NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of four posts on easing your students into Elizabethan English without terrifying them.
You’ve taught your kids scansion. You’ve introduced them to Shakespeare’s poetry. You’ve given them a little taste of his humor. You’ve pushed them to think about his language. But they’re still not quiiiiiiiite convinced they’ll be able to understand his plays. He’s just too fancy.
Today is the day you take him down a peg or two.
Start with the obligatory overview of the Globe Theatre. Google up some illustrations (this is a good one, because it shows the interior layout) and explain his dual audience — the rich people who were subsidizing his plays while socializing in the upper balconies and ignoring what was transpiring on the stage, and his real fans, the groundlings, who paid a penny apiece to stand right in front of the stage and watch the play.
Tip them off to the kind of humor Shakespeare’s working-class fans enjoyed: dirty jokes, bad puns, references to bodily functions, and anything satirizing the wealthy or powerful. Share an example of a character saying something inappropriate (e.g., Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia during the play-within-a-play, which is the stuff #MeToo stories are made of).
And then, just for good measure, give them the Shakespearean Insult Kit and let them spend the rest of the period roasting each other in Elizabethan English.
I generally print out copies of the kit, pass it out, and give the kids the greatest homework assignment ever: Make up three really offensive Shakespearean insults and explain what they mean.
One year, my students discovered that “thou unwash’d, odiferous strumpet” was an old-fashioned way to call somebody a “dirty, stanky ho.” Last year, a senior became fascinated with the word “scut” and used it every time somebody annoyed her. You never know what will capture kids’ imaginations.
If you want to take this lesson a step further, after the kids play with the insult kit for a little while, ask them to imagine that Shakespeare has slipped through a time warp and landed at school, with no grasp of modern English and no idea how to survive in our era. Their job is to pass him a note that he can understand, detailing whatever they think he needs to know to get through his first day at school. Their notes are usually hilarious.