Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Breaking Down the Barriers of Shakespeare’s Text

Happy holidays, readers! We’ll be on hiatus until January 6, 2015. Check back then for a new post—and have a very merry winter break!


By Sara Lehn 

Othello promptbook
Paul Robeson’s promptbook from production of Othello in 1930. (Folger Shakespeare Library)


Occasionally, those of us who revere the Bard speak of his works as if they are some sort of holy text. These plays contain such incredible and untouchable genius that it’s sometimes hard not to treat them with awe.

The danger is that once we start to look at a work of literature as something to be revered we cease to see it as something over which we can take ownership.  It is too awe inspiring, and what right have we, peons of the modern educational system, to touch such perfection?

The answer is, of course, that we have every right, and that teaching our students to revere these plays as paintings in a museum, to be seen and not touched, is to put up a wall between inquiring young minds and the very real and lively nature of these plays.  Instead, we need to give students the tools to take these words into their hearts and their minds and truly embrace them.

The need to dig deeply into the language is one reason that performance is such a key element of teaching Shakespeare.  Sometimes, however, jumping directly into performance can be a bit intimidating for shy students.  It can be helpful to offer other ways for students to familiarize themselves with Shakespeare’s language as part of the performance process.

One possibility is script cutting.  Asking students to take a scene and edit it down to achieve a particular purpose leads to a deep and thoughtful exploration of what is truly at the core of the scene, what devices Shakespeare uses to communicate those ideas, and what might perhaps be repetitive or unnecessary.  This gets students reading Shakespeare’s words with dirty hands and a critical eye in a way that few other activities can accomplish.

To go beyond simple cutting the scenes, consider having students rearrange the scenes into something new.  Shakespeare Set Free proposes dividing the “To be or not to be” soliloquy into a debate or dialogue, looking at the different voices within the speech.

In a similar vein, what would happen if you took Hamlet’s “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I?” speech from 2.2.575 and his “How all occasions do inform against me” speech from 4.4.33 and conflated them together into a single soliloquy?

What if, in 3.3, Hamlet and Claudius were talking to each other instead of in back-to-back soliloquies?  Or, not talking to each other, but taking turns in talking to the audience?  What lines would you keep?  What lines would you discard?  How might these lines fit together?

Script cutting asks students to use Shakespeare’s words in new ways to reflect close reading and deeper understanding of the language and the characters.  This kind of exercise can easily lead to more formal Common Core style assignments later on.

Next, have students consider carefully the words in front of them and plan the scene’s performance through the creation of a promptbook.  The Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth lessons in Shakespeare Set Free both contain excellent resources for planning and preparing promptbooks.

A promptbook requires students to write directly on the script of a scene the movements, vocal inflections, and uses of sets, props, and effects that will be incorporated into the performance.  I frequently have students create promptbooks before doing a live performance in class, but I also sometimes encourage students to create “fantasy” promptbooks, reflecting not only what they will do in performance but also what they would do if they had the resources.  Promptbooks encourage students to take ownership over a scene and look deeply at each specific moment of performance with a critical and thoughtful eye.

Both of these exercises should be followed with a brief writing assignment asking students to explain and justify their creative choices with specific and substantial textual evidence.  As a result, students have taken ownership over Shakespeare, made his works their own, and then reflected careful analysis of the scenes.  Ultimately, not only have you encouraged the kind of deep, close reading required by the Common Core, but you have also broken down the wall between your students and Shakespeare’s words, putting the power of his language directly into their hands.


Sara Lehn teaches at Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York, where she has worked with all grades from 6 through 12.  She is an alumnus of the 2012 Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Sara can be reached at slehn@roslynschools.org.    



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