Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Teacher Tuesday: Speaking Together

At the end of last week’s Teacher Tuesday, I shared a link to a video, Interpreting Shakespeare, with our Master Teacher Sue Biondo-Hench. In one section of the video, around 3:10, Sue breaks her students into groups to interpret and perform a single passage from Henry IV, part 1. They each interpret how performing one character’s speech as a group lends them insight into the text. They don’t have to make natural performance choices as if it is their single moment onstage delivering a soliloquy – rather, they’re approaching the text chorally to show different ways of interpreting complex text with their voices, movements, and group dynamics. This doesn’t necessarily mean they read it all together in unison – they can assign individuals lines or words to make them stand out, whisper or shout, create tableaux (stage pictures) to set the scene or its tone, or anything else they deem necessary to their point.

Choral Reading
Students perform at the 2013 Secondary Festival

A choral approach like this can be especially useful for group discussions. It gets small groups discussing their interpretation, which they then share with the whole class. No group will make all of the same choices, after all, because there are so many different ways to say and do any passage or scene – why not try a bunch and see what works? Discussing everyone’s choices (and knowing that none are “wrong”) gives the students more control and less fear of interpreting the text.

We have a few examples of teaching modules which use a chroal approach:

Complexity of Character in The Merchant of Venice: In this play, especially, no one is wholly “good” or “bad.” In this lesson, high school student groups take on a character apiece and perform one or two passages of text for that character to determine what their character is like, and in what ways they are complicated.

Shakespeare Sound Out: Building Atmosphere: For elementary and ESL/ELL students, getting over the language together is especially easy when approached chorally. With text from Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students use the rhythm and word choices in the text to determine the tone of the scene, and incorporate their choices into a performance.

Sonnet Performance: Shakespeare’s Sonnets as Scripts: The choral approach can even apply to poetry! As Louisa Newlin and Gigi Bradford say, “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.” Students shed some light on these sometimes ambiguous poems to create their own meanings.

How else would you use the choral approach with your class? Other plays, poems, or even books may be ripe fodder for a group to tackle. Have you used a chorus before? How did it go?


  • That’s a wonderful suggestion for “choral performances” of the Sonnets. I hope teachers won’t neglect the Sonnets, which are arguably the best poems in the English language.

    One question to ask students is “Why have so many prisoners around the world chosen to translate Shakespeare’s Sonnets into their languages while they are in prison?”

  • I’ve done choral approaches to a variety of texts, and it’s a tool that I share with teachers. Here are a few ‘variables’ 1) number of groups (2-6 is my recommendation). 2) movement (.e.g. toward each other, walking in a circle) 3) Volume (one group whisper / one shout, all get louder 4) different lines / same lines / echo effect (echoing can be a good effect esp. in inclusive classrooms where some kids aren’t strong readers).

    I like to get the teachers and students to think about ‘arranging’ the choral work so it reflects the spirit of the content. Soliloquies and Sonnets can be straight forward here. Other passages require some thought work, and I wouldn’t expect a newbie to get that right away. As students see a variety of choral arrangements, their toolboxes and options open up for what is possible.

  • Friv’s post reminds me of when I was invited to contribute an article to a French encyclopedia on psychoanalysis. They sent me a sample article, in English. It’s been years, but, as I recall, it included the phrase, “He made the knowledge of his woman…” Presumably, from “Il a fait la connaissance de sa femme…” I refused to be party to a project that so mangled the language. Anyway, the editor apologized, saying he’d used a computer translation, but the actual encyclopedia would have a much better translation. Which it did. So I did contribute.

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