How to Choose a Shakespeare Play for a High School Cast

So, you’re thinking of choosing a Shakespeare play for your high school? Contemplating which script to hand to your high school drama students? Unsure of what material is most appropriate for a younger audience? Read on.

There’s a reason Shakespeare’s work has lasted this long and continues to make its way onto every high school English class’s syllabus. The work has depth, it has complexity, it has thoughtful characters, and passionate plot lines. It’s important that students are exposed to the arts in many ways, and studying Shakespeare is a great way to do this (why should students be reading plays and experiencing the arts? Click here for our take on the matter). Shakespeare’s dense text is a great challenge for educational theatres, specifically at the high school level, because it cannot be rushed. It takes time to absorb the language and time to map out every character’s story-line. Shakespeare’s plays were written to be read aloud – they are easier to activate on a stage, rather than trapped in desks.  

Choosing a Shakespeare Work

Let’s talk about the actual play you want to tackle. It can be tempting to rush towards an easy title, one with instant name recognition, but before you go down that twisted path – consider some other options. You’ll want to pick a script that can be tackled by high school students in an appropriate manner. Some of Shakespeare’s work is uncomfortably gory and contains X-Rated violence (Titus Andronicus is not a good choice for young audiences), some of which is imperative to the stories. Stray away from the monster dramas, like Hamlet and Macbeth.

If your students are interested in challenging material with action and heart, you can go one of two ways. First, there are the comedies. One of the most popular picks for high school theatres is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and for a good reason. It’s a big cast, the setting is magical and non-realistic, and the story is full of silly twists and turns. However, this isn’t the only option with these qualities. As You Like It and The Tempest are both great comedic options with larger casts and don’t contain R-Rated material.

If you aren’t as inclined towards a comedy, check out the final few titles in Shakespeare’s folio. These are colloquially called the “Tragi-Comedies” because they contain both tragic and comedic content. Shakespeare also loosened up the tight laces of the iambic pentameter in these plays as well, so the language sounds more like recognizable prose. Scripts like Cymbeline and The Tempest are great options within this phase of the writing.

Still Unsure What to Pick?

And hey, if all else fails and you’re still unsure of what to pick, ask your school’s English teachers what scripts they’ll be covering during the year – can you collaborate to perform the script your students are studying?

If you want to revamp your production of a well-known Shakespeare script (let’s be honest, they’re all pretty well-known), get the students involved. Let them be creative. Where do they see the story taking place? Is there a way to use the pre-existing words to tell a new, important narrative that impacts your students’ daily lives? For inspiration, check out these community theatres that are producing work with the intention of making Shakespeare new and memorable, rather than old and stuffy.  The best Shakespeare productions are those that resonate in unexpected ways. Be thoughtful in your material choice and be sure to include your students’ voices. With those two intentions, you are sure to put on a memorable show.