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Shakespeare the Player: Illustrating Elizabethan Theatre through A Midsummer Night's Dream

Teachers' Rating:
  3 ratings

C. Walter Hodges. Cut-away view of the Globe. Drawing, ca. 1973.

August 2013

Caitlin S Griffin and Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger

Folger Education


Plays/Scenes Covered

While the scenes represented in this module are from A Midsummer Night's Dream (1.2, 3.1, and 5.1), any passage which represents players or stage practice may be used, especially As You Like It (2.7), Hamlet (2.2.340 and 3.2), and Henry V (Chorus).

What's On for Today and Why

In this activity, you and your students will explore Elizabethan stage practices as the rustic yet enthusiastic amateur actors from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. While it's not necessary to teach Shakespeare's biography while studying his plays, sometimes opportunities to explore his world through his own eyes present themselves in his text.


Students' new insights into the text will provide them with a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare’s world. This activity will take one or two class periods.

What You Need

Copies of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Act 1, Scene 2

Act 3, Scene 1

Act 5, Scene 1


Optional: A Smartboard or Computer display for links shared in "What to Do" to the Folger's Digital Texts, Luna Image Database, and Discover Shakespeare pages.

What To Do

Distribute copies of the three scenes to your class, and assign the roles for each scene. It's not necessary for the same students to play the same characters in all three scenes.


Begin by reading the scene aloud, stopping to highlight and discuss the illuminating moments of stage practice below. While some answers or leading links are included for you, wait and see what answers your students come up with in discussion first. A possible homework assignment could be to take home these questions to research and discuss their findings in the next class.


Act 1, Scene 2

(line 11) Quince tells his assembly what play they will produce: “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” What kind of play do you, as an audience, want to see? Why would the play be both "lamentable" and a "comedy?" What does this title make you think of the players? Look up some of Shakespeare's play's title pages, like Romeo and Juliet. How does this title compare?


(line 20) Quince assigns the roles in the play. Bottom asks if Pyramus is “a lover or a tyrant?” Shakespeare’s audience was used to seeing plays about kings and lovers. Get a list of Shakespeare’s plays and figure out how many he wrote that weren’t about kings or lovers.


(line 45) Francis Flute protests playing a woman – on the Elizabethan stage, women’s roles were played by young men and boys. Why do you think that is?


(line 75) Why are the players concerned about the Lion being too frightening? What could happen to you if your play displeased the king or queen at the time?

  • The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, were once in danger of their lives when Queen Elizabeth I saw herself in the deposed monarch in Shakespeare’s play Richard II.


Exeunt: Shakespeare didn't have a curtain to drop between scenes or acts to denote an end. Instead, he and his fellow playwrights would have everyone onstage exit at the end of one scene and to have one or more other characters enter for the next.


Act 3, Scene 1

(line 9) Bottom is concerned that their play is too violent. Can we relate to that today? Who in the audience is he most concerned about? What solution does he propose? What would you do?


(line 46) During their rehearsal, Quince says that he hopes to have the moon shining on the night of their performance because “Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight.” Is it actually necessary for the moon to be out for the play to be believable? At Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, plays were performed in the afternoon without much in the way of scenery or lights to show time and place. What devices did Shakespeare have available to him to tell the audience where they were and what time it was? (ie: The Merchant of Venice 5.1.1Midsummer 3.2.190)

This invites students to find information in other textual material, opening a connection to Common Core Standards for Reading Informational Text.


(line 61) Quince also points out the need for a wall through which the lovers will whisper. What is their solution. How would you solve this issue?


(line 90) Flute speaks all his lines at once. In the 16th century, actors learned their lines from “sides” – papers that contained their lines only, and perhaps a cue or two. Why do you think this was?


Act 5, Scene 1

(line 134) The mechanicals’ play begins with a Prologue. Where else have you seen a Prologue, and what is its function? Find another Prologue in another of Shakespeare's plays (ie: Romeo and Juliet, Henry V). How does Quince's compare?


(line 179) The "O" in Shakespeare's lines encompasses all of the emotion the character is feeling. (ie: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”) What emotion is Bottom/Pyramus playing here with all of these many many O’s? Ham it up and make a big noise with each O. This part is especially fun for the best over-actor in the class.


(line 260) Throughout the play, the married couples add their own comments and interjections. Live theatre includes a live audience with live reactions.

Have you ever experienced something like that today? Describe it. Did you participate? What were your reactions? Did you see or hear people who didn't agree with you?


(line 291) Even more fun – bad rhymes and stage deaths for Pyramus and Thisbe! What did the audience enjoy about the play? What did you enjoy?

How Did It Go?

What differences and similarities between 16th century entertainment and our own culture were students able to recognize?

What did your students discover about Elizabethan theatre?

Were your students able to find new layers of meaning in the humor of the play?

What does it mean, now, to be a playwright or performer to your students?


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

RL 6-12. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6

SL 6-12. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6

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Teacher Resources

Teaching A Midsummer Night's Dream Resources from Folger Education

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