Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

"Faith, here's an Equivocator,"

Very often, it is not necessary to teach the history behind Shakespeare’s plays to enjoy them in the classroom. It is merely enough to speak the words, explore the text, and get to know the characters.

If possible, however, the influence of monarchs on Shakespeare’s plays can be just as interesting.

How is Macbeth a dramatization of the Gunpowder Plot? Why was a certain scene in Richard II banned from performance? Why did the play Henry VIII end with praise for baby Elizabeth and not a beheading? Why do we now remember Richard III as a hunchbacked murderer?

And why, for goodness sake,  did he write Merry Wives of Windsor?

Because the royals requested it.

Last night I saw a performance from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of Bill Cain’s highly acclaimed Equivocation, which – through fiction – explores the dangerous but necessary link between politics and art, and how they each influence each other. I left with my head buzzing around things I’d never considered about the two. Their study materials were a very interesting read (if a bit high-scholarly).

If the means are available, consider the history behind the plays’ performances. What was the political state at the time? Who was on the throne? Who had caused a scandal at court? What was happening in London (or made world news) at that time? Elizabeth I and James I both had a noticeable influence on what Shakespeare wrote about, and how his plays were received.

I would love to hear if anyone’s done a student project on anything like this before – and what was gleaned from it. Or perhaps it could be fun for the few students left in your classrooms the day before Thanksgiving to read up on the history around the play you’re studying this semester and create a timeline or parallel guide to the fact and the fiction. Has anyone done any lessons on these links before, or plan to?


  • Caitlin Griffin: Good idea, and for something a little different and challenging Google ‘Shakespeare Scotland Whalen’ for my article on ‘Macbeth; and for something brand new and challenging, try Richard Roe’s 2011 book, ‘The Shakespeare Guide to Italy’ available from Amazon and others. — Richard F. Whalen

  • As a student, I would have loved the excitement of finding the historical background to Shakespeare’s times. When teaching “Titus Andronicus”, why not explore the possibility that the Bard’s first published revenge drama actually begins, not in a fictional Gothic Rome, but in 1514 London, after the Battle of Flodden? In 2002, I discovered that the old warrior’s opening speech contains nine direct links to the biography etched in brass on the Catholic 2nd duke of Norfolk’s funeral monument. If Titus is meant to mirror the hero of Flodden and his Catholic family, then Shakespeare (along with George Peele, perhaps) were taking quite a chance by giving their hero the surname “Pius” – which was the name of the pope who excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570! (see my article, “Titus Andronicus and the Treasonous House of Howard”, available online).

  • Another great blog entry, Caitlin! _Equivocation_ is such a fantastic play.

    I think for my college Shakespeare class I’m going to teach it with _V for Vendetta_, _Macbeth_ (of course), and Maurice Hunt’s article “Reformation/Counter-Reformation _Macbeth_” in _English Studies_, which discusses _Macbeth_ in reference to the Gunpowder Plot.

    I can also imagine a unit focusing on plays and films that imagine specific events in Shakespeare’s own life as the inspiration for his plays, and pairing _Macbeth_/_Equivocation_ with _Romeo and Juliet_/_Shakespeare in Love_. Both _Equivocation_ and _Shakespeare in Love_ feature unhappy daughters (Judith Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps) who respond to Shakespeare’s manuscript drafts– not just as muses but also as literary editors, really — and reshape the play as he is in the process of writing it. I think that’s interesting.

    • Amy Scott-Douglass,

      For a challenging discussion about the Gunpowder Plot, check the authoritative Bedford-St. Martin’s edition of Macbeth by William Carroll of Boston University, esp. pp.5-7, 249-56. Carroll is quite skeptical about the Gunpowder Plot to blow up everybody as inspiration for Macbeth’s stabbing Duncan in bed as he sleeps. It might make a great debate, Carroll vs Hunt, for two teams of students. — Richard F. Whalen

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