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Shakespearean "Conversations"


Performance can take many shapes. Simply getting Shakespeare's words into students' mouths is a good start to a Shakespeare unit and is one of the best ways to get students to like Shakespeare. This lesson gives some preliminary activities to ease students into Shakespeare's language while creating some original conversations. Students will not have any trouble performing these conversations because they will have created them.

Learning Objectives

Students will:
  • feel more comfortable with Shakespeare's language

  • have worked with Elizabethan sentence structure

  • have worked with Elizabethan verb form

  • have worked with Elizabethan 2nd person familiar pronouns

  • see the possibilities for verbal expression beyond today's contemporary slang

Estimated Time of Completion

Two to three 45-minute class periods.


Introductory Exercises

As the class begins, have the students work in pairs and write a silent conversation. The process is that one student writes the first line of dialogue and passes the paper to the partner who continues the conversation. So it might be something like this:
  • What do you want to do after school?

  • I don't know. Do you want to come to my house?

  • OK. Can we play with your PlayStation?

  • Sure, What game do you want to play

Let them all continue this without speaking until each has at least five exchanges. Then they can put these away for use later.

Next you can discuss what aspects of Shakespeare's writing they find the most difficult. Their answers will probably include words like "thee" and "thou," funny verb endings, odd sentence structure, and archaic vocabulary. While they might not articulate all these, as the teacher, you can jump right in and help them out. Then you can explain that you and they will soon be able to eliminate each of these problems.

"In Search of Shakespeare" contains many clips of actors - particularly the Royal Shakespeare Company - performing scenes from Shakespeare's best known works. Play these scenes for your students so that they can hear how the actors have mastered the Bard's language.

Episode Three:

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" (09:30-11:00, 29:30-31:30)

"Romeo and Juliet" (12:20-4:00)

"Richard II" (36:00-38:30)

"Twelfth Night" (43:20-44:20)

"Hamlet" (45:20-46:20)

"Othello" (48:40-53:00)

Episode Four:

"Macbeth" (17:45-22:00)

"King Lear" (22:00-26:00)

"The Tempest" (35:15-38:20)

"Henry VIII" (43:15-45:30)


The best way to begin this activity is to recite a typical wedding vow, using the familiar "thee" and "thou":
"I, Martin take thee, Jane, as my lawful wife."

"I, Jane, take thee, Martin, as my lawful husband."
Then give students a brief analysis of the 2nd Person Familiar Pronouns used in Shakespeare's plays. You could write the following examples on the board:

Singular Pronouns

Thou - Subject: "Thou art my brother."

Thee - Object: "Come, let me clutch thee."

Thy - Possessive Adjective: "What is thy name?"

Thine - Possessive Noun: "To thine own self be true."

Plural Pronoun

Ye - Subject: "Ye shall know me."

Students who know French or Spanish can explain the tu form in that
language and when it is appropriate to use it-close friends, family,
children, animals, and inanimate objects. They can now take out their
silent conversations and modify them using the 2nd person familiar

Verb Inflection

Elizabethan language, though considered Early Modern English, still
retained some verb inflections. Usually they simply add an -est or -st
to a word. These were used often with the 2nd person familiar pronouns:
"Thou liest, malignant thing."

"What didst thou see?"

"Why canst thou not see the difference?"
Ask students to add some verb inflections to their silent conversations. I would actually encourage them to overuse them. Sentences such as "What time should'st thou callest?" or "Didst thou drinkest thy Coke when thou wast thirsty?" sound good to me.

Sentence Structure

A student was once heard to say, "Shakespeare takes a perfectly good sentence and messes it up." How can we help them? Well, it's actually pretty simple.

Take a complicated sentence. Put each word of the sentence on a separate index card. Mix up the cards. Give a set to a group of about four students. Let them sort out the cards and try to figure out Shakespeare's sentence.

You'll need to make several packets with the same sentence. Generally, students will arrange the words to make a clear sentence, but they probably won't get Shakespeare's right away. Ask each group to read their sentence out loud and see if anyone else has the same sentence. Continue rearranging until a group gets it close to Shakespeare's. What they are doing is working through some thorny sentences, clustering words, and seeing that Shakespeare's original is really pretty easy to decode. At the conclusion of this, point out to the students that while they may not have gotten his sentence exactly, it doesn't matter. His sentence is not better that theirs; it's just different.

Here are a few sentences that work well:
"A glooming peace this morning with it brings." (Romeo and Juliet)

"That handkerchief did an Egyptian to my mother give." (Othello)

"Thy shape invisible retain thou still." (The Tempest)

Troublesome Words

Using Handout 1, "80 Troublesome Words," have students rework their silent conversations once more, this time adding as many of these words as possible. In many cases they'll have to rewrite the conversation, but that's ok. I'd require each group to include at least 10 words. When they are done, each group performs their dialogue for the class.

Odd Words

Finally, repeat the previous exercise using Handout 2, "125 Odd Words." Once again, ask some groups to perform their conversation out loud.

Now that the class has a better idea of how Shakespeare's words and sentences work, it is time to dive right into some excellent examples from his actual works. Using Handout 3, "An Insulting Conversation," they will read a series of insulting lines, and savor the sound of those words. One way to do this is to divide the class in half and have students form two lines. When each student is facing someone from the other line, ask them to read the conversation chorally. Instruct them to alternate sides and try to say the lines loud, angrily, and together. If time permits, you might ask for two volunteers to read it at each other.

Extension Activity

There are many ways to take these activities to the next level. Since all these tasks are group activities, an individual homework assignment to use all of these resources to write another scene, letter, monologue, or story seems appropriate.


There is no formal assessment for this lesson. Rather the teacher should ascertain whether or not the students are beginning to feel more comfortable with Shakespeare's language and are able to decode Shakespeare's sentences better than before.

Online Resources

Frontline: Much Ado About Something (Introduction to Shakespeare's Language)

Shakespearean Insultor:

Shakespeare Insult Kit:

Shakesperean list of insults:

An A-to-Z list of insults:



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 4: Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

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.



Language Arts

Standard 5 : Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Standard 6 : Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Standard 7 : Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

About the Author

Michael LoMonico teaches at Stony Brook University and is the Associate Director of Education for The English-Speaking Union of the United States. He is the founder and editor of Shakespeare magazine and has served as Master Teacher and Director of the Folger Library's Teaching Shakespeare Institutes.


Handout 1: "80 Troublesome Words"

Handout 2: "125 Odd Words"

Handout 3: "An Insulting Conversation"

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