ACTING LESSONS: Bringing Shakespeare to Life

KL Shake Alive

Every teacher knows a good lesson when she experiences one. The energy in the room is high, students are leaning in eager to see what comes next, they are completely focused and engaged; then, when the bell rings, they leave the room talking with their peers about the experience. For me, every single year, acting through Shakespeare is that lesson.


I recall reading, yes reading, Macbeth in high school. It was dreadful! The teacher, Mrs. Fox, assumed the class understood the language. She also assumed Shakespeare should be read. So she read, and she droned on and on and on. Sometimes, she’d assign bits of reading for homework, and I found myself lost. It turned me off to Shakespeare, and, to this day, Macbeth is my least favorite play. This was the moment Cliff Notes became my friend.

Two years later, I had a teacher with a different take on Shakespeare altogether. Mr. Rapuano, a bit of a theatrical type, himself, stood on his desk (as a sixty year old man!) to deliver King Lear’s lines “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (I, 4, 752); his voice bellowed, commanding attention. He performed Lear’s madness and the storm wholly with his voice and his body. We were mesmerized as he staggered around the room like the wind.

Years later, when I decided I would major in English at college, Shakespeare was a required course. Still feeling a little shaky in the understanding of the language, I was ambivalent about doing well; nonetheless, I could find myself excited about the content, hoping my professor was more the Mr. Rapuano type than the Mrs. Fox. And he was. Michael Shea, a young professor, deeply cared that his students not only understood Shakespeare’s words but that we fully appreciated the complexity of them. We read a play a week and wrote about each of them. It was a bit of a crash course in learning how to read deeply and understand middle English, but the reward I felt at the end of the course was well worth it.

In grad school, I took another course with Michael Shea, called Romeo and Juliet Alive!The entire course dedicated to this one play, I was eager to see how just one play could sustain thirty hours of instruction. We read several editions of the play taking a look at how editing plays a part in the audience’s interpretation of character and stage direction (limited as Shakespeare’s stage direction is). We also looked at several film adaptations of the play, analyzing scenes in depth and comparing them. It is in this class that I learned how brilliant Shakespeare really is. I wanted to share my love for Shakespeare– pay it forward.

Early in my career as an English teacher, one of our professional development days was with a member of the Folger Shakespeare Company. We engaged in acting activities to bring Shakespeare to life, taking Mike Shea’s lessons one step further. During the workshop, we became the actors, collaborating with our colleagues in discussion about a scene, motivation of characters, delivery of lines and blocking.

Thus, I took the sum of these experiences to create my own versions of Shakespeare Alive! in pulling together bits and pieces of what I’d experienced as a student. My unit can easily be adapted for any Shakespeare play; I’ve done it with Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest, but most recently, I tackle King Lear with my senior British Literature students.

KL Trag of KL

KL Unit Plan

KL Acting Lessons

Define the following terms: inflection, tone, diction (connotation & denotation), facial expressions, body language, physicality, pacing, dramatic pause, blocking.

For each of these, I take a small group to ask them to perform for their peers while the rest of the class is taking note to deduce the intended effects of the acting techniques.

For example, four students are given the same word to “perform” with a different intention behind it. Let’s use “Oh” for example. Varying intentions behind the word may include fear, excitement, longing, etc. Based on the way each student performs (using body language, facial expressions, inflection etc.), the rest of the class tries to determine the effect which ensues; we discuss both the choices and the effects as a whole class. Sometimes, if an actor hasn’t hit his/her mark, there is a do-over, for we are a work in progress.

As part II of the acting lessons, we watch The Reduced Shakespeare’s Company, Shakespeare Abridged to analyze some of the techniques they employ such as adapting, abridging scenes, language, adding comedy, breaking the fourth wall, etc. This is the first moment that Shakespeare becomes relevant for them– Saturday Night Live or Mad T.V. skit-like, and they think, “I could do that!” My intention is always to just show them the beginning of the video, but they always ask to finish it.

KL Reading

Yes, we read the text. One act per week. I do like to begin each act with an in-class reading, assigning parts, to give the students a good spring board for where the rest of the act will go.

We perform a pivotal scene in each act for them to develop a depth of understanding, if not with the rest of the act which I hope they do, with, at least, one important scene. For each performance, I break the class into acting troupes who perform the same scene, so the class gets to witness various acting choices and their results. For each act, there is a different goal for students to achieve and, with that, certain techniques for them to focus on. Here is a list that is completely adaptable.

Act I-   a focus on character motivation and status through attention to blocking & inflection of words in a given scene. We do a mini-lesson on blocking as it relates to the status of characters and their relationships to one another (for this reason it needs to be a multi-character scene). I also ask students to underline what I call WOW! Words, words that define a character’s motivation in the scene; they need to pay special attention to how these will be performed to create an understanding for the audience of what motivates this character in this scene.

Act II– a focus on character development through inflection and tone. I provide the students with tone cards (different ones for each group). The troupe applies their chosen tone to a soliloquy. Some include: madness, angry, sickly, playful, thoughtful… The trick is to choose some that obviously work with the scene, but in choosing those that seem not to work is where the real acting comes into play.

Act III– a focus on how exterior forces influence inner character struggle. A scene that includes some sort of cataclysmic event is necessary for this lesson. In King Lear, I use the storm scene and ask students to create sound effects that illustrate Lear’s inner and outer storm/madness. While few members of each troupe are reciting lines, others are working the sound effects.

Act IV– a focus on non-verbal communication through a dumb show where students perform a scene without using dialog at all. They are given a multi-character scene in which they need to determine both character motivation and relationships with one another. Using facial expressions, body language, physicality and blocking– almost exaggerating them– helps them bring the point of the scene across.

Act V– a focus on symbolism and how it reflects character and/or theme. Students are given a soliloquy, usually the last one in the play, in which they need to identify significant symbols in order to visually represent them in their performance.

At the conclusion of each performance, we do a sort of talk back in which the rest of the class identifies effective techniques used, provides feedback for what areas could use modification, and the troupe gets to justify their choices as they pertain to the goals of each activity.

KL Performance

In a reduced Shakespeare fashion, each acting troupe is tasked with choosing a character or theme to convey in their end performance which must incorporate all acting techniques in addition to tracing its development throughout the play.. They choose significant lines throughout the play to string together in order to create their own version of King Lear Abridged.


KL This is active learning

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