Archive for the ‘Discussion Questions’ Category

I was speaking with Folger Theatre’s resident Dramaturg, Michele Osherow, this morning as she prepared for an on-camera interview. While catching up, I mentioned that my husband would be working on a performance of Measure for Measure during his first year of graduate school – one of my least favorite plays. Michele replied that Measure for Measure is one of her favorites because it is so messy and unsettling, the same reasons I don’t like it.

Isabella (Karen Peakes), Mark Zeisler (Duke), Measure for Measure, Folger Theatre, 2006. Directed by Aaron Posner. Carol Pratt.

Isabella (Karen Peakes), Mark Zeisler (Duke), Measure for Measure, Folger Theatre, 2006. Directed by Aaron Posner. Carol Pratt.

Michele went on to point out that while her college students express distaste for Measure for Measure or Troilus and Cressida during her class, those complicated and uncomfortable plays are the ones they return to explore in their final papers and presentations. They’re the plays that stick in their minds because there’s so much to explore even as it discomfits us.

My favorite plays tend to contain comic banter. I like how the words intersect and dance around each other, especially out loud, in plays like Much AdoTwelfth Night, and Romeo and Juliet (before it becomes a tragedy). I also enjoy the bumbling comic characters in Midsummer, as you already know, because I feel so close to Shakespeare as a player in those scenes. I enjoy talking about the use of language and the playing with the several meanings of words in performance.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Beatrice), P.J. Sosko (Benedick), Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre, 2005. Directed by Nick Hutchison. Photo: Carol Pratt. Carol Pratt.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Beatrice), P.J. Sosko (Benedick), Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre, 2005. Directed by Nick Hutchison. Photo: Carol Pratt. Carol Pratt.

For Michele, those complicated plays are very close in nature to modern theatrical experiences. They make us question how we feel and what we think about the world we live in – just as Shakespeare’s audience must have felt and thought. Is marriage a reward or a punishment? Is your best friend a good or bad person – are you? Who do you relate to: the villain or the hero – or is there a character you can identify as either role?

This reminded me of several videos in our Teacher to Teacher series – especially ‘Beauty in Difficulty‘ from Kristyn Rosen on plays that will challenge her students. Additionally, there is a whole section of videos related to teachers responding to the question “What is your favorite Shakespeare play to teach?” They cite relatability, good discussions, fun, and playable moments as their best reasons for one play or another.

What is your favorite play to read, see, teach, or talk about?

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Well, that’s a disappoinment.

A closer watch of the trailer for the upcoming Romeo and Juliet adapted by Julian Fellowes reveals that the play has not only been adapted as a screenplay (which is all well and good), but has also had its language adapted. Sneakily, too, it took awhile for the differences from the lines used in the trailer to sink in.

And it wouldn’t be such a disappointment if it weren’t being advertised as:

R&J Trailer Still

R&J Trailer Still 2

Adaptation is a fine thing – it can illuminate the play in ways we never expected. Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet, while garish and dizzying, gave us a new context for the play and a feeling of vitality and importance though we’ve all known the outcome of the story forever. I honestly cannot see the point of an adaptation in which little to none of the original text is used and it’s set in an all-too-familiar setting. It looks exactly like the lavish Italian set of the famous Zeffirelli film, yet the language is ever-so-slightly (and not-so slightly) tweaked. And why? For time? For clarity? What is the purpose of these textual edits? And why, then, advertise it as Shakespeare’s?

I went through the trailer and picked out the lines used, then looked up what I believed to be their equivalents in the Folger Digital Texts to compare what’s being said. For some, it’s a simple word that’s been changed. For others, it’s an entire phrase that’s been re-edited for some reason.

“On honor of my blood, I’ll strike him dead”
vs “Now, by the stock and honor of my kin, To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.”

“I would not let any harm beset him in my house.”
vs: I would not for the wealth of all this town Here in my house do him disparagement.

“Juliet, if your heart like mine is full then tell the joy that weights us this night,”
“I cannot tell of what is limitless.”
vs: “My bounty as boundless as the sea, My love as deep. The more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite”

“These violent passions can have violent ends.”
vs: “These violent delights have violent ends.”

