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Engaging Students with Figurative Language in Shakespeare’s Plays

Students don’t always find Shakespeare’s plays quite as interesting as teachers do. Often, they have an “It’s Greek to me” attitude. Reading and analyzing poetry is generally not at the top of teenagers’ “fun lists,” but it’s important that they can do so. So how can we make poor Willy more charming for students? Luckily, there are so many ways to bring in relevance, movement, and critical thinking. Teaching figurative language in Shakespeare’s plays is one of them.

So what works? As you like it. Here are four techniques to teach literary devices in Romeo and Juliet, but these ideas could be transferred to any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Whack-a-Mole – Iambic Pentameter

This one is kinesthetic. When I teach the basics of iambic pentameter, I have always found the most memorable part of the lesson to be when I ask ten students to get out of their seat and form a straight line, standing shoulder to shoulder.

Then, I tell all of the even numbered students to stand and the odd numbered students to kneel (kind of like the game whack-a-mole – some are down, and some are up). Everyone gets a syllable from a famous line of Shakespeare’s plays. This works really well with the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet but also with individual lines: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (Richard III).

We begin slowly. Each student says their syllable (if you can give them a written one to hold , even better), and as we speed up to normal speaking pace, the rhythm of the iambic pentameter becomes more obvious to students.

A word of caution about using this technique….pick reliable, cooperative students. Otherwise, the exercise might not be as beneficial as it could be.

For other ideas about teaching poetic format terms like iambic pentameter, quatrain, and couplet, check out this Prologue Identification Exercise.


Get some colored chalk and some large black construction paper. Select a passage from the play that is full of imagery (like the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet), and have students pay special attention to the details of that section of the poem as they draw the scene on the construction paper.

Even better, if weather and space permits, take them outside to draw on the sidewalk. Why chalk? It’s different. It’s carefree, and you’re tricking students who would normally fight drawing with pen and paper into drawing with chalk, but they are not scared!

Ask students to annotate or label their drawing with specific lines of imagery from the passage.

Students ALWAYS enjoy this activity. I give them a quick mini lesson about imagery the day before, and they demonstrate understanding the day of the activity. It’s easy for students as well as for teachers, and the best part is that they remember it!

To add some rigor to this activity, follow up by asking students to write a reflective response in which they answer a question such as this:  How does the playwright’s use  of imagery affect the text overall? 

Four ways to teach figurative language in Shakespeare's plays #HighSchoolELA #ShakespeareEpithets

Everyone knows about Shakespearean insults. They’re so catchy. A couple years ago, I began thinking about the Shakespearean insult activity and wishing that it held more educational value. Realistically, it was just a fluff activity up to that point.

Then I had an idea. I had students each choose a name for themselves using the insult list. Bootless common-kissing maggot-pie, for instance. Then I began using these “names” as epithets.

Epithets were a new term for my kiddos, so these insults were a memorable way to teach the concept. Since epithets are nicknames or attributions for someone, like “The girl on fire” and “The great emancipator,” I began having my students refer to each other as the Shakespearean nickname they chose for themselves. (I should probably have mentioned that we made name tags to set on our desks so that students could remember each other’s names.)

This is a hilarious way (not foolproof…obviously, as they don’t always remember to use the insults – but that is okay with me) to help them understand a more complex literary device. Also, it is never done in a mean or disrespectful way. Students simply find it enjoyable and funny, and we laugh quite a bit.

By the way, have you seen this Shakespearean insulter?

Other Literary Devices

One other activity I have done with Title 1 students and experienced GREAT success with is when I had a group of freshmen rewrite the ending of the Romeo and Juliet. It was a competition between four classes, and this was quite the project, but oh my gosh how rewarding!

I mediated discussions, made suggestions, typed out the script, and organized performances, but the kids did the rest. Each of the four classes totally rewrote the ending of Romeo and Juliet (most created funny interpretations), and then they made costumes and performed their skits for the other classes.

It was one of the most engaging things I have ever witnessed. They even started pressuring each other to take it more seriously because each class didn’t want to look foolish in front of the others. The pride in their eyes was infectious, and I had finally found a way to lure some love for Shakespeare out of at-risk students who could otherwise truly not have cared less.

What is the connection to literary devices? With this particular group, we kept it simple (personification, imagery, metaphor, simile, etc.), but we incorporated our own literary elements that we wrote as a class. As we constructed our script, we discussed where to put the literary elements and why they would make sense there.

So those are a few of my favorite ideas for teaching figurative language in Shakespeare’s plays, and I hope they provide someone out there with new inspiration.

Related Resource:

Click on the image below to view my Literary Terms by Act teaching materials, which includes forty-nine literary terms with engaging notes, links to video and non-play examples, and interesting activities to help students practice identifying examples from the play.Figurative language in Romeo and Juliet Act by Act #HighSchoolELA #RomeoAndJuliet