truth about yourself and the world is right in a teenager’s sweet spot. Because they long to discover who they are and long to find their place in the world, teens respond strongly to epic quest stories.
Shakespeare wrote about people on quests.
For example, Edgar, son of Gloucester, must travel over miles in disguise as mad Tom o’ Bedlam in order to safely see his blind father into the care of people who will protect him. (King Lear)
Or consider Henry V, who must stop an assassination plot, conquer villains, win a hopeless battle, and find love in order to unite England and France.
What do teens find engaging about Rom-Coms?
Many teens are on the cusp of searching for true love in their own lives. Because love seems to be right around the corner, they want to make sense of how two partners find one another and decide they have found love. That means they laugh over the silliness of people in love and are delighted by the lengths a person may go to for the object of their affection. Romantic Comedies are such FUN!
Shakespeare knew ALL about romantic comedy!
Take the case of Lysander, who said in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” A tale of romantic love gives the teller so many opportunities to create twists and turns…and often to bring them to hilarious endings!
Are you convinced yet, that teens really engage with Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies?
Seeing it for yourself, in your own homeschool, is the best way to prove the idea!
Use 7Sisters Shakespeare Study Guides to help your students connect to the characters before they get bogged down in the language of 17th century England. These guides can be a game-changer. 7Sisters Shakespeare Study Guides start by introducing the student to the characters. Then it gives them a super-fast summary of the story that helps teens quickly grasp what will be happening to these characters.
With that basic understanding in mind, students watch a good performance of the play (recommended YouTube performances available in each guide), and just NOTICE who they like, who they dislike, who reminds them of someone they know, etc. No taking notes — no analyzing details. They simply WATCH the performance.
Once the applause dies down, students work through a very reasonable number of questions by Act and Scene. They give some thought to why certain characters behave as they do, what is driving one relationship or another, how an expected ending twisted into something quite different by one character’s choice in a single moment, and so forth. These kinds of questions actually interest teens! These are the kinds of questions they instinctively explore in every modern story they encounter.
This is the universal, timeless, relatable quality of excellent writing, and The Bard was good at his craft!
Each 7Sisters Shakespeare Study Guide includes:
- Introductory Material
- Background Information
- Character List
- Super-Fast Summary
- Recommended production to watch
- Instruction about specific literary devices in use
- Questions for discussion or written response
- Writing Prompts
- Enrichment Activities
- Recommendations for Memorization from the play
- Answer Keys
Purchase separate guides for four of Shakespeare’s plays, two comedies and two tragedies, $5.99 each.
and (by popular request!)
Or purchase the bundled set of Four from Shakespeare and save almost $8.00 off the price of individually purchased guides for these four play!
And here’s a FREEBIE to get things started! Your teens are already more familiar with Shakespeare than they probably realize they are! Expressions Shakespeare Gave Us
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Want someone else to teach your teen?
Register for Sabrina Justison’s SELF-PACED ONLINE COURSE, Shakespeare for One High School Semester via Teachable – just $97 for this asynchronous class. Students work at their own pace, and parents grade the work using the answer key included in the study guide bundle (sold here separately for $15.99).