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"Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought to Say"

Teachers' Rating:
  9 ratings

Johann Heinrich Ramberg. King Lear: IV, 7. A tent in the French camp. Watercolor drawing, 1829.

February 2002
Heidi Pasternak, Belmont High School, Belmont, Massachusetts

Plays/Scenes Covered
King Lear. However, this lesson could easily be adapted to any of Shakespeare's plays.
What's On for Today and Why

A playwright—by frequently limiting character description to dialogue—leaves a large portion of the process of interpreting the character to the actor and director. This vagueness can cause stress in students who prefer to "know the answers" right away, but it also offers teachers a wonderful way to engage students in creating their own interpretations. In this lesson, students will use the text and their imaginations to understand a particular character. Aspects of this lesson were inspired by Caleen Sinette Jennings and Michael Tolaydo of the Folger Shakespeare Library's Teaching Shakespeare Institute in Summer 2000.


This lesson will take two class periods.

What You Need

Folger edition of King Lear
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

What To Do

1. Place the students into small groups and assign each student a part from a scene in King Lear. The following scenes work well with this lesson: 2.4.216-304, 1.1.37-155, 5.3.46-129, 4.7.


2. Ask the students to read their speeches aloud to each other three or four times. They should seek definitions for words they do not fully understand and circle the words they consider to be most essential to the scene.


3. Encourage the students to ask questions of one another. Have them discuss as a group what is happening in the scene and how each character responds to the action.


4. Now have the students in each group read through their scene one more time, but during this reading they should all be in character. The discussion they had as a group should be evident in the reading.


5. Assign the students a writing assignment in class or for homework. Have the students respond in paragraph form to one or several of the following questions:

Describe your character from the point of view of the audience.

What is your character's relationship, specifically, with the other people on the stage?

What does your character want out of life and out of this scene?

Describe (from your imagination) what your character might reasonably have done immediately before his or her entrance onto the stage for this scene? Perhaps he or she was with family? At dinner? In a fight? What makes sense based on what you know about the character?

What is your character's mood when he or she arrives on stage? How would the character show this?

If you could ask your character any questions, what would they be? How might the character respond?


5. Have the students return to their groups and give them about 10 minutes to prepare a performance of their scene, taking into consideration all they have learned from the group discussions and writing assignments. Then, ask each group to perform its scene for the entire class. After each performance have the class discuss what traits they notice in each character.


6. Finally, ask the students to complete a brief writing assignment in which they comment on how their own understanding of the scene developed or changed throughout the course of the lesson. They should address whether or not the class observed the character decisions they made. If the class did, why were the choices successful? If the class did not, what could they have done to make their reading more apparent to the audience?  

How Did It Go?
Are the students engaged in their characters' lives in the play? Can the students now present a richer portrait of their characters in performance and writing?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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  Common Core State Standards

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