Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Wherefore Art Thou So Difficult, Shakespeare?

Understanding Shakespeare

Chelsee Wilson, Teresa Lansford | Published: November 22nd, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course A.P. Language and Composition, A.P. Literature and Composition, British Literature, World Literature
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 180 minutes


While Shakespeare is the king of the British play, Shakespearean language is often difficult for students to understand. In this lesson, students employ music and critical thinking strategies as they learn to better understand the language of the Bard. It would be best to teach this lesson when starting a Shakespearean play.

Essential Question(s)

How does language change over time?



Students listen to a Medieval interpretation of a popular song.


Students compare and contrast the lyrics between the interpretation and the actual song.


Students Why-Light portions of Shakespeare’s plays for areas of difficulty in understanding.


Students "translate" their highlighted text into modern language.


Students create Blackout Poetry to highlight the key meaning of their script passages.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Paper

  • Pen/pencils

  • Jolene Lyric Comparison handout (attached, one per student)

  • Jolene Lyric Comparison Teacher’s Notes (attached, one copy)

  • Julius Caesar Handout, Macbeth Handout, or Romeo and Juliet Handout (attached, enough copies to give each student one of the four numbered pages from the handout you choose plus extra copies as needed for Why-Lighting and Blackout Poetry)

  • Highlighters

  • Sharpies

  • Speaker


Display slide 2. Cue the Bardcore video as students enter the classroom, but don’t let them see it—they will be listening to the audio only. Explain to students that they will be listening to a popular Medieval ballad, and then play the video.

After students finish listening, some might realize that the song is not actually a "Medieval ballad." Ask for student responses about the song and give them time to share out.

Ask students to consider this question: "If you had never heard this song before in any form, would you have found it difficult to understand all of the lyrics?" Allow students time to respond.

Show slide 5 to share the essential question for the lesson and slide 6 to share the lesson objectives.


Give students a copy of the Jolene Lyric Comparison handout with the medieval and original versions of the song lyrics side by side. Display slide 7 to share the instructions for a Stop and Jot activity using these lyrics.

Students will begin by working on their own to mark the areas of the lyrics that changed between the original and the Medieval version.

Display slide 8 and ask students to work with an Elbow Partner to note any trends in the translations that they notice. Ask partners to also write down any areas of translation that seem familiar.

Ask pairs to share what they have noted and identified in their comparisons.

Display slide 9. Ask students: "If you were reading a passage only in Middle English or Shakespeare's English, how would you work out what was being said?"

Give students time to consider their answers individually and discuss with a partner. Allow time for student responses.


Display slide 10. Assign students numbers 1-4 and have them form groups according to their numbers. Using the handouts for your selected play (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet), give each student a copy of the passage that corresponds to their number. (Students in the same group should all have the same passage.)

Working individually, students will use Why-Lighting to call out areas of their passage that they find to be particularly difficult to understand or areas that contain words they have never seen before. As students highlight areas, ask them to make notes in the margins to hypothesize what they think these words might mean.

When students have finished, have them discuss with their groups what they highlighted and what the phrases and words they selected might mean.


Display slide 11 and ask students to form new groups, where one student with each passage 1-4 is represented.

Give students time to work together and use contextual clues, inferences, and dictionaries or thesauruses to "translate" their excerpts into student-friendly language.

When they are finished translating, ask students to reconsider the essential question, "How does language change over time?" Give students an opportunity to share their thoughts with the class.

Once students have finished translating their passages display slide 12. Ask them to read their translations in passage order within their groups. Reading these translations aloud will give students a chance to "hear" whether their translations are correct. If students read through their passages and parts of their translations do not make sense, encourage them to go back and re-translate these portions.


After students have translated their passage to modern English, have them compare their translation with the original passage.

Display slide 13 and pass out black markers. Have students create Blackout Poetry that summarizes the gist of their passage.

Students can turn in their translation and Blackout Poetry for evaluation. Consider displaying students’ poetry in the classroom or hallway or finding another way to share it.