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Shakespeare's Secret Weddings: Historical Context in Performance

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  11 ratings

Official copy of the marriage certificate of David Garrick and Eva Maria Violette. Manuscript, 22 June 1749

April 2012
Megan Alloway teaches English Language Arts at Monument High School, Boston, MA

Plays/Scenes Covered
This stand alone lesson has been written for Twelfth Night 4.3 but works well with Romeo and Juliet 2.6, Othello 1.3.54-264, The Merchant of Venice 2.6, or Measure for Measure 1.2. 120-192.
What's On for Today and Why

This lesson builds on student knowledge/experience of modern romance to provide a historical context for the clandestine (secret) marriages in Shakespearean texts, and asks students to synthesize the modern and historical understanding for performance. Although this lesson refers specifically to Twelfth Night, the above mentioned scenes work equally well.

The topic of marriage and secrecy may raise sensitive or controversial topics. As the teacher, first be sure that you feel comfortable exploring issues of sexuality with your students, and that your classroom is a safe environment for discussions of sexuality, race, class, and gender. It is important to establish ground rules to ensure that you and your students have a safe space for this work.

This lesson will take approximately 2 x 55 minute class periods.

What You Need

Folger edition of Twelfth Night (Or Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure)
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

Internet access to YouTube

Group narrative options handout

Group narrative options handout
What To Do

1. Read Twelfth Night, 4.3 as a class, allowing students to ask questions until they feel comfortable with basic comprehension. They should understand that Olivia is asking Sebastian to marry her secretly under the incorrect assumption that he is Cesario. Sebastian is confused that a beautiful stranger wants to marry him, and can't believe his good luck. Make sure students are aware that the couple is about to marry in secret.


2. Writing prompt:

Have students journal about the topic of Secret Romance. (Using a writing prompt before discussion generates ideas and ensures that every student has a chance to express an opinion whether or not he/she chooses to share in the discussion.)


3. Discussion:

Work with your students to establish ground rules for a safe conversation (i.e listen to all voices, don't interrupt, build on the last speaker's ideas, respect different opinions, avoid making judgments)

1. Initiate discussion with questions such as:

  • "Why might a young couple keep their romantic relationship secret?" (parental disapproval, social disapproval, for example)
  • " Why might some people object to certain relationships?" (religious differences, societal expectations, for example)
  • "What kind of relationships still provoke disapproval from some people today ?(social backgrounds or class, race, same sex couples, for example)


4. Show Shakespeare's Clandestine Marriage video-before showing explain that an Elizabethan audience struggled with similar issues that came up in class discussion. Additional factors included confusing marriage laws, dowries, and parental approval.



5. Silent Scene Performance:

1. Divide students into groups of three or four

2. Working with the scene from the play and each with a different narrative, have them make choices about:

a)Staging (How should the ceremony be conducted?) 


b)Character (How does each character feel about the ceremony and show it through movement and facial expression?)


c) Audience (Does the audience feel included and sympathetic or antagonistic towards the couple? Does the couple aknowledge the audience?)


3. Allow five minutes for rehearsal.


4. In class reflection/Homework

Have students write a full paragraph explaining any new understanding of Twelfth Night 4.3. based on discussions and historical understanding of clandestine marriage.

What insights did they gain about the characters of Olivia and Sebastian?

Why does Olivia want the marriage to be secret?

Why does Sebastian agree?

 Do they love each other?

 Do they trust each other?

Are they willing or unwilling to follow rules?

What does their action show about their relationships with other characters in the play?

Why does the priest agree to marry them?

Does the priest approve?

How Did It Go?

Did your students connect their experiences to the characters' situations? Did the students' performance of the silent scene reflect a historical understanding of the secret nature of the wedding? Did this exercise encourage students to explore character motivation more deeply?


This lesson can be applied to other plays by Shakespeare (see What's on for Today section).

Extension activites could include research projects connecting historical context to Shakespeare's text

e.g Twelfth Night-Acting and Gender, Jesters and Fools

Romeo and Juliet-Italian Culture, Franciscan Brotherhood, Women's Rights,

Othello-Moors, North Africa,Muslims in 1600s

Merchant of Venice-Jews in England, Jews in Italy, Usury

Measure for Measure-Jails, Laws, Common Marriage laws


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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