Classroom Strategies

Teaching the Play

Before we start The Tempest, I give the students a copy of the scene-by-scene summary from Charles Boyce’s Shakespeare A to Z; I do this for every Shakespeare play I teach as a way to head them off at the pass with Cliffsnotes and as an opportunity to explain the proper use of such summaries. I also give students the assignment of finding their vote for “Most Confusing Passage” as they read the first act.

Day One – Act I

Typically students bring in various parts of Prospero’s opening speech for as their most confusing. We do some close reading of the passage, and I throw out the hypothesis that Prospero is supposed to be confusing. As evidence, we start looking at other characters (especially Miranda) to see if they are easily understandable. Focusing on Miranda gets us into some interesting conversations about the father/daughter dynamic. To build off all their ideas about the relationship, we stage Prospero’s speech in class with the purpose of trying to understand why Prospero keeps saying, “Are you listening?” Does Miranda give him reason to say that? Is Prospero too lost in his story to have a clear understanding of his daughter’s attentiveness? Is Prospero just a cranky, old guy? We play it different ways and the students who are not acting “direct” our actors as to how they might convey these interpretations.I also open The Tempest by talking about what it means to me. I make it clear that it is not my favorite play, and that it is boring in parts. I explain my theory that Shakespeare is in fact trying to write a boring play and poke fun at theatre, and isn’t that interesting because it’s his last play?

Day Two – Act II

Now that we have met all the characters, we map them on the board. I then give most of the students a placard with a name of one of those characters written on it. Then we, as a class, try to line up those characters according to who has the most and least power on the island. This can be a fascinating exercise, and they often come up with really eloquent explanations for why someone has more power than someone else. Lots of debate too. I also had students try to stage the gabardine scene (w/ Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban) using only the text and not the editor’s footnotes. It devolves into silliness, as it should, and gets them thinking about how they can question their editors.

Day Three – Act III/IV

I can’t remember if I planned to do these acts on the same day, or if it just happened that way… On this day, I had them bring in their Tempest CD mix. Since there is so much music in The Tempest and since there is that odd masque (I like to compare masques to Iowa show choir, which they enjoy ) to deal with, I find this assignment fits well. We discuss their choices and why they made them. Then we look at and talk about why Prospero cuts off the masque (back to my ideas about the critique of theatre) and do a close reading of “We are such stuff as our dreams are made of.”

Day Four – Act V

We basically just use this day to wrap up our discussion, with special emphasis on the themes of redemption, imprisonment, and freedom. We talk about how they perceive Prospero at the end, and do a close reading of the epilogue.

Day Five

We watch Hank Rogerson’s Shakespeare Behind Bars about a group of inmates in LaGrange, KY who perform The Tempest (it’s 90 min, so it took a class & some).

Day Six

After we watched the film, I had students write a response using the following questions as prompts: Did you learn anything new about the play/Shakespeare? Did you learn anything new about inmates/prison? What does this film tell us about the place of Shakespeare, the theatre, or the arts in our culture? Our discussion was wonderful and had students questioning both their perception of Shakespeare and prisoners. [Ann Pleiss Morris,]