Uncovering Shakespeare: Constructivist Methods for the College Shakespeare Course

Martha Graham Viator and Timothy J. Viator, Rowan University

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2006) argue:

When we say that students must make their own meaning, we mean that it is futile to hand students prepackaged interpretations or statements of significance without letting them work through the issues . . . .   Didactic teaching of the interpretation will mislead students about the truly arguable nature of all interpretation.  (91-92)

By “didactic teaching of the interpretation” we take Wiggins and Tighe to mean teaching that presents one interpretation as the only interpretation, the one interpretation that is “right.”  Students leave the classroom knowing only what their teachers think but rarely understanding the issues.

No classes on campus better exemplify the unfortunate consequences of didactic teaching of a single interpretation than those on Shakespeare’s plays.  The idea that these marvelous, complicated, compelling literary works have a single “right” reading, that one interpretation that Wiggins and McTighe argue against, renders these plays for too many students riddles to solve.  Yet too often teachers do not provide the solution to the riddle, only the answer. Little wonder that bookstores stock next to the works of Shakespeare guides to ease readers’ anxieties.  Sparknotes publishes, for example, No Fear Shakespeare which promises on the back cover “the complete text of the play on the left-hand of the page, side-by-side with an easy-to-understand translation on the right.”  The subtitle for The Friendly Shakespeare is “A thoroughly painless guide to the best of the Bard.”

Incorporating the approaches and goals of Constructivist methods makes sense in all literary classes but especially in Shakespeare.  We acknowledge the needs of students who must pass standardized exams, such as the Praxis II for certification or GRE for graduate school admission.  For this reason, teachers have to cover some content. “Covering” Shakespeare is impossible, however.  Shakespeare teachers have the daunting task of selecting only a few of the thirty-seven plays that comprise Shakespeare.  Any decision they make about the reading selections has important omissions, a “great tragedy,” an early comedy, a late romance, a “problem play,” etc.  If they decide to review the critical history of any one play, they have over four hundred years of reviews, reactions, interpretations, and overviews to summarize.

We detail here an introductory college Shakespeare survey that incorporates Constructivist methods.  Our purpose is not to suggest that this organization is how to do it but instead to argue that Constructivist methods can work in literature courses, even for those instructors who feel that they must prepare their students for standardized exams.   The class we detail here comes in two parts, Shakespeare 1 and what we call Shakespeare 1.5.  Having two titles for one course we hope signals to the students that they are in for something different.

Shakespeare I focuses on three genres, tragedy, comedy, and history plays. The English Department at our institution has two Shakespeare courses:  one that focuses on Shakespeare’s “development,” from the early plays to the “great” plays of his mid career; the second on the next part of his career.  It requires only the first course of all majors, so those students who choose not to use Shakespeare II as an upper-level elective will not study Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear for example, plays that many education students may teach in high school.  Using the principles of Constructivism becomes even more crucial:  students who can understand the plays in any given course should be able to understand any play they see or play they teach.

The first part of the course concentrates on the terms, especially character types and plot formulas, conceptions, critical questions, cultural and theatrical background, that students need to know to interpret the plays on their own.  Much of what students learn in this part is the type of “stuff” they need for exams, but it is also key to Constructivism. Studying representative plays of the three genres builds what Wiggins and McTighe a “repertoire of skill and knowledge” students need to understand drama.  They quote from How We Think by John Dewey: “To grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or functions, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to.” (38) In literary studies this repertoire students need to recognize and understand what Wiggins and McTighe call patterns is what too many English teachers dismiss as structuralism, old fashioned, tired, and flawed, yet in practical terms for introductory classes, combining elements of structuralism and Constructivism actually can provide students the “skill and knowledge” to understand.

Students begin by reading Titus Andronicus.  Colleagues have aggressively questioned its inclusion—even after admitting that they have neither read the play nor seen a performance.  They “just know” it is “bad,” so much so that they often repeat the idea that Shakespeare could not have written it.  Somewhere in their academic career, some teacher told them that it was “bad,” and ever since they repeat critical evaluations based on nothing more than that. A play like Titus Andronicus points to a positive consequence of designing courses with the principles of Constructivism:  it asks teachers to examine and reexamine works with different measures, to understand them in what will be new ways.

