Placing Shakespeare’s work in a physical context can have dramatic impact on students’ engagement and understanding, says Aisling Ryan
Providing learners with the opportunity to engage with the context and the staging of Shakespeare’s plays is fundamental to the understanding of what these texts have to offer. If we as English teachers can inspire students through interesting considerations of the dramatic choices of this playwright, then we are more likely to create enthusiastic and highly engaged individuals. Our focus is often to do our very best to ensure we can make the world of Shakespeare come alive for our students.
The following lesson, which focuses on Romeo and Juliet’s famous ‘balcony’ scene, aims to ensure students acquire the understanding and confidence to pull together context, staging and language analysis. It takes place as we approach the reading of Act 2 Scene 2. The lesson begins by drawing on the easily accessible interactive app ‘Globe 360’ produced by Shakespeare’s Globe. This offers visual support and video clips to sharpen all students’ awareness of theatre, staging and audience – all essential to their understanding of the genre.
WHY TEACH THIS?
These activities are designed to create a physical engagement with both the context and the staging choices of one scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The lesson gives the students the chance to consider both elements and then apply this understanding to the language of the text.
The first part of the lesson explores The Globe theatre and considers stage and audience. Load the ‘Globe 360’ app in order for students to get a virtual tour of The Globe. If the technology required here is an issue, then you could set up a series of pictures for each location and take them through the detail yourself.
Within the app, begin with a basic look around, ensuring you click on information icons. From the menu then choose video gallery and play the clips on each of the six locations. In particular it is worth exploring the Musician’s Gallery, the Gentleman’s Box, the Yard and the Upper Gallery to consider both staging and the social class of audience members. All of the videos are short and informative; with discussion, you could get students to make two or three bullet point notes for each location.
The aim of the clips within this lesson is for students to begin to understand the staging possibilities as well as being able to consider the variety of audience members within such a playhouse.
1. Start reading
Initially, students need to work in pairs, reading Romeo’s lines from the beginning of Act 2 Scene 2 up to line 32 – ideally this would be projected for the class. They should swap from one reader to the other at the end of each sentence. Once this first reading is complete, students should be led in a quick discussion regarding the basic sentiment of Romeo in talking about Juliet – the degree to which he glorifies her and the hyperbole used in his description of her. The stage direction between line 9 and 10 [Juliet appears aloft as at a window] needs to be noted as it takes us into our next activity.
2. Get physical
Now, students need to work in a space where some can be at higher levels than others. I tend to use a nearby set of outside steps, but have been known to take students to a fuller flight of stairs or to the main school hall to use the stage.
The first activity here is to get students to stand on the steps in order to represent the tiers of the social hierarchy of the 1590s. So, a female student representing Elizabeth I should be most highly placed, with her noblemen, then ladies of the court and then commoners each on descending steps. Students need to, whilst in position, discuss the significance of such a tiering. This should include the discussion of the Divine Right of Kings and the fact that beneath the monarch, at every other social level females were ranked beneath their male counterparts. You could extend this principle to simply reposition male and female students to represent the hierarchy within marriage at the time.
Next, students should return to their understanding of the staging of the opening of Act 2 Scene 2. They should take the roles of Romeo and Juliet and reposition themselves to represent Shakespeare’s stage direction of ‘Juliet aloft’. The key learning point here is that students need to discuss and make links and contrasts to the positioning of males and females within this scene and compare it to the hierarchies already explored which were part of the landscape of Elizabethan England. They should also then consider if they could find any symbolic meaning within the position of Juliet in relation to Romeo.
3. Return to the language
Take the class back to the classroom and return to Romeo’s first thirty lines of Act 2 Scene 2. In pairs, students need to examine his speech closely, looking for any references to the heavens and they should also consider the effect of language choices on an audience. Key vocabulary and students’ findings should be highlighted on the classroom screen, with annotations to show consideration of effect. The students should then be further led into making links to the staging played out earlier in the lesson and the symbolism of ‘Juliet aloft’.
Students could respond to the following question: “Explore the language and staging of the opening of Act 2 Scene 2, considering the relevance of Elizabethan social hierarchies.” This would consolidate the range of learning undertaken across this lesson.
Students should reflect on the significance of social and cultural contexts, perhaps also extending the learning from this lesson into earlier scenes from Act 1, or the teacher could broaden discussion to consideration of modern day hierarchies – what do the students regularly see in the hierarchies established around their lives? Are these hierarchies ever challenged?
ABOUT OUR EXPERT
Aisling Ryan is currently Head of English at St Clement Danes School in Hertfordshire where she also has responsibility for leading on Exceptional Performance.
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