English Language Arts, Reading Literature
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
High School
  • Assessment
  • Elizabethan Era
  • Grade 11 ELA
  • Morality
  • Narratives
  • Shakespeare
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

    Rules For Comedy

    Rules For Comedy


    In this lesson, students will see if humor can transcend time and if their general rules for comedy can still apply to Shakespeare. They will also become familiar with some of Shakespeare’s insults and compliments and investigate the humor in them. Finally, they will study iambic pentameter and read a Shakespearean sonnet.


    • Read the lesson and student content.
    • Anticipate student difficulties and identify the differentiation options you will choose for working with your students.
    • Read through the lists of Shakespeare’s insults and compliments to familiarize yourself with them.
    • Read through Sonnet 130 and familiarize yourself with it.

    Comedy Routine Review

    • This Quick Write can be a formative assessment and help you to determine which students need more support.


    Share your homework about your favorite comedy moment with your classmates.

    Then complete a Quick Write in response to the following questions.

    • Do you notice any similarities between what you find funny and what your classmates find funny?
    • Which elements of humor are most popular in your class?
    • Why do you think this is?

    Open Notebook

    Shakespearean Insults

    • Distribute the lists. Have the class split into two groups. Put them in two circles, one inside the other. The outside circle will rotate and face in, while the inside circle will stand still and face out. With a full rotation, everyone in the outer circle will get to greet everyone in the inner circle. As they move, they need to stop at each person and take turns “insulting” each other using Shakespeare’s insults.
    • This activity can be difficult for students with low self-esteem. Reframe the activity so that the students are insulting an agreed-upon third party target, like a rival high school or a comic book villain or even a stuffed animal. Remember that students may act tough and still feel hurt inside, particularly by insulting terms that have a sexual connotation, like “codpiece,” or refer to body issues, like “paunchy.”
    • You know your class best—do what you need to in order to limit students to only Shakespearean insults during this part of the exercise.
      • SWD: If you have students who may be overwhelmed by doing this activity with the whole class, consider breaking them into smaller groups or pairs. They can also work together to come up with compliments and insults directed at a familiar fictional character.

    Work Time

    Take a look at the list of Shakespeare’s insults and compliments. Note that each group of words is divided into three columns.

    Choose one word from each column to make a three-word insult or compliment that you will say to the people you meet. Your teacher will organize you into two circles for this exercise.

    To get you started, here are a couple of possibilities.

    • “You rank, puking codpiece!”
    • “You’re a paunchy, artless lout!”

    Shakespearean Compliments

    • When students have finished the insults, have them do the same thing with the list of compliments. This time, the outer circle students will stay still and the inner circle students will rotate.

    Work Time

    Now go around the circle giving compliments to each other in the same manner as you did the insults. By taking one word from each column, you will be able to create three-word Shakespearean compliments.

    Here are some possible compliments.

    • “You are a bonny, brisky madonna!”
    • “My courtly, enchanted lambkin!”

    Insult and Compliment Analysis

    • Project or display the Humor Top 10 list.
    • Circulate through the room, visiting each of the groups and listening to their discussions.
    • If you choose, this is a good time to discuss some of the meanings of the more unfamiliar insults.
    • ELL: As there is little context here to help students figure out meaning, you can provide dictionaries for students to find definitions to share with the class to practice reference skills. If some of the words have multiple meanings, discuss with students how to interpret which meaning is probably intended, given the context of an insult or compliment.
    • During the group sharing, make a point of calling on at least one person from each group.
    • Probe students to comment on the third and fourth bullet points: do we really have to completely understand every word to understand the underlying meaning? How did this task add to your understanding of Shakespeare?
    • SWD: For students for whom this activity was challenging, you can help them to differentiate what they heard by asking them to describe how the insults and compliments were different. Was one more humorous than the other, or were they were the same?

    Work Time

    In a small group, discuss the following questions.

    After listening to the responses of your group, jot down brief answers.

    • Did you find this funny? Why or why not?
    • Can you connect this exercise to your Humor Top 10 list?
    • Do we really have to completely understand every word to understand the underlying meanings and humor?
    • How did this task add to your understanding of Shakespeare?

    Open Notebook

    When everyone’s ready, share your responses with the class.

