What Plays Should Students Read?

When I was in high school I read, if I remember correctly: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, Richard II and the Henry plays (not VIII). I’m trying to remember, but I think that was about it. I know no Lear, or Tempest, or R3.  Certainly not Coriolanus or Titus, and I’m having a hard time remembering whether we read any other comedies. So my question is this : Assuming we’re talking about “high school” age, and by that I mean 14-18ish, what plays do you think should be taught as part of the curriculum? This could turn into a whole discussion about curriculum overhaul, which is fine, but not really what I’m going for.  What I’m really wondering is, if you assume “A typical student will, as part of their standard English education, be exposed to Shakespeare”, what plays do you think should be included?   Do you think there are any common choices we can (or should) stop teaching?

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13 thoughts on “What Plays Should Students Read?

  1. I am sick to death of high school teachers doing Romeo and Juliet. How about something a bit more challenging?

    Some that I know of teach Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. Midsummer if they're brand new.

    I'm sure we'd get a lot more high school kids excited with Titus, Shrew, and Tempest. Murder, Sex, and Revenge/Magic? They'd be all about it! And wouldn't the discussions be that much more interesting?

    Or are teachers afraid of parental reactions to such topics?

  2. Wow, you had a lot of Shakespeare in high school! Lucky. I got Midsummer and As You Like It in middle school (my school system weirdly started us early, but I was glad), then Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth in high school.

    If it were up to me… Midsummer, Much Ado, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth would be standard for high schools. I've never understood why schools insist on beating students upside the head with the heaviest tragedies they can find — let the kids enjoy the comedies, I say! I think things like Hamlet and Othello can be off-putting when you're 14, especially in the hands of teachers who may not themselves be comfortable with the material. Introduce them to the lighter comedies and the more action-packed tragedies first, to get them hooked on Shakespeare. There's always time for more exploration on the heavy stuff once they know they like it.

    So, yes, I'm at odds with high schools everywhere when I say, drop Hamlet. 😉 Which is not to say that high school students *can't* get and appreciate and enjoy it — I just think they're more likely to have fun with some other plays. Anywhere we can ease the intimidation factor, I'm a fan.

  3. Most freshman at my school read read "Romeo and Juliet". My honors freshmen read it in 8th grade, so I'm having them read "Othello."
    As sophomores, they read "Julius Ceasar" and seniors typically read "Macbeth."

    My Shakespeare class is a semester elective for 10-12. I teach
    Titus Andronicus
    Much Ado About Nothing
    Taming of the Shrew
    Henry 4 Pt. 1 (and watch Henry V)
    King Lear
    Merchant of Venice.

    If I have enough time, I slip in either As You Like It or Midsummer. Depending how I feel.

    I get to do what I want. 🙂

    And don't diss R+J as not challenging. It is actually a tough play for kids when you look at it from a language standpoint, and then the ethical standpoint by focusing on the friar. It has a lot of critical thinking applications many don't go for. Too many teachers just focus on "getting through" the play or may focus just on the love story.

  4. Wow. Where did you go to school? We only got the very basic Shakespeare – R&J in 9th grade, then Julius Ceasar, Macbeth and Hamlet in subsequent years. Only read Shrew in HS because the drama club produced it(and I was in it). Would have loved to read the Henry's, but wonder if I would have had the patience for them back then.

    Although these days, with so many good movie versions out, I would imagine that the movies make a great teaching supplement. Question: would you have the students read the play first then watch the movie – or watch the movie and then read the play?

  5. I would've LOVED to have seen Richard II in high school. We did Romeo and Juliet as freshmen; Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and Julius Caesar as sophomores; and then Hamlet either junior or senior year because the teacher didn't like Shakespeare.

    I think Richard II would work well teamed with Hamlet. And Twelfth Night could be fun and interesting.
    I honestly don't know how well the majority of high school students would take plays like Lear, Coriolanus, or Winter's Tale, though. Not that the ideas are too complex, just maybe that they could be tedious to teach. (But if schools worked on how they taught Shakespeare, as you mentioned before, I'm sure a lot more could be done and done well.)

  6. It's funny that Shrew keeps coming up on these lists. Do schools pick it out to teach because it can provoke controversy? I'm personally not a big fan of Shrew, (though I will defend it against charges of misogyny in discussion). Why not more spotlight for comedies that are, frankly, better? Much Ado, definitely, but also Twelfth Night, which is, deservedly, a popular choice for performances (a good opportunity for a class trip). I support teaching Merchant but only by teachers that really know their stuff and are good discussion leaders.

  7. Othello, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry IV pt. 1 (for Falstaff). Maybe Merchant of V (my personal favorite).

    Dump R&J, Midsummer, Tempest, Shrew, Lear. High school kids are way too young for Lear.

    Kids will like the sex and violence and yet still come out relatively culturally literate.

