Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Shakespeare the Player

Last night, I sat in on the first preview for Folger Theatre’s new production of Twelfth Night. The romantic, knotty nature of the play was brought out in the production, and I, along with the rest of the very packed house, found myself enjoying the whole play anew. And then Feste (for not many companies cast a Fabian if they don’t have to) uttered one of my favorite lines in this play:

“If this were played upon a stage now, I could 
condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

It’s just such a wonderful, inclusive, self-aware joke. And because I’ve seen him so often in these self-aware parts, Louis Butelli has become my face of Will Shakespeare for the present, and I can almost see him creating that line 400+ years ago.

Mike LoMonico has said, and it’s true, that it’s not necessary to teach a biographical background in order to teach Shakespeare’s plays. You don’t need to know about Elizabethan life or stage practices to enjoy and explore the text, though instances for dropping in facts as they come up do arise. As a sometimes actor, I love finding these moments of player-hood in the text. This line in Twelfth Night, Hamlet’s speech to the tragedians, Henry V‘s apologetic Chorus, and – most especially dear to my heart – all of the mechanicals’ scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I’ve made it no secret that these terrible rustic actors are my favorites in the whole canon. Each festival season I fervently pray to see as many renditions of this play-within-a-play as there are schools to perform it. I even tried to get my wedding party to perform Pyramus and Thisbe at my wedding (they talked me down from that ledge). I love these players for throwing themselves whole-heartedly into their art, and committing to it despite lacking talent and means.

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger
Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

Recently, Carol Ann and I were left in charge of another school visit, and having discussed our mutual appreciation for Quince’s ragtag team, and Mike’s suggestion of dropping in facts as they came up, we decided to test out an activity for the students that combined Shakespeare’s Text with some player background, discussion, and history- to try to paint a larger picture, so to speak, as they came up in the mechanicals’ scenes in Midsummer. After a brief introduction to what an Elizabethan Theatre would have felt like, we used clips from the following scenes:

Act 1, Scene 2

(line 11) Quince tells his assembly what play they will produce: “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” What kind of play does an audience want to see? What does this title make you think of?

(line 20) Quince assigns the roles in the play. Bottom asks if Pyramus is “a lover or a tyrant?” You were likely to see many plays about kings and lovers much of the time. Try to pick out Shakespeare’s plays that aren’t about either subject, how many do you have?

(line 45) Francis Flute protests playing a woman – on the Elizabethan stage, women’s roles were played by young men and boys.

(line 75) Why are the players concerned about the Lion being too frightening? What could happen to you if your play displeased the monarch at the time? The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, were once in danger of their lives when Queen Elizabeth I saw herself in the deposed monarch in Shakespeare’s play Richard II.

Act 3, Scene 1

(line 9) Bottom is concerned that their play is too violent. Can we relate to that today? Who in the audience is he most concerned about? What solution does he propose?

(line 46) During their rehearsal, Quince says that he hopes to have the moon shining on the night of their performance because “Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight.” Is it actually necessary for the moon to be out for the play to be believable? What devices did Shakespeare have available to him to set the scene (ie: Merchant 5, 1; Midsummer 3, 2, 190)?

(line 61) Quince also points out the need for a wall for the lovers to whisper through. What is their solution. How would you solve this issue?

(line 90) Flute speaks all his lines at once. In the 16th century, actors learned their lines from “sides” – papers that contained their lines only, and maybe a cue or two.

Act 5, Scene 1

(line 134) The mechanicals’ play begins with a Prologue. Where else have you seen a Prologue, and what is its function?

(line 179) “O, grim-looked night!…” the O encompasses all of the emotion of the line (ie: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”) What emotion is Bottom/Pyramus playing here with all of these many many O’s? This part is especially fun for the best over-actor in the class.

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger
Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

(line 260) Throughout the play, the married couples add their own comments and interjections. Live theatre includes a live audience with live reactions. In Elizabethan England, nobles attended plays as much to be seen as to see. Sometimes there were seats onstage for them to show off their latest finery, and there’s a legend that Queen Elizabeth I once crossed the stage mid-performance to greet someone. The groundlings had no problem voicing their reactions during the play, either. Have you ever experienced something like that today?

(line 291) Even more fun – bad rhymes and stage deaths for Pyramus and Thisbe! Did the audience enjoy the play?

All-told, this portion of the activity took about 45 minutes, and we had a wonderful group of 8th grade students acting it out for us! At the end, we asked them to share anything they would take away from this, one student said, “You really had to use your imagination back then – it was all about the words and the actor.”

Not a bad takeaway.

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