The Play's the Thing: Shakespeare for a Brave New World

Fall 2020

By Rebecca Burnett


Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.1.74-75

Like many of my colleagues across the country, I have spent this summer studying best practices for teaching in an online or blended environment. The more I learn, the more I realize that good online learning is built on the same principles as good in-person learning; the medium and methods might be different, but the philosophy remains the same. Good classes—whether virtual or in-person—are student-centered and student-driven. They enable students to discover, uncover, build, and create. In other words, good classes let students play.

Although modern students see Shakespeare as a crusty relic of the traditional canon, he is perfectly suited to a playful 21st century classroom. And yet we rarely give students a chance to play with Shakespeare. In fact, we often don’t let our students experience Shakespeare for themselves—we assume he is hard, and we carry students on our backs through that hardship, interpreting difficult passages for them and encouraging them, by our approach, to think that they cannot navigate his language without the aid of study supports. Although modern best practices suggest that learning should be active and student-driven, when it comes to teaching older texts, we often revert to older methods of teaching. We become the “sage on the stage” and allow our students to passively absorb or disengage. No wonder these texts feel inaccessible to today’s learners—they aren’t being taught in the way today’s students learn.

What if, instead, we reimagined Shakespeare? What if we put the kids in charge, making space for them to discover, uncover, build, and create? What if we let them play?

Act One

What, a play toward? I’ll be an auditor;/An actor, too, perhaps, if I see cause. —A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.1.74-75
In the spring of 2020, I taught a class called Shakespeare in Performance at Germantown Academy, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. The plan for the class was simple: choose, cut, cast, stage, and perform a play by William Shakespeare.

Although Shakespeare is often relegated to Honors or AP classes, I designed this elective to be accessible to all students. I was particularly hoping to create an opportunity for students who struggle with more traditional English classes and second-semester seniors—who struggle with school in general—to shine. In order to set them up for success, I followed the principles of good 21st century learning: Make it project-based, collaborative, and student-driven. Empower students to discover and create. In other words, let kids play.

Although several of the students were initially skeptical, inclined to dismiss Shakespeare as “boring” or “confusing,” they became immediately invested as I put the responsibility for the final production in their hands. Each student picked a play to research as a possible contender for our class to perform. While they were researching, I set to work making Shakespeare feel a bit more accessible, offering them some background information on his life and work, and helping students develop comfort with Early Modern English through a quick study of some of the sonnets. Our school’s drama director agreed to co-teach with me, and she offered some introductory acting tips and worked with the students on improv and movement exercises to help them become more comfortable in their own skins.

Then, it was time to make our choice. Each student made a pitch to the class, explaining the basic plot of the chosen play, the various considerations we would have to keep in mind if we decided to perform it, and why it would—or would not—be a good fit for our class. We narrowed the field to a handful of finalists, read scenes aloud from each, discussed as a group, and ultimately took a vote to decide which show we would perform. In the end, the students selected Much Ado About Nothing

I have rarely seen students more personally invested and deeply engaged in learning. This wasn’t just about pleasing the teacher or making good grades. They knew they had a play to put on, and they were determined not to make fools of themselves. The stakes were real. Knowing that they needed to produce a final product for an authentic audience kept them actively focused and engaged; because they “saw cause” (as Puck puts it), they were not only willing but also eager to put in the work.

Our Friar Francis explained how a sense of purpose helped motivate her to engage with this class: "For this class, I feel like my engagement has been a lot more intense than it has been in other English classes. With a new class dynamic and a unique end goal for the semester I would definitely say I am very engaged in what is going on.… While staying on top of my work is something I tend to lack in many of my classes, especially as a soon to be fourth interim senior, with this class I go home and actually do my homework and want to get it done as soon as possible so I can be set."

