Teaching Shakespeare

Teaching Shakespeare Through Exercises on Acting and on the Basic Emotions (1972)

by Gerald Grow


While teaching at a private liberal arts college near Berkeley, I obtained special approval one semester to teach an experimental course on Shakespeare.

This class differed from the usual discussion class in two main ways.

  • First, I attempted to incorporate some elements of actor training into the class.
  • Second, a series of core exercises in basic emotions ran through the semester like a backbone.

Otherwise, many classes were spent in familiar discussion format, supplemented by an occasional lecture. I met with 28 upperclassmen, twice a week, 90 minutes each time, for a 12-week semester. During this time, we spent

  • 6 weeks on Romeo and Juliet,
  • 4 on King Lear, and
  • 2 on The Winter’s Tale.

Students wrote extensive journals, which I frequently read. There were no exams or formal papers.

The experimental elements, however, changed the tone of the class so much that students found it sometimes disorienting, sometimes exhilarating, but, I think, seldom dull. Final evaluations indicate that I reached at least as many students with this approach as in the previous semester’s regular discussion course.

Sadly, I lost (to my knowledge) two outstanding students–who simply were not able to function in the class. One of those two, a young woman who had mastered an academic approach to literature, complained that she was disoriented by this approach and dropped the class. For a first effort at teaching in a new way, though, I consider this class successful enough to report, in the hope that other teachers of Shakespeare will find some of these approaches worth trying out.

Contacting the Basic Emotions

1. Gesture

This structured sequence of exercises began when I asked students to list, individually what they considered to be the basic emotions.

I put them in groups of four or five and asked them to read their lists to each other, then combine them into a master list.

Each group read its master list to the rest of the class.

In small groups again, each student was asked to choose one emotion and prepare a gesture that expresses it, following this procedure:

(1) Present your gesture to the rest of the group.
(2) Other members of the group imitate the gesture as accurately as they can, and
(3) try to feel the emotion as it arises from the experience of the gesture.
(4) They then try to guess and name the emotion.

Each group then prepared one emotional gesture for the whole class to imitate, name, and discuss.

One group offered this one: The leader leaned back in his chair, plopped his feet heavily on the table, crossed his arms, gave a heavy, tired sigh, and tilted his head off into oblivion. The entire class then imitated this action.

Just as we were giving (all 28 of us) the sigh, some lost student wandered into the room, looked around as if she had not quite waked up, blinked, and asked with consternation, “Is this a class?” (The emotion, by the way, was “apathy.” You may debate whether this is an emotion, but the students thought it was and recognized it with delight.)

2. Sound

Repeat the gesture exercise above, this time using a different emotion, which you express in a gesture plus a non-verbal sound. (Some groups finished quickly; I asked them to repeat the exercise, this time using the opposite emotion.)

3. Word

Repeat the gesture-plus-sound exercise, choosing a different emotion, now adding a single word or short phrase to the gesture and sound.

4. Symphony of Emotions

From the master list, I chose seven emotions and assigned each group in the class to represent the emotion with a sound or short series of sounds. The list was, from left to right, Hate, Anger, Surprise, Frustration (in the middle), Laughter, Passion, and Joy. Acting as conductor, I first rehearsed and “tuned” the group, then conducted them through various combinations, changes, dynamics, and rhythms. Student volunteers also took a hand at conducting.

This is a superb exercise for mobilizing energy in a class. It puts students in energetic, physical, vocal contact with strong emotions, yet the context is quite safe. No one is personally threatened. After ten minutes, the class was wide awake and delighted to be there.

I assigned journals in which students were asked to observe the basic emotions in themselves and others, describe what they saw and felt, as well as gestures, intonations, and words used. Some of the journal descriptions were marvellous. (Besides leading to Shakespeare, I think this kind of exercise has intrinsic value in increasing students’ perceptions of themselves and others. During the act of describing states of depression, for example, a few students reported that their depressions changed for the better. The verve and sparkle of these journals indicated to me that the exercise was a good one.)

To ground these exercises in the text, we chose a scene from Romeo and Juliet (I.v), divided into groups, divided up the scene, and made a catalogue of the basic emotions present in the scene. I was surprised how well this worked–how much careful attention the scene received, and how vigorously students reached and defended their conclusions. As a first approach to a Shakespeare play, this worked better than anything I had ever tried.

