Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Finding a Shakespeare Hook

By Kevin Costa

Whenever I begin a Shakespeare play with my students in my two-year course, The Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies at McDonogh School, I get the class working on text from just about Day One. I don’t spend a lot of time setting up with talk about Shakespeare’s life or with the history of the period — there’s plenty of time for that later, if at all.

Owiso Odera (Othello) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago), Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.
Owiso Odera (Othello) and Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago), Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

When I first started this course, I would choose the play we’d cover for two years, but this fall I took a different approach. My students and I looked through the Complete Works, and we read bits and pieces of plays that I thought they might like. This year, I think we may have looked at the moment in Othello where Iago helps convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful (3.3). Then we also read through the two scenes in Measure for Measure where Angelo propositions Isabella to sleep with him (2.2 & 2.4).

If you have a choice of play from which to chose, this is a compelling way to have students own their experience from the get-go. In other words, get students hooked by offering some of a play’s “greatest hits.” Once they have a taste of something they like, they’ll certainly want more since a well-chosen scene can really awaken their curiosity for the whole work.

If you don’t have a choice in play, that’s no problem at all. Here are some ideas for some of the most-taught titles.

  • If you’re doing Hamlet, preview the scene where Hamlet confronts his father’s ghost (1.5) or where he contemplates killing Claudius but then doesn’t (3.3).
  • Romeo and Juliet provides a range of scenes to get your students hooked: the opening scene is wonderful, as is Act 3, Scene 1 where Tybalt kills Mercutio and then Romeo kills Tybalt. Or perhaps look at the father-daughter argument where Juliet refuses to marry Paris (3.5).
  • In Macbeth, preview the scene immediately following Duncan’s murder (2.2) when Macbeth enters with the bloody daggers. Or perhaps begin with the banquet scene where we see Macbeth undergoing a nervous breakdown (3.1).

Now, you know your students best. If you wish, you can treat this preview as “table work” in the theatre: this is where the cast reads and discusses the scene aloud with the director (the teacher at this point, perhaps). You might give just enough context for the scene to make sense, but then facilitate a discussion. Some questions might include:

  • What happens in the scene? Encourage them to be very literal at this point: Who is talking to whom? Where does the scene seem to take place? What practical needs are there (props, entrances, stage levels — e.g., a balcony)
  • What seems to be the relationship between the characters in the scene? Get students to point to evidence to support their claims.
  • What predictions do students have about the play based on this scene? List them.

If you don’t wish to stay at the table, then don’t! Get students on their feet and use the following handout, How to Stage a Scene, to help you.

If you’re stuck, ask your questions in the comments below.

Kevin J. Costa is a Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2010 alumnus and Director of the Fine and Performing Arts at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD.

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