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Performing Modernized Shakespeare

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May 2002
Jeremy Ehrlich, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Plays/Scenes Covered
This lesson plan may be used with any Shakespeare play.
What's On for Today and Why

Students will use video clips to help them reflect on the issues surrounding updating and modernizing Shakespeare. Then they will prepare their own text for modernizing or updating. Their performances will spark a discussion on the various ways to present effective Shakespeare today.


This lesson will take two to three class periods.

What You Need
Clips from modernized or updated Shakespeare films. Some suggestions are:

Modern productions:
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Dir. Baz Luhrmann, with DiCaprio/Danes, 1997.
Hamlet, Dir. Michael Almereyda, with Hawke, 2000.

Modern adaptations:
10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew), Dir. Gil Junger, with Ledger/Stiles, 1999.
Men of Respect (Macbeth), Dir. William Reilly, with Turturro/Borowitz, 1991.
O (Othello), Dir. Tim Blake Nelson, with Phifer/Hartnett/Stiles, 2001.

Updated productions:
William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Dir. Michael Hoffman, with Everett/Flockhart, 1999.
Richard III, Dir. Richard Loncraine, with McKellen/Bening, 1995.
Films directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh: Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), and Love's Labour's Lost (2000).

Updated adaptations:
Throne of Blood (Macbeth), Dir. Akira Kurosawa, with Mifune/Yamada, 1957.
Ran (King Lear), Dir. Akira Kurosawa, with Nakadai, 1985.
A Thousand Acres (King Lear), Dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse, with Pfeiffer/Lange, 1997.
What To Do

1. Show a few short clips from different modern Shakespeare films so all the students will be able to discuss modernization of the plays. See film recommendations below.


2. Discuss the ways the directors have updated the plays in these clips and in other films or stage plays the students have seen. Which choices did students think were appropriate and effective?


3. Discuss the process of adaptation. How do directors ensure that their updating concept works for their particular text? Which elements of the play need explanation in the updating? For instance, in the Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet, the director uses modern feuds and drug experiences to mimic and explain the feuds and dreams in the original play. He also needs to explain certain elements of the text (mentions of swords and daggers) by updating them (using "sword" and "dagger" as brand names for modern firearms.)


4. Discuss which elements of the play students are reading might require explanation in an updated version. How might students begin to develop a concept for modernizing that play?


5. Divide students into small groups. Have each group pick a place and time in which to set a potential production of their play. Have them select sets, costumes, and props based on that setting and on the overall text. Be sure students' choices explain any elements of the play that might appear anachronistic (such as swords in a modern setting.)


6. Have students select a piece of text from the play you are studying and prepare it for performance to the class based on their modern setting. While they may not be able to find the costumes, props and sets that would make their selections stage-worthy, they can still make acting choices that reflect the updated world they are creating.


7. After viewing the performances, follow up with a concluding discussion. Which choices worked well with the text, and why? Which choices were more of a stretch? How would students like to see this play performed or filmed?

How Did It Go?
Were students able to come up with appropriate updating concepts to modernize their play? Did their performances reflect the new choices that they applied to the text? Were they able to evaluate the effectiveness of the choices they saw? Did they have fun?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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