Jim Curran has taught at East High School in Anchorage, Alaska, for fifteen years. In addition to Shakespeare, he teaches AP English, Sports and Mystery Literature, sophomore English, and U.S. history.
This is a general, introductory assignment that works for any play.
What's On for Today and Why
As teachers, we often begin a unit on Shakespeare by explaining why we put so much emphasis on a single author. I simply state that Shakespeare is everywhere. Many authors borrow Shakespeare's plots (A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, Mama Day by Gloria Naylor); children's television reworks his ideas (Wishbone, Duck Tales); adult television alludes to his work (Star Trek, Frasier); cartoonists play with the Bard's words ("Calvin and Hobbes," "Garfield"); he is referred to in films (Renaissance Man, Clueless); and advertisements borrow his snappier phrases for captions and voice-overs. Students miss out on a lot if they are not Shakespeare-literate.
This lesson usually follows a lecture on language and our indebtedness to Shakespeare's creativity with word and phrase. A good source of inspiration is Bernard Levin's amazing pastiche of Shakespeare's famous coinages, "Quoting Shakespeare," in The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil (Viking, 1986).
What You Need
several examples of allusions to Shakespeare; a good Shakespeare concordance
You may direct students to try searching The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
What To Do
1. Give students a working definition of allusion.
2. Cite examples of allusions to Shakespeare that you have gathered from newspapers, comic strips, magazine articles, books (including titles), songs, or films. Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country is a great example. Christopher Plummer's declaration that Shakespeare is best in "the original Klingon" and his wonderful use of Julius Caesar as he lets "slip the dogs of war" on the valiant crew of the Enterprise show how Shakespeare lives in popular culture.
3. After fielding questions from students, give them three weeks to bring in three allusions to Shakespeare to share with the class. Make a few minutes available each day for sharing examples as they come in. Students with CDs, tapes, and videos need to notify you a day in advance so that you have the necessary equipment. Audio-visual examples must come cued-up.
4. Students must identify the source of the allusion by citing the play, the act and scene, and the speaker for each submission. (A brief lesson on the use of a concordance, a good dictionary, or on-line searching may help here.)
5. The only major rule: credit is given to the first student who brings in a particular example (in other words, the class will not have to watch the same clip from Clueless ten times, and only one student will receive credit for discovering it).
How Did It Go?
The evaluation for this activity is simple: students receive full credit for supplying three allusions to Shakespeare whether all of them are shared in class or not. Extra-credit may be given for one or two extra examples.
It usually develops into quite a contest to see who can find the most allusions to Shakespeare by semester's end.
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.