Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

"You Shall Piece it Out With a Piece of Your Performance"

There are parts of my middle school English curriculum that I find to be really boring to teach.  For example: grammar.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m as much a geek for grammar as the next – but teaching it can be a drag… explaining rules, drilling through sentences, fighting the wavering attention spans…
Stanbury Class Bored

When I’m feeling bored with teaching a grammar skill or literary concept, here’s my solution: I decide not to teach it.

So to speak.

Instead, I go hunting through my Complete Works of Shakespeare, revisiting scenes that I’ve enjoyed, until I find a little section or excerpt that can somehow dovetail with the concept that my students need to learn.  I let Shakespeare teach the skill.  It’s much more interesting to introduce a skill or concept when it emerges from something alive and active, like a mini-scene that my students have puzzled through.

I’ll give you an example.

I had to teach my students about appositives, those nouny-phrases that clarify another noun and which are usually set off by commas.  I thought about lecturing and using overheads and passing out worksheets, but that whole process just seemed so dull.  I started thinking about what an appositive phrase feels like when it’s spoken.  The whole idea of an appositive as “extra information” made me think of Shakespeare’s asides – extra information that helps clarify things for the audience.

So I doctored up a short excerpt from Othello, act 5, scene 1, which ends with Iago’s aside, “This is the night / That either makes me or fordoes me quite.”  The catch was that I had secretly deleted the stage direction “Aside” when Iago speaks.  Then I passed the excerpt out to my students and had them work through it, swapping out actors and directors pretty frequently, ensuring that everyone stayed involved one way or another.

Eventually, some of them started to wonder why Iago would announce his scheming to the other characters.  (It took willpower for me to not vocalize that observation myself!)  The actor then tried giving that line with a cupped hand around his mouth, whispering the line to the audience.  Voilà – they’d figured out the concept of the aside.  From there, it was straightforward to dramatize some sentences with appositives, inserting cupped-hands for commas.  And since the students owned the discovery of the aside, the corresponding grammar concept clicked more fully for them.

Stanbury Class

After that experience, I kept trying to link Shakespeare with other parts of the curriculum, such as literacy skills.  My 7th graders were having a hard time making the leap from reading things literally to considering ideas about symbolism and metaphor.  We weren’t doing anything complex about Jay Gatsby’s optometrist or a piggy head on a spike; I just needed to get them to recognize the basic concept that sometimes, Thing A can represent Thing B.

What’s a scene in Shakespeare where one thing really, clearly stands for something else – a scene where the characters themselves are exploring symbolism?  After a little thought and browsing, I settled on a scene from Titus Andronicus.  (Yes, I can now say that I’ve done Titus with 12-year-olds.  Score!)  The titular character berates his brother for killing a fly, but then changes his mind when he envisions the fly as a symbol for the villain Aaron.  I introduced the scene to my students, telling them that Titus’s children had recently been murdered, raped, and/or mutilated (use your discretion.)  Also, I cut some lines from the scene in order to create a quicker dynamic that I thought would help my students recognize the change that Titus undergoes:

Titus Andronicus.
What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?

Marcus Andronicus.
At that that I have kill’d, my lord; a fly.

Titus Andronicus.
Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart;
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone.

Marcus Andronicus.
Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly.

Titus Andronicus.
But how, if that fly had a father and mother?
Poor harmless fly,
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast
kill’d him.

Marcus Andronicus.
Pardon me, sir; it was a black ill-favor’d fly,
Like to the empress’ Moor; therefore I kill’d him.

Titus Andronicus.
O, O, O,
Then pardon me for reprehending thee,
For thou hast done a charitable deed.
Give me thy knife, I will insult on him;
Flattering myself, as if it were the Moor
Come hither purposely to poison me.—
There’s for thyself, and that’s for Tamora.

Some of my students acted and others directed.  Then we switched roles and they made some changes in the staging, movement, articulation, etc.  Then we switched roles again.  Gradually, the kids started emphasizing different emotional styles and actions to accompany the text.  I asked guiding questions: “Why does Titus pity the dead fly? … What does it remind him of? … Why does he stab the fly?”