Titus works well for the course.  It has two interesting villains, with moments in which they might seem to some readers sympathetic and other moments horrifically evil.  Aaron allows the class to consider the stage character “Machiavel.” He and Tamora are tricksters, and their plots against Titus and his family exemplify to students the “tragic trickster story.”  The appalling violence especially the brutal and upsetting rape and mutilation of Lavinia epitomizes the “virtue distressed” plot.  The title character himself poses interesting interpretative issues for readers.  Is he a tragic hero based on the definition they learn for the class? Or if not every tragic character is a tragic hero, is he merely a tragic character, yet another victim of the virtue distressed plot?  The play also has all the elements of revenge tragedy, so reading Titus prepares students to understand and to recognize other revenge tragedies, such as Hamlet.  If the play is not a revenge tragedy, how does it depict “tragic sensibility?”  Or “tragic conflict?”  “Blood tragedy?”

While colleagues may criticize the choice of a play they “know” to be a failure or a mess or not a tragedy but a parody of a tragedy, for a teacher looking for plays to introduce Constructivist questions for tragedies, Titus is worthwhile, appropriate, efficient, and problematic and complex in ways that allow teachers and students to explore and establish questions that foster understanding tragedy, tragic characters, issues, and conflicts.

Our main point is not to recommend including Titus Andronicus.  Teachers who want to structure classes with Constructivism in mind should take new or closer looks at all the plays in that thick anthology.  Those reexaminations might find works long overlooked, neglected, or dismissed, works that might not impress one’s colleagues but will help students come to understand in significant, meaningful ways.  One will find that most students in an introductory class do not know that a play is bad until a teacher tells them so.

The students also read a comedy and a history play for the same reason.  Students read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The First Part of Henry IV.   Examining comedy they consider how different trickster stories are in comedies, comic sensibility, the redemptive hero, the comic hero, farce, and wordplay.  Yet by offering the issues here we do not wish to imply that this list is the list.  The items we mention here are the terms, ideas, tools that we feel students should have to understand all of the plays of Shakespeare, not only the plays we read and study.  The examination focuses on their “repertoire of skill and knowledge.”

After the students take the only examination of the semester, Shakespeare 1 ends and Shakespeare 1.5 begins.  Students read four plays, two tragedies and two comedies, yet the class changes, for Shakespeare 1.5 encourages the students to pose the interpretative questions by finding the big ideas in the plays.  Instead of settling on one right interpretation, the class determines how many interpretations are possible and of those how many are valid by considering all the ideas they learn in the first part of the course.  In Romeo and Juliet, for example, students ask if this very famous play has a “tragic hero,” that is, is Juliet a “tragic hero?”  Is Romeo?  Some students have wondered if the tragedy isn’t the good Friar’s tragedy for not being able to make things right despite some careful planning.  Asking students to consider who if anyone is to blame for the tragedy fuels interesting and worthwhile discussion about bad luck, Tybalt’s anger, or Mercutio’s.  They consider how the play is a comedy until those two boys fight and die in the streets, changing the tone for good no matter what Friar Laurence is able to do.  In Much Ado about Nothing students are quick to find plots and characters more likely from tragedies than from a comedy about young people in love:  Don John and Borachio whose schemes cause some serious if albeit temporary harm for our two lovers.  Claudio poses interpretative issues:  can a play end happily if an audience does not like a character that wins a happy ending?  And how can a character the audience does not like for much of the play earn a happy ending?  What interpretations help to make the happy ending make sense to most audiences?

The plays in Shakespeare 1.5 then should seem to the students as complex but not difficult.  They are complex because they allow for different and at times contradictory reactions to and interpretations of characters, plots, and tones.  The best consequence is of this approach to Shakespeare is the genuine and instructive debate as the students offer then question each other’s opinions.

