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Advice From 400 Years Ago


One function of primary sources from the past is to help readers get closer to the time period studied. Like close-ups that help us to understand a larger picture, nonfiction documents help us understand the thinking of the time concerning a particular issue. When students read and interpret the documents, they may be surprised by what they find. Advice from 400 years ago may seem ludicrous or uncannily appropriate for our age.

We know some of the sources that influenced Shakespeare in writing his plays, but as Michael Wood points out in "In Search of Shakespeare," many others are unknown to us. Woods tells us that Shakespeare loved the Roman poet Ovid and was a great reader. Did he read to continue the education that ended so abruptly when his father's fortunes fell? Did he consult books for personal advice ... as in the raising of his daughters and son?

The excerpt on the handout is from a widely circulated book of the early seventeenth century on the responsibilities of parents in bringing up children. The author is unknown, but he (or she) seems to express the conventional wisdom of the day on child rearing. There are sections on "maides" and on marriage; in this lesson we will examine one extract giving advice to parents on raising teen-age boys. With its emphasis on avoiding violence, it has particular relevance to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" as well as to society today.

Viewers will note that "In Search of Shakespeare" stresses the violence that was abundant in Elizabethan society. Woods points out that Shakespeare, like all gentlemen of his time, would have always worn a sword in public. Fights sparked by trivial reasons were frequent and fatalities often ensued. Christopher Marlowe was murdered (perhaps because he was a spy), and Shakespeare's friend and drinking partner Ben Jonson was arrested for killing a fellow actor in a duel!

Learning Objectives

Students will:
  • Analyze an extract of a document from 1616 concerning male adolescent behavior

  • Decide if the advice offered is sensible

  • Determine if the content of that document is relevant to contemporary adolescent males

  • Compare the advice in the text to the actions of some male characters in "Romeo and Juliet"

  • Assess whether that advice is followed


Estimated Time of Completion

This lesson plan takes about two class periods.


As you watch In Search of Shakespeare, point out to the class when host Michael Wood pores over original historical documents, such as birth certificates, police records, deeds, and tax records. These provide the clues that guide Wood on his mission to uncover who Shakespeare was. Remind them that several times in the series Wood slowly reads from original typefaces and manuscripts. He hesitates because both printing fonts and handwriting techniques have changed greatly in 400 years. (You can also find images of these documents in the "Evidence" section of the "In Search of Shakespeare" Web site)

The day before this lesson, students should read 3, 1 of "Romeo and Juliet."

Copy the original extract from "The Office of Christian Parents: The Ordering of Sonnes from Fourteene Yeare Old and Upward" (see Online Resources below) onto an overhead. Display the overhead so that students can view the original text and type faces.

Elicit from students the differences they observe in the visual style - letters, punctuation, spelling - of this document from 1616 from one that is contemporary. (Students may point out the confusing f/s u/v substitutions, the lack of apostrophes for possessives, the unusual or arbitrary use of commas and colons, and the different and occasionally inconsistent spellings for common words.)

Replace the overhead of the original edition with the handout in modern type of the same extract. (In the handout, the letters f and u have been replaced with their modern equivalents s and v, and the font size has been enlarged for easier reading.)

Involve the whole class in reading the document by going around the room and having one student read a sentence aloud followed by the next student rephrasing that sentence into more contemporary language. (Since several of the sentences are quite long, have students read to the colon or period followed by a rephrasing.)

Have class open their "Romeo and Juliet" texts to act 3, scene 1. (Students should have read this scene the day before this lesson.)

Divide the class into groups of four to six students. Ask each group to:
  • reread 3, 1 "Romeo and Juliet" together

  • underline lines in "The Ordering of Sonnes" that offer advice that could have been

followed by Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo.

Discuss with your students the following questions:
  • How appropriate is the advice to the characters?

  • Is any one piece of advice more important than the others?

  • Does any of the advice seem old-fashioned or irrelevant to today's adolescent males?

Have each student write a letter in the style of the anonymous author of The Office of Christian Parents to the parents of any of the young men in the play. They must give specific advice to the parents about what they should do to help their son stay out of trouble. Students should use all that they have learned about these young men in their reading of the first three acts of the play.


Teachers can evaluate the essays.

Extension Activities

1. Read "The Ordering of Children in the Matter of Marriage," another extract from this work and following a similar model, pair it with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "A Winter's Tale."

2. Read "The Ordering of Maides from Twelve Yeare Old and Upward," another extract from this work and following a similar model, pair it with "The Taming of the Shrew." (See Online Resources below for both selections.)

Online Resources

Folger Shakespeare Library (Primary Source: The Office of Christian Parents):

Folger Shakespeare Library (Teaching Shakespeare - Primary Sources):

Frontline: "Much Ado About Something" (Christopher Marlowe):




Standard 1: 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: 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: Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.

Standard 4: 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: 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: 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 non-print texts.



Language Arts

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

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

World History

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

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.


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Lesson Plans

Advice From 400 Years Ago
A lesson plan by Judith Elstein

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