Act Two

Here’s a marvelous convenient place for our rehearsal.—Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.1.2-3
Having selected their show, the students’ next mission was to cut the script and cast the play. Based on the amount of class time before our scheduled performance at the end of April, we had determined that we needed to cut the show down to an hour. After a full read-through of the script for comprehension, we cut Act 1 scene 1, helping students see how Shakespeare often repeats information, announces a character’s entrance, or relies on arcane wordplay that is inaccessible to a modern audience. After modeling how to cut a scene, we set the students loose on the rest of the script, dividing them into five groups and giving each group an act to trim. As they went about their work, they decided that some characters and scenes could be cut entirely; others needed to be carefully trimmed.  We used the Collaboration Space in Microsoft Class Notebook to update the script in real time. The teachers read through the final cut script for consistency and timing. We now had a script for our hour-long show.

Cutting down the script forced the students to wrestle with Shakespeare’s language. As one senior explained: "In the beginning of this class, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Shakespeare. I liked the plot of some of his plays but thought that they were very hard to understand with the way he wrote them. From analyzing lines and cutting down the script, I think I learned how to understand more of Shakespeare’s language and plays which makes me enjoy them more."

The students mostly chose their own roles, although my co-teacher and I had final say in casting. Students also leveraged their own skills outside of the classroom (fencing, music, carpentry) as they volunteered to contribute to the production by taking on other roles behind the scenes.

Now rehearsals could begin in earnest. Each day, students checked Microsoft Teams for their call assignments—they workshopped language with me, staged a scene with the drama teacher, or worked in a satellite classroom to memorize lines. Because they were working collectively toward a final product, the students attacked these rehearsals with purpose. Everyone did their part: Ursula ran lines with Beatrice to help her get off book; the Night Watchmen worked to develop the physical comedy in their scenes; Benedick and Beatrice began meeting after school to practice their banter and their love scenes. We were truly a company of players.

Act Three

The purpose of playing is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.—Hamlet, 3.2.20-21
While the students were already engaged in preparing for the performance, there remained one more step before they made it their own: our production needed a concept. Our assistant directors ran a production meeting with the cast. At first, they threw around some ideas that were fun, but not especially practical: What if we set it in the ’60s? What if we set it in the future? They quickly realized that there had to be a reason for their concept—it needed to enhance the audience’s understanding of the play. They also realized that it needed to be easy to execute; with no budget, our costume options were limited to what the students had in their closets at home. That pointed us toward a modern setting. If I had any doubts about how well the students understood this play, they quickly evaporated as the class began to consider how a romantic comedy set in Renaissance Tuscany might relate to issues they face as American adolescents in 2020.

As the discussion unfolded, they realized that Much Ado About Nothing is a play about the fervor that “fake news” can create. Many of the characters are taken in by the misinformation spread by Don John, the villain, and Don Pedro, his brother and more comic counterpart. Those who believe the false information act on it, sometimes to disastrous results. The students envisioned our production as a commentary on the dangers of social media and false information. They planned to set the play in a modern high school setting and have the villain perpetrate his misdeeds and misinformation via text messages, which would be projected behind the actors during the show.

In her introduction to the play, our dramaturg1 explained: "Our play is set in the 21st century, portraying the daily struggles of social media and technology. Many people can agree that social media can be confusing, can often consist of misinformation, and can overall distort our reality. Our play touches on these matters, as evil characters carry out their plans through text messages, creating a big lie that other characters get tangled in."

The central drama of the play turns on the scandal created when a virgin is framed for licentious behavior. As high schoolers, the students found this plot familiar: they understood all too well the ways in which slut-shaming can quickly ruin a woman’s reputation and the emotional roller coaster that can cause an apparently smitten partner to turn on their beloved in a heartbeat. Suddenly, our play wasn’t “much ado about nothing”—it was a play about something, and that something was startlingly relevant.

Act Four

The undiscovered country.—Hamlet, 3.1.80
Our class began in mid-January. By the start of March, everything seemed to be humming along nicely. We had workshopped most of the scenes, the students had started to learn their lines, and the production team was busy working on ideas for sets, costumes, and props.

Then, overnight, our world turned upside down.

Due to a case of COVID-19 within our community, we were one of the first schools in our area to close. We had no warning—Friday, we were in school as usual, and by Sunday we learned that we would be learning virtually. Like so many schools, we finished the rest of the school year over Zoom.

The switch to virtual learning presented a unique dilemma for our class: how were we supposed to put on a play if we couldn’t even be in the same room? The students had put in so much work, and it was clear that the performance was what had kept them invested. If we lost that performance, I would lose the students.

