The “Play” Within the Play: A Sample Assignment

Today’s post represents the ripening of an idea I pondered in the first post I ever made to this blog, way back in September.  (Sigh… how young I was back then…)   I had been pondering the concept of “emotive reading” as a way into understanding literature—and lucky for me, I got assigned to teach a whole semester’s worth of Shakespeare this spring, the perfect lab for testing my ideas!  (Just this morning, in fact, one of my students caught on to the game, stating grimly, “so we’re your guinea pigs, huh?”  Bless his heart!) Indeed experimentation is, in my world anyway, a big part of the process through which I learn how best to reach my students, and recently I experimented with an unconventional assignment (i.e. not an essay) that I would consider a success.  I thought I’d pass it along

While I obviously geared the assignment toward Shakespeare’s texts, I believe it would work well for any piece of drama—and perhaps even for novels and poems, if you’re dealing with the ideas of adaptation/translation/interpretation.  I’m currently a little bit obsessed by the idea of “reconstitution” when it comes to teaching literature, a term I borrow from critic and bibliographer Thomas Tanselle. He argues:

“those arts (such as music, literature, dance, and film) that depend on sequence or duration can survive only as repetitions, which in turn require instructions for their reconstitution; and whether those instructions survive into the present through human memory or in more tangible forms (such as ink on paper, or images on celluloid), the instructions for a work are not the same thing as the work itself” (A Rationale of Textual Criticism 22).

This statement seems particularly true of play scripts, which are in fact, not just in theory, instructions for the reconstitution of the true work, the live performance.   Those of us without backgrounds in drama, however, really don’t have a lot of practice following those instructions.  I personally am most accustomed to reading novels, where much of the “stage direction,” as it were, is made explicitly clear.  We often know what tone of voice a character uses, for example, because the author tells us whether he speaks quickly, loudly, lightheartedly, etc.   Reading plays stretches totally different interpretive muscles, especially when the text offers minimal stage direction, as is the case with Shakespeare. The less the stage directions are specified, however, the more room readers have to play with the play—which is exactly the point of this assignment.  I’ve prosaically titled it the “Annotated Script Assignment,” but should you use this in your classes, feel free to come up with something more exciting.

As a final thought before I post the instructions, let me share how pleased I have been with the results.  Grading these scripts was entertaining and fun; it gave me a real insight into the different reading/interpreting processes of my individual students.  Some gave lengthy descriptions of setting, background, lighting, and special effects—making their scene very cinematic.  Others focused on the tone, volume, or speed of individual words or phrases, playing with the language more than with the setting or even the physical action. Some constructed elaborate “keys” to their symbolic annotations.  But no matter how they did it, the assignment helped them slow down and recognize that they had the power to discover different possibilities and make deliberate interpretive choices. Ultimately they used their creative and analytical skills to imagine how the desiccated textual remnants of scenes might be reconstituted into juicy morsels of drama—and that, my friends, is awesome.

Without further ado, then, here are the instructions!  Feel free to borrow, adjust, or otherwise experiment with the ideas, and let us know how it goes!  Or if you have made other successful experiments of your own with teaching drama, feel free to share those too!  Heaven knows we all need good suggestions. 🙂

Happy Lesson Planning,



Purpose: In the scripts Shakespeare left us of his plays, we have very limited information.  All we know is what characters say to each other, or to the audience.  We don’t know all the other things that are described in novels or poetry: the kind of emotion with which a character speaks, his or her body language and actions, indication of the “mood” or “setting” of a scene, etc.

This assignment is meant to help us start imagining how we might fill in these details, either for ourselves as readers, or perhaps as directors of a play.  It requires you to blend your keenest powers of analysis with your creative imagination.  Use what is there in the text as a foundation to imagine and create what isn’t.


1)    Choose a passage of 50-75 lines from any of the plays we have studied/are studying so far.  In a nice meaty paragraph (at least 150 words), explain in your own words the context of the scene, and how/why it is significant to the play as a whole. Your analysis should be evident here: why do you think this scene is important in terms of character development, themes, plot, or entertainment?  What does this scene contribute to the play as a whole that would be sorely missed without it?

2)    Give a brief (100 words or so) description/analysis of each character in the scene, using specific evidence from the play itself to describe that character’s personality, motivations, fears, hopes, virtues, failings, etc.  We’ve structured class discussions around this task before; now is your time to formalize it in writing and to cite specific evidence from the text to defend your rendering of a character.  You do have some creative license here—that is, you might think of what your version of Claudio or Ophelia might be—but you must support your choices with textual evidence (direct quotes with citations of act and line numbers).

3)    Annotate your 50-75 lines, line by line. Annotation means that for each line, you include notes to “fill in” what is missing: the tone of voice the line might be spoken in, where you feel the line should speed up or slow down or pause, what sorts of actions might be happening while the lines are being spoken, and what motivates those actions.  You also might indicate the setting: is it indoors or outdoors?  Brightly lit, or dark?  Warm or cold?  Are there props involved?  If so, what, and why?  Think about all the elements you enjoy when watching a play or film, or reading a novel, and try to fill in as many of those details as possible.

You’ll find it easiest to annotate your script by first obtaining an unmarked script to work with. I suggest that you look up your passage online (there are several sites that offer the full text; is one of them).  Copy and paste the passage you’ve selected into a word document.  You can split the page (with a table perhaps) so that the script is on one side and your annotations on another, or you can type your annotations in a different color (just make sure it’s visibly different if printed in b/w).  Whatever format you decide to use, make your directions as clear as possible, indicating clearly to which lines and words your instructions apply.

Obviously, before you can decide how to supply all the missing information, you need to understand very clearly what’s going on in the info you do have.

You might want to include a brief glossary of important terms, or define unfamiliar words in your annotations.  There’s no shame in seeking translation help from resources like No Fear Shakespeare (  Once you know what the characters are saying, it’s a lot easier to imagine how and why they might be saying it, and what they’re doing while they say it, and what they might look like, and where they are, and if anybody else is watching or listening (including ones who might not be officially written in the scene).

4)    Conclude your project with a brief reflection (150 words or so).  What have you learned from this exercise?  What questions did you start with, and what answers did you find?  What do you understand that you didn’t before?  What new questions do you have?  What was challenging or frustrating about it?  What was rewarding?  Did anything surprise you?

Use the resources at your disposal to strengthen your understanding of the basics, but make sure that the analysis and writing are all your own! The point here is to think about how YOU interpret the text, based on the evidence.  Be smart, be creative, and have fun!!