“Then you are mine no more, so help me God.”
vs: “An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend. An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee, Nor what is mine shall never do thee good. Trust to ’t; bethink you. I’ll not be forsworn.”

“What have I done but murdered my tomorrow?”
vs: “O, I am Fortune’s fool!”

“There is no world beyond this city’s walls. Just purgatory… Heaven is here where Juliet lives. Every unworthy thing may look on her but Romeo may not.”
vs: “There is no world without Verona walls But purgatory, torture, hell itself… Heaven is here Where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog And little mouse, every unworthy thing, Live here in heaven and may look on her, But Romeo may not.”

“A greater power than we can contradict has thwarted all our plans.”
vs “A greater power than we can contradict Hath thwarted our intents.”
(not too bad, but is Friar Lawrence really saying that to Romeo? That’s supposed to be his line to Juliet in the tomb.)

“O, Furtune Fortune, send him back to me.”
vs: “O Fortune, Fortune, all men call thee fickle. If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him That is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune, For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long, But send him back.”

“Take this vial… and drink through the last drop… and there will be no sign of life within you.”
vs: “Take thou this vial… And this distilling liquor drink thou off… No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest.”

“Give me my Romeo. And when he shall die, cut him out in little stars. He will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”
“Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night.”

This is a topic we keep coming back to:

“Bless thee, Thou Art Translated”
“Shakespeare… in Other Words”
“All Students Deserve Shakespeare”
“More to Fear from No Fear”

And it was addressed in our May 14th Webinar, of which you can watch an archived recording: Shakespeare in Other Words.

What do you think? What could the purpose of this sly translation be? What is lost or gained by these edits? How could it affect the way the audience perceives Shakespeare?

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Film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays appear regularly each year. Some of the plays get more attention than others – I mean, just look at the wikipedia lists of film adaptations for Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and especially Hamlet! There was definitely a lot of (deserved) hype this summer for Joss Whedon’s independent Much Ado About Nothing, but nothing matches the well-trod tragedies for film popularity.

Even so, I was surprised to see that not one, but two new film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet are in the works this year. One is the highly publicized adaptation by Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes, and the other is a… well… an operetta set in a trailer park in New Zealand? The former is certainly much more faithful to the text, but the latter has this vitality about it that reminds me of some of our student performances at the Festivals – the inspiration of imagination and making the text one’s own.

I’ve seen students present R&J on our stage as a comedy (with a little death at the end), as a serious love story, as a story about swords (with a little love thrown in), as characters from Twilight, as modern teenagers, and just about everything in between. Every class that presents the same play brings something different to the table, just as every film director will bring something new to light in their vision of the play on screen.

I, personally, can’t get enough of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, but I am surprised by how much we’re still making the same ones! Why do you think that is? What plays would you like to see made into screenplays? I’m going to begin a push for Cymbeline, I think…

And can I mention just how much Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth look like Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting?


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In June we hosted a small group of students from the University of Georgia at the first stage of their Transatlantic Shakespeare summer program. One of the students, Abigail Berquist, was gracious enough to share her experience with Shakespeare thus far:

I’ve come from a rich Shakespeare background due to private school teaching
me a play-a-year starting in about 3rd or 4th grade, to living in London a year which allowed time to go to Stratford and the Globe Theatre, yet I have always been intimidated by it. The language prevented me from fully understanding the play. When I’d read a work by the great playwright for class, I’d summarize as I read; that was my main objective so I would fully understand what seemed complicated to me.

I chose to come on the Washington-Oxford Program with the University of Georgia to study Shakespeare because I love English, so I felt I should gather a larger understanding of Shakespeare, our dear adopted playwright. I am not going to be an English teacher, and I am not a theatre major, so many would ask why would I, a Public Relations major, want to study Shakespeare?

At first, I thought I had chosen the wrong program. The workshops were more teaching-based, and I believed I could gain nothing from them since they weren’t in regular English course structure – but I was wrong, extremely wrong. The workshops helped me delve into the text of Shakespeare’s plays in ways I would’ve thought wouldn’t work. It was very hands on in a way that made the words come alive. No longer was I focusing on the words we don’t use as much anymore, but I was focusing on the humor and the meaning behind the words. Not only did the hands-on, acting-geared workshops help me understand the text, but I realized I actually love to act in a comfortable environment. The staff made sure to quickly acclimate the students into a comfortable classroom setting in a way that would cause us non-theater majors to enjoy the acting and activities.

