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Gary Hanna
The Choice

Only the princess can save him from a vicious tiger. The question is . . . does she want to? 

By Spencer Kayden (Based on Frank Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?”)
From the April 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to draw a conclusion based on evidence in a story

Other Key Skills: inference, character, interpreting text, author’s purpose, evaluating a claim

Story Navigation


As you read the play, study the illustrations, and read the captions, make a list of Princess Margaret’s character traits.

Scene 1

SD1: Lights rise on a large arena. Every seat is filled.

SD2: The king and his court sit high up on velvet chairs.

SD3: Two narrators stand downstage.

N1: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a powerful king.

N2: A king who loved his authority almost as much as he loved his own daughter.

N1: A king who used a cruel system of justice that struck fear into the hearts of all his subjects.

N2: Nothing made him happier than to sit on his throne in the royal arena and watch justice be served.

SD1: The king and the princess wave to their subjects.

SD2: The princess leans over to the king.

Princess Margaret: Father, who is the accused today?

King John: A peasant who stole from the royal garden.

Princess: What did he steal?

King: Carrots! Can you imagine?

SD3: A handsome young servant approaches with a silver tray.

Thomas: Cider, Your Majesty?

SD1: The king takes a goblet. The servant turns to the princess.

Thomas: Your Highness?

Princess: Yes, please.

SD2: The servant smiles at the princess and winks.

SD3: Behind them, Lady Anne and Lady Helen giggle quietly.

Princess: That will be all, Thomas.

SD1: The princess tries to suppress a smile as Thomas bows and moves on. She turns back to her father.

Princess: So this peasant was caught pulling carrots from the ground?

King: Not exactly . . . he was found nearby carrying a large bundle of carrots.

Princess: Father, is it fair to conclude that he—

SD2: A trumpet sounds.

King: Quiet now. The criminal is coming.

SD3: A man dressed in rags walks slowly to the middle of the arena. He bows to the king, then turns to face two identical wooden doors.

SD1: The Master of Ceremonies addresses the man.

MC: You stand accused of royal theft.

Accused Man: But I didn’t—

MC: Silence! By order of the king, you must now choose one of these two doors and open it. Behind one is a hungry, vicious tiger. Behind the other is a young lady you will marry.

Accused Man: But—

MC: It is your duty and your privilege to select a door. The decision is entirely in your hands.

SD2: The accused looks at the two doors.

MC: What will it be, ladies and gentlemen? Will he be torn to pieces as punishment for his guilt?

Crowd: Oooooooh!

MC: Or will we witness a joyous wedding rewarding him for his innocence?

Crowd: Hooray!

SD3: The man walks slowly to a door and opens it. Immediately, a tiger springs upon him.

SD1: Iron bells clang dolefully. Hired mourners enter the arena and begin to wail.

Mourners: Ooooooooooo! Ooooooooooo!

SD2: The king takes a gulp of cider and wipes his beard.

King: Chance is an impartial judge, don’t you think?

SD3: The princess looks down at the arena.

Princess: Yes, Father

Scene 2

SD1: In her bedroom, the princess sits at a dressing table with a gilded mirror.

SD2: Lady Anne is brushing the princess’s hair. Lady Helen is removing the princess’s jewelry.

Lady Anne: Milady, I could not help but notice how bold Thomas was today.

Lady Helen: Winking at you with your father right there!

Princess: He is audacious. It’s one of the reasons I love him.

SD3: The ladies gasp.

Lady Anne and Lady Helen: You love him?

Princess: Of course. We are undeniably perfect for each other.

Lady Helen: But, milady, he is a lowly servant.

Princess: Should we be denied our love because Thomas happened to be born a servant and I happened to be born a princess?

Lady Anne: I think we know how the king would answer that question.

Princess (sternly ): The king must never find out.

Lady Helen: We shall never tell.

Gary Hanna

Trial By Ordeal

Many centuries ago, a person’s guilt or innocence was sometimes determined by a “trial by ordeal.” The accused had to do something dangerous, like plunge an arm into a pot of boiling water. If they were unharmed, they were usually considered innocent. How is the king’s arena a trial by ordeal?

Scene 3

SD1: Thomas and the princess stroll through the royal rose garden.

SD2: The princess stops in front of a bush blooming with pink and white roses.

Princess: These are called Rosa Mundi.

