Teaching the Basics

Today we are going to look into how we can lay the foundation, but before we do that, I want to take a moment to respond to some great feedback/questions I received. Hopefully, this will make these ideas more well rounded and, as always, I would love to get some input from other teachers.

First, I want to address grade/ability level. In my mind, I was picturing grade school/middle school students. This is primarily because I believe students benefit from earlier exposure to Shakespeare. More important in my mind is ability level. This lesson is designed for novices, as a first exposure to Shakespeare.

Second, we need to differentiate the “need to know” and the “nice to know.” I agree with the comment on my previous post that most of the background information is a “nice to know.” Covering the play itself is definitely the most important part. However, I believe that much of the background information can provide valuable insight into the text.

In addition, it can provide the necessary insight to effectively work against the anti-Stratfordian arguments. While not critical to an understanding of the text, it’s a personal mission of mine that may be swaying my theories. What can I say? Nobody’s perfect.

Finally, a big emphasis must be placed on the most important goal of any Shakespeare lesson: getting students to not hate Shakespeare. My hope here is that the activities provided will make Shakespeare an enjoyable enough and educational enough that students will walk away with an appreciation for Shakespeare and his works.

I also think that having a variety of activities increases the odds of something peaking a student’s interest. For example, I am someone who is highly interested in history and needs context to fully appreciate pretty much anything. As a student, I would love to at least have access to the sorts of historical information that interests me. It keeps me engaged with the text and thinking about the text in ways that interest me.

And with that very long and possibly rambly preface, let’s jump into teaching the basics.

Getting to know Shakespeare

I would consider this a mix of “need to know” and “must know.” I think knowing the basics, such as the time period he was writing in. I think covering the most basic information and then making more information readily available would be an excellent way to conserve class time, but still provide that enrichment.

Basic Biographical Information: First, I’ll elaborate on what information I am talking about in this section and then, I’ll come up with some possible activity ideas.

William Shakespeare was born around April 23rd 1564 in Stratford upon Avon, England. He was christened on April 26th at the local church, which is how we estimated the date of his birth. His father was a glover and a well-known political figure in the town. Shakespeare most likely attended the local grammar school.

At the age of 18, he married the 26 year-old Anne Hathaway. Approximately six months later, his daughter Susanna was born. Two years later, the young couple greeted twins Hamnet and Judith. Unfortunately, Hamnet passed away of unknown causes at age 11.

There are a couple decades of Shakespeare’s life are completely unknown. There are a few prevailing theories: that he was a school teacher, a law clerk, or an apprentice actor. However, we have no proof.

He reappeared in the records as a playwright in London in 1592. After 1594, the acting company was patronized by the Lord Chamberlain. Shakespeare was a partner in the company, meaning he was a partial owner and earned money on every production.

According to early biographers, Shakespeare retired to Stratford for several years before his death. He passed away on August 23rd 1616. The prevailing story is that it was after a night of birthday drinking with some theatre buddies.

Besides just presenting the information, there are a few ways to make it more interactive:

  • Reading Comprehension: Provide a worksheet containing all of the important information with sheet for the student to fill out. Then, have the students identify the relevant information.
  • Internet Research: Turn the students loose to find the information on their own and work on their independent research skills

Grammar School in Elizabethan England: It’s a common misconception that Shakespeare was uneducated because he didn’t attend a university. This, however, is far from the truth. They would have learned how to translate latin and greek classics. They would have memorized these texts as well. This basic education has been compared to a contemporary classics education. He was far from uneducated.

This is nice to know, but not really necessary for understanding the play. However, I believe it is extremely helpful in understanding how exactly William Shakespeare from Stratford Upon Avon was able to write these amazing plays. In addition, I think there are some fun ways to present the information:

  • Grammar School Reading List: just like students would have for school today, put together a list of books that would be studied. You could even treat students to selected readings (bonus points if it’s in Latin or Greek!)
  • Grammar School Schedule: the school week was very rigorous. School went for nearly twelve hours with a two hour break in the middle. The subject matter was equally dense. You can take this opportunity to have students discuss what it may have been like.

