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UNIT: She's a Lady...Or is She? Examining dress and behavior in As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice

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Richard Brathwaite. The English gentlewoman, drawne out to the full body. London, 1631

October 2004
Angela Chang teaches English at ACE Technical Charter High School in Chicago, IL.

Plays/Scenes Covered
As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice

This lesson may be adapted for use with any play with cross-dressing women.
What's On for Today and Why
In this unit, students will analyze the dress and behavior of Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Rosalind in As You Like It. Students will read a primary source to understand the expectations of women in the sixteenth century and help them understand how transgressive dressing as a man would have seemed. Students will analyze the characters' choices, their effects, and their implications for themselves and others.

This lesson will take at least five class periods to complete: one for examining the primary source and discussing a "grading system" based on the author's expectations; two days for groups to meet, discuss, and record the characters' "grades", and two days to share and discuss their findings.
What You Need
Folger edition of As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice
Available in
Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

"Report Card" Handout
Excerpts from Richard Brathwaite's The English Gentlewoman
"The English Gentlewoman," Excerpt 1
"The English Gentlewoman," Excerpt 2
"The English Gentlewoman," Excerpt 3
Report Card Handout
What To Do

Day One

1. Explain to students that this lesson will allow them to examine the dress and behavior of characters in Shakespeare's plays. Discuss the connection between occupations today that require judgment of others depending on how they dress (fashion reporters, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, etc.) and similar critics in Shakespeare's time.

2. Show students the attached excerpt from The English Gentlewoman (1631). Read through each category and discuss Brathwaite's expectations for each. Record the observations so students may use them as a reference for the "report card" session on days 4 and 5. You may want to establish a rubric for each category or use your school's grading system.

Day Two and Three

(Spend one day on The Merchant of Venice, the next on As You Like It)
3. Divide students into groups so that at least one group is reading and analyzing each of the following scenes: Merchant of Venice 2.1, 2.7, 2.9, 3.2, 3.4, 4.1, 4.2, and 5.1; As You Like It 1.2, 1.3, 2.4, 3.4, 3.5, 4.1, 4.3, 5.2, and 5.4. Have each group reread their scene and take notes about Portia or Rosalind's behavior and dress.

4. Once the groups have finished reading, hand out the attached "report card" to each group, and if necessary, assign roles for each group member so that everyone is participating. Review each category with the students using the notes from your previous discussion, along with the grading system the class has agreed to use.

5. Using Brathwaite's guidelines, have the students "grade" Portia and Rosalind on each category. Encourage students to discuss the reasons for their grades and to fill out the "comments" section with notes on what the women do well and what needs improvement. Each group should be able to explain the reasoning behind each grade. Students may also add comments for Bassanio if they wish—Portia has no parents to sign her report card!

Day Four and Five

6. Have students present their "report cards" in chronological order, reporting the character's grade and the group's reasons for giving that grade. Have the students in the audience discuss how another group's report card differs from their own, and why.

7. After all the presentations, post all the report cards in order on the board. Dsicuss with the students how the characters "score" for each "marking period". Do their grades go up in one scene and down in the next? Why?

8. Conclude with a discussion: What do the characters' grades say about each as a "lady" according to the standards of the time? Do the students agree with those conclusions? What kinds of parallels can they draw to the kinds of standards women (and men) face today? Are there any modern-day Richard Brathwaites?

How Did It Go?
Were students able to draw similarities between Brathwaite and present-day fashion/etiquette critics? Did students' observations from Brathwaite's document demonstrate understanding of the text's purpose? Were students able to understand 16th Century expectations of dress and behavior for women? Were they able to apply those expectations to Portia and Rosalind? Did students notice the correlation between each female's purpose and actions in a scene with their decisions to either remain a woman or become a "man"? Did they notice the effects of those decisions on themselves and on other characters?

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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