Archive for the ‘Macbeth’ Category

By Sara Lehn

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth (Image: StudioCanal)

“Who would you choose?  Benedict Cumberbatch or Michael Fassbender?”


“But have you seen the new Michael Fassbender trailer?  It looks amazing!”


It is the first meeting of the school year for my Shakespeare Society’s Executive Board.  Although it has been months since we all met, our table is brimming with enthusiasm, excitement, and fresh ideas for how to bring Shakespeare to our school’s population.  And, of course, a debate on which would make a better field trip: Benedict Cumberbatch’s live theater broadcast of Hamlet or Michael Fassbender’s upcoming film of Macbeth.  There is clearly some dissent in the ranks.


Several years ago, a group of students started an application for a new Shakespeare club in our high school.  I was not a part of the initial process, but I was lucky enough to be able to step in and help them to pursue their goal.  Last September their efforts came to fruition, and I became the advisor of the new Shakespeare Society.


We started out simply: the 30-second Macbeth, Slugs and Clods, light-hearted activities to provide a little laughter and fun.  We planned a movie night and spent a wonderful Friday evening curled up on the floor of our study center with blankets and pillows and slices of pizza.  As the year progressed and our school’s annual Shakespeare Festival approached, we chose and rehearsed scenes and planned audience-participation activities.  The festival culminated our first year together, and left me looking forward to continuing the expansion of our club.


Students don’t have to love Shakespeare to join our Shakespeare Society. In fact, several of my club members openly profess that they are not particularly big fans.  (more…)

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By Folger Education

This post you’re about to read was viewed, shared, and liked more than almost any other on our blog last school year. Since its original publication, both Debbie Gascon, the high school teacher who wrote it, and Folger staff, have heard from teachers all over the country who loved—and tried out, to great results—Debbie’s ideas. If you’re looking for a way to make your classroom joyful, active, collaborative, and, yes, just the right kind of challenging—right from day 1—look no further. Try out a few of Debbie’s tested strategies for getting students on their feet and into complex texts in minutes. And let us know how it all goes: shoot Corinne Viglietta an email at cviglietta@folger.edu. Wishing you and your students a happy, productive return to school!


Eighteen years ago, days before my first year teaching began, my principal gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard about the first day of school. She simply said, “Make the students want to come back.” She told me to forget the syllabus and classroom procedures—the students won’t retain those rules and did I really want my first impression to be about how to ask for the bathroom pass?

As suggested, I followed through with my hopefully-memorable plans on that first day. When I ate dinner that night (in my pjs because I was so exhausted!) I had visions of my eighth graders at their dinner tables telling their families about their invigorating English class. I’m still not sure if that happened, but they all came back the next day with smiles on their faces and eager to learn. They were optimistic. And so was I.

With that advice in mind, on the first day of school for the past two years I’ve incorporated Folger performance methods in my lesson plans.  What a difference this has made. No longer were my sleepy seniors glaring at me (and the clock) and no longer were my freshmen struggling to sit still in a desk after a summer of hyperactivity.  Instead, students were on their feet, participating and laughing (and learning!).

Here are some quick methods to get the students up on their feet and loving the first day (and every day after!) in your classroom:


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By Jill Burdick-Zupancic



Ophelia. (Image: Folger Library)

As summer (too quickly) comes to a close, I’m filled with a mix of excitement and anxiety. What will my students be like? Will what worked last year work again this year? What can I do to make this year a successful and engaging one? Big questions. No easy answers. But, here are some basics I’ll when starting a new school year with the Bard.


    • Start Early – I’ve started each of the past three school years with “2-line scenes.” It’s an easy activity to create: find some of those famous zingers – insults or notable lines – from any of Shakespeare’s works, give one line to each student (preferably from different works), have the kids get in pairs, and ask them to create a scene! This does a number of fantastic things early in the year. First, it gets the kids out of their seats during a monotonous week of syllabi review. Second, it gets them building the classroom community by learning the norms of performance (however they choose to set those). Third, it forces them to think creatively to create a new context using Shakespeare’s words. I’ll use this on day one, but I think any time the first week works well. You’ll have exposed your students to Shakespeare early, and chances are they’ll come across some of those lines again as you approach longer texts throughout the year.


    • Variety – Most of us spend a great deal of our year studying literature, and we love it! But, I find my students’ attention waning when we’re studying a longer text. Consider your objectivesand try to insert small pieces of Shakespeare throughout the year. Want the students to explore tone? Check out Claudius’ speech from Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet. Analyzing imagery? Also from Hamlet is Gertrude’s retelling of Ophelia’s death – a great choice! Teaching the kids about persuasion? How about that powerful interaction between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at the end of Act I? Whatever you choose to use, just because you’re not sitting down to tackle an entire play doesn’t mean you can’t spice up some Chaucer, Twain, Hurston, or Hemingway with a little Shakespeare!