The Lost Years: Again, this would be a “nice to know”, but useful knowledge to have at the ready in the authorship debates.

Records in Shakespeare’s time were not the best. If you weren’t being born, getting arrested, getting married, buying property, or dying, you essentially did not exist. To make matters worse, no one even started looking for records of Shakespeare until about a hundred years after his death. It’s super easy for records to get lost in that time, so we have no idea what Shakespeare was doing for about 30 years of his life. There are a few educated guesses.

One theory is that he was a teacher or a tutor for a local noble family. There have been some possible references to him in letters, but the name is not quite Shakespeare. However, spelling was pretty subjective in Elizabethan times.

Another theory is that he worked as a clerk in a law office. In some of the plays, he seems to demonstrate some basic legal knowledge. There is also some evidence that he helped his father through some legal issues while in London.

The third prevailing theory is that he started traveling with an acting troupe as an apprentice actor. We know there were several troupes of actors that travelled through Stratford. Shakespeare could have joined any of those and clearly demonstrated an in-depth knowledge of the theatre and the actors he was working with.

Here are a couple fun ways to explore this topic:

  • Lost Years Debate: Break students into groups to provide the evidence for each of the theories behind the lost years.
  • Shakespeare’s Diary: Have students write a diary entry as Shakespeare about what he may have been doing during that time.

Life in Elizabethan Theatre

I condensed this topic down from a general coverage of life in Elizabethan England to a focus on the theatre. I decided to condense it all because all of it is a “nice to know.” I would even qualify most of it as an “unnecessary to know.” However, I think understanding the theatre and how the plays would be produced is fun information to explore when getting an introduction to Shakespeare.

The Globe: Most of the theatres at the time had a similar set-up to the famous Globe Theater, so using images of the Globe would be a good way to show the layout of the theatre and the stage. The building was in the shape of an octagon and open air. The stage juts out from the back and is surrounded by open space. Then there were two levels of seats around the edge.

The stage itself had a couple different levels on which actors could perform. There were also hidden compartments above and below the stage known as “hell” and the “heavens”. It allowed actors to descend from above or drop below. They had limited set design and basic costumes. A small group of musicians would perform as an accompaniment to the production.

Being in the audience was an experience unlike anything we have in the theatre today. The cheapest tickets meant standing in an open area around the stage. They would stand for the entire production and vendors selling food and drink would move through the crowd. If they paid extra, people could sit in the balconies. If they paid a little extra, they got a cushion. There would be movement and talking going on.

  • Being an actor: have students try to imagine what it would be like to try and act on the stage at the Globe with no microphones and lots of talking going on. This could be an imaginary play exercise, a writing exercise, or a class discussion.
  • Model Globe: a great way to illustrate what the theatre would look like is through a scale model. You could either provide your own or search for a printable paper model the students could make themselves.

The Master of Revels: An important position at court was the Master of Revels. Every play performed on the stages of London were approved by him. Plays could not be blasphemous or contain subversive political messages. It was the Master of Revels job to make sure that the plays were not being used to rally the people to any sort of cause.

For example, the Master of Revels allowed Richard II to be produced, but only after they removed the deposition scene. It would have been quite the faux pas to display the removal of a legitimate monarch. In fact, the Earl of Essex attempted to use the play with the deposition team to garner support for his attempted coup.

It could be a lot of fun to play with this courtly role.

  • Submitting to the Master of Revels: The teacher could play the Master of Revels and have students propose play ideas to be approved or denied. Once the students get an idea of what was allowed and what wasn’t, they could play the role

That is all I have for now. I decided to include the introduction to the poetry and language to the play introduction lesson because frankly this post was getting too long.

Let me know your comments, questions, or thoughts in the comment section below. See you Saturday for Troilus and Cressida part 1 of 2.

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