Playing with Puns

How wordplay reveals the soul and wit of literary and dramatic characterizations


Key Staff

This lesson can be taught by a regular class room teacher.

If needed, it would be helpful for a drama teacher or specialist to assist the students with voice projection, facial expression and gesture.

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques, Analyzing Assessing and Revising
Developing Arts Literacies: Comparing Styles
Creative Thinking: Communication and Collaboration


This lesson is one part of a four lesson unit on Shakespeare Stealer.

This theater and language arts lesson offers intellectual, creative and interpretive opportunities. Students will analyze and compare the puns and word play in selected scenes from the plays, The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary L. Blackwood and Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Students will then read scenes from each play in groups and interpret their meanings to prepare for a performance of the scene. The lesson culminates with students writing a short essay explaining how the playwrights used puns and word play to give their characters wit.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Interpret language used to create humor in the scene of a play
  • Compare playwrights Gary Blackwood and William Shakespeare and their use of puns to give characters wit
  • Analyze the puns and word play in a short scene
  • Present the scene to the class
  • Write a short essay, supporting the idea that both Blackwood and Shakespeare used puns in their plays to create witty characters

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Role Playing
  • Reflection
  • Cooperative Learning

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Internet Access
  • Video Camera
Technology Notes

If your equipment is battery operated have extra charged batteries on hand for audio or video taping the script reading.

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should have read the following:

  • Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood and be familiar with the word play within the story. Note: It helps to read some parts of the story out loud as this make the play on words a little more obvious.
  • The Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. If the complete text is not available in the classroom or the local library it can be found at:

Teachers should explore the following web sites:

The following sites offer free study guides of the Twelfth Night.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should have read Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood and be familiar with the word play within the story.

Note: It helps to read some parts of the story out loud as this make the play on words a little more obvious

Physical Space



  • Large Group Instruction
  • Individualized Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


If available, use tables or arrange desks to accommodate groups. Have some space cleared to make room for the script reading section of the lesson.

Accessibility Notes

This lesson has not been adapted to address any specific individual student needs.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


Having Fun with a Pun or Humor is Serious Business

1. Write the definition of a pun on the board. A pun is, 'a play on words of the same sound but different meanings or on different applications of a word, for a witty effect.'

2. Explain to the class that we use puns as a literary device because they are fun to hear and fun to say. Many people who have never read or seen Shakespeare’s plays know his famous phrases. Shakespeare used this form of humor to convey meaningful ideas. Consider this example of a pun on the words tide and tied from The Two Gentlemen of Verona by Shakespeare. Speed is advising Launce to hurry or he’ll miss the tide and his chance to sail away, while Launce is saying that he would be glad to lose his troublesome dog that is tied up.

  • Speed: Away, ass! You’ll lose the tide if you tarry any longer.
  • Launce: It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.
  • Speed: What’s the unkindest tide?
  • Launce: Why, he that’s tied here, Crab, my dog.

3. Teach the students that playwrights enjoy playing with language to create memorable characters and dialogue. There is probably no greater example of this than of the characters and dialogue created by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's characters are still convincing today, in part because he gave them each a unique voice. One of the ways he built such unforgettable characters was by making them quick-witted. Audiences enjoyed listening to the pun-filled, witty lines uttered by his characters.

4. Explain to the class that each time these plays are performed is a new opportunity to enjoy them. Actors and directors must search for meaningful ways to present these words clearly to the audience so that the humor of a character or plot line is conveyed. Examples might be:

  • Facial expressions
  • Physical gesture, movement or sight gag
  • Tone or rhythm of the voice
  • Use of a prop

5. Demonstrate this concept by reciting one word play in a variety of ways. Really ham it up with your voice or gestures as you demonstrate this activity to let the students know how much fun this can be. Use a favorite or familiar word play or choose from one of the following:

  • I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.
  • The police were called to a daycare where a three-year old was resisting a rest.
  • Those who throw dirt are sure to lose ground.

