Teaching Humanities, History of Elizabethan Theater (I)

Writing up the Twelfth Night unit reminded me how much fun I’d had and how thoroughly the students had learned the material. I need no reminding with my Elizabethan history unit, which is still the single finest two-week period I’ve ever had as a teacher.

Learning Objective: Students can discuss the milestones of the transition from mysteries to plays, and provide the rationale for the development of physical theaters. They can identify the tensions involved when archaelogical remains don’t have the courtesy to become inactive, but just keep inconsiderately piling on history unto the present. They can identify the key Elizabethan playwrights and theater personnel. They know how many lines are in a sonnet.

Secondary Objective: They would understand every in-joke in Shakespeare in Love, which they’d watch at the end of the unit.

Day 1: Lecture on the development history of Western European theater, which disappeared entirely after the fall of the Roman Empire for over five hundred years, until it returned again in the form of “mysteries”, the performance of Biblical scenes, and slowly developed into the morality plays of the late Middle Ages. During the Renaissance era, the morality plays developed slowly into plays written more purely for entertainment, and thus were born both the acting profession and the theater (which allowed the actors to collect money from their audience). The lecture covered the development of the first theater (started by James Burbage, as we all know from SiL) through to the great razing of the theaters in the mid-1600s.

I can’t find my lecture notes, but the gist can be derived from the handout:
It must be said: I give a great lecture, and am particularly good, I think, at making the kids see developments as interesting when they’d never before given them a thought. Movies are a huge part of their lives, and before movies there were plays. But how did plays start? I often test attention by popping in questions during the talk, and the kids were all right there with me.

“So you had these acting troupes traveling from town to town, acting out these morality plays to big audiences, whereas before, the churches themselves put on the mysteries. How would that change things, Meg?”

“Well, the church is religious, and the actors aren’t.”

“Okay, and how would that matter? Renee, your hand is up.”

“The church probably had priests who acted!”

“Okay, and what does that mean? Think about the difference between a priest and and actor. Isaac?”

“The actors would need money, right? The Church had money already.”

Ian said, “Yes, they’d have to get money. How do you get money if it’s just a big crowd?”

“You pass the hat,” said Dom, “like they do in the movies.”

“You can’t pass the hat if you’ve got hundreds of people in the audience,” said Kayla.

“And what if no one wants to pay? How would they make money?” asked Sheena.

“Wow. You all are taking my lecture away from me. You’re right about the differences, the money, and passing the hat works well as a voluntary payment for small groups, but if actors were going to make a business of it, it’d be really convenient to have, oh, I don’t know, maybe a building? To let people in after they’ve paid? Otherwise known as….”

“Theaters!” they chorused.

The handouts, as well as their work over the next week, confirmed that this stuck with them.

Day 2: Using Primary Documents
Students had to map out the theaters of London during the Elizabethan era, using the “Agas Map” (Civitas Londinium). They had a handout with descriptions of theater locations, and they had to use the big map as well as the map on their handout to place all the theaters. When they finished, they checked their work against the placement based on current historical knowledge.

I printed out the Agas Map of London in 32 full page sections, which I then glued together. And trust me, crafts ain’t my thang, usually. But it was worth it, if only for the great visual. It’s a gorgeous map.

These were the clues:

Here’s the map they used to check their work:

Doing it again, I’d have magnifying glasses to read the Agas map more clearly. Still, it was a successful day. The students, working in pairs, found all the theaters and enjoyed the scavenger hunt aspect.

To be continued….

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4 responses to “Teaching Humanities, History of Elizabethan Theater (I)

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