Abby Berquist - UGA

I have a newfound appreciation of Shakespeare, and I can even say now that I would be willing to read and watch a Shakespeare play on my own time. I didn’t realize his works would not intimidate me so soon into this program, but I stand here exactly that confident. If I were to teach, I would do it the way the Folger has laid out; people will not fear his works, but enjoy them proficiently.

Abby Bergquist is a third year student at the University of Georgia who is a Public Relations major with an English minor. She is a new Shakespeare convert, who has loved English as long as she can remember, but has just added a whole new element to her love of literature.

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Folger Educatin Intern Samantha Smith writes about her experience at our Elementary Educators’ Conference

On the last day of the 2013 Shakespeare in Elementary Education Conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, students from Capitol Hill Montessori took to the stage in the Folger Theatre to perform a short play entitled “Much Ado About Shakespeare.”  The play’s title summed up the three-day conference in which I was able to watch educators, authors, and graduate students talk, shout, and jump their way through nine presentations highlighting different ways to introduce children to Shakespeare’s text.  To me, the smiles and articulate answers of the Capitol Hill Montessori students as they replied to questions posed by educators in the audience illustrated the theme of the conference, which centered on how engagement with Shakespeare’s plays positively influences elementary students’ academic, artistic, and personal growth.

As a college senior eager to blend my academic interest in Shakespeare with my desire to work with young students, it was heartening to talk with professionals of different backgrounds who demonstrated diverse ways to encourage their students to study and enjoy Shakespeare’s plays.  All of the participants in the conference shared a love of Shakespeare’s words but each drew on his or her own education, training, and personal interests in ways that reinforced for me that there is no solitary path leading to a career based on engagement with Shakespeare’s plays.   Ken Ludwig, best known for his Tony-award winning plays and musicals, explained how he combined his writing talents with the enjoyment he felt teaching his own children to memorize passages from Shakespeare in his book, How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.  Author and musician Daeshin Kim shared how his daughter’s positive response to nursery rhymes as a language-learning tool sparked his interest in composing short children’s songs sung from the point of view of Shakespeare’s characters.  As I read Mr. Kim’s book, A Horse With Wings, and listened to a song sung by Cordelia entitled “I don’t know what to say,” I was as delighted to learn about such an innovative way of sharing Shakespeare with children as I would have been listening to Mr. Kim’s songs as a pre-school student.  I learned that my lack of crafting talent was unchanged from my pre-school years while participating in a craft-based lesson by Holly Rodgers (a teacher from Fairfax County public schools) for The Merchant of Venice, which demonstrated a visual and tactile way to connect ESL students with Shakespeare.  The effectiveness of performance-based teaching was reinforced for me as I participated in Renee Vomocil of The Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s examples of warm-up games, Virginia Palmer-Fuechsel’s combination of spoken word and movement activities, and the movement-based exploration of Romeo and Juliet led by OSU/RSC Stand Up for Shakespeare educators Lorraine Gaughenbaugh and Anna Meyer.  These exercises made me excited to act portions of the plays I so enjoy reading.  The effectiveness of these lessons on younger students was clear when I watched Jennifer Ventimiglia’s class in the Czech Republic dramatize sonnets and heard from Dr. Barbara Cobb about how her Shakespeare in the Schools Partnership Initiative was successful in getting children excited about Shakespeare.

A line from recent Georgetown University graduate Angela Ramnanan’s presentation on her master’s thesis best summarized the conclusion I took away from the conference: ‘results obtained from the research project provide compelling evidence of Shakespeare’s relevance in our current curriculum based on his cultural and linguistic influence.”  There is indeed much to do to further incorporate Shakespeare education in elementary school curriculum, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to learn about so many ways that educators are already inspiring their students to love Shakespeare.


