Shake Things Up: Making Shakespeare fun again

Shake Things Up

I’m finally getting around to writing about some of the previous projects I have designed and delivered this year. Term One of Year 9 2016 saw my team teacher, Shamaine Jacobs, and I teach a stand-alone English project about The Merchant of Venice for the first time. Based on the advice of our Head of Department, Stephen Henriques, we made the big decision to change our Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet to the The Merchant of Venice: a play filled with plot twists, prejudice, mercy, appearance versus reality and revenge.

We adapted our program to the requirements of this new text and tried to come up with fun and engaging tasks that required active learning, deeper thinking and a high level of creativity and teamwork. One of the first steps in designing a new project is coming up with a ‘driving question’.

According to the New Tech Network, “The core question students are answering during the project. Well-crafted driving questions are open ended and allow for a variety of answers.” (NTN, 2012).

Our driving question for this new project, Shake Things up, was:

Driving Question: Why is it that Shakespeare continues to be relevant to a contemporary audience?

Entry Event:

We wanted students to understand how a play that was originally written and performed hundreds of years ago still relates to life today. Generally, I think this is one of the key reasons why young students immediately become disengaged with Shakespeare’s plays and language- apparently it is ‘all too old and all too difficult’. Our aim was to turn this perception around and give students insight into the universality of the ideas and themes of Shakespeare’s play. We wanted to equip students with the skills to read, comprehend and interpret a challenging text, synthesise the information they had learnt and then apply it to a new context.

So, what was the project?

Project Description

Students have been studying William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Students have been examining the play whilst becoming aware of the timeless nature of Shakespeare’s works.

Students use this knowledge to create an appropriation of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in a relevant context. These appropriations must maintain the same themes, ideas and concepts as the original Shakespearean play but the context, setting and characters may be changed to suit a new time period. For their formative task students must individually create a theatre poster advertising this appropriation as well as a 300 word directorial vision- essentially a summary of how they plan on appropriating their scene while maintaining the integrity of Shakespeare’s ideas.

For their summative task, students will collaborate with their groups to create an engaging presentation that includes visual and critical elements. Each group will present a thorough overview of their proposed appropriation including:

  • Script
  • Costumes
  • Props
  • Music and sound effects
  • Stage and set design

Formative Task Assessment

Part One
Students work individually to develop a theatre poster advertising an appropriated scene from the play. This advertisement should showcase an understanding of visual literacy and advertisement techniques. The poster should be submitted with a brief statement of Directorial Vision.

Students are to showcase this within a ‘pick-up flyer’ format. The pick-up flyer must include:

  • Persuasive techniques
  • Engaging/relevant visuals

Part Two
Statement of Directorial Vision (300 words)

Student samples:
Student One
Theatre Poster


Directorial Vision

Act One, Scene One plays a vast role in the understanding of the characters of Antonio and Portia, as well as the current situation of the play. Beginning in the play, Antonio, a hard-working merchant is struck with unexplainable melancholy, he is clueless as to why he is sad. Solanio and Salarino, his two partners at work, instead of trying to cheer him up, suggest reasons as to why he might be depressed. After being unable to identify the causes of Antonio’s sadness, Lorenzo, Gratiano, and Bassanio arrive to talk to Antonio, which causes Solanio and Salarino to leave. Bassanio, being Antonio’s best friend, asks Antonio to do him a favour, which is to help Bassanio find some money so  that he can use to win Portia’s heart in Belmont. Antonio asks Bassanio to roam Venice and try to raise money using Antonio’s good name.

The context that this will be appropriated to is the modern context, in which the characters, events and setting will be suited to more modern situations. The characters become Anthony, Bass In this appropriation, the story starts with Anthony in distress, while he does run a very successful company, he is becoming more and more depressed inside, and he does not know why. This type of depression and sadness, is referred to as Melancholy. His two workmates, Solly and Sally, try their best to understand why he is sad, so they take him out to dinner. They question him constantly, asking about if the cause is from the business, offering him some time off, although he denies that work is not the reason. They continue to question, until they bring up the topic of love, which was plausible, since Anthony was a single man. Although, they are interrupted by a phone call, it was Bass, who wanted to come with Gratty and Lorenzo to visit Anthony. When they had arrived, Bass wanted to actually ask Anthony for a loan so he could travel to Spain to meet a girl, by the name of Portrice, who he’s been dating online for quite some time now. Anthony recommended to Bass that he should go around Los Angeles and try to raise some money, in the name of the company that Anthony works for.

The costumes that will be used in these scenes are black and white suits with ties. All characters, since they all work for the same company and in the same industry in this appropriation. The main theme that is to be displayed to the audience is emotions. Emotions are quite complex when it comes to acting, so making sure that the emotions of each character is well portrayed by each actor.

