Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

What’s the Prime of Life?

I had taught English 9 for eight years straight when my teaching assignment changed and there followed a five-year hiatus in which I didn’t teach it at all until this year. Fortunately for my students this year, in the intervening years I attended the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute.

Our English 9 curriculum includes the classic “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It, and teaching this monologue with performance and visual art as close-reading strategies made teaching this selection a more meaningful experience than it had ever been before.

This year we opened up our study of this monologue with a freewriting prompt: What age do you consider “the prime of life?” The students had many opinions, ranging from the napping, snacking and carefree playing of toddlerhood, to young adulthood with its life decisions and vital worldview shaping, to the feeling of achievement in retirement.

Once they had stages of life on their minds, I divided the class into seven groups, assigned them one of the ages from Shakespeare’s monologue, and gave them the task of pantomiming the age while one person reads the passage. (Until you have seen a 14-year-old boy pantomime childbirth while two others pose as nurse and infant complete with all the “mewling and puking,” can you really say that you have lived, I ask?) Having the students focus on just a few lines of the speech first rather than reading the entire monologue helped them access the tough language of the poem in a manageable chunk.

We performed the monologue bits in random order and had a discussion of what order they thought the monologues should go in, then read the entire monologue, discussing what Shakespeare might suggest is the prime age of life.

On day two, to get us focused back on the poem, we watched a professional reading of the monologue and discussed how relatable Shakespeare’s seven ages are today:  Which ages might this

(Image: Liz Dixon)
(Image: Liz Dixon)

monologue not address? For whom might this monologue not be relevant?

Our textbook happens to accompany the selection with a photograph of the Folger Library’s iconic stained-glass window, leading us into the culminating activity, which was to create a “2016 Seven Ages” poster. Students were assigned the task of re-creating a new set of seven ages and plotting them visually, like the Folger stained glass window’s rise and fall. Students created complicated overlapping pie chart lives, exponentially rising lives with steep drop-offs, trajectories interrupted by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and roller-coaster lives.

In the past, I had used this poem as the basis for a Socratic seminar, which—props to the Socratic seminar—is still a great learning strategy. I love the student-centered interactivity of a good seminar; however, the Folger approach with its performance and close reading strategies opened up a new level of engagement with this monologue and no sacrifice in depth of analysis.