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Last night, I sat in on the first preview for Folger Theatre’s new production of Twelfth Night. The romantic, knotty nature of the play was brought out in the production, and I, along with the rest of the very packed house, found myself enjoying the whole play anew. And then Feste (for not many companies cast a Fabian if they don’t have to) uttered one of my favorite lines in this play:

“If this were played upon a stage now, I could 
condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

It’s just such a wonderful, inclusive, self-aware joke. And because I’ve seen him so often in these self-aware parts, Louis Butelli has become my face of Will Shakespeare for the present, and I can almost see him creating that line 400+ years ago.

Mike LoMonico has said, and it’s true, that it’s not necessary to teach a biographical background in order to teach Shakespeare’s plays. You don’t need to know about Elizabethan life or stage practices to enjoy and explore the text, though instances for dropping in facts as they come up do arise. As a sometimes actor, I love finding these moments of player-hood in the text. This line in Twelfth Night, Hamlet’s speech to the tragedians, Henry V‘s apologetic Chorus, and – most especially dear to my heart – all of the mechanicals’ scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I’ve made it no secret that these terrible rustic actors are my favorites in the whole canon. Each festival season I fervently pray to see as many renditions of this play-within-a-play as there are schools to perform it. I even tried to get my wedding party to perform Pyramus and Thisbe at my wedding (they talked me down from that ledge). I love these players for throwing themselves whole-heartedly into their art, and committing to it despite lacking talent and means.

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

Recently, Carol Ann and I were left in charge of another school visit, and having discussed our mutual appreciation for Quince’s ragtag team, and Mike’s suggestion of dropping in facts as they came up, we decided to test out an activity for the students that combined Shakespeare’s Text with some player background, discussion, and history- to try to paint a larger picture, so to speak, as they came up in the mechanicals’ scenes in Midsummer. After a brief introduction to what an Elizabethan Theatre would have felt like, we used clips from the following scenes:

Act 1, Scene 2

(line 11) Quince tells his assembly what play they will produce: “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” What kind of play does an audience want to see? What does this title make you think of?

(line 20) Quince assigns the roles in the play. Bottom asks if Pyramus is “a lover or a tyrant?” You were likely to see many plays about kings and lovers much of the time. Try to pick out Shakespeare’s plays that aren’t about either subject, how many do you have?

(line 45) Francis Flute protests playing a woman – on the Elizabethan stage, women’s roles were played by young men and boys.

(line 75) Why are the players concerned about the Lion being too frightening? What could happen to you if your play displeased the monarch at the time? The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, were once in danger of their lives when Queen Elizabeth I saw herself in the deposed monarch in Shakespeare’s play Richard II.

Act 3, Scene 1

(line 9) Bottom is concerned that their play is too violent. Can we relate to that today? Who in the audience is he most concerned about? What solution does he propose?

(line 46) During their rehearsal, Quince says that he hopes to have the moon shining on the night of their performance because “Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight.” Is it actually necessary for the moon to be out for the play to be believable? What devices did Shakespeare have available to him to set the scene (ie: Merchant 5, 1; Midsummer 3, 2, 190)?

(line 61) Quince also points out the need for a wall for the lovers to whisper through. What is their solution. How would you solve this issue?

(line 90) Flute speaks all his lines at once. In the 16th century, actors learned their lines from “sides” – papers that contained their lines only, and maybe a cue or two.

Act 5, Scene 1

(line 134) The mechanicals’ play begins with a Prologue. Where else have you seen a Prologue, and what is its function?

(line 179) “O, grim-looked night!…” the O encompasses all of the emotion of the line (ie: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”) What emotion is Bottom/Pyramus playing here with all of these many many O’s? This part is especially fun for the best over-actor in the class.

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

Students perform Pyramus and Thisbe during the 2009 Secondary Festival at the Folger

(line 260) Throughout the play, the married couples add their own comments and interjections. Live theatre includes a live audience with live reactions. In Elizabethan England, nobles attended plays as much to be seen as to see. Sometimes there were seats onstage for them to show off their latest finery, and there’s a legend that Queen Elizabeth I once crossed the stage mid-performance to greet someone. The groundlings had no problem voicing their reactions during the play, either. Have you ever experienced something like that today?

