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Performance First


During his lifetime Shakespeare never authorized the publication of any editions of his plays, only his poetry - as we see when Michael Wood in "In Search of Shakespeare" examines the printing of "Venus & Adonis." We assume that this is because Shakespeare wanted his audiences to see and hear the plays, not read them. Through his actors, the playwright seeks the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of an audience, not an individual reader. Therefore the most effective pedagogy for enabling students to enjoy, understand, and learn from Shakespeare's plays is to perform them. Analysis, critical contemplation, and writing assignments may follow, but in the beginning there should always be performance.

But classroom performance need not be (and rarely is) long, complete, elaborate, or smooth. Some of the most fruitful performances are brief, edited scenes or speeches done without sets and with minimal props. In Search of Shakespeare shows us many scenes performed by actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company performed on a bare stage or in the courtyard of an inn.

Exploratory performances by students are often ragged and punctuated with pauses or laughter. They are also filled with passion, active learning, pointed argument, and "Aha!" moments for actors and audience. Watch during the series as audience members are caught up by the plays and you will see surprise, recognition, and appreciation dart across their faces. So it is in the classroom. Years later, when students drop in to visit their old teachers it is these student-driven scenes and speeches, that that they talk about.

No formal background in drama is required of teachers introducing their students to Shakespeare, just imagination and willingness to accompany students as co-discoverer and guide to the possibilities within the text.

Learning Objectives

Students will:
  • interact with the play from their first encounter

  • discover the accessibility of the text when performed

  • listen purposefully to the text

  • determine actions implied by the text

  • justify these actions

  • comprehend Shakespeare's language

Estimated Time of Completion

Two class periods.


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

  • A television and VCR or DVD player

  • Computers with Internet access

  • Copy of the text: "The Tempest" 1, 1


Michael Wood tells us that "The Tempest" was very probably one of Shakespeare's most personal plays and that Prospero's last speech may have been Shakespeare's farewell to the theater. But before we meet Prospero, Shakespeare has to get his characters, the subjects of Prospero's "rough magic" onto his island. This is accomplished in the short first scene of the first act and is an excellent choice for introducing students to performing Shakespeare.

You may first want to play the clip of the Royal Shakespeare Company performing a scene from "The Tempest" (Episode Four, 35:15-38:20) in In Search of Shakespeare. Seeing the actors might inspire the students' performances.

Select volunteers to read the parts of the Master, Boatswain, Alonso, Antonio, Gonzalo, and Sebastian. The rest of the class becomes mariners and sound effects crew. They will react to the lines read with appropriate gestures, actions, and sounds.

(Since the Boatswain has the biggest role in this scene, and since this is an introductory exercise, break his part up among three students. You will increase participation and lower the intimidation factor.)

Have students with lines stand and read through the text while seated students without lines read silently.

Ask students to recount what happened in this scene.
  • What is the progression of events?

  • Who is frightened?

  • Who is angry?

  • What happens at the end of the scene?

Create 3 or 4 categories of sounds found in the scene and list them on
the chalk board,

e.g., wind roaring, waves slapping, master whistling, passengers shouting,

Read through a second time with a new cast. Only students with lines will read the text; those in seats will be listeners. Tell listeners to pay special attention to direct and indirect references to sound in the actors' speeches. (With each reading of the scene, select new students for the speaking parts so that by the last run-through almost everyone will have had a chance to read a few lines.)

Jot sound references on the chalkboard in the appropriate category as students suggest them. Responses might include: "take in the topsail"; "tend to the master's whistle"; "command these elements to silence"; "you do assist the storm," etc.

Have students demonstrate different sounds. Those without assigned lines are now mariners/ sound effects crew. Make each group of mariners responsible for a separate category of sound. (Dividing mariners into groups of sound makers keeps any one sound from overwhelming the speakers.)

Have a third read-through with a new cast adding the sounds at the appropriate lines.

Ask students to consider how actors would physically show the effects of the storm to the audience. Then elicit from students a list of actions (with line references) that the mariners and passengers might take. Again, jot these references on the chalkboard as students suggest them. Actions might include swaying from side to side, falling to one's knees, tugging on the sail, flicking lights off and on, etc.

Have a fourth read-through with a new cast including both sound effects and actions.

Have students evaluate sounds and actions in the fourth reading. Was the presentation confusing? Is a choreographer needed to coordinate the sounds and actions, or can groups organize themselves? Should something be added or eliminated? Why? Students must justify arguments by referring to the text.

Have a fifth and final run-through with a new cast.

Extension Activity

Have students write a brief assessment of the way the scene was played. If they could make one improvement, what would it be? If they could have one prop what would it be? What conflicts might emerge if everyone on board survives the shipwreck?

At the start of the next class ask students to jot down any lines they remember.


The follow-up assignment provides a basis for assessment by both students and teachers. For students it creates an opportunity to reflect on what they did and plan ways to improve future performance activities. Teachers can use the assignment as a means to determine how effectively students understood the goals of the activity.

Online Resources

All Shakespeare:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (full text of Shakespeare's

The Great Shakespeare Experiment:



Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts.... to acquire new information.... 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 (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.



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

Judith Elstein taught at Atlantic City High School in Atlantic City, New Jersey for many years. She is retired but remains in Shakespeare education.

Professional Development

Quick Tips

"Hamlet" for English Language Learners: The Photo-Performance Project
A case study by Mary Ellen Dakin
"A Hit, a Very Palpable Hit": Stage Combat for Student Performers
A case study by Jeff Schober
It's All in the Concept: The World of the Play in Middle School
A case study by Stacie Beard
Discovery Through Performance
An in-depth article by Caleen Sinnette Jennings

Lesson Plans

Shakespearean "Conversations"
A lesson plan by Michael LoMonico
Performance First
A lesson plan by Judith Elstein

Browse by theme

Shakespeare for elementary students
Shakespeare on film
Teaching Shakespeare with technology
Shakespeare's language
Teaching Shakespeare with primary sources
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