Active approaches to Shakespeare in the classroom


Practical, active approaches to studying Shakespeare can have a notable impact on achievement. Fiona Banks from Shakespeare’s Globe has just written a book on practical Shakespeare and offers some ideas.

In March 2011 I wrote in these pages about the result of Globe Education’s research into the impact of creative, rehearsal-based, practical approaches to Shakespeare in the classroom. We had found they could have a marked affect on achievement, with one group reporting a two sub-level rise above prediction.

The problem reported by all research schools was implementation: how to find the time and space to integrate creative approaches into everyday teaching. 

It also emerged that there was a real lack of clarity about what constituted a creative approach. Did it have to involve a large empty space? Did it have to involve a group moving around? 

The message was clear: for rehearsal room approaches to Shakespeare to become an everyday tool they would have to be adaptable and easy to implement in any classroom.

In the years that followed, Globe Education has been working to refine the activities that we use every day in our workshop programme and national and international learning projects.

Some rehearsal room activities do require space, but many can be carried out at desks, in any classroom. The Pointing on the Pronoun sequence that follows is a typical example of this type of “everyday” approach. It comes directly out of the rehearsal process for The Globe’s 2007 production of Much Ado About Nothing where the cast spent the first days of rehearsal exploring the play through these exercises.

Pointing on the Pronoun

This activity can work well with any scene but is particularly effective for a duologue with students working in pairs, each reading a character. Give the students a cut piece of text. Ask them to read through it. Each time they encounter a pronoun they should point to the person in the scene that the pronoun refers to. If the pronoun refers to a character or place outside of the scene they should point to a place on the wall of the room, a different point for each different character or place. Afterwards, ask the students:

  • Who were they talking about?

  • Was the person they were talking about with them or somewhere else?

  • What does this tell us about the characters and their preoccupation at this moment in the play?

This activity works with any play but good examples are Much Ado About Nothing (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 107-139) and Macbeth (Act 2, Scene 2 between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth after the murder of Duncan). 

The use of pronouns can reveal the state of mind of each character and their relationship with one another. When students work through Pointing on the Pronoun on the example from Macbeth they discover that Macbeth is pointing continually at himself, while Lady Macbeth is continually pointing at him. Nobody outside of the scene features. This particular example also illustrates what the physicality of pointing can tell us about a character’s attitude or state of mind.

After the initial stage of the activity students can continue working through the following exercises, using the same piece of text for each.

Word Before

Ask the students to read through the scene. They should focus very carefully on what the character they are speaking to is saying to them. From each line that comes before their own they should choose the word that stands out to them more than any other. 

The students should let that word affect them, then repeat the word they have chosen after their partner has finished their line. They should then start their own line. 

It is important that the students do not prepare for this exercise by going through the text and marking it before they read. They should choose the word when they hear it, as it strikes them in that moment. 

There are no right or wrong words to choose. The choice of word can be revealing and enables students to focus on the key words in the scene and their dramatic impact. Afterwards, ask the students:

  • What is the character hearing in this scene?

  • What is the connection between the characters?

  • What are the operative words in this scene?

This exercise helps students to think about structure and the way in which the scene is written. It mirrors conversations in everyday life; we listen to someone and respond. 

We do not hear everything. We respond to the words we hear that motivate us or engage us emotionally. It is useful to think of the iambic pentameter as Shakespeare’s way of writing in the length of speech that people are most likely to hear before losing focus; the original sound-bite.


Ask the students to read through the scene. This time they should interrupt the person speaking before them by starting their line one or two words before their partner has finished speaking.

This exercise helps students to get an idea of the tempo of the scene. In some exchanges it feels very natural, in other instances it seems to work against what a character is saying.

Discussing the effect of interrupting on the scene will help students to think about how it is constructed and how the characters in the scene are relating to each other. If working with students on a performance this particular exercise can help them to come in on cue and think about the pace of the scene.

The Five Second Pause

This is the antithesis of the Interrupting exercise. Ask the students to read through the scene. This time they should pause for five seconds before starting each of their lines. Students should think during the pause about why their character is taking that pause. They can move around if they wish.

After this exercise discuss the effect of pausing as with Interrupting above. Explore whether Interrupting or The Five Second Pause works best for the scene.

From Here

This exercise asks students to think about the physical or spatial relationships between characters and begins the process of considering staging and the role of the audience.

This time before reading their line, students should think about where they want to stand in relationship to their partner/s when they are speaking. They should then move to that place in the room and speak their first line. 

The person with the next line should then consider where they wish to stand to deliver their line. They should move to that place, state “From here” then speak the line. This process should then be repeated for every line in the scene. Afterwards, ask the students:

  • Why did you move to that particular space at that point? 

  • What word (or words) was it in the line that suggested that particular movement or spatial relationship between characters?

Final Run Through

The students have now explored who they are speaking to, why they are speaking to them, the tempo of the scene, and the spatial relationship between characters.

To conclude this activity they should read the speech again, putting everything they have discovered into interpretative choices. These should shape the way they speak and emphasise lines and their reactions to the other character. This can be developed into a performance if desired.

If appropriate, ask some of the group to share the final readings/performances and discuss their different interpretations of the scene. Students should justify their choices with words/lines from the text. The only point of this activity that could not be done at a desk is the From Here section and this could be omitted or modelled with one pair in a classroom if required. 

It is always good for students to feel the play in their muscles, but physical exploration does not always have to involve physical movement.

So... what are creative approaches?

In the years since our research, Globe Education has honed the following rationale: 

Creative approaches to Shakespeare take many forms. It can mean physical activity, students discovering and exploring language through action; the type of exercise that can require an empty space where students can move freely. 

Equally it can be an exercise performed at a desk with no particular space or circumstances required. Creative approaches can involve students in large and small group work, but can also require them to work on their own and in pairs. This diversity of approach mirrors a day in the rehearsal room. 

Creative approaches are active, physically and/or intellectually. They require students to engage fully with the moment they are exploring, to analyse based on the evidence of their actual experience and to make informed critical responses to the play. 

They can enable and deepen a student’s insight and his/her analysis of any given moment or character. They challenge any notion that academic understanding and physical, vocal and emotional engagement with a text do not go hand-in-hand.

Creative approaches invariably draw on, and value, imaginative engagement and response. They ask students to suspend judgement, to ask, what if? Creative approaches often require students, like actors, to turn detective and to try different approaches to exploring and analysing any given scene, character or situation.

This type of work is continually evolving in response to feedback from teachers and students. As we prepare to enter a new phase in the way in which Shakespeare is assessed and where drama in schools is under an unwelcome spotlight, it seems more important than ever that we have as many tools as possible to ensure the best possible experience of Shakespeare for our students. Hopefully rehearsal room approaches have a useful role to play in this process.

  • Fiona Banks is senior advisor for creative programmes at Shakespeare’s Globe. She created Globe Education’s wide variety of training offered to students and teachers from early years up to A level. 

Creative Shakespeare
Fiona Banks’ new book – Creative Shakespeare: The Globe Education Guide to practical Shakespeare – was published last month by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare priced £18.99. The book is available from The Globe’s Shop or online at

CAPTION: Bard work: Students from two London schools try out some of the Globe Theatre’s practical approaches to Shakespeare in the classroom (Photos: Hannah Yates, top, and Pete Ross, middle)


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