(line 291) Even more fun – bad rhymes and stage deaths for Pyramus and Thisbe! Did the audience enjoy the play?

All-told, this portion of the activity took about 45 minutes, and we had a wonderful group of 8th grade students acting it out for us! At the end, we asked them to share anything they would take away from this, one student said, “You really had to use your imagination back then – it was all about the words and the actor.”

Not a bad takeaway.

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It’s a very busy week in Folger Education! We’re excited to have so much to offer for Shakespeare’s Birthday, this year, and are excited to be a part of PBS LearningMedia’s celebrations as well!

This month,PBS LearningMedia is celebrating “Much Ado About Shakespeare” with online events and resources for educators. Tonight (April 16) from 8-9pm EDT we’re joining forces for a Twitter Party discussing our favorite resources and tools for bringing Shakespeare to life in the classroom! Join us live and share your stories with us!

PBS LearningMedia is also re-releasing episodes and resources for Shakespeare Uncovered, and will be hosting a free webinar with the executive producers of the series on April 22 from 4-5pm EDT. They’ll review video from each episode and the educational resources created to accompany the series with Folger educators.

As you know, we’re coming up on our Electronic Field Trip next Tuesday and our local Shakespeare’s Birthday celebration at our historic building on Sunday. How will you celebrate?

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~by Holly Rodgers

The benefit of exposing students to Shakespeare is paramount to establishing strong literary foundations in the classroom, for all learners, regardless of age and academic abilities.  While I could give testimony of the many advantages to be gained by doing so, I would like to focus on one in particular, the ability of Shakespeare to serve as a metaphorical gateway drug to get students addicted to reading. While I had known that allowing my young ELL (English Language Learner) students to participate in performance-based Shakespeare study would improve their developing language skills, and perhaps make them more critical evaluators of what they read; I had underestimated the stepping stone Shakespeare could provide to gain access to other challenging works of literature.

My 5th and 6th grade ELL students had spent the first nine-weeks of the school year studying Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  While they were enjoying working with the plays, they also began to complain that they missed reading novels.  They wanted something “hard” to challenge them, but I was struggling to find them something that would segue nicely from Shakespeare.  Due to the extensive fantasy worlds woven into the plays my students had studied, I felt the mythology and adventure of J.R.R. Tolkien would suit them well.

We proceeded to read The Hobbit during the month of December and I soon became aware of how well-prepared my students were for the challenging vocabulary, complex plot lines, and colorful characters, which are all signature trademarks of Shakespeare’s works.  While my students were unconvinced that they would ever find another writer  they would worship at the feet of like Master Will, they quickly grew to love Tolkien and reading about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his band of dwarves.  Many of the themes and motifs present in the plays we studied were also found in the fantasy world of Middle-Earth.  My students had no difficulty accepting the existence of fantastical creatures such as dragons, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, and elves when they had already been exposed to fairies, witches, and ghosts in MSND, Macbeth, and Hamlet.  The rhythm of Tolkien’s language also required their ears to acclimate, as was also necessary to establishing the beat of iambic-pentameter.  Challenging vocabulary was not intimidating to them as Shakespeare had taught them to have no fear of unknown words.

While Shakespeare will always be their first love, my students are learning that their relationship with The Bard is not exclusive.  There are many great writers out there worth reading and I believe that Shakespeare has given my students the courage to tackle each one with no trepidation.  Always up for a challenge, my students have now chosen to take on a new literary task.  They are attempting to read the entire Lord of the Rings by the end of the school year.  For those of you who would like to follow along with our progress, we are chronicling our reading adventures on our recently-founded blog Teaching Tolkien.   My students are completely hooked on reading and for that, I am eternally grateful, Master Shakespeare.

Holly Rodgers is an elementary school ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia.  She has been a presenter at the Folger Elementary Educators Conference and has created ELL (English Language Learner) and elementary focused lesson plans for the Folger Education Website. She has spent her varied educational career as both a language and music teacher.  She earned her M Ed in Multilingual/Multicultural Education from George Mason University and her BME in Instrumental Music from Louisiana State University.