The following two web sites offer more information on puns:

6. Challenge the students to look for “pun” opportunities. Have the students report back any occasion they had to say or hear a pun. Ask each student to bring in a favorite pun to share. They can refer to joke books or the pun of the day web site for ideas

Build Knowledge

1. Read aloud to the students this modern day example of word play. Gary Blackwood, in his book/play The Shakespeare Stealer has also adopted the use of puns to build his characters. The character is John Heminges. He has just given a prompt book to Widge, a new apprentice in the theater group the Lord Chamberlain’s Men:

"Widge, you hold the b-book. If Sander or anyone seems l-lost for a line, f-feed him a few words. Not a whole m-mouthful, just a t-taste, to start his chawbones m-moving. Can you do that?"

2. Discuss what can you tell about Heminges from this brief line:

  • He is a senior company member.
  • He is responsible for the jobs in the theatre.
  • He has a stammer.
  • He is witty because he takes the idea of “feeding the lines” to the actors as if giving them food, i.e., “mouthful,” “taste,” “chawbones moving.”

3. Distribute the Excerpts from The Shakespeare Stealer handout located within the Resource Carousel. Have students silently read the handout and highlight examples of puns and word play. Ask students to write an explanation for each, citing the line for their answers. Give students about five to seven minutes to find the puns and word play.

4. Discuss students' findings. Get students candid reaction to the texts. Consider the following questions:

  • Were they able to find the puns and word play on the first reading, or did they need to look a second time?
  • How might it have been different to hear the puns rather than read them?
  • Ask them point out the specific examples of word play they found.
  • Did any of the puns go unnoticed? Why?

Sample student responses might be:

  • Facial expressions, tone and other character responses made it easier to catch the pun
  • Reading the different spellings of the words as in tolled instead of told helped them to get the pun

5. Solicit volunteers to bring the dialogues to life in short scene readings of the above text. Students can read their parts from their seats, or perform them in front of the class.


1. Distribute copies of Act II, Scene II from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. You can find the scene at The Complete Works of William Shakespeare or William Shakespeare info if you do not have it on hand in the classroom.

2. Give the students some background on the scene they will be studying. Explain that in this scene, Viola, a young woman disguised as a male servant named Cesario, has just left the Lady Olivia. Viola had been sent there by her master, Orsino (whom she loves) to declare his love to Olivia. Olivia fancies Cesario (Viola) and sends her servant, Malvolio, with a ring to return to Cesario. Have the students silently read the scene.

3. Ask the students to pay attention to the meaning and the humor as they read.

4. Choose two students read the Mavolio/Viola scene and one to read Viola’s monologue aloud. Make an audio tape of the readings if you wish. Instruct the rest of the class to listen carefully as they will be analyzing the readings in just a few minutes.

5. Divide the class in two groups. Have one group analyze the exchange between Malvolio and Viola, while the other analyzes Viola’s monologue.

6. Direct the students to highlight the puns and word play and to interpret what Shakespeare’s language means in modern English. Tell students to take careful notes about any word play they observe. Give students about ten minutes to do this activity.

7. Have student volunteers reread the scene and monologue. Suggest to the students to really get into the characters. Explain to them that this is an opportunity to use exaggerated emotions. You may wish to video or audio record each of the readings.

8. Instruct each group to select actors to study and practice their section of the scene. The actors are to work under the direction of the group, adjusting the reading to ensure that the true meaning of a character's lines is conveyed. Allow them ten to fifteen minutes to practice before presenting the scene to the class.

9. Briefly review check for student understanding of the lesson so far. Consider the following points:

  • Puns are a humorous literary device used to convey meaning and to make dialogue and characters memorable
  • Shakespeare used puns in much of his work
  • Viola and Mavolio from Twelfth Night are examples of Shakespeare’s characters who exchanged puns in their dialogue.

10. Give out copies of Act I, Scene V from Twelfth Night for the class to examine. You can find the scene at The Complete Works of William Shakespeare or William Shakespeare info if you do not have it on hand.

11. Explain that this longer scene is the set up for the scene they analyzed in the earlier in the lesson. In this scene, Olivia’s maid Maria teases the Clown, Feste. Olivia and Feste verbally joust. Cesario (Viola) arrives with declarations of love from Orsino to Olivia. Olivia falls for Cesario (Viola) and sends Malvolio after her with a ring.

