It is important to treat Shakespeare’s text like a dramatic play, not a book. There are elements in a play, such as setting, costumes, and blocking that a playwright (especially in Shakespeare’s day) does not clarify, and those elements are lost when we only read the text. Let’s take a play commonly taught in the high school curriculum, Romeo and Juliet, and plot out incorporating appropriate theatrical elements while teaching.
Space and Staging Make a Difference
The larger the space you have, the better, so if you can move to the auditorium, or outside, or an empty gym or mess hall, go ahead and do that. Have your students stand in a circle, and because this article goes far beyond the simplest ways to incorporate drama in your lesson plans, I am going to encourage and suggest that you start class with an easy warm up. Stretching and yawning are good ways to loosen up. The students will catch each others’ eyes and giggle; that is perfectly acceptable. Before reading Shakespeare out loud, a mini-vocal warm up is advisable. Have your students recite, as a group and with you, two or three tongue twisters. This can make speaking the text easier.
Read and Discuss Scenes
At this point, you may choose to divvy out the roles for Scene One, and get on with the reading (reassigning roles periodically.) Whatever choices you make, remember the importance of stopping after each scene, and conducting a class discussion about what they just read. You may find that subsequent scenes become livelier as your students warm up to the exercise and find that they can follow the story line. You may want to slowly, but surely incorporate the suggestions in this article.
There are, of course, additional options to sitting in a circle. Instructing the readers to stand will encourage them to move with the text.
You can also break up the circle and have the readers stand in front of their classmates. This placement lends itself to more freedom of movement, and students may start to interact with classmates during dialogues. No matter how you stage it, make sure you break after each scene to discuss and explain what happened in the scene.
Costumes Make it Even More Fun
Romeo and Juliet begins with the Chorus singing or reciting the Prologue. Have one student read the Prologue and stop to make sure everyone understands what was just read.
Because the visual element is so important for many people to follow and understand dramatic text, let’s take this a step farther.
Act I Scene i begins with two servants of the house of Capulet soon being interrupted by two servants of the house of Montague. Simple capes, made of sheets, can easily clarify who belongs where. For example, the Capulets can have red sheets and the Montagues blue. (Cut the sheets to make them smaller.) Armbands made with colored construction paper will serve the same purpose. The Prince should have a third color, purple, to distinguish him as neutral. The color distinction will make it easier for students to follow what is happening in the play, and that is what is so important.
You can keep it as simple as colored armbands, or get more interesting as you see fit. You may want to distinguish royalty from servants and peasants with simple crowns made from golden pipe cleaners, or perhaps a large yellow make on their armband. (Use yellow or gold construction paper, and cut out a star to glue on the red and blue armbands for royalty.)
It is best when specific characters have a visual all their own, just as when a play is performed. It could be a big “R” and “J” for Romeo and Juliet. Friar Laurence can be distinguished with a rope around his waist, or an actual brown cloak. A white apron is appropriate for the Juliet’s nurse.
Some classes have a lot of fun with these suggestions, I am sure that others are more shy. But by adding visuals and giving the students the opportunity to move and interact with text, you are adding vital elements that any playwright assumes will be added by the company performing the play. Therefore, you give your students the opportunity to follow and appreciate the story as it was meant to be experienced.
This Romeo and Juliet lesson plan is great for additional ideas and can really help to bring Romeo and Juliet to life.
This post is part of the series: Making Shakespeare Come Alive in the High School English Classroom
Tips, techniques, and information about ways to bring important dramatic elements to the reading of Shakespeare’s plays.