As You Read the Play


[To the teacher: a blog can offer a way for your students to keep track of their thoughts, from pre-reading through post-viewing. It provides a place where students can make text to text, text to self and text to world connections. They will be asked to find modern-day texts that relate back to Shakespeare’s world, aspects of their own personality that relate to the characters, and real-world situations that relate back to the play. Don’t yet have a class blog? Check out, a free and simple website for teachers to create class blogs. You may also want to explore, another resource for building a classroom website.]

As you begin to study Shakespeare in Love, use these ideas to get your Bard Blog started, or modify other activities in this section to a blogging format

  • Choose a character to follow through the play. Keep a running list of text references for that character—both their lines and other characters’ lines about them. What does s/he feel about the other characters? How do they feel about him/her? How much does your character reveal about themselves through their own words and how much did you learn from other characters? Based on the notes you’ve taken, write a short summary of your character. What qualities do you think are most important to highlight about your character?
  • At the end of each scene, list the major characters involved (Will, Viola, Wessex, Henslowe, Fennyman, Sir Robert de Lesseps, Queen Elizabeth, etc.). Write a single sentence for each that begins, "What I most want is..." Take a risk—there's not just one right answer! Then write a sentence for each character that begins, "What I'm most afraid of is..." (Is there ever a situation when what one most wants is also what one most fears?)
  • One of the best ways to get at the "through-line" or dramatic progression in a play is to give each scene a name or title that captures the heart of the action. Directors often use this technique to help actors (and themselves) during the rehearsal process. In this play, the playwrights have already named each of the scenes. As you read, come up with an alternate title for each of the scenes that you feel gets at the essence of the scene. Be as creative and specific as you can in naming each scene.




At the beginning of the play, we see Will struggling to find the perfect words for a sonnet he is writing.  Word choice is a challenge for any writer as they try to capture a specific tone or meaning.  As Will does, take some time to explore how specific words can affect a piece of writing.

Step 1.  In groups of 3 or 4, choose words that satisfy each prompt below—just like MAD LIBS:

  1. An increment of time
  2. Two complementary adjectives
  3. A force in nature
  4. Adjective
  5. Adjective
  6. A precious metal
  7. Verb ending in “s”
  8. Adjective
  9. Verb
  10. Adjective
  11. Noun
  12. Noun
  13. 2 verbs
  14. Noun

Step 2.  Look at Sonnet 18 with some words omitted.  Plug your words from Step 1 into the corresponding blanks.  Read the sonnet all the way through, with your word choices inserted.    

  1. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s _______________________?
  2. Thou art more _______________________ and more _______________________.
  3. Rough _______________________ do shake the darling buds of May,
  4. And summer’s lease hath all too _______________________ a date.
  5. Sometime too _______________________ the eye of heaven shines,
  6. And often is his _______________________ complexion dimmed;
  7. And every fair from fair sometime _______________________,
  8. By chance, or nature’s _______________________ course, untrimmed;
  9. But thy eternal summer shall not _______________________
  10. Nor lose possession of that _______________________ thou ow’st,
  11. Nor shall _______________________brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
  12. When in eternal lines to _______________________ thou grow’st.
  13. So long as men can _______________________ or eyes can _______________________,
  14. So long lives this, and this gives _______________________to thee.

Step 3.  Now, reading  the sonnet with your words inserted, work together to decide on edits that make sense to your group—and you can choose as a group to play it straight or keep it light.   If different words seem to be a better “fit” in the given context, you can replace your words.  Read the sonnet again all the way through with the edited words added. 

Step 4.  As a class, read through Shakespeare’s version of Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
>So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Compare your version with the words that Shakespeare chose. How did the words you chose affect the tone and meaning of the sonnet?  