12. Divide the class into five to seven cooperative groups. Instruct them to look for puns and word play in the assigned section and keep notes on their findings. Give the students 30 minutes to complete this activity. Suggested assignments for the activity are as follows:

  • Group 1 looks at the scene between Maria and Feste (lines 1-30)
  • Group 2 looks at the scene between Olivia, Feste, and Malvolio (lines 31–98)
  • Group 3 looks at the scene between Maria, Olivia, Feste, and Sir Toby Belch (lines 99–138)
  • Group 4 looks at the scene between Malvolio and Olivia (lines 139–163)
  • Group 5 looks at the first part of the scene between Viola and Olivia. It begins with Olivia’s line, “Give me my veil,” and ends with her line, "we will hear this divinity.” (lines 164 - 219)
  • Group 6 looks at the second part of the scene between Viola and Olivia. Begin with Olivia’s line, “Now, sir, what is your text?” and end on Viola’s line, “Farewell, fair cruelty.” (lines 219 – 289)
  • Group 7 looks at the final monologue of Olivia (lines 290 – 313)

Note to the teacher: Many students have had little or no experience with acting out a character from a play. For some students, indeed for many adults, the thought of public speaking is frightening. Begin by reassuring them that being nervous or afraid is quite normal even for seasoned actors. Being prepared can help reduce these fears. You can help by setting some class guidelines such as ”we laugh at the jokes, and the characterizations, but not the actor.” Another technique is to help students consider that it is the character who is speaking, not the student. This is an opportunity for students to pretend to say, do, or be something they might never actually say, do, or be in real life and that pretending in this way can be fun. For some, overcoming shyness to speak in public is a great and life changing accomplishment.

13. Direct each group to present their section of the whole scene, in sequential order, to the class. During each presentation, the class should listen for the word play and puns. When appropriate the audience can respond with laughter and or applause. Students can use the Twelfth Night Performance Checklist handout located within the Resource Carousel to keep notes. You may wish to video or audio record the presentation.


1. Engage the class in a discussion about the readings. Listen to the live readings and/or recordings and compare the way they are presented. Points to consider about the readings:

  • Was the meaning clear?
  • Was it funny?
  • Did the readers use facial expressions, tone or gestures to convey meaning?
  • How was the experience of saying and hearing the words different than reading them?

Sample student responses might be:

  • Reading the words out loud made them click for me
  • It wasn’t funny to me until I saw the look on his/her face
  • Hearing other people laugh made me laugh too

2. Allow a few moments for the students to discuss their work. You can stimulate the conversation with a question such as:

  • What challenges and or benefits did they get from performing and watching the performance?
  • How did acting out the dialogue effect their understanding of the text?

Sample student responses might include:

  • It was difficult to use words I don’t really understand.
  • I got so into it I forgot that people were watching me
  • When I said the words and did the actions, I thought this must be how the character felt.

3. Assign each student to write a 500 to 800 word essay answering the following prompt for homework: Compare the plays The Shakespeare Stealer and Twelfth Night. How do the playwrights Gary Blackwood and William Shakespeare use puns and word play to build characters and demonstrate the characters' wit? Identify similarities and differences between the two authors.

Direct students to cite three or more specific examples from each of the plays to support their comparisons. Instruct students to refer to their class notes if needed, to complete the assignment. Assess the degree to which students successfully complete the following tasks:

  • Worked cooperatively in their assigned groups
  • Identified the puns and word play in the scenes studied in class
  • Presented assigned scenes with an understanding of the language and meaning of the puns and word play
  • Wrote a comparative essay demonstrating an understanding of how puns and word play can be used to develop characters
  • Used correct grammar and mechanics in the essay


You may use the Playing with Puns Rubric handout located within the Resource Carousel to assist in assessment.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 5-8 Theater Standard 2: Acting by developing basic acting skills to portray characters who interact in improvised and scripted scenes

National Standards in Other Subjects
Historical Understanding

Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

World History

World History Standard 27: Understands how European society experienced political, economic, and cultural transformations in an age of global intercommunication between 1450 and 1750

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes



Mary Beth Bauernschub
Original Writer

Ann Reilly

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