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Shakespearean Comedy on Film


The late twentieth century marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film. Directors and actors with styles as diverse as Kenneth Branagh, Baz Luhrmann and Mel Gibson strove to popularize Hamlet on the big screen, and students became used to seeing adaptations of Shakespeare arrive at their local Cineplex. The tradition in teaching has been to review the play by showing the entire movie. Viewing clips of the same Shakespeare scene in different film versions offers students the opportunity to engage in close critical analysis and to compare interpretations and visual styles. This technique also inspires students to value and create their own interpretations of Shakespeare. This lesson will focus on the aspects of Shakespeare's comedy that become more evident in performance.

Students will not need extensive background in filmmaking or drama; however, teachers will need to give some background on comedy. The lesson here centers on "Much Ado About Nothing," and move on to "comic relief" in "Hamlet", but it may be adapted to view most any comic scene.

Additionally, it is not necessary to do both lessons presented here. For example, if your group is studying only "Hamlet", skip directly to lesson two.


Students will:
  • View two cuttings from video adaptations of "Much Ado About Nothing," focusing on comic scenes

  • View two cuttings from versions of "Hamlet," again focusing on comic scenes

  • Watch closely the elements of sound, setting, language, and actor physicality, noting their impact on the humor of the scene

  • Develop a working vocabulary and understanding of the choices actors and directors make in conveying humor on screen

  • Develop an understanding of the impacts of humor on the larger conflicts and themes of the plays

Estimated Time

You may use as few as two 45-minute class periods, or as many as three 90-minute block periods.

Materials Needed

  • A text of "Much Ado About Nothing"

  • A text of "Hamlet"

  • Antoon, A.J., dir. "Much Ado About Nothing." Broadway Theatre Archive, 1973.

  • Branagh, Kenneth, dir. "Much Ado About Nothing." Goldwyn. 1993.

  • Bennett, Rodney, dir. "Hamlet." BBC and Time-Life. 1980

  • Scott, Campbell and Eric Simonson, dirs. "Hamlet." Hallmark. 2000.

  • Olivier, Laurence, dir. "Hamlet." Two Cities/The Criterion Collection. 1948/2000.

  • A clip of a funny scene from a well-written sitcom, or animated show like a "Looney Toons" cartoon or "The Simpsons" may be helpful to highlight the elements of humor as defined below.

  • A copy of "In Search of Shakespeare" (To order, visit Shop PBS)

  • A TV and DVD or VCR

Part One: Humor in "Much Ado About Nothing"

Give a working definition of humor, which involves the setting up of a surprise or series of surprises for an audience. This is usually set up through developing what is often called "incongruity." The incongruity is created when a comic sets up a frame of reference, which sets up audience expectations through narration, visual representation, enactment/movement, or sound patterns. The comic/writer then reveals a change, breaking the expectation. The tension created between the expectation and the revealed results in the emotional response we recognize as humor.

Note that humor, and its inherent release of tension, often will result in lowering the stress level, both for the audience, and often, the players.

Review the following comic terms with your students:
  • Wit

  • Irony

  • Hyperbole

  • Pun

  • Parody

  • Bombast

  • Malapropism

  • Slapstick
Note that each of these will have equivalents in physical humor and music.

Put students into groups, each focusing on one of the following elements
  • Physical Humor

  • Verbal Humor, including the use of accent/dialect

  • Musical/Sound Accents to Humor

  • Humor due to setting and/or props

  • If you have a large class, you may also want one group to keep an eye on your text while they are watching to note what lines have been cut.
(Optional: play your cartoon or sitcom clip and discuss what elements affect the humor.)

"In Search of Shakespeare" contains many comedic performances, not only of Shakespeare's plays, but also other noted writers/performers of the time. (The Mystery Players, Episode One 20:00-22:00, The Queensmen, Episode Two, 19:00-21:00, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Episode Three 29:00-31:30) Which of the above elements can students detect in these performances? How did comic performances mix humor and politics? Why did authorities find such humor "subversive"?

Play the clip from the Antoon version of "Much Ado About Nothing," focusing on the antics of Dogberry and the watch. Here the group focusing on the sound elements should have much to say, with the physical and verbal groups close behind.

Debrief each of the groups asking students to break down the aspects of the type of humor they watched for. For example, the group focusing on the physical aspects may note the body language of the characters at particular moments, or they may mention the position of characters in relation to each other in space.

Play the same clip from the Branagh version, with the groups again focusing on the four aspects of humor listed above.

Debrief again as in #5.

Open the floor for students to discuss which scene is more effective in its humor.

Extension Activity

1. You may want to consider playing the scenes immediately before and after the watch scene and ask students to speculate why Shakespeare places the "comic" scenes where he does. This should get you and your students back to the definition of comedy and the release of tension that may seem necessary after scenes that develop the main conflict.

2. Look under Works on the "In Search of Shakespeare" Web site and read how Shakespeare's plays have survived in the modern age in part because of many successful film and television adaptations. In addition to these countless adaptations, Shakespeare continues to inspire many screenwriters.

Part Two: Comedy in Tragedy

Play the first version of the Gravediggers scene (5.1) in "Hamlet." You may want to begin with the scene immediately preceding-in many versions, this will be the conspiracy of Laertes and Claudius, followed by the announcement of Ophelia's death. You also may want to note that in the Second Quarto and Folio editions of the play the stage directions read, "Enter two clowns." Discuss the ramifications of this. You will want to ensure that you assign one group to watch the text as they watch, noting the cuts.

Debrief what each group noted in their viewings. Discuss how the tension of the preceding scene has been relieved somewhat by the gravediggers, their mistakings, evasions, and physical movements.

Play the additional version(s), debriefing as you have above.

When you've finished your viewings, discuss what the effect each version seems to be striving for. How are they different? Is one version more successful or more appropriate? Why?

Extension Activity

Show several depictions of comic/fool figures. For our purposes, the depictions of Dogberry work well, but any of Shakespeare's fools, from the gravediggers to Lear's fool will work, just as well. Have students consider the following questions:
  • What do the two Dogberrys have in common physically?

  • How does Dogberry compare physically to other characters in the play?

  • Why do you think the directors chose the actors they did to play Dogberry?

  • If you were directing a film version of the play whom would you cast? How would your decision fulfill the demands of a comic figure: physically, verbal facility with language?


  • Have students perform their own versions of the scene(s) either on-book, with text in hand, or in a more practiced performance.

  • Have students turn in their notes.

  • Have students write a short argumentative piece in favor of one version over the other(s).

  • Assign students to research the history of comedy and comic actors in Shakespeare's play from his time until now. How has it changed? What remains true today that was true in Shakespeare's time?

  • Have students perform the scene, exaggerating their movements and language for comic effect.

  • Assign a participation grade for their contributions

Online Resources

Folger Shakespeare Library (Teachers and Students):

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (full text of Shakespeare's

Internet Movie Database

The Art of Foley

University of Victoria (Shakespeare's Internet Editions):



Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Standard 6: Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Standard 8: Students use a variety of technological and informational resources (libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Standard 11: Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Standard 12: Students use spoken, written and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information.



Language Arts

Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

World History

Standard 27: Understands how European society experienced political, economic, and cultural transformations in an age of global intercommunication between 1450 and 1750

About the Author

Tom Fitzgerald works, lives and plays in the mountains near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Originally from Buffalo, NY, he has been teaching high school English for 11 years.
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