[To the teacher: This activity, based on an exercise developed by actor Michael Tolaydo, may take two class sessions to complete, but is well worth it! The exercise is a performed group scene. This is not a “staged” performance, so there should be no heavy focus on acting skills; rather, this should be approached as a learning experience involving exploration of plot, character, language, play structure, and play style. The script should be photocopied and typed in a large font [at least 13 point], and enough copies for every student in the classroom. In selecting readers for the speaking roles, it is important to remember that the play is not being “cast,” but rather that the students are actively exploring the text. The process of getting the scene off the page and on its feet enables students to come to an understanding of the scene on their own, without the use of notes or explanatory materials. A familiarity with the scene and the language is developed, beginning a process of literary analysis of the text and establishing a relationship with the play and its characters.]

Sometimes, the most action-packed and exciting scenes in a play are difficult to read on the page because there is not yet a picture to accompany the words—and though good proficient readers can create those pictures in their minds as they read, some may struggle with this kind of rich visualization. This is where a “scene lab” comes in very handy, especially when a scene involves many characters and a lot of physical action, such as Act 1, scene 2, or “the hanging of Henslowe.”

Step 1. Assign students to read the scene through for the first time. (Choose a student to read the stage directions as well.) While the scene is being read, the rest of the class listens rather than reads along. If you come across unfamiliar words or phrases, don’t worry about the correct pronunciation. Say them the way you think they would sound. (Later, you can take a class vote on the pronunciation of any words that cannot be located in the dictionary.)

Step 2. Follow the first reading with a second one, with new readers for each part—not to give a “better” reading of the scene but to provide an opportunity for others to expand their familiarity with the text, and possibly gain new information or clearer understanding of a particular passage. After this second reading, engage in a question-and-answer session. Answers to the questions asked should come only from the scene being read, and not rely on any further knowledge of the play outside the scene at hand. Some examples of the questions to be discussed: Who are these guys? Where are they? Why are they there? What are they doing? What are their relationships to each other? What else is confusing in this scene? If there is disagreement, take a class vote. Majority rules! Remember, there is no one right answer, but a myriad of possibilities—as long as the conclusions are supported by the text. After this, you may choose to read the scene a few more times, with new sets of readers, followed by more questions.

Step 3. The “fast read-through” is next. Stand in a circle; each student reads a line up to a punctuation mark and then the next student picks up. The point of this is to get as smooth and as quick of a read as possible, so that the thoughts flow, even though they are being read by more than one person—much like the passing of a baton in a relay race.

Step 4. Before we put the scene “on its feet,” search the text for signals that help you know how to move and speak to create a coherent story. There are the actual stage direction provided by the playwright, but other stage direction can be found in the character’s own lines or may be spoken by another character. In addition to looking for these signals in the script, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do you imagine the audience to be sitting?
  • How many characters are on stage at the start of the scene?
  • Where and how will you position each character in relationship to one another?
  • How does each character move?
  • How does each character talk?
  • What furniture or properties (props) might be needed for the scene?

Step 5. The final step is to put the scene “on its feet,” using the signals and choices you’ve discussed as a class. Select a cast to read the scene, while the rest of the class becomes “directors.” No one is uninvolved. There are many ways to explore and stage this scene—there is no one “right” way, and everyone’s input is important. After the advice from the “directors” has been completed, the cast acts out the scene. After this first “run-through,” make any changes necessary, then perform the scene again using the same cast or a completely new one.




Early in the play, Viola says to her Nurse:

All the men at court are without poetry. If they look at me they see my father’s fortune. I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all.

What is Viola saying in these lines?  What can we learn about her character from what she says?  Now rewrite these lines from the perspective of young person living in 2017. Can Viola’s sentiment translate in a modern context?  Are the things Viola longs for easier or harder to obtain in today’s world?  What might “having poetry in my life” look like today? Can you relate to the things Viola is longing for?     




[To the teacher: For this exercise, you’ll need to provide Cue Scripts of Act 1, Scene 4 from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, lines 1–48 (to “ wit to go”). Each copy should include just one character’s lines and their cue lines—that is, the last several words of the line preceding theirs. For example, on one copy only Romeo’s lines and cue lines are transcribed. Open Source Shakespeare is a good website to find Cue Scripts.  Search by Character, and then choose “show cue speeches.”]