The Basic Emotions in Disguise

Later in the semester, we paused in our “regular” classwork to do the following sequence of exercises. After we discussed a few examples of how one emotion can cover up another (the way laughter can cover up fear), I asked each student to make a list, under two headings:

  • “surface emotion,” and
  • “hidden emotion.”

Students shared these in small groups, and combined their lists.

Using materials I had brought to class, each student made two (or more) masks: one to represent the surface emotion, and one to represent the hidden emotion(s). They made the masks with paper plates and colored markers, with scissor-cut eye holes.

Wearing the masks in succession, each student then acted out (first to the group, then to the class at large) a short representation of the surface and hidden emotion he or she had chosen.

After discussing this exercise, we turned to the text (by this time, we were reading King Lear) and pointed out examples of surface and hidden emotions, indicating how these are expressed in language and stage action.

Students were assigned two followups: (1) Further illustrations from the text, and (2) illustrations from life.

In carrying out this exercise, I not only tried to sensitize students to other levels of perception, but I tried to suggest that there are patterns in the seeming welter of emotions, definite relationships and transformations–out of which literature is born.

Emotional Modulations

Later in the semester, after we had read and discussed the plays enough to be familiar with them, I again returned to the core exercises and asked students to consider this:

  • Once you have an emotion, what can happen to it?
  • How many directions can fear, or anger, or expectation take?

After discussing this, I again had them divide into small groups, make lists, pool them, and share with the whole class.

We then turned back to the plays and looked for examples. For instance, Juliet has two moments of glorious expectation: one followed by a long, teasing fulfillment, the other followed by tragic disappointment.

We looked for other changes in a character’s emotional state. Lear in Act I and II is a good example. Cataloguing and charting his emotional progress focusses attention on the play in an intense, definite, personal, participatory manner.

I advanced the suggestion that many scenes in Shakespeare are based on recurring, perhaps universal emotional modulations. The opening of Romeo and Juliet, for example, progresses from banter to hostility to fight to chaos to a sudden clamping down of stern authority. I suggested that this pattern of emotional movement was a basic human experience and bore some resemblance to the movement of the entire play. Like most of the exercises, this led to a discussion of the play.

Using this focus, we looked at some short scenes of apparent “exposition” only to find that, even here, there were basic emotional patterns at work which reflected upon the play at large. For example, when Juliet is first approached about marrying Paris, the simple facts of the scene are subordinate to the nurse’s highly-charged memories of Juliet as a child, of her own lost child and dead husband. (This is another way of asking the familiar teaching question, “What is lost when you summarize the scene?”)

Juxtaposition and Contrast

I did not have time to develop this exercise in detail, but the idea is worth relating. I began with illustrations of juxtapositions in Shakespeare, such as the sudden change from the fussing servants who occupy the stage and Capulet striding in with his splendid hosting.

Under this heading, I put the familiar juxtapositions of youth and age, individual and society, freedom and responsibility, city and country, nature and culture, etc., which run through Shakespeare. But in addition, I used this exercise to point out the parameters of the plays.

For example, Romeo and Juliet I.v. has a wide range of strong contrasts:

  • youth and old age;
  • servants and nobles;
  • love-sick Romeo and fiery Tybalt;
  • the noisy public feast and the private whispers of the lovers;
  • Romeo’s infatuation and Juliet’s wit;
  • the old nurse and young Juliet; and so on.

Noticing such polarities helps students define the world of the play and provides a backdrop that helps give the principal events a sense of context, naturalness, and inevitability.

Noticing juxtapositions can open additional dimensions of the plays. In King Lear, for example, juxtaposition sometimes replaces dialogue as a means of development (as in III.iv). Of course, plays themselves progress by juxtapositions of events that we label “scenes.” And, as when Hamlet meets Osric or Romeo meets the Apothecary, there are symbolic juxtapositions in which major issues take human form and speak before us: the changed meet the unchanged–the tragically transfigured idealist meets the man made ordinary by the compromises of survival.

In these four series of exercises on the basic emotions, I attempted to start from the student’s own experience and work from there to the text. I believe that literature is best taught when personal awareness and depth of reading both increase together. Students prepared in advance by such exercises may be better oriented to respond to Shakespeare than whose who approach him cold. I tried to overcome students’ tendency to be overwhelmed by great authors, by starting from, and valuing, their personal, limited–but very own–experience.