Pretty soon, the students were talking about how the fly comes to stand for so much more within this little scene, changing from an innocent creature into a symbol for Aaron.  The actors hammed it up, taking out their aggression on the little wad of paper that they had dubbed “Fly,” as if they saw the villain himself in it.  After that, we returned to the Steinbeck novella that I’d been teaching, and the students could see that the protagonist’s pearl evolves to symbolize so much more than just a financial windfall.

Now although I love teaching whole Shakespeare units, nobody ever said that you can’t teach his work in bits and pieces like this.  (Or if someone did, then that person is wrong.)  When I give my students a Shakespeare scene, the onus is on them to figure out how to make sense of the language and the staging.  And when it’s paired up with another skill, then the students’ ownership of the scene transfers to that skill.  They learn the nitty-gritties of their English curriculum, and I get to have more fun.  Pretty cool combo.

Geoff Stanbury teaches 7th grade humanities at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas.  He is an alumnus of TSI 2010, where his passion for Shakespeare flourished through collaboration with talented colleagues and friends.  Geoff earned his B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College and his M.A. at the University of Chicago.  Feel free to contact him at stanburyg@smtexas.org.


  • Dear Geoff, what a lovely idea! I’m wondering about something, though– sounds like you have an enormously useful, established practice of student actor/directors, such that everyone “knows the drill.” But what exactly does the student director do?

    • Thanks! But the truth is that my students are pretty new to this type of work. Their experiences in middle school theater class help, but mostly, I rely on the general classroom management expectations that I enforce starting on the first day of school — raising hands, listening to others’ answers, participating, etc. Throughout the process of making a scene, I stay hyper-involved, facilitating a discussion that occurs alongside the performance.

      Here’s one method: while some students are acting, the others (the “directors”) can call out “Pause!” to add an instruction, such as a character’s placement on stage or a tone of voice. I usually get them going by calling out the first one or two pauses myself. However, unlike my students, I don’t give an instruction; rather, I ask questions like “How does Titus feel right now? How do you know? So what kind of movement would convey that feeling? Any other possibilities? Actor, which answer seems best to you?” If the directors are unsure about “how” to answer my questions, I’ll throw them a bone (“This word sounds sad, right? So how can he *act* sad?”)

      Usually, the biggest challenge is ensuring that *all* students participate without letting the quiet ones defer to the vocal ones. One way I overcome that is by having each student write a direction directly on the script — sometimes I’ll dictate which line — and then everyone shares. Then we all decide which direction to incorporate into the performance.

      Overall, the first one or two times I do this type of activity with students, it’s a bit clunky. I need a lot of time to get the kids warmed up (think gym class), to describe the activity, to get them reading out loud, and to make sure that we all stay focused and on-track. However, after two or three times (even over the course of, say, several months), the students can get up-to-speed much more efficiently.

      Remember, it doesn’t have to be a perfect performance! If the kids can make some sense of things or draw a connection between the text and the underlying lesson, then they’re learning. Good luck! (And let me know if I can clarify anything…)

  • Geoff, I really connected to your example — TITUS — an interesting and engaging play for students, or so it seems to me, filled with so many examples of later characters/plays — MACBETH, LEAR, and OTHELLO just to name a few. And, the grammar lesson! Wow! I love the concept of teaching the aside through OTHELLO. Thanks for connecting Shakespeare to grammar in such an interactive, persformance-based way. Bob

    • In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily matter if certain elements are way off, since my goal is not to get the students to stage a “perfect” scene. As long as they’re all involved and trying to justify their ideas, then they’re probably on track towards figuring out whatever point it is that I’m trying to connect up with a non-Shakespeare part of the curriculum.

      However, you’ve got a point — sometimes, students just totally don’t get something major and make the scene ridiculous, without even considering how off-base they may have gotten. When this happens, I step in and take over for a moment, but as unobtrusively as possible. For example, with “Othello,” I might just tell them about the intimate relationship that Bianca shared with Cassio. Or if we’re doing, say, a scene from “King Lear” and the students aren’t picking up that the line “Out, vile jelly” refers to Gloucester’s eyeball, then I might pause the scene and pretend to rip out a student’s eyeball with my hand while making squish-squish sounds. Small fixes.

      But if that fails, then it’s ok to just say “Hey, that doesn’t make sense. Try it this way.”

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