SUBJECTS — World/England; Drama/Musicals;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Romantic Relationships;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility.

AGE: 8+; MPAA Rating — G;

Musical comedy; 1983; 112 min.; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


“Pirates of Penzance” is a Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta in which a most unique band of pirates is shown to be more honest than so-called “respectable people.”


Selected Awards:

1984 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Actress – Comedy/Musical (Ronstadt).


Featured Actors:

Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, Rex Smith, Tony Azito and George Rose.



Wilford Leach



This movie is an excellent and accessible introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan. It shows the foibles of the English class system as it existed in the 19th century. It also provides an opportunity to explain the concept of leap year and the history of our present calendar system.




Before watching the movie, review and briefly discuss with your child some of the points made in the Helpful Background section. You won’t be able to cover everything but do the best you can. After the movie ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. Allow your child to watch the movie several times and continue to ask and help him or her answer more discussion questions.


One of the most humorous situations in this operetta occurs when Frederic (who was apprenticed to a band of pirates until his 21st “birthday”) is presented with a “paradox” by the Pirate King and Ruth. Frederic was born on February 29th in a leap year and technically his “birthday” occurred only every four years. In the “Paradox Song”, the Pirate King and Ruth convince Frederic that his contract of indenture requires him to be a pirate until he is 84 years old.

Ancient peoples used both lunar and solar calendars. Solar calendars had to be readjusted periodically because the year is approximately 365 and 1/4 days long. Over time, the dates tended to drift in relation to the seasons. Ancient Egypt was the first society known to extend the length of the year by one day every fourth year. Julius Caesar reformed a hopelessly complicated Roman Calendar which had been manipulated by corrupt office holders to extend the length of their terms of office. On the advice of astronomers, he introduced a leap year, extending February by one day every fourth year. But it turns out that the Julian Calendar, which is very close to our modern calendar, is about 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the solar year. Over several centuries people found that the seasons and the dates were again increasingly out of sync. By 1582 the vernal equinox was occurring ten days early. Pope Gregory II ordered eleven days dropped from the Calendar. Thus, September 2, 1582, was followed by September 14, 1582. Gregory II also ordered that in the future, century years that were divisible by 400 would have an additional day and would be leap years as they would normally be while all other century years would be common years without a leap day. The modifications, called the Gregorian Calendar or New Calendar, have now been adopted throughout most of the world.

In the 1700s and early 1800s in England (and America), children learned various trades, such as silversmithing, shoemaking or blacksmithing, by becoming an “apprentice” to a man who was an expert in the field. The child would receive food, lodging, and training in return for work. The child was said to be “indentured” to the master for a certain number of years. The indenture agreements were often in writing and frequently the term of the indenture was until the child’s 21st birthday.

In England, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sense of duty was prized very highly and often taken to extremes. Gilbert and Sullivan spoof this situation in this operetta.

Victoria was Queen of England from 1837 to 1901, a reign of 64 years. She was immensely popular and the term “Victorian” has been used to apply to an era of “respectability” and strict public morality but questionable conduct behind the scenes.

Until the 20th century, the aristocracy in England was very cohesive and its loyalty to itself was often stronger than its loyalty to the rule of law, to the crown, or to the country. Gilbert and Sullivan ridicule this attitude when, at the end of the play, the Major General offers his daughters in marriage to the pirates when he is informed that they are “not members of the common throng. They are all noblemen who have gone wrong.”

The term “the bar of justice” or simply “the bar” can refer to bringing someone before a court on a criminal charge. In courthouses in England, there was a railing, called “the bar,” which separated the lawyers and the judge from the other people. It was said that you had to be “admitted to the bar” to be an attorney. This custom and terminology have been retained to some extent in the U.S. Our present-day courthouses still have railings that separate the people from the lawyers and the judge. It is still called “the bar,” and while we do not use the term to bring someone before “the bar of justice,” we do use the term “admitted to the bar” to refer to a person who has become a lawyer.


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. What was the paradox that Ruth and the Pirate King revealed to Frederic?


3. What important event occurred on September 4, 1582?


4. Leap years are usually any year divisible by four. In the Gregorian calendar, was the year 1900 a leap year? Will the year 2000 be a leap year?


5. What did Queen Victoria have to do with the battle between the pirates and the police?



1. Was there anything realistic about the romantic relationships shown in this film?


2. Is pity a good basis for a romantic relationship?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)


1. What did the Pirate King mean when he said that being a pirate king was comparatively honest next to “respectability?” What is meant by the following lyrics in his song: “better far to live and die, under the brave black flag I fly, than to play a sanctimonious part with a pirate’s head and a pirate’s heart?”


2. Was the Major General’s lie that he was an orphan justified under the circumstances?


3. Why did Frederick have to go back to the pirates after the terms of his indenture were pointed out to him?



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


4. This story is about taking the sense of duty (doing what you are supposed to do, persevering, using self-control, and being self-disciplined) to an extreme. How do you tell when an ethical principle has been taken beyond what it was meant to be?



If your children are musically inclined, get them the score from the local library or music store and let them play some of the music. If someone can play the piano, get the family together and sing some of the songs.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 17, 2009.

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