sepia head portrait of William ShakespeareWilliam Shakespeare is generally regarded as the greatest writer of the English language.  All too often, though, he is taught at the secondary school level in a way that does not endear this brilliant man to high school students.  I remember being bored by Shakespeare when I was in school.  What can be done to remedy this situation if you are a teacher or a homeschooling parent?

I suggest that we look at the text of his sonnets and plays in a new way, using Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as a focusing lens.  Gardner suggested that there are eight intelligences in the human mind:  Word Smart, Number/Logic Smart, Picture Smart, Body Smart, Music Smart, People Smart, Self Smart, and Nature Smart.  Every person has all eight intelligence but they are distributed in different ways.

We can look at Shakespearean texts using each of these intelligences in turn:

  • Word Smart:   Shakespeare is reputed to have added up to 1700 new words to the English language.  He did this by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words that were wholly original.  Some examples include:  bloody, bump, critic, dishearten, dwindle, lapse, lonely, majestic, obscene, perusal, radiance, sportive, and suspicious.  He also added many now common phrases to the lexicon including:  ”break the ice,” ”breathed his last,” ”all that glitters is not gold,” ”beggar all description,” and ”brave new world.” So, the first thing to appreciate in Shakespeare’s work is all the inventive ways he helped to transform the English language into new forms and expressions.
  • Number/Logic Smart:  While it may seem that Shakespeare’s words are anything but logical, he gave us lines that require a certain amount of mental gymnastics in order to decipher them.  For example Sonnet 116 includes the line ‘‘Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds.”  If you find your mind bending a little when you read this, you’re not alone.  To turn the negative into a positive, one might transform it into:  ”Love is love/Which doesn’t alter when it alteration finds.”  Then we can more easily tackle the second line.  What would it be like if a person loved someone, but then found the going a bit rough (”when it alteration finds”), and thus decided to alter itself (e.g. to stop being in love)?  Well, Shakespeare is saying, that wouldn’t be love at all.  Love = Love + steadfastness + in altered circumstances, might be an arithmetical way of putting it.
  • Picture Smart:  Shakespeare is nothing if not metaphorical.  One of the things that gives his poetry such life is the way he paints pictures of events which others view more abstractly.  Witness his famous lines: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”(MacBeth Act 5, Scene 5).  Here he takes something as abstract as life itself and clothes it in the garb of a second-rate actor and an intellectually disabled storyteller.  Or take King Lear, who expresses his rage and disappointment with his daughter Goneril by saying:  ”Ingratitude, thou marble-headed fiend/More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child/Than the sea monster!” (King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4).  Shakespeare is just full of these images and allusions!  Some of the more Picture Smart teens may want to draw or paint some of this imagery.
  • Body Smart:  In addition to the lovely pictorial imagery Shakespeare gave us, he also created some amazing kinesthetic or physical images.  Take, for example from MacBeth, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself and falls on th’other side.” I sometimes had my students acting out (or trying to act out) these images in a kind of mime-like fashion.  Then there are the images that involve bodily-sensations rather than movements per se, as in this example from his play Measure for Measure:  ”Aye, but to die, and go we know not where/To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;/This sensible warm motion to become/A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit/To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside/In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;/To be imprison’d in the viewless winds/And blown with restless violence round about/The pendant world…”  Wow! What a thrill ride!
  • Music Smart:  Shakespeare, especially as taught in high school, is often associated with the metrical cadence of iambic pentameter.  Yet for much of my life, I had only the vaguest notions of what it meant, until I realized that it was simply the rhythm of:  ”daDA daDA daDA daDA daDA” (which is a lot easier to remember than ”a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable.”  Shakespeare tended to use this meter when people of higher or nobler birth were speaking (and the fact that people of different social classes in Shakespeare had their own metrical rhythms as they spoke is just another indication of the music in his plays).  But, and here’s an interesting twist, whenever the ”moon” is referenced in the text, there is a disturbance in the meter, since the moon is associated with disturbances (e.g. lunacy).  Here is an example from A Midsummer’s Night Dream (Act 2, Scene 1): “That very time I saw (but thou couldst not)/Flying between the cold moon and the earth.”  The words ”cold moon” just sort of sit there in these lines like a slab of cold beef, interfering with the iambic pentameter of the rest of the text.
  • People Smart:  One of the best ways to teach Shakespeare, especially to middle school students, is through his insults.  You can always get a group of teenagers speaking in a Shakespearean tongue with some of these doozies:  ”Thou hast no so much brain as ear wax.” (Troilus and Cressida), ”Thine horrid image doth unfix my hair,” (MacBeth), ”Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!” (Henry IV, Part 1), and “Come, come, you froward and unable worms!” (The Taming of the Shrew).
  • Self Smart:   One key component of Self Smart is having an understanding of one’s inner emotions.  There is much in Shakespeare that expresses the emotions (as, for example, with King Lear’s rage, noted above).  Here is the way that Shakespeare describes the sadness of a girl in tears:  ”How now! a conduit, girl? what, still in tears?/Evermore showering? in one little body/Thou counterfeit’st a bark, a sea, a wind;/For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,/Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,/Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs;/Who, raging with thy tears, and they with them,/Without a sudden calm, will overset/Thy tempest-tossed body.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 5).  Here we have the emotional life of a teenager expressed in the most sensitive and elegant way.  Set your own teenagers loose to find passages that best match their own mood states.
  • Nature Smart:  The allusions Shakespeare makes to the natural world (plants, animals, geography, weather etc.), are almost overwhelming.  Notice, for example from King Lear, all the nature allusions in these lines:
    • ‘‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law /My services are bound.
    • ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep.’’
    • ”Thy sister’s naught. O, Regan, she hath tied / Sharp -toothed unkindness, like a vulture, here.’’
    • ’’To both these sisters have I sworn my love, / Each jealous of the other as the stung are of the adder.’’
    • ”O, had the monster seen those lily hands/Tremble, like aspen leaves upon a lute”

For students who are by inclination Nature Smart, the opportunity of searching for such nature metaphors in Shakespeare’s works may help serve as a portal into this extraordinary writer’s works.

The ideas sketched above serve only as starting points for what we can only hope will be a lifelong adventure with Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.  As long as kids are going to be studying  Shakespeare anyway (MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream are staples of many secondary school curriculums), they might as well fall in love with him!


For a look into how American schools can ignite students’ love of learning, curiosity, imagination, creativity, and wonder, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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