lesson plan

Mutant Shakespeare

The following lesson plan was written by Kyle Booten for Don't Forget to Write: for the Secondary Grades (Jossey-Bass, 2011), a collection of lesson plans compiled by 826 National, a network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping students, ages six through eighteen, with expository and creative writing, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. This lesson plan is intended for four sessions of sixty minutes.


 

Materials

Handout that you have prepared of one scene from a Shakespeare play with random words omitted, Mad Lib–style (first exercise)

Magazines, scissors, and glue sticks (third exercise)


 

Introduction

When a radioactive spider bites you, you turn into a Spider-Man.

When a radioactive Shakespeare bites you, you turn into a Mutant Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s poetry and plays can be intimidating, boring, and frustrating even to the most enthusiastic readers. His language is no doubt difficult to parse, but part of the difficulty comes from the way we often talk about literature as if it were a math problem; you either “get it” or you don’t. The point of this class is to leap over this problem by erasing the boundary between reader and Shakespeare, replacing both with a mutant combination of the two.

The class consists of exercises that permit and encourage participants to splice themselves with Shakespeare. I’ve supplied four starting points here.


 

1. Text-Splicing

Romeo: 

Draw, Benvolio; Beat down their weapons.

Gentlemen, for shame—if you stop, I will give you both ice cream.

We have split into two groups, each of which will perform the same scene from Romeo and Juliet—a friendly Romeo and Juliet—off . When we look at our scripts, however, words are missing—a few here, a few there, even some whole lines. One of us mentions hearing something on the news about a computer virus that targets printers, making them unable to print classic literature. We must be the latest victim. Our scripts look like Elizabethan Mad Libs, and we are filled with despair.

But someone else speaks up, suggesting that we try to complete the script as best we can. Okay, why not? We already have roles assigned, so each person focuses on filling the holes in her character’s lines. Because these lines interweave in dialogue, we have to work together too. In the process, we realize that Romeo and Juliet never did have enough references to Pokémon. We perform the two versions and compare them.


 

2. Literary Telepathy

Asides are those moments in the script when a character briefly comments on the scene to the audience, revealing an inner thought or emotion. As Lady Capulet rants against Romeo for killing Tybalt and calls him a “villain,” Juliet must go along with her mother, yet she shares her real thoughts with the audience:

Villain and he be many miles asunder.

God pardon him! I do, with all my heart;

and yet no man like he doth grieve my heart.

As it turns out, new chemicals added to the water supply have given us all literary telepathy, the ability to read characters’ minds. We divide into groups and pick characters. Then we supply new and frequent asides for our respective characters. We perform the scenes and compare our asides . . .

Romeo: Farewell, farewell! One kiss, and I’ll descend!

Juliet: (aside) I’ve got to send a pigeon to my BFF about this!


 

3. My Boyfriend’s Eyes Are Like Twin iPods

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”) is a sarcastic take on the blazon, a poem that describes somebody (usually a beloved) by metaphorically comparing different parts of her face and body to other things. Eyes can be like stars, lips like roses, ears like ermines. It is a verbal portrait made of a collage of similes.

“Collage” is a magic word. Just to think it makes lots of arts and crafts supplies appear before us: old magazines and books, scissors, pencils, and glue sticks. We like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, but we think we can do better. We each cut objects out of magazines—a chair, a tree, a flashlight, a smoothie, a sports car, a moldy sandwich—and assemble these objects into the face of somebody we admire but have difficulty describing. (It’s best to draw the shape of a face first.) After that, we compose our own blazons based on our portraits.


 

4. Time Travel: Secret of a Sonnet

One of the chief reasons that Shakespeare’s sonnets can be confusing is that they address a person or situation that remains a secret to the reader. Scholars divide the sonnets into those to a Fair Youth, a Dark Lady, and a Rival Poet—but whether or not these characters existed in real life remains a matter of debate.

Good thing we have the power to warp through space and time. Using this power, we go back in time to sixteenth-century England and hang out with Shakespeare for a day. We ask him about his friends, his enemies, his loves. We take notes on little things too: the weather, the color of the birds outside his house, the songs he hums, the taste of his food.

When we get back to our modern-day classroom, we write down the story behind the sonnet, explaining exactly what was going on in Shakespeare’s life when he wrote it.

Alternate Version:

Exactly the same as the last exercise, except Shakespeare is the time traveler. He comes forward in time to hang out with us. We show him around our town, take him to the skate park or the mall, play him our favorite songs, and talk deeply with him about life. As he leaves, he gives us one of his sonnets, remarking that it was inspired by the time he spent with us. Winking weirdly, he suggests that the poem contains many references and details drawn from things we saw or did or talked about. Back in class, we write down the story of our time with Shakespeare, making note of all the things that inspired Shakespeare to write his poem.

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