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        Merely Players | Shakespeare Uncovered

        In this lesson, students will view and discuss several video segments from Shakespeare Uncovered to explore one of the playwright's signature dramatic elements, the use of role-playing and disguise. (This lesson has been designed as a prereading activity for a unit on one of Shakespeare's comedies or on Henry IV, Part I. It can also be used as a stand-alone lesson allowing students to explore Shakespeare's art and craft.)

        Lesson Summary

        Shakespeare understood that all of us are “merely players,” working through the different roles that accompany the various ages and stages of life. He also understood that we often adopt disguises – with or without the benefit of costumes – to help us negotiate the relationships and obstacles we encounter along the way. Perhaps it is this understanding of our ability to play parts in our own lives that makes Shakespeare’s plays resonate. Each of us keeps secrets, manipulates our wardrobe, and carefully phrases texts, emails, and postings on Facebook to achieve our goals to reveal or conceal what we do or do not want people to know about our identity.

        At times, the reader can see Shakespeare’s doubt and cynicism with regard to appearance and reality. He knows that “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” In comedic scenes, however, roles and disguises often contain important opportunities for growth and learning. For some of the younger characters, lost in the transition between critical stages of their lives, these moments of disguise and role playing, though not without their dangers, can allow the characters to gain a surer understanding of who they are.

        In this lesson, students will view and discuss several video segments from Shakespeare Uncovered to explore one of Shakespeare’s signature dramatic elements – the use of role playing and disguise. The first Introductory Activity is a performance-based reading of “The Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It, which introduces the idea of roles and role playing in life. The second activity is a quick look at Shakespeare’s Facebook page to introduce the idea of disguise. If time is limited, the second activity may be eliminated.

        The Learning Activities include two video segments from Shakespeare Uncovered. The first segment – from the “Comedies” episode that features Twelfth Night – shows Viola assuming a disguise as a young man named Cesario. After viewing the segment, students will read and discuss a scene that occurs later in the play that explores the consequences of that disguise. Next, the students will view a segment from Henry IV, Part I in the “Henry IV and Henry V” episode in which Prince Hal and Falstaff take turns assuming the role of the King. This segment will be followed by a discussion of what happens when one steps into the persona of another person.

        The Culminating Activities include a discussion of a final segment from Shakespeare Uncovered and a reading of “Facebook Sonnet” – a poem by Sherman Alexie. These activities will help the students draw conclusions about the use of role play and disguise as portals into both Shakespeare’s characters and their own self-understanding.

        This lesson has been designed as a pre-reading activity for a unit on one of the comedies or on Henry IV, Part I. It can also be used as a stand-alone lesson allowing students to explore Shakespeare’s art and craft.

        Time Allotment

        three 45-minute class periods

        Learning Objectives

        After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

        • Identify the use of disguises and role-playing as important devices in Shakespeare’s plays
        • Analyze some of the different ways in which disguises and role-playing work to conceal and reveal character and advance/complicate the plot
        • Recognize and identify different ways in which the disguises or role playing affect an audience
        • Identify the relevance of these devices in the students’ own lives


        The Facebook Sonnet Student Organizer Answer Key

        The Seven Ages of Man Student Organizer

        Shakespeare’s Facebook Page Student Organizer

        Conceal Me What I Am Student Organizer

        The Facebook Sonnet Student Organizer


        Conceal Me What I Am

        Role Playing in Henry IV

        A Play is Called a Play for a Reason

        Introductory Activity

        Day One

        1. Ask students the following questions, and make a list of their responses on the board:
          • What roles do you play, or do you hope to play in your lifetime? (Possible answers may include: son or daughter, student, partner/spouse, careerist, mentor, artist, athlete…)

          • What differentiates these roles from each other? (Possible answers may include: age, independence, career, purpose, interest, location, ability…)

        2. Explain that Shakespeare understood that life leads people into and out of different roles, and that he explored this idea in a speech from As You Like It that’s become known as “The Seven Ages of Man.”

        3. Place students in groups of seven or fewer. Give every student a copy of The Seven Ages of Man Student Organizer, and have them prepare dramatic readings of the speech for each other. Each member of the group should recite at least one section alone, and all members should recite one or more words or lines chorally. Once the lines are divided up, the students should figure out where the members of the group should stand and how they should move and act as the lines are spoken. Each student should rehearse his or her part of the dramatic reading several times. Ask students to compare their initial list of roles with Shakespeare’s list of seven. How are the lists alike? How do they differ? What are their thoughts about these roles, especially the ones that await them?


          1. Explain that Shakespeare realized that people often assume disguises or masks to promote or conceal different aspects of their identity. These disguises can involve the use of clothing, make-up, and accessories to suggest a specific status or identity, or they can simply involve pretending to be something someone isn’t.

          2. Ask students to think of specific instances in their own lives when they or someone they know has assumed a disguise or mask. Why did they do it? Was the disguise or mask successful? (Accept all answers, but suggest that sometimes people need these disguises to handle relationships and obstacles in life in safe and successful ways. People also sometimes use disguises to entertain themselves and others.)

          3. Distribute the “Shakespeare’s Facebook Page Student Organizer and ask the students to complete it for homework. If you have chosen to focus your students’ interaction with this site or if some of your students do not have internet access at home, be sure to make copies of relevant aspects of Shakespeare’s Facebook page for your students to take home.

        Learning Activities

        Day Two

        1. Invite students to share some of their findings and responses on their Shakespeare’s Facebook Page Student Organizers. Remind them that we all play roles and assume disguises from time to time; it’s a part of how we negotiate the ages and stages and relationships and obstacles of life.

