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Teaching Eco-Shakespeare: Elizabeth Peterson

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Nov 11, 2021 at 04:42 PM in Articles of Interest

Today's blog presents the work of guest writer Elizabeth Peterson, a US-based playwright and educator. Peterson recently completed a Masters in Shakespeare & Education at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, during which she developed the educational worksheets on Shakespeare and environmental issues that she discusses here. Join us in thanking Elizabeth for sharing her brilliant pedagogical work!

“And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter… 
…the spring, the summer, 
the childing autumn, angry winter, change 
their wonted liveries that the mazed world,
 by their increase, now knows not which is which”.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.155-156, 160-163[1]

In these lines above from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania laments the changing weather. All four seasons are so far from their norm that they are unrecognizable to the surrounding world. Her lines perhaps reference the Little Ice Age that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were living through [2], a period of global cooling that Shakespeare’s audiences might have recognized in Titania’s descriptions of weather disruptions. 

Over the past six months, I have connected Titania’s “climate change speech” and its surrounding scene to contemporary environmental issues in a five-day curriculum for high school students. I built interdisciplinary lessons and accompanying worksheets that covered topics in both Environmental Science and theatre to help students find new perspectives in the intersection of the subjects. I worked on this project as part of my MA in Shakespeare & Education from the Shakespeare Institute and University of Birmingham, and the pursuit of interdisciplinary Shakespeare is something I hope to continue beyond my Master’s degree. I began with the core concept of how to teach environmentalism through Shakespeare, and as I was working, my project turned into a defense of interdisciplinary education. 

I worked with high school students to test two of the worksheets I developed, and in the article to follow I will discuss how I built these environmental Shakespeare worksheets and how they worked in practice. These worksheets were created to work in a high school science classroom with the help of a facilitator who has been trained to guide students through the interdisciplinary lesson.

I started with Act 2 Scene 1 from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and divided the text into five sections. I split the text so that each section had two speaking characters, and selected the breaks based on character entrances and exits. I spoke with Sandra Friedman, Environmental Science teacher at The Winchendon School in Winchendon, Massachusetts, and we collectively determined five topics that are essential to Environmental Science [3]. To complete my content for the worksheets, I paired each section of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 2 Scene 1 with a specific environmental science topic. I did not want larger sections because I wanted them to fit cleanly on a worksheet. 

A visual for how I formatted each worksheet appears below. 

Teaching Eco-Shakespeare: Elizabeth Peterson

The sheets begin with a title that clearly states the environmental science and the theatre topic that each worksheet will cover, in this case, “Biomes and Set Design”. Then I have provided the students with an introductory section in which they can begin to recall information and brainstorm ideas. The second interactive section is the Shakespeare-Specific part of the worksheet in which students are asked to read the Shakespearean text from the back of the worksheet out loud. 

After students read the designated part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the third section is an immersive activity. This is the section that is designed to help students with collaboration across subjects. One of the strongest benefits to interdisciplinary learning, particularly across English, Art, and Science, is that students can gain “fresh perspectives” [4] on each independent discipline by understanding how they work together. With the immersive activity of my worksheets, students have a unique opportunity to find a new way to apply environmental science to Shakespeare. In the “Biomes and Set Design” worksheet, students are instructed to research a particular biome and to use their research to inspire a set design for the attached scene section. This particular idea was inspired by Butterfly Theatre, a company that makes “innovative eco-theatre” [5] by putting on “site-responsive Shakespeare productions” [6] across the UK and Germany. The facilitator of my Eco-Shakespeare lessons will be able to use Butterfly Theatre’s production of Macbeth on location in Kents Cavern in Torquay as an example of production that takes place in an intentional natural environment [7]. 

The back of the worksheets has the Shakespeare content for each lesson. I cut the text to fit on each page, prioritizing nature-specific imagery and important plot points. For example, in Titania’s climate change speech I cut several references specific to early modern farming that today’s students would likely not understand, such as her reference to “The nine-men’s-morris… fill’d up with mud” [8]. Words that students might not recognize are defined opposite the text in a column to the right of the page. Each of the worksheets also has an A Midsummer Night’s Dream/science-themed border designed by a different artist. These borders are meant to inspire student creativity and to start an interdisciplinary visualization as soon as the students receive the worksheets. There is a photo and a short artist biography at the bottom of the back of each worksheet. 

These worksheets present scientific ideas through Shakespearean text. Students will gain an appreciation of how the environment can be understood through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and will ideally benefit from connections not present in a single-discipline study. Although the connection between Shakespeare and the environment is not new, using this connection is a new framework to apply to a high school classroom space. Through distinct scientific topics and a single scene divided into five parts, I provide students with a strong general understanding of environmental science topics as they gain skills in theatre and literature. 

