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shakespeare & the renaissance: activity ideas

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  1. Getting to Know William Shakespeare

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subject: Social Studies; The Arts; Reading & Language Arts

    Who was William Shakespeare and why do we still study his works? These are questions that students of all ages ask when presented with the prospect of studying about this famous bard. In order to better understand why we study the works of this famous playwright, students should become acquainted with the man who penned some of the most used quotes in all of history!

    Allow students to research the life of William Shakespeare using books, movies, or the Internet (see online resources below). Once they learn about the life of Shakespeare:

    • Encourage students to draw and paint their own portraits of Shakespeare
    • Allow the class to create a timeline of important events in Shakespeare's life and lifetime - the timeline can include pictures and quotes
    • Have the students write brief biographies of William Shakespeare

    Once completed, these materials will provide a basis for a continued study of Shakespeare and by learning about the life and times of William Shakespeare, he will become more "real" to students and the study of his works will become more relevant and personal. These projects will make a wonderful classroom display to which more projects can be added to make a very comprehensive and interesting study of the Shakespearean period.

    Online Resources

    In Search of Shakespeare:

    Frontline: "The Shakespeare Mystery":

    Frontline: "Much Ado About Something":

    Masterpiece Theatre - Who Was Shakespeare?:

    Absolute Shakespeare:

    A Shakespeare Timeline Summary Chart:

    Elementary Shakespeare:

    Education World - Shakespeare Sites:

    The Folger Shakespeare Library:

    Print Resources

    Shakespeare for Kids by Colleen Aagesen
    Teaching Shakespeare: Yes You Can!" by Lorraine Hopping Egan and L.O. Egan

    More Recommended Resources

  2. All the World's a Stage

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subject: Language Arts, Social Studies, Theater

    It might be difficult for younger students to read through an entire Shakespeare play, but they can easily learn about the plots and characters that Shakespeare developed. There are several wonderful sources online that will provide readable sources for students. There is also a series of books called "Shakespeare Made Easy" by Barron's that provides a modern English version of each play that is side-by-side to Shakespeare's original text. Also included in this series is information about Shakespeare's life, plays, theater, verse, characters, structure, themes, and imagery.

    The teacher may choose one or several plays and either choose lines, or have students choose lines, that they will discuss in detail according to what impact the lines had on the outcome of the play and also how they are still relevant today. Lines most familiar to students will probably come from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but students may want to research other characters as well.

    Once lines and characters have been chosen and researched, the class may want to plan a presentation of these lines to classmates or parents. A clever and easy way to do costuming is to use large paper grocery bags to cut and decorate. Another idea is to use a large roll of brown wrapping paper. Students can lie down on the paper and have their teacher or another student trace a loose outline of their body on the paper with pencil. The student can then cut out an oval where their face will appear and decorate the rest of the outline as the character they will portray. The papers can be decorated with paints, fabric, decorative trims, beads, etc. to look like their character. When they speak, classmates can hold these "character papers" while the character peaks through the oval and speaks their lines, completely in costume! This would be a wonderful presentation to combine with any of the other lessons above.

    Online Resources

    Tales of Shakespeare for Children:

    Shakespeare's Tragedies:

    Shakespeare and his Theater:

    In Search of Shakespeare - Shakespeare for Elementary Students:

    Folger Shakespeare Library - It's Elementary:

    Print Resources

    Irresistable Shakespeare by Scholastic Inc.
    Starting with Shakespeare by Pauline Nelson and Todd Daubert

    More Recommended Resources

  3. The Meter of Sonnets

    Grade Levels: 3-5
    Subjects: Reading & Language Arts

    Shakespeare's predominant meter when writing was iambic. A unit of iambic meter, called an iambic foot, consists of a soft stress followed by a sharp one, much like the rhythm of a heartbeat. Shakespeare's iambic meter is often considered to be quite lyrical and musical in quality.

    Explain to students what iambic pentameter is and give several examples. Then, have students look at several of Shakespeare's Sonnets (see Online Resources). Make copies of several Sonnets and see if students are able to determine how the meter is used.

    Given the "measures" for writing iambic meter and allow students to create their own Sonnets using this very rhythmic form. Students can use visual art illustrations to enhance their work and then read them to the class. These works can also be displayed in the classroom or hallway at school.

    A really nice project is to have students create an "old-fashioned" cover and include their masterpieces in a classroom collection! It would be nice for these booklets to be reproduced for each student. Another idea is to publish these original works on the school Web page.

    Online Resources

    Fun With Sonnets:

    Shakespeare's Sonnets:

    Catching the Beat (meter changes in Shakespeare's plays):

    More Recommended Resources

  4. Eye of Newt, and Toe of Frog - Shakespeare's Food

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subjects: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts

    "Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
    Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
    Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,
    For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

    --From Macbeth (IV, i, 14-15)

    It is always exciting for students to be able to "relive" a part of history by learning about the culture and daily life of another era. Building on information from the previous lesson on Elizabethan England, students can explore a more tactile aspect of that time period. Shakespeare mentions food quite often in his plays. It is very interesting to learn about the food from a different time period and how much of it is alike and different from our foods today. Students can explore the food that is listed throughout all of Shakespeare's works and even find out exactly what the references mean (see the first Internet site below).

    Once students have researched foods, they might want to have "Ye Olde Shakespearean Feast." Students could plan a sampling of some of the foods mentioned in Shakespeare's plays and invite schoolmates, parents, or community members to partake. This lesson would be most effective if students were able to describe and give the history of their particular item from resources given. Since the foods are mentioned in specific lines in Shakespeare's plays, students could even practice reciting the lines mentioning the food so that classmates or guests could truly "Eat, Drink, and be Entertained."