  8. To clarify I was talking about 4 years of school, and honestly some of them may even have come in the middle school years, I can't remember. But we did read a lot, yes. The histories are a blur, I couldn't follow them very well since they were really treated more like a history lesson than a theatrical one.

    I'm a product of the "just get through it" school of teaching – read it, memorize it, answer some questions and write some essay questions, and only after all that, see the film and discuss things like interpretation. Maybe some of my teachers were better than that, but we're talking about 20+ years ago at this point, it's all blurry. I do not remember having a high opinion of the work. My entire recollection of Richard II is basically, "That's the one with all the poetry about the guy who was really only ever acting like a king, right? Didn't really want to be king?"

  9. I teach Shakespeare, now a year-long senior elective at a 2300-student, 8-12 public high school. This year 81 of our nearly 400-member senior class are enrolled.

    As freshmen and sophomores, they read R and J and Macbeth, both of which the vast majority of students wind up loving.

    Senior AP students read Hamlet.

    Last year we introduced MSND to the 8th grade curriculum.

    I've taught the Shakespeare elective since 1989. Unil about 2005, it was a half-year course. Some years we'd have as many as seven sections (200-plus students).

    I relate this only to give some context to my thoughts.

    The play annually chosen by students as the one not to cut from the syllabus: Othello. The second most popular: Hamlet.

    Other very popular choices: Midsummer, Twelfth Night, Much Ado, Merchant.

    One key: do any play that you can attend. This year I'm doing Henry 4 (1 and 2), Cymbeline and Antony and Cleopatra because we can go to see them.

    Key #2: Any play that you can put on yourselves (we do one every year)is also bound to be a favorite. I've had great reactions to Merry Wives and As You Like It as a result.

    And a third: Performance-based instruction. Kids have to be up and reading/acting as much as possible.

    Winter's Tale: student opinion is divided, but not b/c they don't understand it. Same with Lear. These are plays, like all of them really, that reward every reading with a new wrinkle.

    The Henry 4 plays are especially evocative for students, by the way. No surprise, really.

    Don't sell kids short. And son't shy away from controversy. That's waht makes Shakespeare so much Damn fun to teach!!

  10. Romeo & Juliet – too many puns, too weird a genre, too young to get the timeliness of the plot, too easily misled into a voracious romance that at least Juliet understands is really two fine young people into each other.

    Hamlet – for this to be among the first plays one reads by Shakespeare, it just boggles my mind; cognitively and aesthetically this is a super challening (but fun!) play which really can't be enjoyed in any degree if you're still spending all your reading time deciphering the language, which is at a peak here

    Macbeth – Short, easy plot to follow (you don't have to surmise what action's happened inbetween scenes as with, e.g., Hamlet), lots of murder and fantasy; definitely a good play to start with.

    I say students should start with Macbeth, then Antony & Cleopatra, then Twelfth Night.

    At my high school, we read the Shrew and saw Much Ado About Nothing. I read Hamlet as an independent project. None spoke to me, the movie adaptation was horridly embarassing, and our teacher addressed none of the questions any modern student wants to know: why the hell should I try and understand a language that isn't mine? why does Hamlet never say what he means? how can I read without interrupting myself every line? why are his "comedies" not haha-funny? and so on and so on.

  11. Thanks, p-e-s.

    It sounds corny and simplistic, but the beauty and all the answers are in the text. Plays are incomplete unless read/acted in front of an audience. Even kids unwilling or unable to read or act can still participate from their seats in crowd scenes or as sound effects or in supplying overdone "GASPS!" and "SIGHS."

    And you know, it's less the particular play that gets kids excited than the teacher's excitement about the play. (The same is true no matter the subject.)

    When they read the play aloud, watch it performed, go beyond a mere recounting of the plot, they begin to "own" the play. That's when each develops his or her own Henry IV, or Hamlet, or R and J.

    And what's great for young people is that very play has a character who is at least in part, each of us.

    One of the benefits of reading Shakespeare is the chance to see characters like ourselves and watch them confront, and sometimes solve, problems similar to our own. Although we may not be mercenary generals or anguished kings, powerful magicians or vengeful queens, we are often plagued by ambition, jealousy, bitterness and regret as surely as they are. Though we are not officious stewards or lovesick counts, we still face the sometimes joyful, sometimes painful moments we share with those we love most, just as Shakespeare’s characters do.

    All of us can find ourselves in every play. This quality in Shakespeare makes the plays even more vivid and meaningful to students.

    A comment by a student from last spring jumps to mind. Speaking of Hamlet (the character), he said, "He says things that I have thought." Hamle syas things we have all thought, but perhaps didn't think we could or should utter, for whatever reason. He, like so many others of Shakespeare's characters, helps us to answer the question posed by the play's stunning opening line…

    "Who's there?"

    "All of us."

  12. Gregg:

    I "go" to a school in southern Indiana. I also teach there. 😉

    I use a lot of film in my course. With a projector and YouTube it's fun to find all kinds of clips from professional groups, films, to other high schools.

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