Julie Omland is a secondary English teacher at Skyview High School in Billings, Montana. She currently teaches English to seniors and freshmen, although she has taught at both the middle and high school levels in the past.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
What's On for Today and Why
There are three basic objectives for this lesson. One objective is to get students to use digital images of primary source materials to learn about the medicinal uses of plants during Shakespeare's lifetime. Another objective is for students to discover through close reading and discussion how Shakespeare uses nature and plants in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Finally, students will write an essay to connect/compare/contrast the primary source information with the play. As an optional extension, consider inviting an herbalist or Native American healer from your community to speak to your students about contemporary natural remedies.
This lesson will take two class periods.
What You Need
Folger edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Pictures of common flowers (see handout 1)
Wall or bulletin board space to accommodate pictures
What To Do
1. Before class, place photographs, drawings, and/or paintings of pansies, eglantine, musk roses, primroses, oxlips, violets, wild thyme, and honeysuckle on a bulletin board or wall. You may find color images in magazines, seed catalogs, or on the Web. Label each picture with the plant's common name or names (see handout 1). Try to have enough pictures so that each student will get a specific flower.
2. Begin class by telling students that home remedies were widely used in Elizabethan England. Many people grew the plants and herbs they needed to make medicine in their gardens. Show the class a copy of handout 2, a picture of a typical Elizabethan garden.
3. Ask students to pick a flower from the bulletin board or wall. Allow them to take the pictures back to their desks.
4. Distribute copies of handout 1 (plant descriptions excerpted from early herbals) to your students. Explain that herbal catalogs were common household items during Shakespeare's period. The students should find and silently read the descriptions of the flowers they have chosen. After the students have read their individual descriptions to themselves, do a read-around so that everyone hears the descriptions.
5. Facilitate a discussion about the descriptions. Can the students draw any generalizations about them? Are there any surprises? Do the students have any home remedies to share? At the end of the class, ask students to hand back the pictures and post them on the wall.
6. For homework, have students read the passages of the play next to their descriptions on handout 1. They should come to class with an understanding of the context of the passages as well.
1. Put the chosen texts on the overhead or have students use their text of the play to find the passages as you discuss.
2. Ask students to point out and explain any insights into the text they have gained. Why do they think Shakespeare uses these references? Ask students to discuss the descriptive effect of listing several plants consecutively versus using individual plants to further the plot. Is Shakespeare invoking certain images or ideas through his choice of plants?
3. For homework, ask students to write an essay about one of the plants mentioned in A Midsummer Night's Dream. They must cite a line or lines from the play and include quotes from the primary source description of the plant. In the essay, students should discuss the function of the plant in the play and whether or not the supposed medicinal value of the plant adds a layer of meaning to the scene.
Invite an herbalist or Native American individual from your community to spend a day explaining contemporary plant remedies to your students. Make this as hands-on as possible (a taste, sniff, and touch session).
How Did It Go?
Did the students understand the medicinal uses of plants in Shakespeare's time? Did the students find new ways to look at the chosen texts? Did students come up with ideas about why Shakespeare included this material in his play? Did the students make connections between primary text and the play text? Did their essays reflect an understanding of both texts and synthesis of ideas?
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.