Using Plays to Discuss Ethical Reasoning

Every year the School of Theatre and Dance at James Madison University gathers a team of approximately 14 people to serve on the Season Selection Committee (SSC). This super group of students and faculty assemble bi-weekly to take on one of the greatest challenges the unit faces: picking three plays and one musical from a large list of community-generated proposals to produce on the Forbes Center Mainstage.

Deciding a mainstage season for the School of Theatre and Dance is difficult work. Sure, it’s fun to read plays and talk about their merits with a group of intelligent and motivated artists. However, more often than not this yearly puzzle is a shape shifting monster that refuses to be tamed. The committee has to consider a myriad of questions ranging from “Why is this play better than that play for our students next year?” to “Do you know how difficult it is to build a usable grave on stage?” Pedagogical and practical implications abound!

Seeing as we’re already asking so many questions about these plays, I thought it might be prudent to introduce a few other questions into the mix. Have you guessed where this is going? YES! The Eight Key Questions! The plays we choose are, of course, some our best teaching tools for the upcoming academic year. Part of introducing 8KQ into our season selection process is to find a new opportunity for students, faculty, and staff outside of our unit to use these same tools.

My goal is to work with SSC students to create a single-page document for each play on our upcoming 2019/2020 mainstage season. These documents will use the 8KQ framework to kick start conversations by asking a few sample questions related to the ethical dilemma(s) found within the plays.


Here’s an example using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Fairness—Was it possible for R&J to act equitably and balance the interests of their families?

Outcomes—What choices could have been made to achieve a happier outcome for all involved?

Responsibilities—What responsibilities do R&J have to their families? To one another? To themselves? Did they shirk responsibility for their love?

Character—What actions might you take if you were either of these characters? What better choices could have been made for R&J to become their ideal selves?

Liberty—How might audience consent apply when showing suicide on stage? Does this play need a trigger warning?

Empathy—How might you feel if you were Juliet (or Romeo..or________)?  How would you feel as a family member at the end of the play?

Authority—What are the major authorities at play? How might religious authority dictate the actions of R&J?

Rights—Do R&J have the right to be together? What are the character’s rights when it comes to carrying weapons?


Prompt Ideas:

  1. Pretend you’re Romeo and use the 8KQ to decide whether or not you should fight Tybalt.
  2. Do the same for Paris in Act V, Scene iii (and rewrite his speech starting at “This is that banish’d haughty Montague” using the 8KQ).


My hope is that students and faculty will use these documents as a starting point to dig into individual moments or talk about our plays in general with an ethical reasoning lens. Additionally, I’d love to hear if/how this sparks other ideas about how to use the 8KQ in theatre, literature, film studies, and playwriting courses.

  • Is this type of resource you might use or modify for your class/team/group?
  • Do you have any suggestions for making the most out of this new effort? Let me know in the comments or at

PS…Now is the time to get involved in the School of Theatre and Dance’s season selection process. We’re currently accepting proposals for the 2020/2021 season!

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