In Shakespeare in Love, we see how Elizabethan playwrights might be finishing a play all the way up to curtain! In a society where pirating plays between rival theater companies was common, the full script existed in only one or two people’s hands—and was closely protected. Therefore (and also because paper was enormously expensive), actors were not given copies of the entire play, but instead were given copies of their own characters’ lines, with a line or so from the end of the speech preceding their own, prompting them when to speak. These were called “cue lines”—and an actor’s turn to speak is still known as his “cue.” Having only his own lines plus a cue line forced an actor to truly listen to his fellow actors.

Not only did the actor have to memorize lines this way, he also had to get to know his character—just from his own lines! Divide the class into 3 groups, each group receiving the cue script for one of the characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, scene 4, lines 1–48:  Romeo, Benvolio or Mercutio. (For a larger class, divide into 6 groups, with more than one group receiving the same character’s cue script.)  Choose one member of the group to be the “prompter,” reading aloud the words or phrase immediately preceding your character’s lines and another member to be the “actor,” reading your assigned character’s lines. What do you learn about your character from what he says in the scene? Are you still able to follow the scene’s conversation and action?

Now come back together as a class and choose one person to play each of the three characters. Seeing—or performing in—the scene as a whole for the first time, how did the lines resonate differently within the context of the entire scene? Share what you noticed about the character that your group focused upon.




Characters always speak and act to achieve what they want (just as we do in everyday life). The different strategies they use to get what they want are called “tactics.” In Act 1, scene 10 (pages 41-42), Viola and Wessex want very different things. With the steps below, explore the various ways in which Viola and Wessex try to get what they want.

As a class, listen as a couple of volunteers read the full scene aloud. Then, learn and practice the following tactic gestures:

  • Hook – Extend the arm and curve the fingers toward your body. Move the hand toward the body.
  • Probe – Point the index finger of one hand. Extend the arm forward. Move the finger around and forward as if it is digging into something.
  • Deflect - Extend the arm and have the palm facing outwards as if pushing something away.
  • Punch – Make a fist and punch the air in front of you.
  • Flick – Join your fingertips together and then quickly extend your fingers fully, as though you are flicking water on someone.

With a partner, decide who will read each character, and read the scene aloud. Together, decide which tactic best matches what your character wants to achieve in each line. If you feel a character changes tactics within a line, you can choose to make two different gestures. (Remember: there is no one “right” answer here. Ten different groups may choose to interpret these lines ten different ways, since dramatic texts always allow for multiple interpretations.)

Read the scene excerpt while doing the gestures. Discuss which gestures don’t work as well, and sub in others until you feel like you’ve found the tactic that for you, best connects to each part of the text.

Back with the full class, watch several performances and discuss:

  • Which gesture/s did each character use most in this scene? 
  • What might that tell you about the character or situation he/she is in?
  • Do the tactics the characters use change throughout the scene?  Why is that?
  • Do you understand the scene or characters differently as a result of this exploration?
  • Were there times when two or more groups chose a different tactic for the same piece of text? What was the effect of each?

Possible extension: Ask the students if they felt there was any tactic they felt was missing. Choose one or two tactics and create a gesture for them. Go back to the scene and add in the additional tactic/ gestures.




[To the teacher: Divide the class in half and assign each large group a character—the Nurse or Sir Robert de Lesseop.]

Examine Act 1, scene 7, in which Sir Robert brokers Viola’s marriage to Wessex, while the Nurse manages Viola’s secret identity as Thomas Kent.

Write a letter to Viola from the perspective of your character—either as the Nurse or Sir Robert. If Sir Robert could freeze the moment he joins his daughter’s hand to dance with Wessex, what might he want to communicate to her? What might Nurse want to say to Viola as she observes Viola falling for Will, while she’s set to marry Wessex? Make decisions about tone of voice and language based on the character. Find the character’s voice!