    An Introduction to Iambic Pentameter

    • Begin a conversation with your students about iambic pentameter. Begin by deconstructing the term: start with the meter. Explain that penta- means five, and that indicates that there will be five patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables per line.
    • ELL: “Meter” is a word with several different meanings. Provide instruction in which meaning to use in this context, and identify the context clues that students can use in this specific context.
    • You may also wish to include “dimeter,” “trimeter,” “tetrameter,” and so on.
    • Explain how spelling in English is highly irregular and what matters is the stress patterns of words. Use words that have the same sounds per syllable but that are different because of the stress patterns, like “dessert” and “desert.”
    • ELL: Note that some words change their meter depending upon how they are used, even when spelled the same way. For instance, the word “rebel” is pronounced one way when it is a noun and another way when it is a verb. The same is true for “object.”
    • Some languages, such as Spanish, use accent symbols to indicate stressed syllables. Ask students to identify any way of using stressed and unstressed syllables that they know from their own experience.

    Work Time

    Shakespeare wrote in a specific pattern called “iambic pentameter.” This was a format that determined not only the number of syllables in each of his lines of poetry but also the stressed and unstressed patterns within them.

    Stressed and unstressed syllables are critically important in spoken English; they often determine what the word means.

    For example, if you ignore spelling, what is the difference between the words “dessert” and “desert”?

    The difference is based on which syllable is stressed and which one is unstressed.

    Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

    • Have students work in pairs to see if they can hear the differences. One way that is usually successful is to have them say their partner’s name in the opposite stress pattern from which it is usually said.
    • Some students might be sensitive about having their names pronounced differently, especially if stressing one syllable creates opportunities for teasing. In this case, students can use public figures’ names.
      • ELL:  This can be a great exercise for reinforcing correct English pronunciation and letting ELLs experiment safely with the difference between a correctly stressed word and an incorrectly stressed one. You can also invite them to share whether there is a similar importance placed on syllable emphasis in their primary language.

    Work Time

    Take a look at the list of stressed and unstressed words. With a partner, do the following.

    • Read the words on this list aloud and indicate which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed. See if you can hear this clearly as you both repeat the words.
    • Try saying your own names with the stressed and unstressed patterns reversed. What do they sound like?

    Metrical Feet

    • Explain the five basic patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables as found in poetry: iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, and spondee. Each one is a type of metrical foot (plural metrical feet).
    • Provide a concrete example of each type of metrical foot—for example, iamb: desSERT; trochee: PUMPkin; dactyl: HAMburger; anapest: underSTAND; spondee: YO-YO.
      • ELL: “Foot” is another word with multiple meanings. Discuss the uses of the word “foot” and what it means in this context. What are the clues that students can use to determine what “foot” means in this context?
    • Explain that Shakespeare used iambic pentameter—that, is the repeated pattern of unstressed and stressed, five times in a row.
      • SWD: If you have students who may have trouble focusing on both the meanings of words and the stress patterns, you can have them identify a word that is an example of an iambic foot, for example, “dessert,” and ask them to repeat it five times to practice the rhythm of iambic pentameter. Add a word, such as “delight,” for variety, and create a five-foot line: “dessert delight dessert delight dessert.”

    Work Time

    Now that you can hear the difference between the stressed and unstressed syllables, you need to know that each of these patterns has a specific name. These patterns are called “metrical feet.”

    There are five metrical feet that you will need to know.

    • iamb
    • trochee
    • dactyl
    • anapest
    • spondee

    So, an iamb is a type ofmetrical foot .

    Sonnet 130

    • Explain how, instead of names, Shakespeare’s sonnets are referred to by number, from 1 to 154.
    • You can have students work individually or in pairs to see if they can find the iambic pentameter in the sonnet.
    • Remind students that they can annotate unfamiliar words or phrases with questions, comments, or notes to come back to later.


    Now take a look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Shakespeare’s sonnets do not have traditional names; their “names” are simply numbers. He wrote 154 sonnets. Each one is referred to by a number.

    • Read through the sonnet and see if you can underline or highlight the stressed syllables in it.
    • It may help to read it quietly aloud by yourself or with a partner.

    Sonnet 130 Paraphrase

    • Depending on how familiar your class is with poetic language, consider reading the poem as a group before the end of the lesson.
    • Encourage students to read for as much meaning as possible.
      • ELL: You may need to provide additional support for these words and phrases: “dun,” meaning dull, muddy brown; “damasked,” meaning pinkish or light red; and “belied,” meaning falsely represented or lied about. Remind ELLs that even fluent modern English speakers need extra time to completely understand Elizabethan English.


    Now that you have found the iambic pentameter in Sonnet 130, read the poem carefully and see if you can understand what Shakespeare is saying.

    • Paraphrase the poem.

    Open Notebook

    You will submit your paraphrase during the next lesson.