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"If You'll a willing Ear Incline"--the audience in the play

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Measure for Measure

October 2011
Kevin J. Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonough School, Owings Mills, MD

Plays/Scenes Covered

Measure For Measure, 5.1

What's On for Today and Why

Through a close reading of this scene, students will learn about Elizabethan staging practice, in particular, the incorporation of the audience into the stage action. This will enable them to recognize how an active audience can have a profound effect on how events on stage are received and interpreted. In addition, students will discover the range of meanings that can be generated through interaction with an audience. After studying the scene closely, students will first perform a scene in traditional "proscenium" style. In other words, audience members--your students --will be spectators looking in from beyond the "fouth wall." Audience members were visible at the Globe, at Shakespeare's indoor theatre, Blackfriars, and at the other stages in and around London. In fact, the plays are written with this condition as a given. It was a regular practice for players to address audience members directly.


This lesson will  take from two to five 50 minute periods.


For some background on close reading "on their feet" see:

Shakespeare Set Free, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet, pp. 27-34, "Three Dimensional Shakespeare"


Shakespeare Set Free, Othello, and Twelfth Night, pp. 41-49, "Up on Your feet with Shakespeare: The wrong way and the right"


Shakespeare Set Free, Hamlet, and 1 Henry IV, pp.52-64, "Ambulatory Shakespeare;or, the Question is the Answer"


Video introduction to performance-based close reading



What You Need

Folger editions of Measure for Measure.

An open space

Tape to define playing space

Shakespeare Set Free editions

What To Do

Day 1

Have students read Measure for Measure, 5.1 following instructions in "Three Dimensional Shakespeare", as referenced above.



Day 2

1. Divide the class into 5 groups and assign each group about 120 lines of text, ensuring that every student has an opportunity to speak and perform.


Suggested breakdown:

Group 1, lines 1-124: Duke, Angelo, Friar Peter, Isabella, Lucio

Group 2, lines 125-239: Duke, Isabella, Lucio, Friar Peter, Mariana, Angelo

Group 3, lines 240-362: Duke, Lucio, Angelo, Mariana, Friar Peter, Escalus

Group 4, lines 363-477: Escalus, Angelo, Lucio, Duke, Isabella, Mariana

Group 5, lines 478-end: Duke, Mariana, Isabella, Provost, Escalus, Angelo, Lucio


2. Have students stage their scene, working with such questions as:

Where does this scene take place?

Where do the characters enter and exit?

What set pieces are needed?

Who is the most important person in the scene? (or thinks he/she is?)

These questions should be answered with evidence from the text. The objective is not a polished performance but evidence that students have learned about staging through performance.


Day 3

Allow students 10-15 minutes to rehearse their scene before a performance to the entire class. Encourage a discussion on their experiences, preparing and performing the scene.


Day 4

1. In an open area, tape off a rectanglular playing space, and have students sit on 3 sides of the "stage", so that the playing area thrusts out into the "yard".


2. Have students work on experimenting with bringing the audience into the action.(e.g Have Isabella in Group 1 perform the lines 22-27.These lines are addressed to the Duke but encourage the actor to draw in the crowd.)

Initiate a discussion about how the involvement of the audience changes the stakes for the Duke. How does the crowd react to Isabella? How does the actor feel? How are the dynamics in the playhouse altered by audience involvement?

Remind students that with an active audience, each performance can yield different results.


3. Allow students time to work on their scenes in their groups, identifying points where the audience could be involved.



Have students study their own parts and underline phrases or lines that could be addressed to an audience member to help achieve their objective at a particular moment in the scene.

Have students write out any specific objectives (e.g "I need to assure the Duke that my story is true". These statements clarify what a character wants and assigns the action a specific, playable verb.)


Day 5

Have groups perform each scene to each other in order, with the rest of the class seated on three sides of the thrust stage. Try to keep the action slick to keep up the momentum.

After the performances, facilitate a discussion on how things went and on what differences students observed by performing their scene in two different modes.

How Did It Go?

Have students write a reflective essay on the substantial differences they experienced by performing their scene with and without the fourth wall. Students should focus on one or two specific moments in the text where the acknowledgement of the audience has the potential to create different meanings and audience responses.


This exercise works well with many scenes where a crowd is present:

Merchant of Venice, 4.1 (trial scene)

Much Ado About Nothing, 4.1 (wedding scene)

As You Like It, 2.1, 2.7 (forest scenes with Duke Senior)

Twelfth Night, 5.1 (final scene)

A Winter's Tale, 3.2 (trial scene)

A Winter's Tale, 5.3 (statue scene)

Richard II, 4.1 (deposition scene)

Henry IV, Part I, 2.4 (tavern scene)

Romeo and Juliet, 1.1, 3.1 (opening and central fight scene)

Julius Caesar, 3.2 (funeral oration scene)

Hamlet, 1.2 (Claudius' address to the court)

King Lear, 1.1 (division of kingdom)

Macbeth, 2.3 (discovery of Duncan's death)



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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  Common Core State Standards

There are no standards associated with this Lesson Plan.

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