Pair up with someone who wrote from the other character’s perspective. In your pair, read one another’s letters. In reading the letter written to your character, select three of the strongest phrases, words or single sentences that you feel really capture the character’s voice, mood and tone. Underline your choices and give the letter back to your partner, who then will decide which of your choices to contribute to the group poem.

With two other pairs, create a group of six people (three Nurses, three Sir Roberts), and work on your feet (so that the words are being said and heard) to create a poem from your six different contributions. Edit as much as you need in order to create the most powerful poem you can. You can repeat words; you can decide to say some in unison, but be sure to incorporate all six contributions. If words are repeated, move along the line to insert yourself wherever your line is said again!

Each group presents its choral poem to the class. (And it may be helpful to capture these on video.)

The rest of the class then becomes the editors of the living poem, asking the group to make whatever revisions others feel will help strengthen the writing. Come back together as a class and discuss any new insights about each character that you discovered through your choral poems.




Playwrights Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard include a visual description of the wedding scene in Act 2, scene 7, indicating some basic movements of Viola, Sir Robert, Nurse and Wessex, but without any accompanying language. In the absence of spoken lines, it is an actor’s job—and a good reader’s job—to imagine the emotions that each character is experiencing. With the class divided into four groups, each group will take on one of these four characters. For each of the following stage directions included in the play, write a sentence or two, in the first person, about what your character is thinking and/or feeling as each action occurs:

The wedding of Wessex and Viola is a dumbshow masque. It is given to beautiful music.

Viola appears in a wedding dress.

Sir Robert takes her by the hand and leads the bride to? Wessex.

The Nurse looks on.

Viola is solemn, brokenhearted.

The whole scene is formal and excruciating, as we know Viola is consigning herself to a lifetime of misery.

The bride and groom are married and finally kiss in a shaft of white light.

With nine student volunteers— two per character—one enacting the silent scene and the other standing behind them to articulate the unspoken thoughts (or, “subtext” of that character)—and one more to read the stage directions. Read the stage directions aloud, followed by action and the internal thoughts of each character. Listen to at least three interpretations of each character’s inner thoughts and discuss what you discovered about the characters and this moment in the play.




A tableau is a wordless, still picture made by bodies assuming certain poses and conveying a particular mood or image. A play often ends with a tableau that the director creates with his/her actors to leave a dramatic impression in the mind of the audience as it leaves the theater.

Create a tableau for the final moments of Shakespeare in Love. First read the paragraph of stage directions in the script in the middle of p. 102. Next in groups of 4 or 5, decide how the group will be positioned to best tell the ending of the play. How will Will and Marlowe be positioned? The rest of the “company?” Do we see Viola on her ship?   

Once you’ve decided on your stage pictures, share them with the class. Discuss the differences in interpretation each unique tableau represents of the ending of the play. You can also do this exercise as a series of three or even five tableaux to show the progression of the entire play.




The screenwriters of Shakespeare in Love establish the idea that Shakespeare incorporated into his plays the snippets of words and conversations that he overheard throughout a day. For example, during the command performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona for the queen in Shakespeare in Love, one of the actors feverishly tries to get the dog playing “Crab” (a character in Shakespeare’s own script) to leave the stage, “Spot! Spot! Out, damn Spot!”—nodding to Lady Macbeth’s famous line in Macbeth. Use the following activity to explore how a writer can be influenced by the soundscape of his/her life.

On an index card, write down five sentences you hear throughout the day. These lines shouldn’t be from your personal conversations, but what you overhear while walking in the halls, in the lunchroom, on the bus, at work or home, etc. Choose lines from a variety of conversations. The next class period, write a scene incorporating these lines using the following guidelines:

  • No more than two lines can appear consecutively in the scene.
  • Lines must be believable within the context of the scene you’ve created.

Format your scene like a play script:

  • Character Name (called a “speech prefix”): followed by the character’s line
  • Stage directions: indented and italicized



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