        2. Explain to students that today’s lesson will involve exploring one of Shakespeare’s signature dramatic elements – role playing and disguise – in action. Tell students that they will now be looking at a video segment from the “Comedies” episode of Shakespeare Uncovered. Provide a focus question for the segment by asking students to note why the shipwrecked Viola chooses to play the role of her apparently drowned brother Cesario. Play the Conceal Me What I Am video.

        3. Review the focus question: Why does the shipwrecked Viola choose to play the role of her apparently drowned brother Cesario? (Viola assumes the role of Cesario both to mourn the loss of her brother and to protect herself as a single female in a foreign place).

        4. Distribute the Conceal Me What I Am Student Organizer. Tell the students that they will now see the consequences of Viola’s role playing in action. Have the students work in pairs to read and discuss the scene where Viola, disguised as Cesario, meets Olivia for the first time. Encourage the students to work through the scene on their feet and to be aware that both Viola and Olivia will become increasingly more honest as the scene progresses. Tell them to pay special attention to evidence in the scene that shows how both Viola and Olivia have been playing parts, how Viola’s role as Cesario both liberates and entraps Viola, and why a scene like this is so entertaining and engaging for an audience.

        5. When all groups have completed their readings, reconvene the class and have students discuss their responses to following questions:

          • What evidence is there in the scene that both Viola and Olivia are/have been playing roles? (Olivia plays up the formal part of her identity as a sister in mourning and as “the honourable lady of the house” by wearing a veil and by being abrupt with Viola at the beginning of their encounter. When Olivia removes the veil and sends everyone but Viola away, she also starts to shed her roles as grieving sister and imperious lady. She begins to liberate her most essential self and to fall in love with the person she thinks is Cesario.) (Viola, already playing the part of Cesario, tells Olivia that she is Orsino’s messenger, a part she is playing, complete with a speech and lines that she has memorized and wants to recite. When Olivia asks “Cesario” to drop the role and say what “Cesario” would say if “he” was wooing for “himself,” Viola speaks from her most essential self with deep passion inspired by her hidden feelings for Orsino.)

          • How does playing the role of a boy both liberate and entrap Viola? (Viola is liberated to speak her feelings, but because she is speaking them as Cesario to Olivia, that does her little good. The feelings are still suppressed because she cannot speak them to Orsino. The passion of her words further entraps Viola because they make Olivia fall for “Cesario” – a relationship that is only an illusion.)

          • Why is a scene like this so entertaining and engaging for an audience? (The dramatic irony of the situation pulls in the audience, especially when Cesario speaks about playing a part. The audience knows there is a layer to that language that Olivia is missing. The audience is also aware of Olivia’s attraction to Viola; they know that that attraction will complicate the plot, and they look forward to seeing how all of the relationships will eventually be untangled.)

        Day 3


        1. Tell students that the next video segment from Shakespeare Uncovered involves role playing as well, but with a very different spin. In this scene from Henry IV, Part I, Prince Hal and his ne’er-do-well friend Falstaff engage in some role playing at the pub, taking turns portraying the part of Hal’s father, King Henry IV. Ask the students to focus on how the role play affects Hal. Play the video segment “Role playing in Henry IV.”

        2. Review the focus question: How does the role play affect Hal? (He begins to realize that he will outgrow his friendship with the fun-loving but irresponsible Falstaff.) Have students discuss their responses to the following questions:

          • How does this type of role playing differ from that in Twelfth Night? (In 1 Henry 4, neither Hal nor Falstaff is being deceived by the game. Hal does use the role to face a truth about himself: that he will reject Falstaff when the time comes. This self-realization foreshadows an outcome of the plot, and it generates poignancy for Hal and for the audience.)

          • How does Falstaff play the King, and what does this reveal about his character? (Falstaff doesn’t inhabit the role, remaining focused on his own needs – i.e. being sure that he will continue to have Hal’s support in the future.)

          • How does Hal play the King, and what does this reveal about his character? (Hal truly pretends to wear the crown, and in so doing, is momentarily transformed by the role that he will eventually have to play later in life.)

          • What is Hal able to admit to himself through the role play? (At that moment he feels the weight of the responsibility and understands that he will have to change his behavior and his company.)

        3. Draw this portion of the lesson to a close by reminding the students that the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes (or crown!) may be a transformative experience and a step toward the next role we’ll play in life.

        Culminating Activity

        1. Tell the students that we, like Viola and Hal, have a role that we need to play when we watch a play as well. Provide a focus question for the last video segment by asking students what they think the role of a theater audience is and what we can gain from playing that role well. Play the video segment “A Play is Called a Play for a Reason” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.)

        2. Review the focus question: What is the role of a theater audience and what can we gain from playing that role well? (Answers may include the idea that our role is to suspend disbelief and enter into the world of the play. If we do this by allowing ourselves to see ourselves in the characters’ shoes, as Hal placed himself in his father’s shoes, “we encounter something real” – i.e. we learn something about our own roles and our own identity in the world.)

        3. Distribute The Facebook Sonnet Student Organizer to each student. Either as an in-class activity or as homework, have students read Sherman Alexie’s poem, “The Facebook Sonnet,” and complete their organizers. Invite students to bring their most important insights back to a full class discussion, guided by the The Facebook Sonnet Student Organizer Answer Key.

        Funder: Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the generous support of the project’s lead foundation sponsor, the Howard and Abby Milstein Foundation. Major funding is also provided by Rosalind P. Walter, The Polonsky Foundation, Virginia and Dana Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, and PBS.

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