An Engaging Activity for Introducing Any Shakespearean Play
A lot of textbooks that introduce Shakespeare start with something like “William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in Stratford upon Avon, England.” Um, okay. The problem is how does that help students? The one thing they probably know about Shakespeare is that he lived a long time ago. They probably don’t know much of anything about the 16th century, so adding the date doesn’t help.
And where the hell is Stratford upon Avon? For that matter, what the hell is Stratford upon Avon and why does it have that weird (at least to Americans) name? That one simple sentence about Shakespeare’s birth hasn’t done much to build student knowledge or motivation to read. At worst, it might have reinforced their beliefs that Shakespeare will be difficult, foreign, and have nothing to do with them.
At this point you might feel tempted to break into a song and dance routine to liven up Stratford upon Avon. But I want to suggest a more engaging way of introducing any Shakespearean play.
Looking at the Globe
Show them a picture of the Globe Theater. Fortunately, today’s Globe in London is built to look very similar to Shakespeare’s day, so you don’t even need a historical drawing. This one from Wikimedia works well and is free to distribute:
Ask students what they see. Every student can answer that question, so you’ve already shifted the momentum from “this has nothing to do with me” to “I have a role in this activity.” What’s more, the things they’ll notice in the picture can actually help them comprehend whatever play they’re reading.
What to Discuss
Anyone notice that the theater is open to the sky? Great! That means Shakespeare had no way of controlling the lighting and he had to tell his audience with words what they were supposed to be “seeing.” Now when you get to passages like “lo, what light through yonder window breaks” in Romeo and Juliet, they can make the connection. Shakespeare has to describe the dawn, because it’s actually the middle of the afternoon.
Anyone notice the balcony? Wouldn’t it be cool if an actor was up there talking to people below him? Great, Shakespeare agreed. He used this nifty feature not only in Romeo and Juliet, but also Julius Caesar. Hamlet is less clear (like always), but you could certainly have students think about whether the balcony would help for the ghost scenes or other parts.
It’s harder to see the trapdoors that are in the floor of the stage, but it’s a good time to mention them if students are looking at the various ways of entering and exiting. They feature in plays such as Hamlet and The Tempest.
Anyone notice the sky painted on the bottom of the thrust ceiling? Great! Now you’re ready to talk about how Shakespeare thinks of the stage as a microcosm for the world in speeches like “All the world’s a stage” from As You Like It.
Anyone notice the fancy columns and what looks like marble statues painted on the sides of the stage? Great, there’s an opportunity to talk about how important Greek and Roman mythology is in Shakespeare’s day. You could also preview strategies for dealing with the allusions.
Anyone notice the tiers of seats and the fact that there are a few heads right at stage level? It’s a little hard to notice, so you can also use a picture like this one (also from Wikimedia):
That’s a great way of introducing Shakespeare’s audience. Students can see the difference between the posh seats for the wealthy and the open space for groundlings. And having an understanding of the groundlings will help them make sense of Shakespeare’s bawdy humor and seemingly random insertions, like the drunken porter in Act 2, Scene 3 of Macbeth.
So instead of reinforcing that Shakespeare is distant and difficult, we’ve started with a task they can take part in and succeed at. What’s more, in completing the simple task of looking closely at the theater, we’ve also had the opportunity to build background knowledge. But unlike knowledge of Stratford upon Avon, these elements of the theater actually help students with difficult features of the reading.
Long descriptive passages about the scenery make more sense when you realize Shakespeare had to paint pictures with words. Switches between esoteric allusions and dirty jokes make more sense when you understand how varied Shakespeare’s audience was. Confusing location changes are easier to deal with if you understand that Shakespeare used different parts of his stage.
Unfortunately, Shakespeare didn’t write any of these stage directions down because he was working directly with actors who were also intimately familiar with the Globe. But hopefully students can build on their understanding of the features of the Globe to develop strategies and have more success with Shakespeare.
I’d love to hear what’s worked for other people in teaching Shakespeare. And if you’re teaching Hamlet, check out The One Text You’ve Probably Never Read that Will Help Your Students with Hamlet and 5 Resources for Addressing Madness in Hamlet.