Student Two
Theatre Poster
Directorial Vision
Act 2 Scene 2
The scene I will be basing my directorial vision on is Act 2 Scene 2, but only Lancelot’s soliloquy. This scene is about Lancelot contemplating on whether or not he should leave his master the Jew or stay with him and live the life he doesn’t want to. This scene is basically Lancelot thinking to himself with his conscience and the ‘devil’. In my reenactment of this scene I would modernise Lancelot’s name to Chris, his master the Jew would in be embodied as his adoptive parents, and his conscience will be fighting with what he reads on the Internet and helpline sites (the devil).My appropriation of this scene would be like this, A boy named Chris aged around 16 has been researching on the Internet about stories of adopted children and visiting helpline sites for foster kids (which he had once been). Chris had never felt like he belonged with this family, he had heartbreaking memories of his parents giving him up and he knew he was adopted at the age of 3. He begins to feel like he should leave his adoptive parents for a better life on his own in search of his birth parents but his conscience is telling him ‘No you have a good life here, you have everything you need, your parents give priority to you and all their life is devoted to you, just imagine how you would feel if you lost the devotion of your life. This contemplation would be challenged by the information he is finding on the Internet saying to leave, get a better life, why should you care about someone who basically just ‘bought you’. After thinking about it and being anxious he decides to fall for the internets (hypothetical Devil) advice and leave his parents in search to find himself and who he really is.This scene will take place in a regular bedroom that gets dim. Everything around him will continue as per usual such as sounds of cooking etc while Chris becomes motionless, then a spotlight will shine on him. He will clearly be emotionally distraught and stressed with a lot of anxiety because he will be on the side of his bed with his hands through his hair with his head down. Slow depressing music will slowly begin to play getting louder gradually but stopping to be able to hear his thoughts. This should make the audience understand the emotions, the anguish and the thought process Chris is going through.

Summative Task Assessment

Students are to work in groups to create a presentation of their Directorial Vision featuring an appropriation of ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The time frame for the presentation is 3-4 minutes.
Students are required to work within the following group roles:

  • Compose a detailed script for the appropriated scene
  • Source and utilise music/sound effects
  • Research, design and create appropriate costume choices
  • Depict a unique set design including considerations of props and layout

These elements will be compiled in a group Portfolio to be handed up after the class presentation.

Student Samples

Stage Design






Common themes and ideas






Music and Sound Effects






Stage and Set Design



Student Reflections

As teachers we sometimes become so blinded by our perception of the apparent success of a task, assessment or unit that we forget to ask how our students felt about the project and what they would change for next time. As mentioned in previous blog posts I think it is absolutely essential to listen to the voices of our students and make changes accordingly- after all, they are the ones who have to complete the tasks, assessments and units we design. Their opinions are an invaluable source of feedback and constructive criticism. Therefore, I often ask students to complete a reflection task at the end of each project to gauge their thoughts and how they think the project could be improved for future years. You can read some of these reflections below.

Post One
When this project began I didn’t really have much of an idea into who William Shakespeare was or why he is relevant in our society today. However, through analysing the play, the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare I was able to appreciate Shakespeare’s work far more and know the significance of Shakespeare in our society. I believe that our group worked well as a team and were able to create an end product that was satisfying. Although there were some aspects that we could have improved, for example our costuming and the presenting of our directorial vision. However, there were some satisfying parts in our project. I believe that our script was perfect and matched our directorial vision seamlessly. This project was quite enjoyable as I was able to learn about a different style of writing and read a very enjoyable play.-Jarred-Post Two
When the “Shake Things Up” project was first launched, I didn’t have a clear idea of who Shakespeare was or why his famous works were still studied today. It was a completely new experience that we needed to adapt to in a progressive manner. Us students desperately attempted to grasp the basics of “Shakespearean” language to consolidate our knowledge about the context of The Merchant of Venice, but came to no avail as such technical terms could not be clear enough.My personal role in the end product was to write the script based on our appropriation. I ensured that the dialogue melded with our appropriation. It has been formatted correctly to ensure that the audience and readers can easily read along. What I could’ve improved on was to decrease the amount of dialogue I included. I think that quantity prevailed over quality this time round and I should’ve considered the quality of the dialogue I included. So this is something I’d definitely change.

I learnt that Shakespeare exposed many major themes that still exist in today’s society, especially themes like prejudice, mercy and appearance vs. reality. Shakespeare wrote many famous plays including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest as well as the Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare wrote during the 16th and early 17th century and is still remembered as a famous playwright 400 years on.