Keep the conversation going with Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers

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~by Kevin J. Costa

Sometimes I wonder if the performance-based approach to teaching Shakespeare, which we promote at the Folger, is seen only as an “entry-level” tool for students and teachers intimidated by Shakespeare. For sure, this is a major audience. But performance-based work on Shakespeare doesn’t have to stop there. In fact, I think it shouldn’t. What does a performance-based approach do for that (growing) group of students who are already in “the choir,” so-to-speak?

Two students of mine at McDonogh School offer an example. We’ve been studying Twelfth Night for some time, and we are preparing for a night of one-act performances from the play. These students are playing Orsino and Viola/Cesario in Act 2, Scene 4 — the moment when, for the first time, Orsino seems to take interest in someone other than himself. From the start of the play, Orsino tends to hold court, sharing his convictions about how the world of love works — an armchair expert, but, because he’s the Duke, the one with the bully pulpit. Cesario, however, has a knack of throwing people off their game whether emotionally, rhetorically, or both. “How dost thou like this tune?” asks Orsino in Act 2, Scene 4, and Cesario responds, “It gives a very echo to the seat / Where love is throned” (2.4.23-25). Orsino responds,

Thou dost speak masterly.
My life upon’t, young though thou art, thine eye
Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves.
Hath it not, boy? (2.4.25-28)

Orsino’s interest in Cesario, noted by Valentine at the outset of Act 1, Scene 4, only deepens here. Yes, Orsino still characteristically holds forth with declarations about the truths of love, but we see an increase in the number of questions he asks Cesario — a suggestion that he, for once, isn’t only thinking of himself:

Twelfth night, act 1, scene 4 by H. Thomas Maybank. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Twelfth night, act 1, scene 4 by H. Thomas Maybank. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

Ay, but I know —

What dost thou know?

Too well what love women to men may owe.
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your Lordship.

And what’s her history?

A blank, my lord. She never told her love [. . .]

But died thy sister of her love, my boy?

I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers, too — and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?

Ay, that’s the theme.
To her in haste. Give her this jewel. Say
My love can give no place, bide no denay. (2.4.111-122, 131-37)

It’s refreshing to see Orsino concerned about someone else who might be in love. Sure, love is his occupation and so it’s no surprise that he’d take interest, but this is one of the first times he seems to realize that other people might know what it is to have such strong feelings.

At the end of a recent class, my two students stopped me with a question about these final lines. “Mr. Costa,” they said, “does Orsino want to give a ring to the sister of Cesario?” They were confused, of course, because they know that person doesn’t exist in the play. Still, they thought that Orsino (who, unlike the audience, doesn’t know this) wanted to give the ring to Cesario’s sister. I said we should look closely at the text again, and we discussed how Cesario’s line, “Sir, shall I to this lady?” redirects the moment to the “theme” at hand:  i.e., Olivia. And then one of my students said, “Well, should we change the word ‘lady’ to ‘Olivia’ so that the audience gets it?” I told them I didn’t think it at all necessary; in performance, I insisted, the redirect would be quite clear if the person playing Cesario shakes him/herself out of the increasingly intimate dialogue he/she has with Orsino and gets back to the original business at hand.

Students perform Twelfth Night in the 2011 Secondary Schools Festival. Photo by Duy Tran.

Students perform Twelfth Night in the 2011 Secondary Schools Festival. Photo by Duy Tran.

This experience confirmed something in a very concrete way for me about how playing Shakespeare is the most rigorous, specific work a person can do with these texts.  What my students experienced as “confusion” in this extraordinary moment in Twelfth Night was actually the discovery of something at the heart of this play — ambiguity: the ambiguity of language, the ambiguity of feelings, the ambiguity of sexual identity. Who, indeed, is this lady to whom Cesario and Orsino refer? Well, sure it’s Olivia. But the reference to “this lady” by Cesario followed two lines later by Orsino’s, “to her in haste” occurs so quickly that we might well be confused by the referent of these two pronouns. And, one might really wonder, at this moment, who really is the object of Orsino’s emotional energy. Olivia seems to have fallen off his radar, if just for a moment, only to be replaced by the image of Cesario’s “sister” with whom he grows increasingly interested. And if Cesario, as we’ll see, is mistaken as her twin, Sebastian, later in the play, then that means Cesario’s “sister” is, in a strangely logical way — you guessed it — Viola. And we all know who Orsino ends up with at the end of this play!

