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Primary Sources: The Window Into Shakespeare's Plays

It truly was winter when we started "A Winter's Tale": a cold, gray, snowy Friday, and the students dragged in cold and gray and snowy. "Are we starting that new book today?" whined Sarah. "What's it about?" asked Adam. "Do we have to read it?" asked Sam.

As always, I started teaching Shakespeare without the book. Instead, I handed out a character list of "A Winter's Tale," provided a copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, copies of the New American Heritage Dictionary, and photocopies of the frontispiece and page 458 of Edward Topsell's "The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes" (on the adultery of lionesses). (See handouts 3 and 4.)

Circulating around the groups, I heard students warming to the chore. "Ooh, I found it," one said, as he started to trace roots to their origins. For example, for the name Perdita, there was perdition, the place of spiritual destruction, but also "a state of loss, or lessening, or a thing that causes destruction." They found a quote from "Othello," and they found perdu, meaning "concealed, hidden."

The murmur started to build as they found the wolf in Autolycus, the foreigner in Polixenes, the flowering of Florizell, and the "square pillar surmounted by a head," in Hermione. I ended with Leontes on purpose, to see what they could glean from a primary source like Topsell's The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes in their search for roots and meanings.

"Tell me a winter's tale," I told them, rushing them towards the end of the one period we spent on this activity. I allowed students to tie character to character in their own fabricated plots: plots of deceit, destruction, and redemption; plots with wolves and statues; plots with lion kings, jealous of adulterous mates.

"This is what we're going to read?" asked Adam.

"Yeah," I said.

"Sounds cool."

And it was, because the book was no longer foreign, and given the same set of circumstances, their thought processes emulated Shakespeare's. Students achieved the goal of taking Shakespeare down from his pedestal, and putting him into the classroom. As we read, they also shared the joy, as the twists they predicted fell neatly into place.

On the way out of class, I handed students a copy of "The Good and the Badde" (see handout 5) and asked them to circle the traits of a Virgin, and those of a Wanton for class discussion the next day. These are high school students, so Virgin piqued their interest, but Wanton (which they tend to pronounce like the Chinese soup) was a new word, if not a new concept.

Working in groups again the next day, I had students write the qualities of Virgins and Wantons on the board: Goodness, Charity, Grace, Patience; Imperfection, an Ape, a Witch, a Devil.

Which category might Hermione fit, based on the plot prognostications from yesterday?

"A devil," said Seth, "like Elizabeth Hurley in 'Bedazzled'."

"Wrongly accused," said Jamie, "an innocent."

"But what about 'The Lion King'?" asked Jessie, "jealousy, the leopard, killing the young, all that."

Let's see. I gave the groups a copy of Act 1.2.35-138 (enlarged, without footnotes), in which Hermione flirts with Polixenes, ending with her giving him her hand. Groups were given 15 minutes to prepare a scene, portraying her as either a Virgin, or a Wanton.

One group set the scene at a mall, with Leontes and Hermione walking out of the food court when they encounter Polixenes. Leontes draws further and further away as his best friend is drawn closer and closer by the Queen's flirtations.

Another group played Hermione as "a TV Land mom; stay-at-home; a good cook. She has to stand really straight and clasp her hands waist high." And she did.

A third group used two Hermiones, some lines were delivered wantonly, and others were delivered virginally.

Without realizing it, they had put Shakespeare on his feet and raised the next big question: what of Leontes? How does he react? The first primary source I used, Topsell's "The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes," gave them hints of Leontes' jealousy, which I further stressed when I asked them to concentrate on reading Act 1.2.139-185 (beginning with Leontes' "Too Hot!" and ending with Hermione's "He... seems unsettled.")

The second primary source, "The Goode and the Badde," led them to thinking about Hermione's behavior in Elizabethan terms. How could these stereotypes influence our understanding of her character?

Then I gave them another primary source, Esther Hath Hanged Haman, in which Esther Sowernam lambastes a pamphlet entitled The Arraignment of Women. (See handout 6.) Using Esther as well as "The Good and the Badde," I have the students develop a scene, lasting no more than 5 minutes, in which they write an accusation of adultery in Leontes' voice, as well as a defense by Hermione.

By doing these activities with primary sources early on in the study of "A Winter's Tale," students begin to recognize and to take ownership of the themes that emerge throughout Acts II and III. They are also fully primed with primary sources when they reach the trial scene of Act 3.2.

Using primary sources to open new windows onto Shakespeare helps to shed more light on his writing, just as composers introduce motifs in an overture. When the ear hears it again, it's no longer a foreign sound.

"This sounds familiar," said Emily, when we read Act 3.

All I could do was nod, and barely suppress the smile.

About the Author

Robert Hiles teaches college prep, honors, and Advanced Placement English at Beth Tfiloh Dahan School in Baltimore.


The Window into Shakespeare's Plays
The Window Into Shakespeare's Plays
The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes frontispiece
Of the Lion
The Good and the Badde
Esther Hath Hanged Haman
Teaching Shakespeare with Primary Sources

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Primary Sources: The Window Into Shakespeare's Plays
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