Bringing Shakespeare to Life: Performance in the Classroom

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In a previous blog post, I described my dramatic redesign of a unit built around Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. In that post, I mentioned that breaking the pattern of four rhetorical analyses of speeches from the play would be a couple of class periods devoted instead to studying and performing Caesar’s assassination scene from act three, scene one.

It has become an almost unquestioned cliche of teaching Shakespeare that the Bard’s work is meant to be seen and heard, not read. While reading Shakespeare’s plays still has a role of obvious importance in the study of Shakespeare, I think students certainly should get to see and hear his plays, too. There are a number of ways, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, that teachers around the world teach Shakespeare with at least some success: performing key scenes, watching the movie first (or while reading or after reading), reading the script at home and discussing in class, reading aloud in class, reading along with professional recordings, and so on and so forth.

You may recall from my previous post about my Julius Caesar unit, however, that my primary learning goals for these five weeks revolved around the appreciation and practical application of rhetoric and argumentation. Acting out a scene or two from each act, therefore, would not necessarily be the best way to get my students from point A to my desired point B. It seems a sin to me, though, to teach Shakespeare without any classroom performance. Not only is it a chance for students to get out of their seats, out of their books, and “into” Shakespeare, as it were, but it’s also a chance for them to engage more closely and meaningfully with the text while getting a better appreciation for the genre of drama.

I strongly agree with what Dr. Peggy O’Brien, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Director of Education and general editor of the Shakespeare Set Free series, writes in her introduction to the 2006 edition of Volume One of the series:

Make no mistake: learning Shakespeare through doing Shakespeare involves the very best kind of close reading, the most exacting sort of literary analysis.

O’Brien recognizes the way in which performing Shakespeare’s plays demands a great deal from students as readers of the text and as critical thinkers. Amateur student actors must inhabit the roles of both director and actor as they consider tone of voice, vocal inflection, body language, positioning of the actors, the limits of the stage, and more. All these considerations demand intense close reading and a consideration of substantial textual evidence to inform and to justify students’ interpretations.

But once I had decided that my students should perform a scene from the play, a number of questions presented themselves:

  • What scene deserves the honor of performance above the rest?
  • How do I help students to put on a performance that occupies no more than a few class periods?
  • Do all students need to be acting? If not, what are the rest doing?
  • How does every student engage in this activity?
  • How do I ensure every student is closely reading the text?

Answering the first question was the easiest: Julius Caesar revolves around the assassination of the play’s titular character and the rival speeches by Brutus and Antony that follow Caesar’s death. Since my students will be analyzing both these speeches and then writing the summative essay about them, it makes sense that I would choose the crucial assassination scene at the beginning of act three for them to perform. Plus, they’d get to play with fake daggers (instant engagement).

As for the rest, here is how I turned the performance of act three, scene one into a two-day lesson.

JC Performer

One of my sophomore students playing the role of Caesar in his self-assembled costume. We were fortunate enough to do our run-though performance in the drama department’s theater, as there was no drama class that period. (Photo credit: Brianna Manasas, 2016)

  1. First, I played a clip of the movie from the start of act three until Caesar addresses the conspirators so students could quickly get the gist of the lead-up to Caesar’s murder. I decided that for the purpose of our performance, we would focus only on lines 31-83 (using the line numbering in Elements of Literature, Fourth Course).
  2. I gave students a handout of the script to read and annotate in their groups. I asked them first to identify words they didn’t know. Then, I had them chunk the speech once they understood the gist of it and summarize the chunks in the left margin. Finally, they annotated “with a director’s mind” in the right margin. I gave them some examples of considerations to include (e.g., How should the lines be delivered? Where should people stand? What sort of movements should be included?) and advised them that not every line need be annotated so long as students worked all the way to the bell (I teach with 51- to 56-minute periods).
  3. On day two, the day of the performance, I had the students’ tables arranged in a double-horseshoe facing front, with a good amount of space cleared for our stage. I took volunteers to be our six conspirators and Caesar, and let them select their own costumes from a pile of shirts, pants, and yards of fabric generously loaned by our theater department. A scarlet sheet would be our “blood.” The conspirators also each got a cardboard dagger or sword that I had cut myself from some moving boxes.
  4.  We then established some guidelines. The actors could suggest directions, but the non-actors in the room would be the collective director. We would go chunk by chunk through the performance, with the class making suggestions about blocking, delivery, gestures, etc. before the performance of each chunk. After each block of performance, the class could suggest revisions to what the actors had done. To facilitate efficiency and clarity, students would use a common vocabulary (I taught them some basic staging language using a graphic I found online) and settle disagreements (e.g., “Should this character be standing or kneeling?”) by a quick vote by show of hands. I inserted the odd suggestion here and there, or posed a question to be decided by the class, when I felt something needed to be addressed (e.g., “When should Brutus step forward?”).
  5. Once the chunking and directing were completed, our actors did a single run-through  from the top, with their scripts. We didn’t stop for small slips, persevering through the inevitable but minor stumbles instead.

So, how did it go? My students were completely engaged the entire two class periods. They worked with Shakespeare’s language using their own brains and one another as resources with very little “translation” needed from me–and none from No Fear Shakespeare (he said, with a note of distaste in his voice). My students seemed to have a blast, and they learned something about drama and about the play in the process. I “sacrificed” only two days of my five-week unit to this lesson, and my students still had time for the rest of my unit: the intro activity, the four-speech analysis, the argumentative process essay.

Shakespeare presents a major challenge to the secondary teacher, but there are so many different approaches out there that teachers have used effectively. What are your personal thoughts about and experiences with the teaching of Shakespeare? Share them in the comments below, and let’s start a conversation!

P.S. The Folger Shakespeare Library, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has some phenomenal teaching resources available online. I have no affiliation with Folger, but I prefer their print editions of the text over others because of the handy notes on pages facing the text of the play. Here are a few links from Folger that I encourage you to explore:

Folger Classroom Resources Homepage
Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute’s Summer Academy
Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Blog

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