Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

"Shall we go draw our numbers, and set on?"

~by Julia Perlowski
(title quote from Henry IV, part 2)

In my high school honors English class, my well-meaning teacher decided to have us read Macbeth.  I was thrilled.  I had been in classes where teachers played records of famous Shakespearean monologues read by famous people with thick British accents.   Who can forget “Oh, pardon me thou bleeding piece of flesh that I am meek and gentle with these butchers!” out of the mouth of Marlon Brando?   Yikes!  If that is not enough to scare a child, I don’t know what is!  However, in this honors class we sat in desks in neat little rows and were asked which of us would like what part.  I wanted Macbeth!  I really did.  I had some fIuency with early modern English as I heard it from my mother’s mouth at bedtime and read it aloud in our family den when no one was looking.  The part initially went to Bruce Holsinger, who was the smartest boy in the school, now Professor of Music and English at University of Virginia. When Bruce needed a break and it was discovered that there was not another great male reader in the class, the part went to me.  I had a blast, and was quite pleased with myself, as was Bruce, that we were granted the coveted parts.  As a teacher of drama, reading and English, teaching Shakespeare in all of those classes since 2006, I now know that only 4 out of 35 kids “covet” those parts.  The rest are scared stiff or could not care less.  And, the kids who have a mild interest in Shakespeare don’t have much to do until they are finally prompted to say…”Here’s knocking indeed!”

I want to share a simple method, learned at the Folger and use extensively in my classrooms, to get ALL kids reading Shakespeare in a relatively short period of time, even with scenes where only two or three characters are speaking, even with monologues and soliloquies. Here it is:  Number the text.

That’s it!  A bulk of the good teaching methods with performative text relies on numbering lines in such a way that most kids get to have a go!  Most of my classes contain 30 students.  Most of my planning time consists of solving math problems in order to configure groups:  15 groups of 2; or, 2 groups of 15; or, 6 groups of 5, as well as numbering dialogue for maximum student performance time.  Consider this bit of dialogue from  Act 1, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet:

1 ABRAHAM:  Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

2 SAMPSON:  I do bite my thumb, sir.

3 ABRAHAM:  Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

4  SAMPSON:  [Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say ay?


6 SAMPSON:  No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.

7 GREGORY:  Do you quarrel, sir?

8 ABRAHAM:  Quarrel sir! no, sir.

9 SAMPSON:  If you do, sir, I am for you: I serve as good a man as you.

10 ABRAHAM:   No better.

11 SAMPSON:  Well, sir.

12 GREGORY:  Say ‘better:’ here comes one of my master’s kinsmen.

13 SAMPSON:  Yes, better, sir.

14 ABRAHAM:   You lie.

15 SAMPSON:   Draw, if you be men.



(1) Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
(2) Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.

With the script numbered in this way, here are some possibilities for enactment in a class of 30 where all are involved:

1.  LINE VOLLEY:  Half the class can enact the EVEN numbered lines, the other half, the ODD numbered lines.  Lines will be spoken alternately between the lines.   One or more students can intervene as the Prince.

2.  ENSEMBLE SCENE:  Two groups of fifteen students can enact the scene each having their own line.   The part of the Prince may be read by all in unison…or by one person if one of the students takes two lines.

3.  3-D SHAKESPEARE:  Four students may perform the speaking parts of this scene with the rest of the class serving as directors with the teacher  facilitating between the actors and the audience asking the hard questions.  Who is here when the scene starts?

One of the most effective teaching days I had with this particular bit of numbered script consisted of a line volley with 45 students.  There were so many bodies that we “staged” the scene in two aisles of the audience across the middle orchestra seats.  Students delivered contentious lines as they climbed over seats brandishing rolled up scripts, eyeballing the enemies from the other side.


In another part of the country, two 3rd grade boys share the Prince’s speech:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ckbIz2i5Ks&w=350&h=197]

How do YOU do the math?

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