The Playmaker Study Guide

Published September 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf9780440417101_p0_v1_s260x420
Reading Level: 6th-10th grade 307 pages

$15.95 (hardback) ISBN # 0-375-80577-X
$5.50 (paperback) ISBN # 0-440-41710-4

About the book:

Richard Malory at fourteen has been cast adrift on a world that seems incomprehensible to him. Suddenly motherless and homeless, he turns his steps toward London–not only the most likely place for a 16th-century English lad to get ahead, but also the last known residence of his father, who disappeared long before. Richard’s attempts to track this man lead only to a series of dead ends–until it becomes apparent that someone is tracking him. When his life is threatened, he seeks refuge in the theater company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose resident playwright is William Shakespeare.

As Richard struggles to learn his new craft, making both friends and enemies in the Company, some of the plays begin to seem relevant to his own life–particularly Master Will’s latest, The Winter’s Tale. Before long he is drawn into a private mystery that expands into the turbulent underside of Elizabethan statecraft, reaching all the way to the Queen herself.


This splendid story, told in language both vivid and seductive, is about all the big things in life: life and death, loyalty and treachery, truth and lies, substance and shadows.
Karen Cushman, Newberry medallist

Cheaney, a newcomer to children’s literature, writes with a beautiful, rich fluency and neat meld of history and story. This strong first effort should encourage readers to watch for future books.
Cheryl Bowlan, US Correspondent, ACHUKA Children’s Books UK

This is a thriller replete with enough dank alleys, shrouded identities, arsonists and insurrectionists to please action-hungry groundlings, and it’s polished with enough Shakespearean theatrical trappings to satisfy middle-school literati in the gallery.
Recommended, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Cheaney manages dialogue that rings true to the time, as does her richly flavored writing style. Altogether, the suspense and historical details add up to a spirited introduction to one of the most fascinating periods in history.
Kirkus Reviews

. . . The disguises are many, the assumptions of false identities are plentiful, and the plot twists numerous–much like an Elizabethan drama . . . a gripping introduction to a turbulent time.
Horn Book


THEMES: Self-discovery, Art reflecting Life, Belonging, Loyalty, Authenticity, Church/State

PRE-READING ACTIVITY: If possible, rent a copy of the 1945 version of Henry V, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. It’s not necessary to view the entire film, but the first act is an entertaining primer on how the Elizabethan stage operated. We see the Thames with its bobbing boats (a not-very-convincing model!), theater patrons filling the Globe, actors scurrying about backstage, boy apprentices adjusting their gowns and stuffing their bodices, Shakespeare himself with the prompt book, Olivier as Henry V preparing for his entrance, and Elizabethan-style audience participation.


In Elizabethan England, religion and politics were inseparable. Use the first activity under the Social Studies unit to facilitate discussion over why this might have been so.

What, precisely, is Mistress Condell warning Richard about in Chapter 6? What character in the story has fallen prey to this temptation? How can you tell?

Why do you think Starling makes up a story about her own father? Do you think the story helps her deal with his death, or not?

What circumstances in Richard’s life make it difficult for him to adapt to the stage? How do his memories help him discover a tool he can use?

Richard ends up agreeing with Shakespeare’s contention that art (the theater) should “illuminate” life. How does art help him understand his life? What parallels does he find between The Winter’s Tale and his own experience? What movies, books or stories have helped you understand your life? What fictional characters have you identified with?

What does Richard mean on page 268 when he says, “The white-faced figure on the dais across from me played her part no less than I played mine, except that she never came off the stage”?

How would you describe Richard’s relationship with Kit at the end of the book? Why do you think Kit steps in to rescue him?

How does Richard’s first impression of the Theater (p. 71) compare with his last (p. 305)? Why does he decide to stay–at least for the present?






The bear is a recurring symbol throughout the book, beginning in the first chapter. Locate all the “bears” in the story, real and imaginary. (Benjamin, Ch. 1, Black Jack, Ch. 7, Ajax, Ch. 15, the unnamed bear in The Winter’s Tale). What is the response aroused by each, in the reader as well as the characters of the story? What character in the book does the bear finally represent? (For Richard, the bear is his father, and each manifestation–benign but tricky Benjamin, irresponsible Black Jack, ferocious Ajax–reflects Richard’s conflicted feelings about him. But some students may notice that the relationship works both ways–according to his own definition, Richard has become something of “bear” for Robert Malory, too!)

Richard defines the bear this way (p. 302-303): “He was the unexpected element in the play that reared itself so suddenly the audience gasped aloud: that changed everything, then disappeared.” Write a brief essay about a personal “bear”–an event or person–that sparked a dramatic change in your life, or changed an opinion or attitude.

