Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Maxims for performing Shakespeare in the classroom

2013 Secondary Festival

As the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute approaches the end of its third week, we return to Dan Bruno’s NCTE High School Matters blog, where he has been busy sharing some of the insights he’s gleaned from TSI sessions.

Here’s an excerpt from a blog post in which Dan reviews some maxims for guiding students through performance-based learning in the classroom.

This scene is your whole play: this further reinforces the Folger philosophy that close reading on one’s feet does not require the teaching of a whole play; focus on what the scene shows us about the people in it, etc.

All plays are contemporary: despite the original context of the play, students bring their own cultural contexts and personal contexts to the plays they are reading; validating those contexts validates the student and builds confidence

Characters are defined by what they do, not what they say: helping students focus on action eases some of the anxiety with the foreign quality of the language

Words can convey many meanings: What do you mean when you say it?: this one reminds students that they have choice and ownership over their readings of the text while validating that there is no one way to play it

What does the script tell us, NOT what would we like it to tell us?: this one reminds students that everything they need to know is on this page; there is no secret code to reading Shakespeare

Dialogue is action-oriented: all utterances have a goal behind them, even if that goal is to be left alone; understanding these helps link performance movement choice to how the line is read

Good plays are about human behavior: this one links to the previous one; how do people behave when they are in specific contexts attempting to gain specific desires

You cannot play themes or literary tropes: these things are great for the world of literary analysis, but alien to the world of the actor; people don’t consider themes when they are trying to bed lovers or destroy rivals; themes arise from our reflection on those events

Do you have anything to add? What are maxims that you communicate to your students when they are doing performance-based, language-centered learning? Tell us in the comments.

Read the full blog post at NCTE High School Matters.


  • What are people’s thoughts about the characters’ backstories? I’ve been intrigued by this since hearing a director talk about the actor playing Aaron in her Titus, who wrote a very long backstory to help him be able to stand playing Aaron. That is, to speculate about a sort of previous life that would help explain Aaron’s cruelty.

    That anecdote about a backstory stays with me, though every other Shakespeare director I’ve asked about it insists that Shakespeare’s text gives all the backstory the actor needs. But I’m skeptical– that gets repeated as though it’s a piece of dogma. Or perhaps the official story, as opposed to what actors do in private.

    Yes, I know we’re talking about high school students here. But never underestimate a high school student!

    • IME, it depends on how skilled and knowledgeable the actor is, and how responsive her/his instrument is. Highly skilled and experienced Shakespearean actors have much less need for a backstory — you ride the verse, the text really IS everything. There’s not time in the rhythm, or need, to move from motivation to motivation as there is in more contemporary texts.

      Sometimes you think you need a backstory, in prep and rehearsal — then you get further in, or in front of your first audience and you realize — well, that was fun but completely unnecessary!

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