Confusing? Complicated? Ambiguous? Yes to all of the above. We wrapped up our conversation with a thought: yes, this ambiguity might be apparent to the student sitting at her desk reading quietly, but I can’t imagine that it would have caused us to debate this complex emotional and linguistic tangle in such a lively, enthusiastic, and very rigorous way if they weren’t playing it. What’s more, I had precious little to do with this big question that they had formed — it was their discovery. I just jumped into a problem that had already captured their intellect and imagination and became a partner in their work.

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I’d have alighted on the ambiguity of these pronouns if I were just lecturing because, for better or for worse, I’m too familiar with the play. Fresh eyes, however, can discover so much that routine ignores. I guess the point is that playing Shakespeare isn’t just a gimmick to lure the frightened; it is, rather, a profound tool that sharpens one’s critical acumen further with each successive use.

Kevin J. Costa is a TSI 2010 Alumni. In addition to being an English teacher at McDonogh School, he is Director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, Head of the Drama Department, and Director of Fine & Performing Arts. He also serves as the Director of Education for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and is former Chair of the Shakespeare Theater Association’s Education Committee.

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On more than one occasion, students in my Shakespeare class have told me that studying Shakespeare has made them better writers. That thought pleases and intrigues me, and it also inspired me to offer my students a writing challenge. I asked each one to write in a genre of his/her own choosing and to allow Shakespeare—somehow—to be a part of the piece. And then I went looking for Shakespeare, both inside and outside of their lines.

One of my students, a promising young writer, quickly picked up the challenge and shared the following poem. I think the results are stunning, and I wanted to introduce both the poem and the poet, Emily Shue, to you.

You are the downfall to my stage romance.
Prince charming gone bad—
curly locks shorn with the same blade you held to my wrist,
blue eyes burned out and dull,
illustrious color faded into a smoky abyss.
You are a maiden’s handkerchief, fluttering in the wind of my ragged breath—
Othello as he sat atop his golden haired bride
and pushed air from her lungs with a feather pillow,
blood pounding in his head.
Or Romeo, parrying and thrusting silver throated song through the thick summer night
as his blade sliced Mercutio’s stomach,
spilling from his gaping wound scorpions that scuttled up along black letters
and stung the reader’s tear ducts.
You are both houses sitting silent and somber on the hilltop as mourning comes—
the kind with a “u.”
You are cardboard boxes peeling apart in the pouring rain—
Claudio at his own wedding,
ripping spiderlegs of lace from his bride’s dress and beating hate into her heart.
Lady Macbeth in the cold dungeon of her mind
where is the candle out out candle blood blood candle blood
while waxen figures and crimson kings sashayed and kicked
and wiggled their fingers,
dancing along her throat until she tied up a rope and went sailing in the rafters.

Several years ago, I attended a lecture by Stephen Greenblatt at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of his lecture, one of the students asked Dr. Greenblatt if he thought that Shakespeare expected people to continue to read his plays and sonnets hundreds of years later. Greenblatt immediately replied, “Yes, but not in the way you might think.” According to Greenblatt, Shakespeare probably expected people to borrow from his works just as Shakespeare had borrowed from other sources. I believe that Emily has honored that expectation in her poem, but now I am left with something new to ponder. Did Shakespeare expect people to consider him their writing teacher as well?

Sue Biondo-Hench is a teacher at Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania. She helped establish the Central Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and founded the Carlisle Shakespeare Troupe. Sue edited the Romeo and Juliet unit of Shakespeare Set Free: Volume 1.   Her lesson plans have been used by secondary school English teachers around the world. She is one of Folger’s Master Teachers, leading curriculum sessions at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, and presenting performance-based Shakespeare teaching workshops at many National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conventions and English Speaking Union of the United States offices across the country.

Emily Shue was awarded both a Silver and a Gold Key from the Scholastic Writing Awards for her poetry submissions.

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