Introduction to Shakespeare
Gettin' cozy with Big Willy Shakes.
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to see a Shakespeare play when it was originally written? What sights and smells you would have experienced? Okay, on second thought, maybe you're not interested in smelling people who only showered four times a year. But who would be watching a play with you? And were those plays like the latest indie films that everyone is raving about, or were they more like the reality TV shows you're embarrassed to admit you watch?
This course will try to answer just those burning questions about Shakespeare's world and plays. We will look at how he wrote them, who he wrote them for, and how they were performed. Oh, and of course we will be reading selections from his plays, too.
By the end of the course, Shakespeare will be your new best friend.
Unit 1. All the World's a Stage
This unit will introduce you to the Shakespeare's world, giving you a feel for the historical and social context surrounding the Bard, and providing some deets on what it was actually like to attend the theater back in the day.
Unit 2. Histories: Fact or Fiction?
In this unit, we'll discuss the difference between drama and history by looking at sections of Richard III and Henry V. We'll consider the speeches and personalities Shakespeare gives these historical heavyweights while we ponder the dramatic impact of historical fiction.
Unit 3. Family Feud
In this unit, we'll be reading excerpts from different plays that focus on family relationships—The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Winter's Tale—and we'll think about the way Shakespeare's audience would have understood family ties.
Unit 4. What's Love Got To Do With It?
Love is in the air in all of Shakespeare's plays, but we've picked just a few examples to tackle in this unit: Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Unit 5. All's Fair in Love and War
This unit will look at the types of wars waged, from the personal to the political, in Shakespeare's plays, focusing on how the characters deal with the wars going on around them. We'll be looking at Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus.
Unit 6. The Master of Disguise
Shakespeare's plays have more plot twists and disguises than a Plot Twist and Disguises festival. And that's just what we'll be thinking about in this unit, by reading selections from As You Like It, King Lear, The Tempest, and Measure for Measure.
Unit 7. Words, Words, Words
This unit will focus on Shakespeare's words, zooming in on his poetry and taking a closer look at all the wordy legacies he's left us today. (Spoiler alert: there are a ton.)
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 7: Give Me an Audience
[Image from frontispiece to The Wits in Restoration Theatre in England by Francis Kirkman, 1662]
Sometimes the audience is almost as important as the show itself. We know this from attending performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And from making jokes that don't land even when we're sure they're hilarious.
So who do you think was watching Shakespeare's plays when they were first performed, and how did they feel about it? Were they blockbuster hits or total flops? And did it matter?
In this lesson, audiences play the leading role. We'll talk about how they responded to plays, what they did while watching (get your mind out of the gutter!), and whether or not they made any difference.
We recommend getting a helmet in case any heavy utensils are thrown at the stage.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.7: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Not the Only Show in Town
We've all been there. You go to a movie that looks ah-maz-ing in the previews only to be sorely disappointed and to find that the best jokes were in the previews or that acting isn't what it used to be. (We're looking at you, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.)
What if you had the power to make sure bad movies never played again and were run right out of town?
Well, back in Shakespeare's day, that's exactly what the audience could do. They could stop a play from being performed if they didn't like it. Just think: we wouldn't have had to suffer through The Matrix Reloaded or Batman and Robin. We can only imagine how successful Romeo and Juliet 2: Zombies in Verona would have been... or not. In any case, audiences decided what would be performed and how long it would last. If a play didn't sell, an acting company wouldn't perform it. Simple as that.
Keep in mind, too, that companies were actively competing with one another for business; performances at the playhouses took place at the same time, so audiences could decide to go to the Globe, Swan, Rose, or another theater to see a play. There's no way to DVR a play, so if Survivor: Imperial Colonization and Elizabethan Family were playing at the same time, you had to choose between the two.
If audiences hadn't loved Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet so much, you might not have had to read them in school. We also wouldn't have West Side Story, New Moon, Shakespeare in Love, and tons of other musicals, movies, and books inspired by the Bard's tales. Good thing those audiences had good taste.
In the Theater
About 3,000 people could cram into the Globe theater. People of all social classes went to the playhouse—but the upper class ladies and gentleman did significantly less cramming than the lower class.
While common folk stood in a pit as though they were livestock or, um, flying coach, lords and ladies usually sat in a gentlemen's room or private box near the side of the stage on the second level. People went to the theater to be seen as much as to see a play, and everyone in society was there strutting their stuff as if the Globe were an Oscars party. Even ambassadors and noblemen from other countries would visit playhouses because they were some of the prime social hotspots of the time.
The commoners were known as the groundlings or "penny stinkards" because, well…you get the idea. They only paid a penny for admission, and they were pretty rowdy. And stinky. Shakespeare would even make fun of them in his plays to impress the nobles in the audience.
But back to the theater itself. People snacked on nuts, fruit, and seeds while watching performances (life before Junior Mints was weird, we know). Noblemen and women also ate meals while seated in their boxes. Not the furthest thing in the world from what we know today, right?
There's one thing we're counting our lucky stars isn't still the same today: it wasn't all fruit and seed aroma coming from the playhouse. No, it smelled like people. Renaissance-era people who typically only bathed four times a year and rarely took off their undergarments. Yeah. And in case that wasn't enough, they were all crammed into a small space and sweating and moving right next to each other.
A Shakespearean theater by any other name would smell as rank.
The plays themselves offer a lot of clues as to how the audience was supposed to behave. That's right: the audience was supposed to behave in a certain way. While we wouldn't mind Shakespeare directing us, we're not sure how we'd feel about, say, M. Night Shyamalan telling us when to scream.
Shakespeare almost maintained a bit of control by breaking the fourth wall in his plays. That means he'd have actors talk directly to the audience—something TV peeps are still doing to this day. Why was it such a good strategy? Well, it made sure the audience felt welcome and that they were staying on their toes. Shakespeare certainly wanted to be on their side when they were the ones deciding if his plays would be successful.
Pretty clever, right?
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.7: It's Coming from the Audience
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 9, 10
- Course Type: Elective
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1