We decided not to be stymied by our sudden dependence on technology but, rather, to embrace it.

Our final production was a pastiche of different forms of media. We filmed scenes using Zoom, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, text messages, and vlogs, splicing them all together in iMovie. For each scene, we considered what medium might best suit the content. We decided to keep the villain’s scenes as text messages to coincide with our original concept. Benedick’s pompous monologue about women became a tweet, with Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” blaring as the text scrolled across the screen. The announcement of Hero and Claudio’s engagement became a status update on Instagram displayed with Ed Sheeran crooning in the background. Scenes filmed in Zoom and on iPhones formed the backbone of our production, allowing students to use all the skills they had worked on for the original live performance.

As soon as we developed our new concept, the students’ energy returned. They dove into filming with the same eager enthusiasm they had brought to in-person rehearsals. We were a company of players again, and, though the medium for our final production had changed, the show could go on.

Act Five

All the world’s a stage.—As You Like It, 2.7.138
At the end of April, on our last day of class, we held a viewing party over Zoom to watch our completed performance for the first time. The live viewing was just for members of our class—a chance to celebrate our accomplishments together. I also shared a YouTube link with parents and my colleagues at school so that teachers, family, and friends could enjoy the show. It was great to see the students giving each other shoutouts in real time in the Zoom chat while their performance played on the screen. One student said, “I enjoyed watching the finished product with the rest of the class, it gave me so much joy to see what we’ve accomplished together.” 

In their final reflections on the course, students shared how proud they were of their efforts and how much better they understood Shakespeare because they had been able to play with his work. Our Don Pedro said, “Putting on this play really helped me understand the language of Shakespeare that was really difficult for me before. It made Shakespeare a lot less scary for me.” The junior who played Claudio wrote: "After this class, I’ve really come to understand Shakespeare’s language and theatrical vision, and now I don’t view Shakespeare’s works as so challenging anymore. I really enjoyed the final performance and seeing all of the hard work and time that me and my other classmates put into the project. I think that it really highlighted the vision of the huge impact that social media and digital life has on people, and it was great despite the challenge of not being able to meet in person."

Shakespeare in Performance wound up being the highlight of a spring filled with anxiety and loss. I had taken a leap of faith and placed the success or failure of the class entirely in my students’ hands. They ably rose to meet that challenge, showing tremendous flexibility and resilience, even in the face of unprecedented circumstances.

In her final reflection, our Beatrice wrote: "I’ve taken a lot of classes in my day, but not one has been as experimental or adaptable as 'Shakespeare in Performance'…. I don’t think I’ve ever been more immersed or present in an English class before, despite our social distancing. Shakespeare’s levity has proved to me that physical isolation doesn’t mean we can’t all cheer each other up face to face, even if it’s only through a screen."


O, brave new world.—The Tempest, 5.1.185

I don’t know what the coming school year holds for me, my colleagues, and our students. I’ve been told to plan for in-person learning, virtual learning, and some combination of the two. I don’t know what education looks like in this strange new landscape. I do know that, as I head into this uncertain school year, I will hold on to two lessons our Shakespeare in Performance class taught me.

The first is to trust and rely on my students. Put them in charge and create opportunities for them to discover, uncover, build, and create. Place my students at the center of my classroom and my pedagogy, whether that classroom is a physical space or a virtual one. Let them explore and rely on each other. Allow them to face obstacles and, with my help and support, muscle through.

The second is that kids need to be permitted to play. School is going to be many things this year, but it isn’t going to be fun. Free periods, bonding time, hanging out with friends have all been curtailed due to the ongoing pandemic. The more I can foster a productively playful spirit, the more we will all be able to find the emotional strength to explore and navigate this “undiscovered country” together.


Our dramaturg was responsible for creating program notes to help the audience understand the play and our vision for this production.


Folger Shakespeare Library. “Shakespeare Set Free.” Accessed August 3, 2020 at

William Shakespeare. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Edited by David Bevington. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 1997.
Rebecca Burnett

Rebecca Burnett is chair of the Upper School English Department at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, PA.