    Online Resources

    Shakespearean Feast:

    Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare's England:

    Shakespeare and Food:

    More Recommended Resources

  5. The Elizabethan Period: The English Renaissance

    Grade Level: 6-8
    Subjects: Social Studies; The Arts; Science & Technology; Reading & Language Arts

    The Elizabethan Period is one of the most fascinating times in English history. The lifestyle, culture, fashion, architecture, and literature were all reflections of the monarchy and the tremendous influence of Queen Elizabeth I. In order to better understand the literature of the period, it is imperative to understand the period itself and the daily life of the Elizabethans.

    Queen Elizabeth I herself is an extremely interesting character study, but the effect she had on England during her rule is quite amazing. Students can be assigned, or choose according to interest, different aspects of Elizabethan England to research (see suggestions below). Student research can manifest itself in the forms of written or aural reports, pictures, drawings, sketches, models, multi-media presentations, musical samples, readings, posters, etc.

    • Architecture - buildings/homes
    • Theaters - Globe and Swan
    • Fashion and clothing
    • Health and Medicine
    • Games and Hobbies
    • Crime and Punishment
    • Government
    • Music, Musicians, Instruments
    • Playwrights, authors, poets
    • Art and Artists

    You might also have students write a 1-2 page description of a day in their life if they lived in London during the Elizabethan Era. They should include aspects presented in the lesson. As a follow-up, discuss with the class comparisons between the Elizabethan Era and our own.

    Online Resources

    In Search of Shakespeare:

    Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance:

    Tudor and Elizabethan Times:

    Life in Elizabethan England:

    Shakespeare Resource Center - Elizabethan England:

    Print Resources

    The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary L. Blackwood

    More Recommended Resources

  6. The Renaissance and Today

    Grade Level: 9-12
    Subjects: Social Studies; The Arts; Reading & Language Arts

    The Renaissance was a time of tremendous creative expression in the fields of music, sculpture, painting and building. It was also marked by the pursuit of valuable possessions, including great religious and secular art, and material and commercial spirit of the 15th and 16th centuries that set the tone.

    Have students discuss the differences between the Renaissance culture and present day American culture. Through a research project, have students investigate the following issues related to the values and governance of the Renaissance society.

    • How does the culture of the Renaissance compare to the U.S. culture today?
    • What was the social structure during the Renaissance period, how is this structure different and similar to what we have today?
    • What was life like as different members of society during the Renaissance period?

    Some of the notable names from the Renaissance include: Petrarch, Erasmus, Hobbes, Locke, Luther, Machiavelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Sir Thomas More, Gutenberg, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Hooke, Leeuwenhoek, Pascal, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Bacon, de Cervantes and Shakespeare. Have the class choose a few of these famous figure and compare them to contemporary artists, political leaders, etc. who are have prominent roles in American society today.

    Ask students to identify and discuss economic and political changes that the Renaissance movement may have inspired in other countries in the upcoming centuries that followed. You also might want to ask your students to plan a time-travel episode on paper that allows them to meet at least two Renaissance figures of their choice, or witness two events. What were their choices? What were their criteria for their decisions? What languages would they need relative fluency in to undertake this?

    Online Resources

    The Renaissance - The Elizabethan World:

    Explore the Renaissance:

    Virtual Renaissance:

    Renaissance Faire:

    Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance:

    Art and Architecture of the Renaissance:

    National Museum of Science and Technology:

    Print Resources

    Renaissance Lives: Portrait of an Age by Theodore K. Rabb, Theodore K. Raab
    A Short History of Renaissance and Reformation Europe: Dances over Fire and Water by Jonathan W. Zophy

    More Recommended Resources

  7. Shakespeare's Characters

    Grade Level: 9-12
    Subjects: Reading & Language Arts; Social Studies; The Arts

    In his plays, Shakespeare created the most indelible characters in the history of the stage. Whether you are studying Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, or many others, each play features multidimensional characters. To get your class more involved in the text, have each student focus closely on one character in the play and create a visual representation of that character's language, personality, motivation, and relationships. He or she will then use that visual piece as a jumping-off point for performance. This activity may be done individually, in pairs, or in groups of three students.

    After the class has read the play, each student should identify a character to analyze and explore more fully. It's all right if more than one student chooses the same character to work with -- in fact, the lesson is more effective that way.

    Ask students to brainstorm about their chosen character. They should identify personality traits, motivations, moods, actions, temperament, and any other significant aspects of their characters.

    Discuss the brainstorming results as a class; have each student explain his or her choices and the rationale behind them. Have them create their impressions of the characters on posters. Posters should include images of the character and quotes about the character from the play. Hang the posters on the wall on the classroom. Have each student explain to the class, or as a written homework assignment, how they made their choices.

    As an extension, tell students to imagine that they are casting directors for a new live production of the play they have just read. Tell them they have done extensive research on the look of the title character and now want to make a report to the director and producer on how their character has been portrayed.

    Citing evidence from specific films, theater productions, and artwork, have students make a proposal for the type of actor they believe the casting director should be looking for. Students should include images that they have collected in their research.

    Online Resources

    In Search of Shakespeare:

    The Complete Works of William Shakespeare:

    Adapting Shakespeare to Film:

    Encyclopaedia Britannica's Guide to Shakespeare:

    The Internet Shakespeare Editions:

    Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet:

    Print Resources

    Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher's Handbook by Viola Spolin
    Shakespeare Set Free by Peggy O'Brien, ed.

    More Recommended Resources

Published: February 2004