Using Pandemic Shakespeare in the Classroom

How to Teach with Pandemic Shakespeare

Thank you for your interest in teaching with Pandemic Shakespeare. What we offer below are some suggestions for using the website with your students. Please feel free to adapt the website to serve your teaching and student needs. We welcome creative uses of the site, and we welcome comments about how you’ve adapted it at

Timeframe for instruction: 2-3 weeks

    1. (prior to discussing the play) Establish terms:

    Pandemic Shakespeare begins from the premise that our race, gender, and other group identities fundamentally structure our lived experiences. We recommend beginning discussion with some broad questions about pandemics and various student identities. Begin with written responses, using those as a springboard to class discussion.

    Ask students to describe how they understand the following terms:


      - Then, have them list three ways the pandemic has affected them or someone they know.
      - Next, have them translate that into more general trends, e.g. family member loses job [specific idea] vs families are financially affected [general idea; up the abstraction ladder]
      - Small group discussion: make a list of your group’s opinions on the pandemic, e.g. “More men than women are affected by the pandemic.”
      - Here are some additional questions/activities that can be used to develop this conversation, graciously prepared by our collaborator Dr. Tanya Zhelezcheva.


      - Ask students to select some of the following words and write about what comes to mind with those terms. To center race, make writing about that term required.
  • Race * Sexual Orientation * Employment*Class * Physical Ability *Geographic Region
  • Education * Housing * Religion * Language * Neighborhoods * Gender
  • Nation of Origin * Families’ Languages of Origin * Handedness

- Next, have students list three ways the social experience of their race [or whatever term they/you want to interrogate] has affected them.
- In small groups or partners, use “Serial Testimony,” to discuss their answers. This is a disciplined mode in which each participant gets to respond in turn, uninterrupted, for one minute, timed. A timer is essential to keeping the sharing equitable for the three rounds:

Round one: What are one or more ways in which you’ve had unearned disadvantage in your life?

Round two: What are one or more ways in which you’ve had unearned advantage in your life?

Round three: What is it like for you to sit here and talk about and hear about these experiences of unearned advantage and disadvantage?

    2. Introduce the Play

      Not obviously about plagues, but...

    Shakespeare’s plays are not obviously about plagues, but they recruit themes and language of the plague. For example, The Winter's Tale uses the language of invisible illness. The remarkable suddenness of Leontes’ jealousy suggests that life-altering illnesses of all stripes --medical diseases, personal turmoil, social calamity-- can be lying latent, just under the surface, waiting for the right circumstances to erupt. While Leontes’s “diseased opinion” is not a literal sickness, it results in multiple deaths and life-long aftereffects suffered by all of the plays’ characters.

      Vectors of race, class, gender discrimination...

    The play lays before us how the vectors of race, class, and gender discrimination make possible and exacerbate the devastating effects of Leontes’ poisonous jealousy. References to whiteness, maternity and paternity, bearing and breeding, and racial purity run throughout.

      Raced, gendered, and classist language

    Overt Language: e.g. King Leontes’ rage about the possible illegitimacy of his children.

    Metaphorical Language: e.g. Perdita and Polixenes’ debate on the merits of grafting wildflowers with cultivated stock

    Language of Ideal Female Beauty and Whiteness: exemplified in the language of the sonnet tradition that describes flawless female complexions as the white stone alabaster. The statue’s skin color is described as painted on, and there’s worry it might rub off to reveal a differently colored stone beneath. Specific performances that switch up the expected genders of the actors, or with color-blind or color-conscious casting can highlight existing language and plot developments or tease out new implications.

    Language From Existing Stories: some gendered and racialized language comes from rewriting well-known tales: babies and children protected by animals or animal skins or the Snow White/Sleeping Beauty motifs in fairy tales, the Moses story of the foundling with a unique ethnic heritage and wondrous fate. The final statue scene overwrites Ovid’s myth of the sculptor Pygmalion who, rejecting all living women as imperfect, fashions for himself his ideal girl out of ivory.

      A fourth vector of environmental abuse

    A female statue fashioned from stone or bone reminds us that a fourth vector is environmental abuse. “Nature” is connected to bodies marked as female, and we see the natural world caught up in binary categories like good or evil, malleable or unbending, fertile or destructive.

      It all seems so hopeless… how can we make a change?

    Yes, we chose these plays because we think they critique discriminatory structures baked into English society over four hundred years ago. We chose King Lear because it doesn't let us look away from the moral ugliness that happens during crisis, and it racks us on that wheel of fire right to the tragic close. We also chose The Winter’s Tale because it is ultimately hopeful. The Winter’s Tale begins in tragedy and ends with the strong possibility of redemption for both old and young generations. We hope that by identifying problematic language and social structures that have been baking for well over four hundred years can make our readers attuned to their presence now. Can the radical act of annotation inform participants’ creative and critical thinking for making headway in national and global issues of healthcare injustice, socioeconomic inequality, racial and gender discrimination, and beyond?

    3. Annotate The Winter’s Tale using Pandemic Shakespeare

    We encourage you and your students to read the guidelines here here here and here on how to annotate the play using Pandemic Shakespeare. We recommend at least two separate occasions for interacting with the site. First, allow students to familiarize themselves with the site’s format and experiment with their annotations. Then, form small conversation groups that allow students to engage in a discussion together about specific passages. We also encourage you to work with other schools in diverse areas of the country or internationally to coordinate a third round of virtual group discussion. Suggested guidelines for curating online discussion among groups is here.

    Two features of interest to instructors in facilitating group discussion are the comment Reply and the Keyword Tag.

    The comment Reply feature allows a student or group of students to lead a conversation around a particular word, line, or group of lines. We use this feature in our teaching to create groups whose members respond to each other’s questions or comments.

    Example screenshot of keyword feature

    Having each member in a group post their response with a unique identifier using the Keyword Tag feature can help group members and the instructor locate each other and join conversations. The Keyword Tag feature allows readers to select passages that relate directly to the key interests of this site, namely how readers’ experiences of and reactions to the pandemic are colored by their various identities. To that end, we have prepopulated the keyword tag Categories of Interpretation: PANDEMIC, RACE, GENDER, CLASS, RELIGION, SEXUALITY. But readers are free to tag their annotations with any number of words they think will be of interest to others in locating the comments.

    Example screenshot of keyword feature

    We encourage readers to think broadly about how they understand “pandemic” and to identify all parallels they see as relevant to their experiences of daily living during the global COVID-19 pandemic. These may include:

      - abuses of power by [rich] white men and the bootlickers who support them
      - instances of racist and/or misogynist social structures that discredit the testimonies of victims
      - marginalized voices that speak up for justice
      - child victims, some forcibly removed from their parents, some left stateless, some who are left to die
      - trickster figures who exploit the goodwill of others
      - fake news, fake news as entertainment, and disinformation campaigns
      - alternatives to heteronormative husband-wife relationships
      - Maternal, paternal, spousal loss and sorrow
      - Memorials and their roles; the removal of controversial white male statues and their replacements
      - Urban vs. pastoral spaces, exploitation and/or glorification of “nature”

    4. Follow up Assignment:

    Students may write a reflection paper using ideas developed during individual annotation, comments + replies, group discussion, or in response to the topics at the end of this annotation assignments page.

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