How to bring Shakespeare’s plays to life for young people

Alanna BeekenWorking on Shakespeare’s plays can be a transformational experience for young people. His stories resonate with everyone, whatever their age or background. His language may be challenging on the page, but it comes to life when spoken aloud; we use it in our daily lives, often without even realising it. Here, arts education consultant ALANNA BEEKEN offers three key principles for introducing Shakespeare to young people, based on the work of educational charity Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation – plus some sample games from her new book, Drama Games for Exploring Shakespeare

Shakespeare sticks. His words are more than four hundred years old, but his stories continue to be told on stages and in classrooms, on screens and in books across the world. No matter the time and distance between us and when he was writing, Shakespeare’s work says something about the human condition that keeps us coming back for more. He wrote characters grappling with life’s biggest questions and the myriad complications of relationships, emotion and power. He created language so beautiful, funny and interesting that it has been assimilated into our everyday speech – when is the last time you were in a pickle? Or on a wild goose chase? What about swaggering, puking or ranting? Since he first put quill to page, in every era, all over the world, Shakespeare sticks.

Cultural education charity Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation (CSSF), with whom I’ve worked for some years, uses these iconic stories and brilliant words to inspire new generations, empowering children of all abilities through workshops, classroom resources and the unique opportunity to perform on a professional stage. CSSF runs the world’s largest youth drama festival, the annual Shakespeare Schools Festival, and works with hundreds of schools across the UK each year, training teachers to direct abridged Shakespeare plays for performance in a professional theatre.

Shakespeare is an inspiration and an icon, but he is not the whole point of what CSSF does. We use Shakespeare’s work as a vehicle for fostering the skills needed to survive in an ever-changing world – communication, resilience, confidence and teamwork. In my eight years of working with the charity I have borne witness to hundreds of young lives transformed by the challenge of performing Shakespeare.

Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

‘Shakespeare’s work can be a vehicle for fostering the skills needed to survive in an ever-changing world.’ Photo by Splaat Photo/Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

Some Guiding Principles

Decades of working with students and teachers of every background and ability has shown us how to use Shakespeare to inspire and challenge everyone. Here are our guiding principles, which may be useful to you when working with your own young people.

1. Shakespeare is for everyone

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ As You Like It

Shakespeare is for everyone, no matter their age or culture, background or ability. In his time, Shakespeare wrote for all of society – his casts of characters range from commoner to king, and his words worked as well (if not better) for the groundlings at the actors’ feet as for the lords and ladies in the seats.

At CSSF, we work with a diverse array of people including those with profound physical and educational needs. Often the most inspired and creative choices in performance are born from the challenges faced in the rehearsal room – what could be perceived as a disability inspires a brilliant piece of stagecraft, or a very large cast creates a fantastic ensemble world together. I have lost count of the nights I have sat in the CSSF audience, captivated by a piece of theatre that was fantastic because of (and not in spite of) the challenges faced by its actors.

Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

‘The most inspired and creative choices in performance are often born from the challenges faced in the rehearsal room.’ Photo by Splaat Photo/Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

2. The power of play and kinaesthetic learning

‘Joy’s soul lies in the doing’ Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare’s stories resonate with young people (and everyone) because they are playful, magical, funny and silly, as well as moving and thought-provoking. So many are turned off Shakespeare because they first encounter his work on the page, silently read and never spoken. Shakespeare wrote for actors and audiences, not scholars and academics, and his words were meant to be spoken aloud and played with. His spirit of mischief and play dances through even his most serious tragedies – and play is the most important part of our process too.

Years of working with actors of all ages has shown us that most people learn best through doing. Moving, speaking and playing with Shakespeare brings it to life in a way that sitting at a desk, struggling to read the unfamiliar and complex language never could.

Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

‘Moving, speaking and playing with Shakespeare brings it to life in a way that sitting at a desk never could.’ Photo by Splaat Photo/Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

3. Shared ownership

‘Now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.’ The Comedy of Errors

Our years of trial and error in classrooms and on stages have led us to our own definition of a director – we see a director as a facilitator. A facilitator will inspire and harness the creativity of their actors, rather than create a show to serve their own vision. We want young people to feel that Shakespeare belongs to them, and to find a connection to the words that resonates for them in their own time. This means that we are often irreverent in our approach, cutting up scripts (sometimes literally), experimenting with language and playing with characters and ideas. Many of the drama games in our process focus on this, mining the script for connections to the players and seeking opportunities to inspire them.

Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

‘We see a director as a facilitator who will inspire and harness the creativity of their actors’ Photo by Splaat Photo/Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

Putting Principles into Practice

The approach outlined above is the basis for our new book Drama Games for Exploring Shakespeare, which is out now. It offers dozens of games to make Shakespeare fun and accessible for anyone, no matter their prior knowledge. See below for some sample games taken from the book, as a taster of what you’ll find inside.

You might be a director or a teacher, a student or an actor. You might be tackling Shakespeare for the very first time or be well-versed in his works. You could use the book to support your direction of a Shakespeare play, bringing playfulness to your rehearsal room, or you might be an English teacher wanting to bring the text to life in the classroom.

CSSF trains directors and we have structured the book as though you are working towards a performance. If you are directing a Shakespeare play, with a cast of any age and experience, we hope it will give you a structure and momentum for your rehearsals.