Most of these exercises were based on small group work. I divided the class and gave each group some task it could accomplish on its own and share with the class. The tasks allowed leeway for individual response and required that students take charge of their own groups. During such exercises, I circulated among the groups just long enough to plant ideas or listen or offer a direction — then left them to pursue it on their own. Any teacher who follows such an approach must cultivate the capacity to respond to, appreciate, and praise those small, delicate expressions of individual risk and growth. It is as different from lecturing as child-rearing is from running a business.

II. Techniques from Actor Training

I wanted students to gain an appreciation of what actors add to a play, so I taught them some elementary acting exercises and had them put on rough performances.


We began the semester by exploring how one person is different from another. I had students write character sketches of people they knew–extend this to pay special attention to the different ways people talk, noting their topics, rhythms, quirks, obsessions, directions, and underlying energies. The exercise led up to these questions:

  • Do people have more than one self?
  • How can you tell?
  • Do characters?
  • How can you tell?

I then asked each student to focus on one character in the play, and write out a characterization, quoting significant lines. They were to explore how this character would act outside the play, then devise other situations for him. What would her favorite color be? What kind of music would he like? How would she respond to waiting in line, or to a dull class, or to other life situations?

Finally, of course, how does the character respond in the play?


I had students transcribe (from an audio tape) an actual, ordinary conversation, then compare this with a dialogue in a play. Doing this, they were able to focus on how dramatic dialogue differs from conversation: Dialogue not only

  • advances the immediate scene, it also
  • advances the themes of the play, and it
  • keeps unfolding character.

Leading into the play, I asked students to write a dialogue using characters and conflicts that anticipated those in the play we were about to read.


I had students memorize a 10-line speech from each play. The first one was memorized on class time, using the following techniques.

To start with, we all went outside on a large field one sunny day. I stayed in the middle and assigned students exercises to do while walking. They walked all over the field and re-converged every few minutes for new instructions. (The sense of movement, sunshine, spaciousness, and Shakespeare made this one of my most memorable days of teaching.)

1. Work in pairs. I explained the concept of “supportive audience”: try to provide an atmosphere in which your partner can do his or her best. This is what an ideal audience does. First exercise: walk up and down slowly (to begin to get the speech into your body, not just in your head), while partners read their speeches to each other.

2. Read them again, subvocalizing each phrase (i.e., carefully and fully enunciate each word, with air, but no sound, not even a whisper). Then repeat, adding sound.

3. Read again, aloud, to each other. This time, read each unit (phrase, line, sentence, or other whole) of the speech three times. (By the third repetition, the student is no longer looking at the book and has begun to memorize.)

4. Give your book to your partner, who becomes your prompter. Say what you can remember of the speech. When you forget, say “Line!” in a tone of voice appropriate to the forgotten word. Partner then prompts.

5. Breathe out a complete, full breath in each line (make your voice very very breathy).

6. Yawn out the lines, stretching.

7. Relax, slumping into the lines.

8. Give out the lines, as if throwing a ball.

9. Receive the lines as you say them, as if they were entering your body one by one.

10. Say the lines, making a definite, exaggerated hand-gesture for each word. (This is especially good.)

11. Say the lines stressing the silences: long pauses.

12. Say them sitting perfectly still.

13. Say them with a body gesture on each word–perhaps a gesture of only your head or shoulders (if the student is stiff there), or trunk, or whole body.

14. Deliver your lines back-to-back with your partner, pushing against each other with each phrase. (I matched students them in size and didn’t let anybody get knocked flat.) This is good for getting the words integrated into movement. For students of unequal size, I had them arm-wrestle the lines as they said them.

15. Five-Sensing a passage. Go through the speech five times, stressing a different sense each time. What does the passage smell like? (Or: what might the character smell at this point?) What smells do you get from individual words and sounds? And so on. — I took them from “weak” to “strong” senses — from smell, taste, and touch, to sound and finally sight.

16. Ultimately, the student was asked to prepare an interpretation of the speech and deliver it. During these presentations, the rest of the class was placed in position as an audience and instructed in their role (audiences play roles, too). Each student was asked to come on stage, make eye contact with the audience, close eyes, breathe twice, experience being there, open eyes, then deliver the speech. Afterward, each student was coached to receive the applause, close eyes again, breathe twice, experience being there, and go off stage without collapsing into silliness or other self-negating responses.

