Shakespeare Set Free!

One of the more ambitious units I taught with my eighth grade students asked the essential question, “What is love?”  At the center of the study was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The local theater usually mounted a production of the comedy, greatly abridged from its full-run, two-hour-plus length to just over an hour.  We’d be sure to go over the rather confusing story in several ways—prose retelling, youtube animations, and an invaluable play map included in the Folger guide, Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As my teaching experience grew, I found other great resources, most of them through the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.

And to the essential question?  Eighth graders embraced it for the most part.  It’s also true that, while many began the exploration without enthusiasm, by the end almost everyone had, if not fallen head-over-heels, experienced a greater acceptance.  This happened gradually, with their increasing familiarity with the Bard’s way of expressing himself and with the comedy of it all. Now they understood that comedy meant happy endings for mostly everyone involved, and they wanted that in their version of love, too.

One of the key practices is to get the kids using his language.  Before I knew better, I bought a text set of Midsummer… that features Shakespeare’s original language on one side and a “translation” on the other.  It might have been helpful at first, but soon the kids wanted only the Shakespeare; they became enamored with the poetry of it, the inversions, the slang, the “thys” and “thous.”  They loved hurling insults—he was a master, and they aspired!

The passage all kids memorize is a speech in 2.1 given by Titania, Queen of the Fairies, to her King Oberon over the Indian boy and Titania’s refusal to surrender him.  Jealousy disturbs the Fairy kingdom.  It begins:  “Set your heart at rest/The Fairyland buys not the child of me./” and continues to explain why she, Titania, will keep the “changeling” for herself.  Over several weeks the kids practice the passage, put it in their own words, talk about how it connects to the essential question.  They memorize it, and almost everyone is successful.  Each student recites the passage aloud at some point; some choose to perform with a partner, but most stand alone.  This is their first experience “owning” the words of William Shakespeare, and it is empowering!

Later they will perform scenes, fully aware that they CAN.  They have already taken their first steps.  This all happens in May well before their eighth grade trip in June.  One year when we were on the bus heading home after our overnight adventure, I told the kids that I’d give extra credit points to anyone who could still recite Titania’s speech.  I expected those teen dismissals, but that’s not what happened.  Girls and boys alike chorused:


  Set your heart at rest.
The Fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’ embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following—her womb then rich with my young squire—
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die.
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.
The bus rolled down the road full of kids happily spouting Shakespeare.  And that’s when I knew: this is love.

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare Set Free!”

  1. That was a great ending to your post. It would be fun to work with older students and get to tackle questions like that. There are plenty of good things for me to discuss with my 5th graders, but love isn’t one of them. I’m glad your class got so into Shakespeare.

  2. You did a lot of front loading to prepare them to delve into Shakespeare. What a great gift you gave them to fall in love with language. (PS- my daughter, Jaelyn played the changeling when her dad did “A Midsummers Night’s Midterm” a play about high school kids studying for their exam on Shakespeare.)

  3. We had such fun! I love how your husband played with the text! Comedy is the way to first love him. Then Romeo and Juliet can follow. There’s plenty of time for tragedy and love, right?!

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