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Pie Corbett – How to write like Shakespeare

By taking small pieces from his plays and experimenting with the language, children will soon be producing sonnet-worthy work, says Pie Corbett...

  • Pie Corbett – How to write like Shakespeare

A few years ago, I swapped places with my wife, Melanie, and returned to do some teaching in the primary school where she worked.

Once a week, over half a term, I made my way back to school armed with a bunch of ideas to share with the children.

I ran writing workshops across Key Stage 2 and this is an account of several sessions where the class of Year 5s worked with me to ‘write like Shakespeare’.

Session 1 – Shall I compare thee to a bacon butty?

Of course, everyone had heard of Shakespeare and most knew that he was a playwright. We spent a little time in which I filled in the background before introducing the idea for the day – we would try to write like Shakespeare.

To start off, I read them sonnet 18, which starts with the words almost every teacher will know, ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?’ First, we cleared the basic idea of the poem out of the way – he’s praising his girlfriend and saying that even when she grows old, she will still be beautiful because he has captured her forever in the poem. 

We focused on the opening comparison. Of course, imagery like this is, in a way, a total lie. When Robbie Burns wrote, ‘O my luve’s like a red, red rose’ he was trying to flatter her – to make her sound amazing and appealing. The truth is that she would have been nothing like a real rose.

I suggested that we try out some similar comparisons by thinking about someone we admired and then asking them with what they would like to be compared. To help, we listed all sorts of unusual and amazing things for the comparisons: a flamingo, a snow storm, a crescent moon, frost on the path, a bacon butty, steam on the window, a tiger’s eye, a snake’s skin, a sheep’s wool, a conker, a polished car bonnet, a red bus.

We selected a few of the ideas and, with a little polishing, wrote together – with me scribing on the flipchart. We discussed how some ideas made the person sound good and others sounded ominous, funny or surprising:

Shall I compare thee to frost glittering on the hedgerows?
Shall I compare thee to a tiger’s amber eye, coldly staring?
Shall I compare thee to a bacon buttie and a cup of sweet tea?
Shall I compare thee to the six sides of a mathematician’s dice?

We talked too about how some of the ideas sounded familiar and therefore did not have so much effect. The ones that worked best were surprising and totally fresh. These brought a new idea into the world. We kept the old-fashioned word ‘thee’ as we felt that it ‘sounded better’ than the word ‘you’, which seemed to have less emphasis when read aloud.

We then tried imitating other memorable lines that I had carefully selected as possible creative catalysts. For instance, in Anthony and Cleopatra a soothsayer boasts, ‘In nature’s infinite book of secrecy / A little I can read’. So we invented different books – a book of sorrow, a book of hope, a book of dreams, etc, and then created similar lines using the same Shakespearean pattern. For example:

In the goblin’s horrifying book of terrible torment,
a little I can read…

– Izzy, age 9

Once the children had the basic idea, I had up my sleeve a number of other lines that could be used in the same way. We talked them through and together invented possibilities. Some children selected only one idea and wrote many lines, whilst others experimented with different lines, writing several ideas of their own for each.

I suspect they enjoyed the freedom to choose what to concentrate upon, but were also supported by a strong scaffold that meant everyone could succeed. Here are a few examples, showing Shakespeare’s original and a child’s response. We ended the session by reading aloud lines and commenting on what we liked.

Original: But soft! Methinks I scent the morning air
Child’s: But soft! Methinks I see the sunlight drifting

Original: Peace! How the moon sleeps
Child’s: Peace! How the hills still.

Original: The stars will kiss the valleys first
Child’s: The stars will run around the world

Session 2 – Getting dramatic

Having warmed up our Shakespearean tongues, in the next session we moved on to looking at act 2, scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Puck meets a fairy: ‘How now spirit? Whither wander you?’

In pairs, the children tried out this greeting and invented replies. We heard a few and then I read them what the fairy in the play replies:

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire.
I do wander everywhere
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
And I serve the fairy queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their gold coats spots you see.
Those be rubies, fairy favors.
In those freckles live their savors.
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits. I’ll be gone.
Our queen and all our elves come here anon.

Again, we sorted out the rough idea – the fairy goes everywhere, even through flood and fire, faster than the moon spins, working for Titania, the fairy Queen, making fairy rings. The cowslips are her royal bodyguard and their speckled petals are sweetly-scented.

The fairy has to hang pearl earrings on the cowslips and so bids Puck farewell before the Queen and her elves arrive. The fairy works for the fairy Queen and has to toil through the night dropping dew on the cowslips to make the world a prettier place.