In memorizing and presenting speeches, students got a portion of the text into their feelings, into their bodies. They experienced it (and themselves) differently, they had to think about actors and the stage, and they became closer to others in the class. I made certain that each person’s effort was treated with attention and respect. The elaborate memorization exercises seemed to help shy students gain the courage to deliver their speeches.

Memorization draws upon one of the most fundamental human faculties–perhaps the one least exercised in contemporary education. For most of human existence, people have depended upon memory for the transmission of cultural knowledge. Who knows what we have lost by turning away from memory to emphasize analysis, mediated learning, retrieval from reference sources, and computer storage?
The Angry Speech

In my experience, nearly all students emerge from high school with some anger in them. This could come just from having to sit still so many hours of so many days and years. It could also come from being constantly told what to do, being judged, having little to say in their own activities, and feeling dependent upon the very authority they resent. At any rate, whenever I have tried to get to deeper emotional levels in a class, one of the first things I run into is a large reservoir of old, stewing anger in almost every student.

Actors, as a matter of technique, attempt to utilize any submerged, chronic emotion they might have by channeling it into a performance (whenever appropriate). In order to make a deeper connection between the text and the student’s feelings (and in order to find a non-threatening way to encourage greater emotional awareness), I asked each student to memorize an angry speech from King Lear. After students had memorized (on their own, this time) and performed their speeches (I did it, too), we discussed them, and we discussed anger — starting with how much trouble almost everyone had expressing it in the speech. As I read the situation, the exercise did not leave students feeling anger, but feeling released from anger, exhilerated, energized.

One of the greatest rewards of teaching literature is the privilege of dealing with profound human emotions in a context that brings them up, renders them meaningful, and unites us as we share them.

I began nearly every class with physical warmups. These consisted of simple movements and stretches designed to mobilize energy, stretch out stiffness, and bring students in touch with their own bodies. As part of this, we did some short meditations, including a basic “centering” exercise. Centering is essential, because literature and acting can easily sweep you up into high-level energies that are not your own. You can become a character, or become wrought up by the experience of acting a part. Centering is a way of bringing students back into themselves before sending them out of classroom.

We also used a vocal warmup whenever memorizing or delivering speeches. This consists of a series of simple vocal and breathing exercises designed to loosen and expand the voice. I do not teach these as technique. Rather, such exercises are a way of increasing students’ awareness of themselves. For example, having a student close the eyes, stop up the ears, and deliver a speech brings the student into closer contact with how the speech feels from the inside. (Others hear how different it sounds outside.) Good acting, like good living, is generated from deep within–and is not just the manipulation of techniques and audiences.

Verbal Collage. For this warmup exercise, students met in groups of four to six. Each had been asked to bring a list of favorite lines from the play we were studying. One student was asked to read the first line on his or her list; the student to the right read his or her first line, and on around the circle. Then the second line, and on through all the lines.

Then, students were directed to overlap, so the next student must begin before the first has finished. Then, they were directed to select from their list at random. Next, while overlapping lines, they were directed to break the order of the circle, and interject a line any time it seemed right. In this way, each group re-created a version of the play by combining selected lines in a spontaneous arrangement, rhythm, and emphasis. We then compared what the different groups did.

The results were splendid. Each group produced, in its own way, a verbal collage which expressed a miniature interpretation of the play.

Welfare Christmas. In this warmup, one student was asked to mime an imaginary object (like a bouncing ball) and pass it around. Each person took it, transformed it into something different, and passed it on. The ball became a moth, then a smile, then an umbrella, then something different.

Activities like this are helpful in warming up the imagination, enlivening the body, and awakening attention. We usually expect students to arrive at school in a machine, cross an engineered intersection, pass down a hallway that consists of externalized equations, enter a Euclidian classroom, remove the headphones connected to the Walkman, turn in their IBM cards, sit in a quadratic chair, open a book manufactured with computer technology, adjust the chemical fabrics of their synthetic clothing, peer through the laws of optics automated into designer frames, and suddenly be able to respond to Shakespeare. Compared to this jump, space travel seems a trivial journey. Some transition helps.

