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How To: Interpreting Character

Teaching Shakespeare series

This exercise is great for students—whatever their level of experience with Shakespeare. Interpreting Character provides students with a chance to explore multiple interpretations of a single character through performance-based techniques.

Getting Started

1.  Select a pivotal character.  Find a short passage or scene that provides a window into a character motivation.  No need to start with Act 1, Scene 1—in fact, we recommend you don't in most cases!

Example: Use Prince Hal’s speech in  Henry IV, Part 1 (Act I, scene 2, lines 202–end) where Hal talks about why he is behaving outside of his father’s expectations. What kind of a person is Hal?

2.  Prepare the students to explore how a passage or scene from Shakespeare may offer multiple interpretations by having them look at the multiple ways in which a single line of modern text may be delivered.

Example: Ask seven different students to speak the line

“I didn’t say he had a tattoo.” 

Have each student emphasize a different word while delivering the line, and encourage the use of appropriate gestures for added meaning. 


I didn’t say he had a tattoo.” 


“I didn’t say he had a tattoo.” 


“I didn’t say he had a tattoo.” 


And so forth…


Discussing this single line will highlight how truly limber language can be.

3.  Read and talk about the passage or scene from your specific play.  What images, words, and actions in the text are clues to character behavior and motivation?   

Example:  Is Hal rationalizing his behavior, manipulating his friends, or intentionally gaining knowledge of his kingdom?  What images, words, and actions can students use to support their interpretation?

4.  Break the students into groups.  Ask each group to study the passage or scene based on one of these motivations and to prepare a performance of it.  Give them 10–15 minutes to work out the performance.


5.  Each group performs their interpretation of the character for the class.  Follow up with discussion.

Interpreting Character
Sue Biondo-Hench and her students at Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania demonstrate the exercise.

Secondary School Shakespeare Festival

How To

"Having students imagine themselves and what they would do in a Shakespeare play really helps them connect to the text."
         - Sue Biondo-Hench
            Teacher, Carlisle High

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