We took the lines and read them together, working on saying them dramatically. We tried varying how to say them – some loud, some soft, some fast and some slow with dramatic pauses. The children then worked in groups of about four or five, reading the verse and developing some simple movements to accompany their interpretation.

This took some time before we watched each group.

Session 3 – A fairy’s work is never done

In the next session, we wondered what other tasks a fairy might be asked to fulfill. I read them some of my ideas based on the lines ‘I must go seek some dewdrops here/ And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.’ Here is the model poem that I read to them.

I must sprinkle flecks of frost
On the crisp autumn leaves.
I must seize the hiss of an adder
And hang dew on a spider’s web.
I must help the blind mole
Build pyramids of earth.
I must sharpen blades of grass
And put freckles on a child’s face.
I must ride on a bumblebee’s back
And polish the salmon’s scales.
Farewell, thou aged beggar. I’ll be gone.

I read it to them, took initial responses and then we read it line by line, discussing what the words meant. I pointed out that I had not rhymed and asked them not to rhyme either, as I was more interested in their own ideas about what a mischievous fairy might do.

Then we worked together to list ideas for the sorts of tasks that a fairy might be given so that everyone had ideas to draw upon – though when the children wrote, most of them used their own inventions.

Session 4 – Boil and bubble; it’s no trouble!

For the final session, I read the children the wonderful version of Macbeth in Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Puffin Books). Alongside this, I read them the whole scene from Macbeth where the three weird women chant:

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Once again, we performed the piece with the children working in threes, circling imagined cauldrons and chanting. We then used the basic pattern to create our own versions. This is actually harder than you might imagine – it is worth trying it our yourself before you teach the session.

First of all, make a long list of possible ingredients with the children. Anything can be used – parts of animals, things found in nature or the city, things from home or school, toys, parts of vehicles. The hard part is assembling the ideas so that you write rhyming couplets.

Luckily, the first part of each line does not have to rhyme so start boldly. For instance, you might agree upon ‘Bark of a tree’.

Now you will need to add on a second idea. This one will be crucial because you will have to find a suitable rhyme. Let’s imagine someone suggests ‘Bark of a tree and wheel from a car’. Now you have to invent a second line that ends with a rhyme for ‘car’ – bar, afar, star, scar and tar are possibilities. Of these four, ‘star’ or ‘scar’ are probably the easiest and might give you:

Bark of a tree and wheel from a car
Heel of shoe and gleam from a star

Or

Bark of a tree and wheel from a car
Heel of shoe and scab from a scar

If you cannot find a rhyme for the end of a line then you will need to change the final idea. It can make the task far easier if you have copies of the Rhyming and Spelling Dictionary. Most rhyming structures are too hard for children, but this structure means they can be creative, tussle with the rhymes and satisfy their desire to produce a poem that sounds powerfully rhythmic when read aloud.

Here are the opening lines of a poem produced by two Year 5 children working together. You will notice that I suggested they began by using a few of Shakespeare’s lines to help them ‘hear’ the rhythm:

Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog.

Wing of an eagle and claw of a cat,
Paw of a panther and tail of a rat.

Brick from a wall and shoe from a pony,
Crab from a pool and smile off a phoney.

So we came to Shakespeare as writers rather than readers. Through trying out the same patterns and ideas, they came to read and enjoy his lines with a different eye and ear – as fellow writers who had also tussled to create metaphors or adopt adventurous patterns. All this breaks down the mystery of the distant language and opens up the possibilities of internalising the patterns and stances of the world’s greatest writer.

Where there’s a Will there’s a way

What helps children get to grips with Shakespeare?

At the end of my final lesson with that Year 5 class, I asked them to write me an evaluation, especially what had helped them as writers. Here are a few of their comments that I found helped me understand what in my teaching had been useful to them as learners:

  • It was easier for me to write because of the pictures and models.
  • I have learnt it is easier to write a poem when I have another poem to look at.
  • When Mr Corbett showed us on the flipchart it was easier to understand.
  • Yes, I’ve learned a lot, but the thing is he broke it up into little stages.
  • I find it easier to write because of thinking time. He explained words.
  • You’ve helped me a lot with writing on the board.
  • Pie tested your words and made you think of the best word you can use. It also helped me that Pie put all of the words in different sections.

Click here to download more great free Pie Corbett stories, poems and resources.


Pie Corbett is an English educational trainer, writer, author and poet who has written over 200 books. He is also known for promoting creative approaches in the classroom and has experience as a teacher, headteacher and Ofsted inspector. Follow him on Twitter at @PieCorbett.

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