Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. She leads workshops on sonnets for teachers.
Gigi Bradford, former director of the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series, currently teaches the Folger's "Shakspeare's Sisters" seminar.
4 or 5 of the following Shakespearean sonnets: 23, 29, 42, 57, 66, 71, 138, 144, 147.
Other choices are, of course, possible, but these are fairly accessible and lend themselves well to dramatic performances.
What's On for Today and Why
Breaking a sonnet down into parts for different speakers and presenting it dramatically can help students to listen carefully to the language and hear different “voices” in the poem. In this lesson, small groups of 3-5 students work together to turn the sonnet into a “script” in which lines and/or phrases are assigned to different actors, perhaps designating certain lines to be spoken chorally. Figuring our texts with a minimum of help from the teacher and “letting Shakespeare do the teaching” is an empowering exercise.
This lesson will take 1 x forty-five minute class period.
What You Need
Copies of the sonnets you have chosen for the class, preferably on separate paper, without notes.
New Folger edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets or other well-annotated edition
Optional but very desirable: a bag of props—hats, scarves, bell, clock, wooden dagger, Stethoscope, kazoo, harmonica, triangle and/or anything you think would add visual interest to the performance.
A whistle or bell to get the group’s attention for announcements.
Sonnet 23, Shakespeare
Sonnet 29, Shakespeare
Sonnet 42, Shakespeare
Sonnet 57, Shakespeare
Sonnet 66, Shakespeare
Sonnet 71, Shakespeare
Sonnet 138, Shakespeare
Sonnet 144, Shakespeare
Sonnet 147, Shakespeare
What To Do
1. Divide the class into groups of 3-5 students.
2. Give each group a copy of the sonnet to dramatize (If there is time, groups can choose which sonnet they prefer).
3. Each group is to find a “story” that the sonnet tells and dramatize it, assigning different lines to different actors. Emphasize that everyone must speak, even if only on a chorally read line.
4. Let students choose from a bag of props but ration them—only 2 or 3 to a group.
5. Tell the students that they may use the copy of the New Folger edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets or a dictionary for help in understanding a word or a passage. Copies of the sonnets (without notes) can be found in documents below.
6. Give each group a short list of questions to consider, for example: Who are you? To whom are you speaking? Where are you? What’s happening? What’s the tone of the poem? How can you physicalize metaphor, simile, and personification? Where might you pause? Is there a key line?
7. “Rehearsal” time should be 15-20 minutes. While one could spend much longer, students focus better when time is limited.
8. Ask students in each group to assign one person to introduce the sonnet by name and say “curtain” to indicate the start of the performance and the end of it. Actors should plan on taking a group bow during the applause.
9. You “float” from group to group making sure kids stay on task and offering help when it is requested.
10. Give a 2-minute warning for the start of the performances. When you have ascertained that everyone is more or less ready, designate a space that is the “stage” and call forth the acting companies, one by one, to perform. Ask the audience members to think of questions they might like to ask. Remind the students to focus on the performances and not on continuing to rehearse their own sonnet performance.
11. After all the performances, open up the floor to comments and questions.
12. Ask students to write in their journals about the experience of performing a sonnet as part of a group. What did they learn about the sonnet? What questions do they still have?
How Did It Go?
Did students work cooperatively together to produce a playlet of their sonnet?
Did their performances demonstrate a basic understanding of the sonnet’s content?
Were they imaginative?
Did they respond intelligently to the questions of others?
Were the audience members attentive and respectful of the performances of others?
Suggested Homework with a partner: Work on a memorized dramatization of a sonnet of your choice to present to the class during a possible “sonnet festival.” Be prepared to defend your performance choices.
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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