Thomas: Tell me about them.

Princess: Once there was an ancient king who dearly loved a fair maiden named Rosamund. But the queen had Rosamund killed in a fit of jealousy.

Thomas: Oh, really?

Princess: Yes—though it was never proven.

SD3: Thomas leans in to smell the roses.

Thomas: Sweet and prickly, just like you.

SD1: The princess laughs.

SD2: She removes a shiny brooch from her cloak. It is shaped like a bee.

Princess: This brooch belonged to my mother. It was said her disposition was like that of a bee—she could sting and she could be sweet as honey.

Thomas: You are not unlike her.

Princess: I want you to have it.

SD3: Thomas takes the brooch.

SD1: Suddenly, Lady Anne and Lady Helen rush over.

Lady Anne: The king is coming!

Princess: Thomas, hide! The king will kill you if he finds you here!

SD2: She pushes him into the thicket of roses.

Thomas: Ow! Ow! Ooooof.

SD3: The king rounds the corner.

King (shouting ): Who is here with you?

Princess: Just my ladies, Father.

SD1: Lady Anne and Lady Helen bow deeply.

SD2: The king spots the glint of something shiny in the rose bushes.

SD3: He reaches in and drags Thomas out.

King: What is the meaning of this?

Thomas: The princess . . . I . . . I was merely . . .

King: Silence!

SD1: The king looks to his daughter.

King: Explain yourself.

SD2: The princess squares her shoulders and looks her father in the eye.

Princess: Father, I love Thomas.

King: Thomas?

Princess: Yes. And Thomas loves me.

King: Of course he does. You’re a princess. He has everything to gain, and you, my dear, have everything to lose.

Princess: I don’t care what you say. We are going to get married, and there is nothing you can do about it.

King (chuckling): Heh heh heh.

SD3: The king snaps his fingers. A guard steps forward.

King: Take this traitor to the dungeon. Scour the kingdom for the most savage tiger and the fairest maiden. His trial will take place three days hence.

Princess: Father, no!

King: There is no escape from the judgment of the king’s arena.

Scene 4

D1: Wearing a hooded cloak, the princess makes her way through a dark passage underneath the arena.

SD2: The light from her torch bounces off the cold stone walls.

SD3: At last, she finds the chamber with an entrance to the two rooms holding the lady and the tiger.

Guard: Who goes there?

SD1: The princess removes her hood.

Princess: It is I.

SD2: The guard bows deeply.

Guard: Your Royal Highness.

Princess: Show me the tiger that might eat my Thomas.

Guard: I am under strict orders not to let anyone near the tiger.

Princess: I beg you. Just for a moment.

Guard: It’s too dangerous. The tiger has not eaten in several days.

SD3: The princess chokes back a sob, accidentally dropping a piece of meat hidden beneath her cloak.

Princess: Then tell me about the maiden.

Guard: I only know that she is wise not to disobey the king’s command.

Princess: Might I speak with her?

Guard: I am sorry, Your Highness. I’m under orders.

Princess: The orders come from my father, yes?

Guard: Yes, milady.

Princess: Am I not my father’s daughter?

Guard: You are, milady.

Princess (sweetly ): Then surely I am the exception.

Guard: I’m afraid not. Especially seeing as how the accused is your . . . uh . . .

Princess: My one true love?

SD1: The guard casts his eyes down.

Guard: If I help you, I’ll be thrown into the arena too.

Princess (sharply ): Do you think for a moment I care what happens to you? Let me see her!

Guard: No one must know which door Isabella is behind.

SD2: The princess’s eyes flash with anger.

Princess: Isabella?

SD3: The princess grabs the guard by the lapel.

Princess: Show me which door Isabella is behind, or I will guarantee you live in the dungeon for the rest of your miserable life.

SD1: The guard sighs, defeated.

Guard: Very well, Princess. I will show you. Follow me.

Scene 5

SD2: The princess paces back and forth in her room.

Princess: Of all the maidens in all the land, it had to be Isabella!

Lady Anne: Beautiful Isabella.

Lady Helen: Kind Isabella.

Lady Anne: Wise Isabella.

Lady Helen: Clever Isa—

Princess: Enough! I must figure out what to do.

Lady Anne: Is there anything to be done?

Princess: Yes, you simpleton. Thomas’s fate lies entirely in my hands.