    • Confidence – Yes, be confident in yourself, but also be confident that your kids will get Shakespeare, they will connect to Shakespeare, and they will like Shakespeare. He’s still around in our classrooms and throughout the world outside our classrooms because he’s relevant, and kids will understand that with you as their guide.

Cheers to the start of another exciting school year!


Jill Burdick-Zupancic is beginning her eighth year as an educator and currently teaches Honors English and AP Art History at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA. She is a Member of the Folger National Teaching Corps and a Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) alumna from 2012. Jill can be reached at jeburdickzup@fcps.edu.

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By Greta Brasgalla 


This year, I became the English Instructional Coach at my school. My job includes creating and modeling lessons for a huge English department (we have over 3000 students in grades 10-12).


One of the best activities that I modeled was using the prompt book. Of all of the Folger activities, this is probably my favorite because it can be modified easily for any reading you do in the classroom.


More can be found here: Editing as Close-Reading: Cutting and Performing Complex Texts


For our Senior teachers, we used a version of the prompt book/tableaux for students to break down their reading of Paradise Lost. Each group was in charge of creating a tableau for the section of the poem. I  gave the teacher my special “prop box” filled with random wigs, costumes, and other props. Eventually, my prop box was passed throughout the English hallway as students did prompt books on Jane Eyre, King Lear, and Taming of the Shrew.


For one of our staff developments,  I  modified the prompt book for each grade level’s drama selection: Antigone, Streetcar Named Desire, and Macbeth/Hamlet. The teacher’s loved this activity because it was a new way to look at close reading. We are inundated with data that suggests close reading is the best activity for students, but many teachers have a hard time teaching this and keeping their students engaged. Prompt books not only teach the necessary skills for close reading (identifying key elements, tone, character) but they also keep the students engaged. My students have never had more fun than when they were performing their cut scenes, chapters, sections of a text.

Students close read The Masque of the Red Death (Image: Greta Brasgalla)

Students close read The Masque of the Red Death (Image: Greta Brasgalla)

Finally,  I  was also in charge of planning our Fall Intersession. This is a week long session to remediate students who have failed state assessments. These are our most at-risk students. They don’t want to be at school during vacation and they pose disciplinary challenges. Even though these students need the most engaging lessons, remediation most often entails lots of worksheets and boring seatwork.  I  resolved that we would change that this year. I  paired our English teachers with our Theater teacher and each level did a prompt book and performance of an Edgar Allan Poe story. We combined each short story with a poem as well. The kids had a great time and guess what? No discipline issues. We also got them to do a close reading of a very difficult piece of literature. Below is a picture of their performance of The Masque of the Red Death.


Next time you want students to tackle a scene (Shakespeare or otherwise), consider using a prompt book activity. Get out your own prop box and watch the magic happen!


Greta Brasgalla is an English Curriculum and Intervention Coach at El Dorado High School in El Paso, Texas.

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By Michael LoMonico


I recently interviewed Russ McDonald, professor of English at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Russ was a resident scholar at the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute from 1985-Bedford - LoMo1986, and served as the head scholar from 1988-1994. He is the author of The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents and the recent Bedford Shakespeare.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation.


ML:  At the Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 1988, you lectured about the tragic flaw, and wrote an essay about it called “The Flaw in the Flaw” which appears in the first volume of Shakespeare Set Free.  I suspect that many teachers aren’t teaching the tragic flaw when they teach Shakespeare but some still are. Can you explain why they shouldn’t?

RUSS:  I have to attribute a lot of this to an article by Phyllis Rose.  She wrote an article in the New York Times in the 1980s that I responded to immediately on this very problem, which is that the idea of a flaw that brings down the heroic/tragic character is just too easy a way of addressing a really complicated representation of human experience.  That is, if you simply say, ” Hamlet delays.  Hamlet cannot make up his mind.”  I mean, the beginning of the Olivier film says, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.”  Well, no, it’s not.

ML: Please explain.

RUSS: Throughout the middle of the 20th century, that seems to be a common way of addressing the tragic experience for teachers and the problem with it is that it reduces to a kind of formula something that is much more complicated and much more interesting.  I don’t think we’d still be watching these plays or reading them with the fervor that we still do if it were as simple as that formula of the tragic flaw seems to make it.  Hamlet, for example, that it’s just a problem of procrastination.  Hamlet can’t make up his mind.  He delays. And the same with Othello.  You know, Othello’s just jealous.  If he weren’t so jealous, everything would be fine.

Bedford 2 - LoMoThe problem is first, it simplifies matters too much.  And second, it implies a kind of moral or ethical superiority on the part of the reader or the audience.  That is, “I’m okay, Hamlet’s not.  If I had been there to tell him to get with the program, then he wouldn’t have had that problem at all.”  And so what it means is that it allows us to feel superior to the character when, in fact, of course, what is important is that we be involved with the experience of the character.

