Dyan Branstetter | April 2017

Celebrating Shakespeare Through the Arts

April is the perfect month to bring some Shakespeare into your students’ lives. William Shakespeare was born on approximately April 23, 1564. Unless you’re a high school English teacher, his works may seem intimidating to teach. However, there are many ways that even our youngest students can be exposed to his brilliance through the context of the arts. Of course, theater and drama are the obvious choices due to the nature of his works. However, here you will find a collection of ideas for how we can integrating multiple arts disciplines in a variety of grade levels using Shakespeare as the theme.

Ideas for Older Students:

There are many ways that music and dance can be integrated with Shakespeare. As a culminating project after a Shakespeare unit, students can analyze the music and the ballets that have come from Shakespeare’s works.

  • Analyze the music and the ballets that have come from Shakespeare’s works, specifically Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
    • In the mid-1800s, at only 17 years old, Felix Mendelssohn wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreographer George Balanchine created a ballet based on the play and inspired by Mendelssohn’s music in the year 1964.  Students can listen to Mendelssohn’s music and discuss the connection to the story. Is this music that they would have chosen? Why or why not? What other music would you have selected if you were going to choreograph it?
  • Listen to composers who have been inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
    • Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Berlioz all composed music in response to this play. Students could listen to each and determine which they felt captured the essence of Shakespeare’s work.
    • In addition, students could discuss the differences in the pieces and why each composer wrote the music as he did. Prokofiev’s wrote his music specifically for ballet. After revisions to his score, choreographers finally created a ballet to fit the music, and it is now widely performed.
    • It may be interesting for students to discuss why Prokofiev’s music is the only music used for dance. Why not the other two?

Resources for Celebrating Shakespeare:

  • Modern Day Shakespeare: Lin-Manuel Miranda

    • The Rapper Vs. The Bard: Is Lin-Manuel Miranda doing the same as Shakespeare, by “taking the voice of the common people, elevating it to poetry…”? This lesson, for grade 8-12, uses clips from the documentary Hamilton’s America to allow students to decide on their own. Make sure to click on Student Handout and Teaching Tips for the resources. Find it here.

Pair Choral Arrangements of Sonnets with Student Choreography

  •  Choral composer Matthew Harris wrote a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets for SATB choral music, titled “Shakespeare Songs”. Each piece is relatively short and would make a wonderful thematic performance if interspersed with student performances of monologues and excerpts from Shakespeare’s works. Assign student dancers to choreograph the songs. It is interesting to see how different choreographers create unique styles of movement to similar sounding songs. These can be performed simultaneously with the choral accompaniment.

Check out EducationCloset’s Shakespeare-related lessons

  • Analyzing West Side Story in comparison to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic activity. I love this EdCloset lesson, West Side Shifts, related to the time signature changes in West Side Story‘s song “America”. Find more West Side Story resources here.
  • Combine literacy and theater with an arts-integrated lesson plan on feuds here.

Compare and contrast the many modern versions of Shakespeare’s work 

  • Did you know that every story falls into one of only twenty categories? This is according to Ronald B. Tobias, author of 20 Master Plots And How to Build Them. Students will be amazed that after looking at this list of examples, every movie they’ve seen and every book they have read follows one of these basic plot lines, no matter how unique it seems. Here is a list of the master plots to use as a guide.
  • Have students find the plots that Shakespeare’s works follow, and then brainstorm movies that also follow the same one. Choose one to compare, contrast and analyze. This is especially beneficial for older students who struggle with reading since it helps them read with meaning when they tackle Shakespeare’s work. It also shows students how Shakespeare’s work is still relevant in present day times.
    • Some movie examples:
      • Compare the movie or broadway musical The Lion King and Hamlet.
      • Share clips of the movie O that match with Othello.
      • Compare the movie 10 Things I Hate About You with the musical Kiss Me Kate, which is based on The Taming of the Shrew.

For Younger Students (but adaptable for older ones):

Sometimes, Shakespeare is reserved for older students. However, there are many ways that incorporating Shakespeare into the elementary classroom can be done in an age-appropriate manner. It enhances the curriculum, addresses many standards, and gives students a perfect foundation for their future studies.  Here are some ways to share Shakespeare with younger students:

  • Analyze the rhyming structure of a sonnet. 
    • After sharing basic information about Shakespeare, students can start by counting syllables in a line, and then look for the placement of rhyming words. After this analysis, students can write a sonnet. Depending on their level, this can be completed together as a class, with a partner, or independently. Students can trade sonnets and analyze one another’s to see if they followed the syllable and rhyming words of a sonnet.
  • Use adapted plays for younger students. This way, the text and storyline are more manageable for young ages. Find some at this link. Make sure to check out the Activities and Resources section, since it contains many other great lesson ideas.
  • Bring Shakespeare to life by performing scenes. You don’t need to tackle an entire play to perform Shakespeare. Instead, have students act out a scene. Here’s a great video clip with an example of how one teacher makes this happen for her older elementary students.
  • Teach iambic pentameter with the classic book Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss. Have students analyze the text and experiment with writing their own. Check out this article and video on using this method in elementary schools.
  • Share patterns visually.
    • With sonnets and iambic pentameter, students are counting, looking for rhymes, and identifying patterns. While this connects to songwriting and music, it could also be depicted through visual art. Students could create bead patterns to match a sonnet or draw the pattern that they created with feet in iambic pentameter.
  • Find more great elementary Shakespeare activities at ReadWriteThink.

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.