A Sample Instructional Unit Design: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”

One of the things graduate students and those new to teaching often struggle with is how to articulate a text beyond discipline-specific approaches in order to reach a broader audience in the classroom. This, however, is a crucial skill to master, because it is becoming more the norm than the exception for faculty in Arts and Sciences fields like English and History to teach both their subject area and also general ed. and humanities and liberal arts offerings.

Here’s an example of how I think about and teach a canonical text through a multidisciplinary lens that makes it more accessible to students who are not majoring in English. I hope it gives you lots of ideas about ways you can develop humanities and liberal arts offerings with your own teaching. I’d love to hear more ideas–feel free to share in the comments below!

The Tempest in a non-majors classroom

When approaching a text like William Shakespeare’s The Tempest with a general education course in the humanities, I take a strongly interdisciplinary stance, drawing from several fields to accommodate the interests of a diverse student body. In most cases, these are not English majors, and this may be one of only a handful of experiences they will have with a Shakespearean text. They are often taking the class simply to fulfill a requirement; my goal is to pleasantly surprise them in terms of the valuable and transferrable skills in critical thinking and close reading they can gain through a multidisciplinary approach. I encourage my students to bring what they are learning in their major courses to bear in our discussions of the text, both to allow them to practice using their field-specific content knowledge in context and to demonstrate that, while they are certainly important, we do not simply have to focus on narrative elements like plot, structure, character, and symbolism when discussing literature. This approach creates a collaborative classroom experience, fosters an individual spirit of inquiry, and broadens students’ understanding of the possibilities and relevance of literature to their own lived experiences.

I begin with a lecture featuring biographical and cultural information about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan world, providing the context my students need in order to access the play as a text written in and for a particular time and place. This lecture also offers a glimpse of the lenses through which we read the play. I cover domestic and international political concerns, reflecting the play’s postcolonial, empire-building issues; Elizabethan views of the New World to present context for an environmental approach; normative Elizabethan ideas of gender roles to prepare them for character analysis; and Elizabethan understandings of science, magic, and alchemy, to facilitate discussion of the play’s supernatural elements. While I do provide a brief overview of genre, structure, and language, the goal of this initial lecture is to showcase the possibilities the play offers for engagement through a variety of interests—a humanist approach to the unit.

In classes following the introductory lecture, I ensure that my students have read and understood the basic plot. We begin with more recognizable aspects of literary analysis, looking at elements such as the narrative arc, the setting, and the use of repartee, pun, and double-entendre. I divide the play’s characters among my students and ask them to create a digital archive of images they associate with the character to which they were assigned, and in class we look through these archives, discussing how their choices affect their interpretation of the character and giving them insight into the wide variety of responses humans have to literary figures. We then work through the direct and indirect characterization techniques Shakespeare uses in this play, which enhances their understanding of how someone else’s characterization of a person affects our response to him or her. These activities serve as the basis for a character analysis of 3-5 pages.

Once we have arrived at a good sense of the play as a text, we move into the more topical approaches. Each session, I ask my students to consider the play from a different vantage point—postcolonialism and human rights, ecocritical and environmental, scientific and magical, and through the consideration of gender and biological sex. I begin with a brief lecture about the critical lens we are using, making sure to offer a specific example (for instance, Ania Loomba’s reading of Caliban as a postcolonial subject) to illustrate how they might approach this kind of reading. I encourage them to draw from their own disciplinary interests—scientists, for instance, might focus on weather and environment; women’s and gender studies and sociology majors might be more interested in power dynamics between characters; religious studies majors might be interested in the intersections between Christianity and paganism. From these approaches, students choose the one that interests them most (or another approach they develop with my help) and use this as the basis for a 5-7 page critical examination of the play through that particular theoretical lens. This provides an individualized and tailored assessment based both on student interests and on the application of course content.

Finally, after I introduce them to how the use of gestures, vocal inflection, props, costumes, and other staging practices affect audience interpretation of a performance piece by showing them clips from various stagings and discussing them in class, my students work in small groups to choose a scene and stage it through one of the theoretical lenses; that is, in their staging choices they emphasize a certain reading of the text. Through this activity they experience the play as a performance, engage creatively with the critical lenses, work collaboratively to produce a new visual text, and embody their knowledge in a meaningful way.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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