Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

But by Reflection…

~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger

No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.
(Julius Caesar, I.2)

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with several 10th graders who were studying Othello. The classroom teacher let me loose, so after a very brief discussion (which consisted of my asking “what do you know already about Shakespeare and Othello?” and gathering up their responses to show them how much they do know), I had them up on their feet speaking the language.

As students sometimes are, these kids were a little put off by Shakespeare’s language. On the page, it felt stilted and even boring to them. But once they put themselves into the action, using their bodies and voices to bring life to the words, they discovered (in one student’s words) “Shakespeare is not that bad.” In fact, some were quite stunned to realize (to quote another student) “Othello is super duper cool.”

Most of the class was spent acting out—pushing the desks and chairs out of the way and creating short scenes. Students demonstrated how daws would peck at Iago’s heart if he wore it on his sleeve, showed how Iago would snatch the handerkerchief away from Emilia, and reveled in the final scene with all the death.

It’s tempting to end a class with all this action and send students on their way in this great mood. However, instead I had them answer five questions, in writing, to reflect on their experience and what they had learned. Giving them this opportunity is a final, satisfying piece in experience-based learning: putting the learning into their own words in their own context for their own lives. I asked students what they had learned and how that learning might help them in other classes or other areas of their lives. There were no “right” or “wrong” answers, just an opportunity for students to think about what they had done and how it mattered.

Some of my favorite comments from this group were:

The most helpful activity was the portraying of lines in different ways. It showed how acting the lines differently changed the meaning of the words.

When we talked about how the plays were not meant to be read then. That helps me to imagine when I read more Shakespeare in the future, to picture it being in a theater so I can understand it better.

It was helpful seeing people in class act out the scenes according to the play, not professional actors in a movie.

I understand more how Shakespeare plays were acted out in the Globe theater. Like how loud the actors had to be and how they used animal blood and how they acted with people being very noisy and thieves in the crowd stealing money.

It was helpful discussing different ways the characters could be portrayed and seeing them portrayed. It helped me understand the depth of the characters.

I think the most helpful part for me was when we talked about how to make your expression in your voice help the audience understand what the words mean.

It was helpful hearing and seeing the lines acted out instead of just reading them on paper.

Acting out the scenes was helpful because I got to understand how the language contributes to the performance.

We are now Shakespearean actors!

How do you encourage to students think about what they are learning and make Shakespeare more than words on a page?

Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine. Carol Ann is also, now, one of our most frequent contributors!


  • This is great. It seems clear that getting students up and on their feet speaking Shakespeare’s language is a terrific way to give the students the opporunity to make meaning of the text for themselves and their peers and to take ownership of it.

  • Movement…I’ll keep that in mind. I have a teaching degree in elementary ed and am now homeschooling my high school kids. I am planning a Shakespeare unit, we are studying the days of Queen Elizabeth this week. I had only a smattering of Shakespeare in my high school honors English and want to pull out the stops. I have a pile of several Folger editions of Shakespeare plays, a Shakespeare bio, DVDs of Shakespearan performances, and now I’m reading through this site…trying to figure out exactly where to start and prioritize. We’ll be doing some recitations for a culmination project. My kids learned some Shakespeare with recitations 4 years ago.

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