Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Plays of Preference

I was speaking with Folger Theatre’s resident Dramaturg, Michele Osherow, this morning as she prepared for an on-camera interview. While catching up, I mentioned that my husband would be working on a performance of Measure for Measure during his first year of graduate school – one of my least favorite plays. Michele replied that Measure for Measure is one of her favorites because it is so messy and unsettling, the same reasons I don’t like it.

Isabella (Karen Peakes), Mark Zeisler (Duke), Measure for Measure, Folger Theatre, 2006. Directed by Aaron Posner. Carol Pratt.
Isabella (Karen Peakes), Mark Zeisler (Duke), Measure for Measure, Folger Theatre, 2006. Directed by Aaron Posner. Carol Pratt.

Michele went on to point out that while her college students express distaste for Measure for Measure or Troilus and Cressida during her class, those complicated and uncomfortable plays are the ones they return to explore in their final papers and presentations. They’re the plays that stick in their minds because there’s so much to explore even as it discomfits us.

My favorite plays tend to contain comic banter. I like how the words intersect and dance around each other, especially out loud, in plays like Much AdoTwelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet (before it becomes a tragedy). I also enjoy the bumbling comic characters in Midsummer, as you already know, because I feel so close to Shakespeare as a player in those scenes. I enjoy talking about the use of language and the playing with the several meanings of words in performance.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Beatrice), P.J. Sosko (Benedick), Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre, 2005. Directed by Nick Hutchison. Photo: Carol Pratt. Carol Pratt.
Kate Eastwood Norris (Beatrice), P.J. Sosko (Benedick), Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre, 2005. Directed by Nick Hutchison. Photo: Carol Pratt. Carol Pratt.

For Michele, those complicated plays are very close in nature to modern theatrical experiences. They make us question how we feel and what we think about the world we live in – just as Shakespeare’s audience must have felt and thought. Is marriage a reward or a punishment? Is your best friend a good or bad person – are you? Who do you relate to: the villain or the hero – or is there a character you can identify as either role?

This reminded me of several videos in our Teacher to Teacher series – especially ‘Beauty in Difficulty‘ from Kristyn Rosen on plays that will challenge her students. Additionally, there is a whole section of videos related to teachers responding to the question “What is your favorite Shakespeare play to teach?” They cite relatability, good discussions, fun, and playable moments as their best reasons for one play or another.

What is your favorite play to read, see, teach, or talk about?


  • “Messy and unsettling” makes me think of Shakespeare’s bottomless complexity. I thought I’d learned something about people from my many years of psychiatric and psychoanalytic training. But I’m tempted to say, a bit hyperbolically, “Everything I needed to know about people I learned from Shakespeare.” Still learning, actually.

  • Both those plays are what you might call “smoking gun” plays — *Troilus* because of its intense topicality, well known disruptive textual history (http://www.academia.edu/202301/The_Tortured_Signifier_Satire_Censorship_and_the_Textual_History_of_Troilus_and_Cressida), and frequent puns on the de Vere family motto, as when Troilus announces “after all comparisons of truth, as truth’s authentic author to be cited,” even including the word “comparisons” in observation of the fact that the word “vero” in the motto “Vero nihil verius is an ablative *of comparison*).

    *Measure for Measure* is perhaps more subtle in its exploration of the thematic intersection between autobiography and legal ethics, but when the Duke in disguise announces to the puzzled Isabel “after every syllable, a faithful verity, the Duke comes home tomorrow,” those with ears to hear will notice the adroit variation on the unworldly advice of Jesus in Matt. 5.18: “think not that I come to destroy the law, I come to fulfill the law, and not a jot or a tittle will be put out until all things are fulfilled” (this is a rough generic translation from memory). The Vere jingles are pretty obvious set against the original, not to mention that the Duke is in disguise because by his own admission he’s a sort of “monstrous adversary” – to quote the good professor Nelson on the matter. These observations are of course merely the beginning, not the end, of what these “problem plays” might disclose were we to be more attuned to to their actual origins and less absorbed by the fantasy of the Stratford lad as author.

  • What a question! Here goes: Since I am romatically and artistically inclined, naturally anything magical would interest me; hence, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I love the fairy kingdom. (And there is so much scope for the imagination for costuming!) I love language and the use of words, and of course Will is a master with that. For the use of language, I’d have to select Julius Caesar, especially Anthony’s funeral oration in manipulating the crowd. Still relevant today. The psychology of people’s minds is fascinating, too, so Macbeth, Hamlet, and again, Julius Caesar is good for that. For a romantic, you’d think I would like Romeo and Juliet, but it is my least favorite play. Both of the main characters are just a bit too extreme for me. For teaching, I always choose a comedy, since I am trying to introduce students to Shakespeare and they usually arrive with fear and trepidation, not yet having discovered how fun Shakes. can be. I love some of the lines in The Merchant of Venice (the quality of mercy speech) and (at the end, Lorenzo and Jessica are discussing music). Interestingly, I prefer to read the play before I attend a production. My favorites: Dream, Macbeth, Caesar, and Merchant…maybe Henry V, too. Oh me! How can I pick just a couple. :)

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