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Appreciating the Bard’s Art: Rewriting Shakespeare’s Epitaph Using Iambic Pentameter Lesson Plan

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Lesson Plan #:AELP-LIT0002
Submitted By: Mary Barton, English instructor
School or Affiliation: Bishop Carroll High School, Wichita, KS Date: 1994

Grade Level(s): 9, 10, 11, 12


  • Language Arts/Literature

Description: The following is designed as a small group activity to help students appreciate Shakespeare’s art as well as reinforce literary terms and concepts. Students begin to appreciate Shakespeare’s genius as they struggle to compose six lines in iambic pentameter, knowing that he wrote tens of thousands in his plays. Concepts Covered:

epitaph, iambic pentameter, heroic couplet, blank verse, elision

Background Information:

Attached to the beginning of the assignment is background information on the epitaph on Shakespeare’s gravestone as well as the burial practices of the day.

Materials and Procedures:

A copy of the accompanying assignment sheet. In addition, classes should already be familiar with iambic pentameter, heroic couplets, and blank verse. Of course, the assignment may be modified in anyway the teacher chooses: four lines instead of six, or individualized epitaphs instead of group projects, etc.


Appreciating the Bard’s Art: Rewriting Shakespeare’s Epitaph Using Iambic Pentameter

During Shakespeare’s time when church graveyards became full, old corpses were often dug up and the bones burned in large fireplaces to make room for the burial of more bodies. Also, it was not uncommon for grave robbers to dig up and strip a corpse after burial, particularly if the deceased was known to have been wealthy. Shakespeare hated this type of treatment of the body after death, so he wrote his own epitaph, engraved upon his stone at the Stratford church.

Good Friends, for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the bones enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

Even to the end, Shakespeare knew his audience, and this little rhyme did the trick. People of the time were extremely superstitious, and no one ever bothered his corpse. The irony to this story, of course, is that while his epitaph served its purpose, it is little more than doggerel, hardly better than verse even the worst poetic hack could write. Who knows, maybe Shakespeare–with his boundless humor and heightened sense of the ridiculous–got a chuckle out of his little rhyme as some kind of self-deprecating joke.

Regardless of the original intent of the epitaph, however, it is time for us to right the wrong. The greatest writer known to the English language deserves a better epitaph, one which pays appropriate tribute to his genius and honors his literary contributions to all mankind. Your assignment is to compose a more suitable epitaph for Shakespeare’s headstone now that the danger of grave robbers is over.

Please follow these assignment guidelines:

  • Write a minimum of six lines in iambic pentameter.
  • The first four may be in blank verse (or rhymed if you so choose), but you must end your poetic epitaph as Shakespeare did a scene–in an heroic couplet.
  • The tone of your epitaph must be eloquent and formal, paying serious homage to the literary contributions which Shakespeare made to the world. How you do this, however, is up to you. For example, you might choose to write your tribute using a metaphor, such as a golden pen. Or you could employ a simile, comparing Shakespeare’s plays to the arias of heaven. Be as creative as you choose.
  • If you need to fudge to make the iambic pentameter work, you can cheat in the same manner Shakespeare did. Use elisions (word contractions) to eliminate a beat, or accent a silent syllable to add an extra beat.
  • Write out two versions of your final work: one regular copy and one divided into syllables and scored with the soft/stressed beats in iambic pentameter.
  • You may work on this assignment in groups of three.
  • Each group will be reading its completed epitaph to the class.
  • Scoring–20 points:
    10 points for appropriateness of content: grace, meaning, and creativity
    10 points for the technical accuracy of the iambic pentameter/heroic couplet
  • Good Luck! And have fun!