Engaging with Shakespeare's Themes

There are many reasons why Shakespeare has survived (even thrived) over the past 400 years. Colonialism, the creators of the first folio, and the Folger Library certainly helped. But when teachers like me are considering what texts to expose students to that will help them grow, change, think, and develop a love of reading, there are intangible reasons why we continually reach for Shakespeare. And it's not just because he is required reading according to the Common Core State Standards.

It's the rich and round characters, the relatable conflicts they experience, the gravitational pull of the language they use, and the themes they grapple with. As a middle school teacher, I choose to connect my students with themes (because if I tried to connect them with all of those facets, we'd be studying Shakespeare all year long).

I focus on theme for two reasons.  The first is because I use Shakespeare to address this 7th and 8th grade standard: "Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text." The second is because Shakespeare gives us so many to choose from and he allows us to interpret them in endless ways. This leaves the door open for so many interpretations, that I can just about guarantee my students will choose a theme, own it, and reflect on it in a personal way.  This gets them to connect to the text in a personal way, which is key.
Before we even crack the cover on our Shakespeare plays, we discuss theme and identify common themes Shakespeare frequently addresses: love, change, gender roles, dreams, ambition, trust, jealousy, manipulation, loyalty, identity, etc. The list is extensive. Chances are, every human can find a theme that they will personally connect with in any play. So that's my natural starting place with my students.

When we study A Midsummer Night's Dream, I pull out themes that I think will catch my students' attention. I do this by getting to know them really well for the first half of the year. The student who is going through a bad break-up will be interested in manipulation. The student who doodles his significant other's name on his notebook will be interested in love. The student grappling with her gender identity will be interested in identity. The student who is struggling to navigate changes in her circle of friends will be interested in loyalty. I collect all of these anecdotes my students share with me and determine how to help them note how the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream handle those issues and then decide whether they've made good choices or not.

It all begins with a personal connection. This can be done on paper or digitally; all students need is some time to reflect on their own lives and some guiding questions or statements to get them thinking about the situations and conflicts the characters in the play will be experiencing. Here is the one I used this year, though it admittedly changes every year.  I've done this in the form of a four corners debate, in which students must first make their decision about statements given and then explain their thinking in small groups. I've also done it as a silent, free-writing activity for students who prefer to process these things privately. It depends on who my class is each year.  Here's a sampling of what my students wrote about this year, with a little insight on how it helped them connect to the play once we began reading it:

Given Statement: Does love make people act like fools?
Student Response: "When you are in love, you think that person is special and very honest with you. But when you or the other person messes up, everything is ruined. You hate that person and wonder why you ever loved them. Then you realize you were a fool for trusting them and telling them everything." --Brandon, 8th Grade
How It Helped: When we encounter Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it's easy to stereotype her as being a desperate, lonely, clingy woman. She's rather pathetic in her unrequited pursuit of Demetrius, and my students are quick to judge her as a "crazy" girl. But if we can place her conflict into more personal context--and point out the detail that Helena and Demetrius were previously engaged in a romantic relationship--students will connect with her, understand her, and maybe even feel bad for her. Once this connection is made, Demetrius ends up looking like the bad guy, and Helena courageous for fighting for what she wants/what was promised to her.

Given Statement: Do men and women have different roles in a relationship?
Student Response: "I think they do have different roles because one has to act different than the other. Maybe one should set up the dates and it's different because the other will agree or disagree with the date. The man should pay for dinner most of the time." --Jonathan, 8th Grade
How It Helped: We repeatedly see women fighting for what they want in their relationships in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and what they want is frequently different from what the men in the story try to dictate. Hermia's father, of course, wants her to marry Demetrius instead of Lysander, so she runs away to elope with Lysander in the forest. Helena wants to rekindle her connection with Demetrius, and though he refuses she follows him in hot pursuit. Titania refuses to submit to her husband's wishes concerning the Indian boy, and does not back down from the conflict that results. These women break out of their stereotypical roles in their relationships to give us a more interesting, rich conflict to chew on.

Given Statement: Can we be manipulated into falling in love?
Student Response: "We can be tricked into falling in love. I fell in love with this one boy but we broke up because he tricked me. He made me believe it would last forever, like we promised each other." --Gladys, 8th Grade
How It Helped: Oberon (and by extension, Puck) is like an invisible puppet master throughout every scene that takes place in the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He puts plans into motion and watches them unfold, mostly for entertainment. He manipulates Demetrius (on purpose) and Lysander (by accident), thereby wreaking havoc on their relationships with Hermia and Helena. He manipulates Titania to get the Indian boy from her. This may all seem far-fetched to a modern audience, because he uses magic to put this manipulation into progress. Regardless of his methodology, however, we can all relate to the situations he places other characters in because chances are, we've been manipulated ourselves.

By activating students' initial thoughts about each theme we study throughout the play, students realize they already know something about the action of the play. Personal connections make the characters and their conflicts relatable and encourage students to "dig a little deeper" than
what's written on the page. It activates a natural desire to analyze, to question, and to argue. Best of all, it is a really helpful way to get students over the hump of the flowery language because they are searching the text for specific evidence that justifies their feelings. Personal connections to the play, characters, and themes help keep students' attention throughout all five acts. Regardless of how bloody or unbelievable or confusing the play may get, they'll always be able to connect and see themselves within the conflicts.

How do you get your students to connect to Shakespeare on a personal level? I'd love to hear some more ideas!!  Feel free to comment and share them below.

Thanks for reading!

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