Shakespeare 1.5 then cannot be what students call a “regular English course,” and so exams and traditional essays do not seem appropriate. Constructivism attempts to “craft assessments to evoke transferability:  finding out if students can take their learning and use it wisely, flexibly, creatively” (Wiggins, 48).  To that end, the students write two essays.  The first essay due soon after the exam requires students to discuss at least two or three of the “terms” from the exam and then use those to design a costume for a character that might help an audience see the character in the way that the students interpret it.  In other words, how might one dress Romeo if the audience is to see him as a melancholy tragic hero, faced with a tragic conflict?  Many of the students are anxious initially, quick to explain that they have never had to “do” a paper like “that” before.  Making clear to some that there are no right answers further troubles them instead of easing those concerns; the students with the highest grade point averages are usually the ones who worry the most, as they are comfortable understanding an assignment and turning in just what the teacher wants.

In keeping with the goals of Constructivism, the costume design assignment corresponds well to the concept of constructivist teaching that Brooks and Brooks articulate in In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms:  “Constructivist teachers often offer academic problems that challenge students to grapple first with the big ideas and to discern for themselves” (ix).  Students have to determine how they interpret the character, a process that requires that they consider all their options of interpreting characters.  Because the assignment is not what English majors are comfortable with—character analysis, explications, etc—it demands students imagine their characters on stage.  That process requires a type of reflection and understanding that treating the plays as long narrative poems cannot engender.  In this way it requires that student display the ability as Wiggins and McTighe call for, “’extract’ understandings and apply them in situated problems, in performance—something quite different from merely seeing if they can recall and plug in the underlying principles the teacher or textbook gave them” (49).  In short, the assignment asks the students to show that they understand.

The second assignment asks students to “direct” a moment from one of the last plays.  It builds on the first assignment in that it requires that the students to consider the implications of interpretive choices. Constructivism demands what students call a “tough” assignment; as Wiggins and McTighe say, “Understanding thus involves meeting a challenge for thought” (38). Depicting a character as melancholy early in the play has an impact on how most audiences members most likely will react later to that character, other characters, moments later in the play, and conclusions.  Even though the assignment addresses a line or two of dialogue, it requires the students to appreciate how moments work to create character and conflict.  This assignment requires that the students find what the class will call a “crux,” a line of dialogue or moment of gesture that requires a “direction” or interpretation.  It demands that students demonstrate that they can determine then “render” the importance of moments that are essential to the overall tone of a play.  It demands that the students read the play in a different way that measures if they understand the concepts of the class.  These essays require the students to extract and apply in Wiggins and McTighe call  “maximal transferability—the effective use of stuff, not merely the learning of stuff” (293).  We acknowledge that the better assessment may be to have the students direct a moment from a play they do not read in class, an idea under consideration, yet the current assignment works well as the students determine the essential questions of each play together then transfer that understanding to their own interpretative direction essays.  With so many “cruxes” in every play, the students still have to demonstrate “maximal transferability.”  Devoting four classes to any play cannot “cover” it, and so assigning a play that the class studies underscores that.

One rewarding benefit from using Constructivism in Shakespeare courses is having to grade those final essays—at least for teachers who sincerely remain curious about the plays.  Students offer fascinating, clever, and often striking insights into plays that too many teachers feel that they know.  The moments that students find key in plays 3500 lines long reveal more about the plays than having students pass exams.  A class has gone well we believe if one stops grading and starts reading essays.  That sounds self-serving and it might be.  Nonetheless, having students understand Shakespeare so they can write worthwhile essays is an outcome we hope is obvious.

In conclusion, we might offer a number of reactions from students, but the one that we feel best exemplifies the success of using Constructivism in introductory Shakespeare classes, a phrase that might have served well as our title, is a common reaction from students at the end of a semester:  “Othello is easy.”  Othello is not easy; it is by many measures a very complex play, with any number of interpretations for its title character and for its villain.  Confidence about one’s ability to read any Shakespeare play with understanding makes Othello seem easy.  One of the goals of any Shakespeare class is that the plays of Shakespeare do not “belong” to anyone—not to a teacher, not to a scholar, not to a director.  In that way, using Constructivism works, and it works well.


Brooks, G. and Brooks, M. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The Case of the Constructivist Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), ix.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.