This concept had success in practice when I was able to test two of my worksheets virtually in a high school Environmental Science class in May 2021. The first worksheet I tested was “Introduction and Identifying Problems”, pictured below, which helped frame this interdisciplinary study for the students. 

Teaching Eco-Shakespeare: Elizabeth Peterson

The worksheet begins in two parts, with an opening activity asking students to write down everything they know separately about Shakespeare and Environmental Science. Throughout the first worksheet, students began to find connections between Shakespeare and Environmental Science as they worked their way up to identifying problems in the environment and conflicts in the attached scene. They are asked to brainstorm solutions to both. In our class period, students  warmed up to Shakespeare’s language and the idea of connecting this dense text with the environmental context of their class. Although students responded positively to the first day’s activities and commented specifically that they liked the structure, the best evidence for students making interdisciplinary connections was in our second day of class with the “Flowers and Plants” worksheet. 

Through the worksheet on “Flowers and Plants,” pictured below, students demonstrated knowledge of all of the concepts involved and were able to create a new learning space in the intersection of theatre and environmental science. 

Teaching Eco-Shakespeare: Elizabeth Peterson


The interactive activity of the “Flowers and Plants” worksheet asks students to create a costume for Puck with the theme of biodiversity. These costume sketches and the corresponding reflections the students submitted were the most exciting part of my project for me; one student designed a costume for Puck out of the acorn-cups mentioned in the previous day’s worksheets and “helicopter” seeds of maple trees. Another student sketched an outfit for Puck made entirely of foliage. Both students used the environment from the corresponding part of the scene of Oberon and Puck and applied it to their costume design. Because of the worksheet formatting, the students were able to build up to inventing their own creations, finding connections across disciplines as they went. 

In Act 2 Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters speak with heightened attention to the interconnectivity of the environment, human beings, and their invented fairy world. The problems that Titania raises reflect real environmental challenges, but in the world outside of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we do not have fairies to blame for these disturbances; Shakespeare leaves the source of conflict in the human world unidentified. With an interdisciplinary lens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to examine the environmental world, students can begin to make real world connections for themselves. With my project, I have designed a way for students to connect Shakespeare and the Environment in interdisciplinary lessons that would fit in the current structure of single-discipline classes. I am hopeful that I will be able to continue this work by working with students who will be able to explore this creative space further and find new ways to understand the environment and the crises facing the environment through Shakespeare. 

For more information about my work and my contact information, you can check out my educational blog at www.epetersonwinch.wordpress.com. I have written extensively about interdisciplinary and experiential classes I have taught and student trips I have chaperoned while teaching at The Winchendon School in Winchendon, Massachusetts. When it is processed, my full dissertation will be available through the online archives at University of Birmingham. 

Works Cited

[1] Shakespeare,William,  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Sukanta Chaudhuri, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2021) 2.1.160-163.

[2] Brian M. Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. xvi. 

[3] Sandra Friedman, interview with E. R. Peterson, Zoom, 20 April, 2021.

[4] Amy Schwartzbach-Kang and Edward Kang, “CSI Verona: Science and Literature Combine”, Edutopia, 6 May 2019, accessed 1 July 2021.

[5] Butterfly Theatre, “Our Mission”, Butterfly Theatre, 2021, accessed 20 July 2021.

[6] EarthShakes Alliance, “Butterfly Theatre (UK): Tracy Irish and Aileen Gonsalves”, YouTube, 25 April 2021, accessed 10 August 2021.

[7] EarthShakes Alliance, “Butterfly Theatre (UK): Tracy Irish and Aileen Gonsalves”, YouTube.

[8] Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.98.

Nov 12, 2021 Arrow1 Down Reply
Jody Steere

Loved this, also enjoyed the artwork chosen for the pages!! Nice job!

Dec 15, 2021 Arrow1 Down Reply

@Jody Steere: Sorry for the delayed reply. I'm delighted to hear you enjoyed this blog about Elizabeth @peterson_erp's groundbreaking Shakespearian pedagogy. We feel very fortunate to have been able to feature it. It's a wonderful discovery tool for creating real-world interconnections with Shakespeare.

Mar 20, 2022 Arrow1 Down Reply
Marla Truini

What a brilliant way to engage students’ imaginations and to get them thinking about the environment in a new way. Your interdisciplinary approach builds skills of communication and collaboration along with academic knowledge-making. I believe there is great value in bringing theater practice into every classroom and your work is an inspiring example.

Mar 20, 2023 Arrow1 Down Reply

@Marla Truini: Sorry I missed your comments exactly a year ago today. I'm so glad you admire Elizabeth's work, and I hope you have perhaps found it useful in your own teaching. Thanks! RM