Mark Miazga teaches English at Baltimore City College High School in Baltimore, MD.
King Lear and Fences (August Wilson)
What's On for Today and Why
Students will investigate and perform the final scenes of King Lear and Fences to analyze how the authors use the tragic characters’ demises to convey a certain view of the world. Students will use performance choices to convey meaning to compare two tragedies in order to see how interpretation of scenes leads to differing meanings.
What You Need
What To Do
- Review concepts of Tragedy, including Tragic Heroes and Tragic Flaws, using this link if necessary:
- Complete a Venn Diagram on the board comparing and contrasting Troy Maxson and Lear as Tragic Figures. Students should be able to point out that:
both characters make mistakes with their children
both characters push away those who love him most
both characters carry a lot of moral ambiguity
both characters are not completely sane at all times
both characters meet their tragic fate as a result of a tragic flaw
Also point out their differences (Troy’s societal pressures of being a pre-Civil Rights Movement Black man, Troy’s infidelity also leads to his doom, Troy’s flaw is overprotection of his son, while Lear’s is engaging in the flattery contest).
- Have students read the last scene of King Lear as a class, emphasizing the edited stage directions. Discuss possible interpretations of the last scene. Does Lear gain redemption, or is the play’s ending too dark for that?
- Have stydents read Troy Maxson’s death scene in Fences. Wilson’s portrayal of Troy’s death is clearer: he wants his audience to know that Troy has attained redemption. But, what would happen if he didn’t? What would Troy’s last scene have looked like? It happens off-stage, leading to alternate possibilities of interpretation than what Rose gives us in the last scene.
- Have students form four acting companies:
- Acting Company 1: Lear as a play of Redemption (somewhat happy ending – Lear is going to heaven to be with Cordelia)
- Acting Company 2: Lear as a play of Defeat (really dark ending – Lear is dying and, if there is a God, he hates Lear)
- Acting Company 3: Fences as a play of Redemption (Troy has made peace with all his demons and his final scene is redemptive)
- Acting Company 4: Fences as a play of Defeat (instead of redemption, Troy gets only defeat – students here will have to discount the evidence in the play’s final scene).
- Have students create an interpretation of their scene based on the above criteria.
- Have students present to class and discuss how performance interpretations altered the meaning of the last scene and thus the theme of the play. What acting choices were made and how did they convey meaning?
Final assessment: Students will write a short essay explaining both Shakespeare’s and Wilson’s views on the world according to how their tragic characters met their fates at the end of their respective plays, defending their explanation by focusing on how the final scenes could be performed for each character.
How Did It Go?
Did students engage in thoughtful discussion and varied interpretative performances? Did students analyze both Shakespeare’s and Wilson’s views and defend his/her interpretation with evidence from performance?
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.