Other Methods Used

Students were asked to direct a speech in their journals, spelling out in detail just what the characters do, how they interact with other characters, what changes they goes through, and how the speech relates to the rest of the play.

At one point the class was divided into groups, each of which was assigned a scene from King Lear to present, discuss, act out, or otherwise bring to life for the rest of the class.

Each student was asked to choose one character from each play to study closely. Then, in journals, each student was asked to make a catalogue of that character’s major lines and comment on what these lines tell. In addition, students wrote up a full characterization and brought in real-life parallels. I grouped the class according to character, and asked them to discuss the various ways they saw the character they had chosen. Once we tried to follow this up with a milling-about improvisation in which each person tried to play the chosen character and interact with any other “character” as they encountered in the room. This exercise happened not to work well, though it might with a different group.

Once or twice I tried to put on an act for the class, in order to illustrate some point. For example, just after the Spring break, I gave them a scathing lecture about laziness and set up a stern series of tests, papers, quizzes, and extra assignments. After a long scene of this, I abruptly returned to my usual, easy-going self, confessed that it was all an act, and asked them to write about what they had felt.

Since they had come to expect very different, more supportive feelings from me, this act surprised them enough to lead into a discussion of how King Lear begins by expecting one kind of world, and finds his expectation rudely shattered by another kind of world. Their various responses to what I did provided some lead-in to Lear’s way of responding.

Unfortunately, students are so accustomed to arbitrary authority that some of them simply accepted what I said as “one of those things teachers do” and did not allow themselves to respond at all. Again, here is an exercise that did not work as well as I hoped, but I like the idea behind it: to create an in-class experience which leads into the experience of the play.

From this point, I asked people to consider what happens when the world seems to fall apart. Has it ever happened to you? Have you seen it in somebody else? What was it like? — I had them write in their journals about this experience, then tie it into what Lear goes through when his world falls apart, and how, if at all, he resolves this experience.

Helped, I think, by the exercises, a sense of trust developed in this class, which led to some moments of remarkable sharing. While we were discussing Capulet’s threats to disown Juliet for loving Romeo, a young woman ventured, faltered, then with encouragement from friends she had made in the class, revealed that she had been disinherited and banished from her father’s house (she was now crying openly) for becoming engaged to a man of a different religion.

On that day, we didn’t read Shakespeare. He read us.

After the class had finished King Lear, I performed a synoptic reading of the play, delivering major passages and summarizing in between, enacting all the roles myself. This was the second year I had given such a reading as a memorial to a friend who had died the previous year (something I did not tell them until just before reading the part where Lear and Cordelia are reunited).

By now, I felt that students were ready to think about life, death, and art on a deep level, so before performing the ending, I told them how reading King Lear at the end of my freshman year in college had probably saved me from suicide. That class began with, “I am alive today because Shakespeare wrote King Lear.”

Much of the semester, though, was taken up with classes and discussions of a kind that would not look unusual anywhere. We simply held classes to discuss the plays. However, the core exercises on the basic emotions and the recurring techniques from actor-training brought into the class an atmosphere of energy and response that is unusual in my teaching experience.

I tried to bring Shakespeare into the experience of my students, not merely into their thoughts. Perhaps these students will remember, in their muscles and nerves, an experience of the highly-charged and highly-ordered world of Shakespeare’s plays.

I first wrote this account in 1972, at the conclusion of the course described. I am reviving the account of this class now, 25 years later, because it still rings true to me, because the methods I used then have not been widely adopted, and because anyone who has been “read by Shakespeare” can never fully repay the debt.

Perhaps you can use some of these ideas when you teach.


In preparing for this course, I had the great pleasure of studying experimental theater under John Argue at Acting Open Hand in Berkeley. Also at the time I was learning about learning-experiences from Juanita Sagan at the Institute for Creative and Artistic Development in Oakland.

The course took place in 1972, and it was (to date) the last time I taught a college course in Shakespeare. Partly due to declining enrollments, I was dropped from the faculty the following semester and have long since dipped my hands in a different dye.

But I wanted to leave this record of my travels in teaching Shakespeare.

Gerald Grow taught at San Francisco State College (1968-71), St. Mary’s College of California (1971-73), Florida State University (1981-85) and was professor of magazine journalism at Florida A&M University from 1985-2009, when he retired.

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