Mechanically Challenged

Despite the nauseating number of times I have read A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Mechanicals have always seemed sort of arbitrary to me.  I've always thought they were there to provide a cheap, guaranteed laugh to pull the audience in and punch up the enjoyment of Act 5. I mean, the main conflict (the who-marries-who stuff) has been resolved by the end of Act 4, so Act 5 itself has always seemed like a silly epilogue to me. They're just there for those people in the movie theater who sit through lengthy scrolls of credits after the film ends in the hopes of seeing an extra scene or silly outtakes the director has decided to throw in.

All of that changed when I got to meet a group of actors who were playing the roles of the Mechanicals in a local production!

I recently had the opportunity to observe a live rehearsal of Act 3 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as performed by the cast at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It was definitely the first time I had even gotten to see the intricacies of the acting process (as performed by professionals), and it was a marvelous experience.

The actors were just off-book, meaning they had read and memorized their lines, conducted table-reads, and had critical discussions about the motivations and traits of each of their characters. They were about two weeks into the rehearsal process. For those who don't eat, sleep, and breathe MidsummerAct 3 is when Bottom parades his donkey head around and Titania awakes to fall in love with him.

Watching the rehearsal was so entertaining, not just because the text is written to be such, but because the actors were grappling with the process at the same time. "At what moment should Bottom fully succumb to Titania's powers/beauty," one actor asked another. "I'd like Titania to seem more manic than actually attracted to Bottom, like she can't help herself and she doesn't even understand why," another actor would muse. "Oberon's anger toward Titania ultimately comes from jealousy. He's not jealous in the sense that he thinks she cheated on him. Rather, he's jealous that now Titania is giving her attention to a little changeling boy instead of to him." The level of characterization involved was drool-worthy, and I totally geeked out.

This was the day when The Mechanicals came to life for me. Suddenly, they were round characters with real fears, real dreams, and real goals. They were all blue collar workers who wanted more for themselves. They each had weaknesses and they all rallied to support one another. They were boldly going for something that no one expected them to be able to do. They all wanted to "take pains - be perfect" because they cared about being a part of something bigger than themselves. We can all relate to them and we can find them funny at the same time.

I chided myself a bit - after all, I am well aware that Shakespeare's clowns are never just clowns. In fact, they're often the most insightful, most brutally honest, and most cerebral characters. By dismissing them as fools purely in existence for comic relief, I was of course missing something greater.

I can't help but assume that our students miss out on these unique, delightful, supremely real characters as well. And while they may not uncover the characters' motivations as thoroughly as professional actors do, I think it's important not to write them off completely. It's certainly tempting to do so, since we as teachers never have enough time to teach everything we need to teach. Further, students can completely disregard The Mechanicals and still understand the plot of the play. But oh, what fun The Mechanicals are!

I made a quick, relatively simple, and highly engaging activity for my students to "get to know" The Mechanicals a little better. Introducing: Who Are The Mechanicals?: A Paperless Card Sort!
Card sorts are a great idea and a wonderful way for students to build new schema, but they're a pain in the butt to manage. Cutting the cards out creates a mess, as does the glue. There's always one kid who loses pieces, and another who glues it all down and then realizes it's all wrong. And if you run out of time, you'd better have envelopes or clips or bags prepared and labeled so your students don't lose all their work and end up frustrated! Let's go digital, folks. Save yourself some headaches.

My paperless card sort activity is designed to reacquaint your students with The Mechanicals so they can fully enjoy and understand the hilarity that ensues in Act 5. This activity challenges students to decide who each character is, what they might look like, the parts they will perform, and the motivation (or lack thereof) each character has for his role. Students simply drag and drop the correct "cards" onto the slide that matches each character. Check it out:

As an added bonus, there is a video activity attached to the end of the card sort for your "early finishers." They can view the video and then go back and check their work before they turn it in. This resource also includes an "instructions" sheet you can project, print, or use as a guide when you explain how this activity works to your students. Also included is an answer key, which makes grading a snap!

Visit my TpT Store for this and other great resources designed to clarify, amplify, and add joy to your Shakespeare unit!  If you do decide to purchase this resource, I'd love to know what you think of it and how I could perhaps improve it in the future. Feel free to leave comments below!

Thanks for reading!

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