The Winter’s Tale
This play isn’t as well known as many of the other Shakespeare plays, nor is it as accessible to young people as Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it’s well worth a look. If you have time, read a summary of the plot in class (Stories From Shakespeare by Marchette Chute is highly recommended) and discuss how an updated version, in the style of Baz Lurhman’s 1995 movie Romeo + Juliet, might look. (For example, Leontes and Polixines are pro football coaches who were best friends in college; Leontes forms his suspicions while they’re vacationing together in Bermuda; during an ugly divorce trial Mamilius is run over by a truck, etc.) Discuss how such an update would affect the story.

The turning point of the play occurs in Act III, Scene 3. The scene is short, contains only four characters, shifts abruptly from tragedy to comedy and includes the world’s oddest stage direction (exit, pursued by a bear). For all these reasons, it’s worth reading in class. Divide the students into groups of three or four and offer a prize to the committee who can pinpoint the most significant line in this scene. (There may be disagreement, but my vote is for the Shepherd’s, “Thou mett’st with things dying, I with things newborn.”) Or, assign parts and read the scene aloud, then take nominations for the point at which the play turns.

The Merchant of Venice
This play is more familiar, though problematic—the debate about whether the message is anti-Semitic still rages. Even so, no student should escape from high school without an acquaintance with Shylock’s “Hath a Jew not eyes” speech, which has become part of our culture. If time permits a mini-unit on the play, read this speech aloud in class (Act III, Scene 1) and compare it with Shylock’s behavior in the courtroom (Act IV, Scene 1). Discuss how an audience would respond to Shylock in each scene, then write a sketch of his character.

The trial is like a mini-drama within the larger play. This activity will take 3-4 days, but is a useful approach for studying any well-known Shakespeare scene. Divide the class into groups of four or five and give each group a section of the scene to paraphrase. Work from an annotated version of Shakespeare, if possible, so they’ll understand some of the more obscure references (but remember it’s not necessary to understand everything Shakespeare says in order to grasp the general meaning). Type the scene as paraphrased, make copies, assign parts and perform the scene in class. Discuss the issues raised–mercy vs. the letter of the law, the validity of the loophole Portia discovers, Shylock’s forced conversion, etc.

For more ideas, see the “Teaching Shakespeare” page on this website!



Some words that are common today have changed meaning since Shakespeare’s time. Find the words hospital (p. 33), humor (71, 90), coil (105, 245), mark (271), casket (84), and wit (112) and try to guess the old meaning from the context of the story.

Other words used in Shakespeare’s time have dropped completely out of our vocabulary. Look up cozen (3, 206), disporting (155), prank up (53), and finical (30) and guess the meanings from the context.

Barrister, Jesuit, and oracle are words to watch because they are important to the meaning of the story, but not generally known by students this age. Make sure these words are understood before they read the book.

“Power words” to add to the students’ vocabulary: dubious, progeny, imperious, dalliance, presumptuous, incorrigibly, dissolute, revulsion.



The Protestant Reformation was the “big event” of the 16th century, with repercussions into our own day. The movement itself began with Martin Luther confronting the authority of the Catholic Church in 1517. Though Luther wished to reform the church from within (hence the name Reformation), the gap between the church and the “protesters” widened so much that the Protestant faction split away and formed a new church–actually, several churches. Research the issues dividing Catholics and Protestants. The list should include

  • Sale of indulgences (pardon for sin) to raise money for the church
  • Political power of the pope
  • Grace alone and faith alone (i.e., that salvation depends upon God’s grace and not on any good works done to merit His favor)
  • Scripture alone (that the Bible is a higher authority than church tradition)
  • The priesthood of all believers (each believer’s access to God through Christ)
  • The symbolic, rather than actual, presence of Christ in the bread and wine of communion.

Which of these issues have a bearing on public life, and which are private? Why? Write a paragraph explaining your answer.

On a blank map of Europe, mark which countries were Protestant and which remained Catholic by the end of the 16th century. [Protestant: England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, central and northern Germany, Switzerland, Estonia. Catholic: Portugal, France, Belgium, south Germany, Austria, Ireland, Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Spain, Italy.] Look up these nations in an atlas or almanac to see if that distinction remains today.

Research the details of the Babington plot against Elizabeth (the one involving Mary Queen of Scots). Make a chart showing the similarities and differences of the Babington conspiracy to the fictional Holy Restoration Society.


The Playmaker can be read as a historical adventure, a mystery, a political drama, or a coming-of-age tale. Choose one of these aspects and design a movie poster emphasizing that tone.

Throughout the book, Richard develops several maxims (short, true sayings) about acting and the stage. For example: “A scene of public drama never wants for actors” (p. 160); “It is harder to charm that it is to command” (p. 202); and, “A play like a ship sails smooth only when all hands are working in accord” (p. 90). Choose one of these, or write your own, and illustrate with a drawing. (If enough class members do this, collect these sayings in a booklet.)

The Winter’s Tale is described as “a romance that begins in sorrow and ends in joy” (p. 130), with a clear progression from winter to spring. Design stage settings for the first and second parts of the play, showing the transformation of seasons and mood.