I tend to think of the tragic figure or I try to get my students to think of the tragic figure as a kind of naïve idealist.  That’s one way of thinking about most of the tragic figures.  King Lear, for example, is naïve in that he’s 80 years old, but he’s an innocent in a way.  He thinks that words and meanings match each other, so when his daughter says, “I love you more than eyesight, more than words can wield the matter,” he thinks she means it.  And his belief that people do mean what they say is an admirable and beautiful principle.  But it’s flawed.  I mean, I hate to use the word “flaw,” but it’s a problem.

ML: How is it a problem?

RUSS:  It’s a good problem.  The world would be better if things were that way.  But that’s Lear’s particular problem.  The same thing with Hamlet.  Hamlet wants to know the truth and he wants to act ethically, rightly, on that truth.  And the world keeps putting baffles in front of him.  That’s exactly the problem.  The world will not allow the tragic character to proceed as he or she wishes to do.  Antigone is really the great example of this.  Antigone works so well in thinking about this, because she’s not flawed.  She wants to give a burial to her brothers.

ML:  Right; so Macbeth is just ambitious.

RUSS:  That man’s ambitious.  Exactly.


Michael LoMonico taught English for 33 years. He is currently the National Education Consultant for Folger Education and the author or That Shakespeare Kid.

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By Dan Bruno

"To be or not to be"  (Folger's Luna)

“To be or not to be”, 2004 Folger Shakespeare Library

Often, when talking with colleagues, I find that a difficult part of teaching well-known plays like Hamlet is making the recognizable, highly quotable speeches seem fresh and alive with possibility. Here are some activities to help students discover the originality and complexity of familiar speeches from Shakespeare:

  1. Make It Personal: Have you seen this take on the familiar speech? This parody opens many possibilities for teaching the speech. Consider this: first, your students read Hamlet’s soliloquy aloud, working through the difficult spots where the meaning is shrouded by so many possible variations. Now, show them this or another parody, letting them see what is possible. Then, ask them to pick something about their life as a teenager and to consider it as Hamlet makes his considerations. They could ask: “To date or not to date,” or “To post or not to post.” Afterwards, compare their writings to Hamlet’s original language. Invite a discussion around the central problem and tone of each speech. (Young philosophers especially love this.)
  2. Make It Alien: That’s right, go Jabberwocky on it. Students are familiar with “To be or not to be,” but they have never seen “Iz fi o nit iz fi.” The benefit here is having students analyze the relationships between the words without the intimidation of the unfamiliar language.
  3. Make It Comparative: As master teacher and author Mike LoMonico would say, if you are going to teach Shakespeare, teach Shakespeare. But “modern translations” have their place, in very small doses and with very specific purposes. One of the great ways to use that watered-down approximation of Shakespeare is to reveal how much the language lacks in comparison to the original. For example: “or to fight against all those troubles” just doesn’t have the same epic quality as “take arms against a sea of troubles.” Have students examine the imagery, diction, and figurative language in each version. Let them see for themselves why there’s no substitute for the real thing.
  4. Make It Live: Find tidbits of action in these soliloquies and bring them to life as miniature stage plays. How might one act out the first five lines? Once the plays are over, connect each back to the language of the soliloquy. Now there is a concrete anchor for all of Hamlet’s abstractions.

Hamlet’s famous speech about indecision and existence is a great start, but feel free to try these ideas on any speech from Shakespeare—from Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger…” to Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”


Dan Bruno has been a high school English teacher for nine years. He has a Master of Education in Social Foundations of Education from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He also has a National Board Certification in Adolescent/Young Adult English/Language Arts. In July 2014, Dan was a participant in the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute. He currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two sons. 

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By Jill Burdick-Zupancic



This word always evokes a bit of panic in my mind. It feels like some kind of “super assessment” I’m expected to give to my students. Even in my seventh year as an educator, it’s a jarring word; however, the past three years, since my experience at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger, I’ve started to look at this time of year a little differently.

Of course as English teachers, we want our students reading closely and analyzing text for something – characterization, big questions, effects of figurative language, etc… – and this is the time of year, through Shakespeare, that I assess how far we’ve come from those first days in September. If you’re familiar with the education department at the Folger, or you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve heard “close reading through performance” before. Every year, at midterm time, the power of this statement is solidified for me.

At the time I’m writing this blog, we’re through Act IV of Macbeth. I spend a lot of time with film versions of the play throughout our study, this year it’s Polanski, the Folger production, and Goold’s version for PBS, and while we never watch anything straight through, we’ll look at a specific scene (the opening witches scene, the “dagger” soliloquy, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene) in each version.

I remind the students that each of these directors has made conscious and analytical decisions regarding anything from movement, facial expressions, pacing and pauses when delivering the lines, costumes, body language, and so on. Now through Act IV, the students do a stellar job identifying choices that these director’s make and discussing why, in the context of the play as a whole, they’re made. (more…)

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