However, you could just as easily pick it up and flick through it for one-off games to enliven a lesson, support a monologue or introduce Shakespeare to your drama club. We have tried to make our games as inclusive as possible, and in some cases have suggested variations or extensions to suit different ages and abilities. However, every company is unique, and you know your actors best, so feel free to find your own adaptations.

If you have any doubts about your actors’ ability to tackle Shakespeare, or indeed your own, use the book to banish them. Shakespeare gives us the opportunity to surprise ourselves and everyone else with what we can do.

Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

‘Shakespeare gives us the opportunity to surprise ourselves and everyone else with what we can do.’ Photo by Splaat Photo/Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

Here are two sample games taken from Drama Games for Exploring Shakespeare. The first, Iambic Pentameter Made Easy, is a clear, physical introduction to iambic pentameter, while the second, Mystery Party Guest, is a fun improvisation game to help actors get into character. I hope they’ll prove useful, as well as fun to play. There are plenty more in the book!

SAMPLE GAME 1: Iambic Pentameter Made Easy

The Aim of the Game

The words ‘iambic pentameter’ strike fear into the hearts of many young actors (and adults too). This simple exercise will demystify the verse form, proving to your cast that it will actually help them decode and perform Shakespeare’s texts.

How to Play

A line in iambic pentameter has ten syllables and creates a rhythmic pattern that sounds like this:


Ask students to tap this sentence like a heartbeat rhythm on their bodies – a light tap on the shoulder is followed by a firm one on the chest. Ask them if it reminds them of anything? Reflect that the rhythm is like a heartbeat beating through the text.

de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM.

As a group say this line in time with your tapped-out rhythm. Ask your students what they noticed, where does the heavy beat fall?

Present this line of text to your cast visually by arranging five participants into a line.

Quietly give two words to each participant and then get them to say them out loud down the line

Student 1: We stress
Student 2: the words
Student 3: we want
Student 4: the world
Student 5: to hear.

Get them to stress the ‘wrong’ way first: Ask them to stamp their foot and stress their FIRST word and speak the second word normally. Reflect on how this sounds, and how it seems unnatural.

Next, create the ‘right’ (iambic) stresses: Repeat the line, this time stressing their second word. What do they notice? You will find that it sounds much more natural – the way the stress falls is the way we naturally speak in English. Notice also that the stressed words are the important ones – these are the words that carry the meaning and need to be clear to an audience.

Ask the line of players to only say the stressed words – you can get the sense of the line from this alone, e.g. ‘Stress – words – want – world – hear’.

Try the same exercise with a Shakespearean line that fits the Iambic pentameter, e.g. ‘a HORSE, a HORSE, my KINGdom FOR a HORSE’. This should show your cast that Shakespeare’s verse structures sound quite natural – the way that we would naturally stress the words in everyday speech is also the way that the poetic stress falls.

SAMPLE GAME 2: Mystery Party Guest

The Aim of the Game

Shakespeare wrote some of the most iconic and recognisable characters in literature. This game is a playful, low-stakes way for the actors to engage with these characters and identify their defining characteristics, honing their body language and mannerisms.

How to Play

Tell your cast that they are going to a party. Ask them what they do at a party and take some suggestions, e.g. have drinks, dance, eat, chat to friends, play games. Now tell them that on the count of three you want them to turn the rehearsal room into a brilliant party. Let that play out for a few seconds and congratulate them on their work.

Divide the group in half. One half of the group will stay in the room and continue to enjoy the ‘party’ – they don’t have to stick to one action, they can just move around as they would if they were at a real party. The other half will leave the room and enter the party, one by one, in character as someone from a Shakespeare play. They can choose any character they like – they should not tell the others their choice and it doesn’t matter if several people choose the same character. Tell players to think about what their character might say and do on entering a party.

When they are ready, the first person should knock on the door, enter and greet the other guests. Give them about ten seconds to improvise their character’s behaviour at a party, e.g. Malvolio may start to serve drinks to others, but in a very haughty and imperious manner; Lady Macbeth may start to behave as though she is the hostess and go around graciously greeting guests (while staring murderously behind their backs). The group in the room have three guesses as to which character it is. If they are stumped, they could ask the actor to perform a specific action in character, e.g. could you pour yourself a drink in character?

Once they have guessed correctly, the actor should stay at the party in character. The next actor to enter the room does the same thing but can also interact with the first character. The game continues until everyone is in the room.
Swap the groups over so that everyone has a chance to enter in character.

Variations and Extensions

If players are nervous about being the centre of attention, you could try asking actors to get into pairs and agree a character between them. They would then enter the room together, both in character.

Alternatively, all the guests at the party could mirror the character coming in – not copy exactly what they are doing but take on the vocal quality and characteristics, e.g. Iago comes in and greets everyone in a shifty manner, everyone in the room will become shifty.


This is an edited extract from Drama Games for Exploring Shakespeare by Alanna Beeken and Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation, out now. Save 20% when you order your copy directly from our website here.

Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation’s mission is to transform lives through the unique power of Shakespeare, principally with its flagship project, the Shakespeare Schools Festival. Alanna Beeken works in arts education, including with CSSF for many years.

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