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Acting in marriage-is it on stage or off?

Teachers' Rating:
  2 ratings

Alexander Niccholes. A discourse of marriage and wiving. London, 1615

February 2011
Jessica Speck teaches English at Winston Churchill High School, Potomac, MD.

Plays/Scenes Covered

Macbeth 1.7

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams

What's On for Today and Why

Students will examine the consequences of different choices by an actor on the perception of the state of the marriage between Macbeth/Lady Macbeth  in Shakespeare's Macbeth and Brick /Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Using the same texts, students will synthesize how those choices affect the audience's overall understanding of the play. In addition, sudents will examine the historical function of marriage during the particular time period in which Williams was writing and of the Elizabethan era and defend their choices against this additional information.

This activity will take 2 x 40 minute class periods.

What You Need

 Macbeth DVD Folger/Two River Production

Set of numbered cards

Class set of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Folger edition of Macbeth
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

3 Handouts

Handout 1: Excerpt from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Handout 2:Historical Views of Marriage and Women
Handout 3:Special features commentary
What To Do

Prior to the lesson, students should have read Macbeth and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Day 1

1. Hand out the excerpt from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which Brick and Maggie debate the conditions of their marriage. Have students divide into pairs taking the roles of Maggie or Brick.


2. Each Maggie chooses a playing or numbered card. The number on the card reflects Maggie's commitment to her marriage vows to Brick, 10 being 100% committed and 1 or 2 not committed at all. Each pair should decide whether Brick is fully aware of Maggie's level of commitment or not and then rehearse the scene for 3-5 minutes to reflect this level AND Brick's knowledge of it.


3. Present each scene without commentary by the class. Side coach the actors to make physical choices (not just vocal) that reflect the level of commitment.


4. Discuss which scenes communicated a 10, a 1 or a 6. What did these different levels communicate about their relationship and/or motives? Did they observe differences between when Brick had knowledge of Maggie's commitment or when she didn't? How did they feel as actors to communicate so much with so few lines?


5. Time permitting, have students write an answer to the following prompt:

What does Maggie see as the purpose for her marriage to Brick (and therefore the reason to stay married)?


Day 2

1. Show the special feature, Mr and Mrs Macbeth from the Folger/Two River  2008 Production of Macbeth.


2. Discuss how this portrayal of marriage differs from that of Brick and Maggie. What connections can be made between their relationships? Is it relevant that both couples are childless?

3. Distribute the handout, Historical Views of Marriage in Elizabethan Times vs. United States in the 1950's.


4. Pose the following question to your students:

If productions of Macbeth and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were set during the time period in which they were written, which bulleted item from the Historical Views paper is most important? Which is least important? How do these time periods compare in their views of marriage?


5. Direct each student to find either a line from Brick or Maggie, or Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in which they discuss the state of their marriage. Have them read that line  aloud with the most important bulleted item as subtext.


6. Have students read Handout 3, a commentary on Mr and Mrs Macbeth and discuss their own reactions to the special feature. Have students complete exit cards where they write a discovery about these marriages or a lingering question.


Follow up

This is intended to be one of several activities that gets students thinking deeply about  characters and the choices they must make in order to portray them in final performance. Other follow up areas could be research about marriage, examination of romantic love in marriage,child-bearing conflict etc.

In addition Day 1 could be repeated allowing students to choose their own passage and then have them stage it WITHOUT speaking.

How Did It Go?

Were students able to make connections between the marriages? Were they able to show subtle differences physically and emotionally through the short scene with the randomly chosen numbers, or did it require a lot of coaching?


This activity could be adapted to examione the marital relationship of Hotspur and Kate in 1 Henry 1V or Petruchio and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Less emphasis can be given to the acting element of the exercise and more on the historical context of the plays and how they are received by the audience. A general discussion about how the meaning of plays with the same text can change depending on the interpretation of the actors/director could be fruitful.


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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