Lady Helen: How so?

Princess: Thomas knows that I would never rest until I found out the secret of those two doors. He will look to me for an answer.

Lady Anne: Surely you will guide him to the lady.

Princess: Don’t you see? Either way, I lose him forever.

Lady Helen: Perhaps it would be best to send him to the tiger. The pain would be over quickly.

Princess: I’ve spent every waking hour imagining Thomas opening a door. I see his face contort in horror as he sees the cruel fangs of the tiger.

Lady Anne: How awful!

Princess: But just as often, I imagine his delight when he opens the door and sees beautiful, kind, wise, clever, perfect Isabella.

SD3: The princess’s face grows dark.

Princess: And then Thomas and Isabella walk away, hand in hand, the crowd cheering, bells ringing, drowning out my one despairing shriek.

Lady Anne: Perhaps you should stay home tomorrow.

Princess: And not go to the arena? Never. Thomas will look to me, his eyes asking, “Which door?” And I must give an answer.

Lady Helen: Which will it be?

SD1: The princess sits on her bed and puts her face in her hands.

Gary Hanna

The Fairy Tale That Isn’t

This story is often described as a fairy tale. After all, it has many elements common to that genre: a cruel king, a princess, a castle, good, evil. But this story is sometimes called an anti-fairy tale. Why do you think that might be?

Scene 6

SD2: The arena is overflowing with people.

SD3: The princess sits, stone-faced, in her usual place beside the king.

SD1: The crowd is abuzz with excitement.

Citizen 1: Help me understand something. This servant Thomas is accused of loving the princess.

Citizen 2: Yes.

Citizen 1: And this trial is meant to determine his guilt or innocence?

Citizen 2: Correct.

Citizen 1: But he has never claimed to be innocent. He admits he loves her.

Citizen 2: True.

Citizen 1: So why a trial?

SD2: Citizen 2 sighs heavily.

Citizen 2: Thomas dared to love someone far above him, and this process will determine whether he was wrong to do so.

SD3: The trumpet sounds. Thomas enters the arena with his head held high.

Crowd: Gasp!

Citizen 1: Such a confident young man! No wonder the princess loves him!

SD1: Thomas stands in the center of the arena, his eyes fixed upon the princess.

SD2: Her face is pale. Her right arm rests on the arm of her chair.

SD3: Certain that all eyes are fixed on Thomas, the princess raises her hand slightly and makes a small, quick motion to the right.

SD1: Thomas turns and walks toward the doors with firm and rapid steps.

SD2: Every heart stops beating. Every breath is held.

SD3: Thomas pauses for a moment and looks back at the princess.

SD1: Their eyes lock.

SD2: Then Thomas goes to the door on the right and opens it.    

So What Happened?!  

Frank Stockton published this story in 1882 in The Century magazine. Readers were so upset by the ending that they wrote hundreds of letters demanding to know what happened. Stockton never revealed the answer. He did say this though:

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

“I cannot answer the question, for I have no earthly idea myself.  I really have never been able to decide whether the Lady or the Tiger came out of that door. Yet I must defend myself. People for years have upbraided me for leaving it a mystery; some used to write me that I had no right to impose upon the good nature of the public in that manner. However, when  I started in to write the story, I really intended to finish it. But it would never let itself be finished. I could not decide. And to this day I have, I assure you, no more idea than any one else.”

Chicago Daily Tribune; April 21, 1902

This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building




4. SKILL BUILDING (15 minutes)

Differentiated Writing Prompts
For Struggling Readers

In Scene 3, Thomas says that Princess Margaret can be both sweet and harsh. In a well-organized paragraph, describe a moment in the play where she displays both qualities.

For Advanced Readers

Write a literary review of the play, focusing on the effect of the ambiguous ending. Does it make the play more thought-provoking? Less memorable? More intriguing? Less profound?

For Playwrights

Rewrite the final scene of the play, in which we discover what Princess Margaret decided and how that decision affects her and the kingdom.

For Newscasters

Rewrite the final scene of the play in the form of a news broadcast in which you are reporting on live TV what is happening in the arena.

Literature Connection: Other tales about why and how our choices matter

Midas and the Golden Touch
(Greek myth)

“The Road Not Taken”
by Robert Frost (poem)

Tuck Everlasting
by Natalie Babbitt (novel)