Post Three
In the beginning of this project, I didn’t have much of an idea on who William Shakespeare was or why he is still relevant in today’s society. For the formative task we had to create a directorial vision and a poster to advertise our appropriation of the play. In the summarize task we had to create a presentation on one part of the play that we were given. Our part of the play was Act 4 Scene 1. In thus task we also had to add a portfolio containing our directorial vision, stage design, draft script and the final copy of the script. The aspects that I think we did well was when we got allocated work and completed it at home. The part I think that we could improve would be if on our directorial vision, I say this because I think that we could of mad it better if we only came up with more ideas for it. Overall, I have learnt a lot about language techniques and about Shakespeare. This project was very beneficial for me in the end.


Post Four
During this term we learnt what Shakespeare is in today’s society. We learnt about his impact over the years and how he still teaches people today. Seeing and going through certain parts of Shakespeare’s life taught us a few things about how and why he created some of his poems was sort of interesting because it was for some unique reasons. I also enjoyed working together with my group and seeing how they work also learning about Shakespeare and his poems. We could’ve improved our final product by improving our time management since we sort of rushed it because we sort of all did it in one week but we still got it finished and submitted. I would change the way that we worked on the Summative by working together well and collaborating better so that we could’ve produced a better end product. To answer the driving question which is ‘Why is it that Shakespeare continues to be relevant to a contemporary audience?. Is by saying that he still communicates with students today through his poems and teaching them many things like writing techniques while writing poems which they can relate to.


Post Five
Throughout the first term during english, we conducted a project on Shakespeare’s, “The Merchant of Venice”. The aim of the project was to see why Shakespeare is still relevant today and how we can interpret his text and create an appropriation of our own. In the beginning stages of the project, we read through the Merchant of Venice before we analysed the text. For our formative task, we created a flyer that would advertise our appropriated scene. Things that I completed well with my poster was the idea behind as we had set it in a city. With this backdrop, I created a poster that had a silhouette of buildings and a man running with a briefcase. For our end product, we had to create a website that explained our modern interpretation. We had to include our stage design, a modern script, costuming and also music. I believe we as a group worked well to create a modern interpretation. We then delighted roles to each individual person and we all worked effectively to create a professional website.


Post Six
In this merchant of Venice play by the playwright William Shakespeare project we analysed the text. We learnt about the multiple minor and major themes portrayed within the book. Some minor themes were sadness, happiness, love and some major were revenge, mercy, prejudice. Many of these are shown continuous through out the book. We also learned about. Also during the project we had to do appropriate or the book by making it in a different era and different setting. For my part of the project I contributed by being in charge of costume design.


Post Seven
During the duration of this project we went into an in depth study of the Shakespearian play called “The Merchant of Venice.” Using the plays texts we had to answer questions by going in depth into questions specific to each act of the play, for example a main question would be whether or not a character named Shylock is the victim of persecution or the villain. We also learnt about major and minor themes within the play. Minor themes were those such as love, friendship, wealth and isolation. Major themes were Appearance Vs reality, mercy and revenge.As a final task we had to create a modern interpretation of the play. We ended up coming with the idea of using a masquerade ball with a pre-arranged marriage.

My task was to create the presentation with another member, and to also help create the stage design for which our play was going to be placed on if it were to actually be performed. One thing many people noticed about the play was that Shakespeare didn’t have a constant type of writing style, like he would write every word differently from the spelling vocabulary we use today.


Post Eight
Throughout this project we have learnt about the Shakespearean culture and the Venetian through the play ‘The Merchant of Venice’. We have had to appropriate scenes from the Merchant of Venice in our individual formative task and as a collaboration for our summative task in which we chose to appropriate Act 2 Scene 1-2 to a Masquerade ball. With this we had to include stage design, costume design, script, music and sound effects and overview. I would change the app on which we did the digital drawings as even though I completed the designs, I couldn’t access the app, so I caused inconvenience to one of my group members to trace my drawings on the iPad. I enjoyed the fact that we had a lot of choice and flexibility which allowed us to get high marks. I believe this project was educational and a success as we learnt many new things about Shakespeare and also a lot of new vocabulary.


Post Nine
At the start of this project, our task was to create an appropriation and to explain it covering the areas of stage design, costume design, script, music, props, sound effects and the overview of it. We had to look at the play, “ The Merchant of Venice” and for the formative task, we had to appropriate a scene the teacher assigned us. We were assigned Act 2 Scene 1-2, from there, we had to choose the best appropriation and then that appropriation was used for the summative task. I would have changed the app we did our digital drawings on and I would have chosen a better slide template which could have looked like the time period of Shakespeare where the borders could have looked like his scripts and the different costumes. I enjoyed that this project had a lot of flexibility letting us choose what we wanted to do our slides on. This was useful as we were able to get a comparison of what a message would have looked like back in Shakespeare’s time and now. This project was very enjoyable and educational. Our group learnt many new words after reading “ The Merchant of Venice” and got a better understanding of the themes Shakespeare used in many of his plays.


Teachers involved in this project:
Maddie Cleveringa
Shamaine Jacobs
Stephen Henriques

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