Teaching Shakespeare!

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Building Characterization With Music

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By Sara Lehn

Teachers have long taken advantage of students’ love of music as a tool for the classroom, writing catchy tunes to act as mnemonic devices, playing educational songs and music videos, and so on.  Watch students in the hallway or cafeteria and you will inevitably find them with headphones blaring, blocking out the world.

As a singer, music speaks to me because of how it reflects the raw emotion of the human soul, and had you asked me at the age of seventeen what song best defined who I was, I could have answered quickly and without hesitation with a choice that clearly illustrated my mindset at the time.

I find that many of my students have an equally personal connection to their music. As a result, I have started to consider the ways that music can be used in the classroom as a tool to reflect the most human part of literature: the characters.

I ask students a simple question: what song represents this character the way your “anthem” represents you?  There is no wrong answer to this question, but a thoughtful response requires careful character study and exploration of textual evidence.  Students need to consider questions such as:

  • What does this character want?
  • What matters most to this character?
  • What emotions does this character most prominently feel?
  • What are the most significant personality traits that the character exhibits?

These questions can instigate a thoughtful and deep exploration of characterization within the text.  Students may also decide that more than one song choice is necessary, as characters frequently change and develop from one moment to the next.

For example, my seniors are currently reading Hamlet, and we have discussed the ways that Hamlet’s character develops over the course of the play. We have considered his anger, disgust, and revulsion at the beginning of the play and his struggle with self-hatred and the condemnation of his own cowardice in the middle.

As we move towards Act 5 we’ll be asking questions about whether he is able to find self-acceptance or peace before his death. Once we have a clear picture of the character, I can ask students to seek out specific musical choices that reflect these qualities and the development of emotion throughout the play.

These plays have so many possible interpretations that choices could go in many directions, but, as with anything, the key is to use specific textual evidence to support your claims. I am always intrigued to see what suggestions are made for various points in the character’s development.

Some choices that have struck me in the past include:

  • “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which, with disillusioned lyrics like, “Space may be the final frontier / but it’s made in a Hollywood basement” makes an interesting comparison to, “‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’” (Hamlet 1.2.79).
  • “Call Me When You’re Sober” by Evanescence, as a pairing for Hamlet’s immense loneliness and struggle to find someone he can trust. I can see him locked in his room with this song playing after he confronts Ophelia in Act 3, Scene 1, wailing out the chorus of “Don’t cry to me, if you loved me/ You would be here with me / You want me, come find me / Make up your mind.”
  • “Leave Out All the Rest” by Linkin Park, which, with lyrics like “When my time comes / Forget the wrong that I’ve done / Help me leave behind some / Reasons to be missed / Keep me in your memory / Leave out all the rest” creates an interesting parallel to Hamlet’s desire for peace and forgiveness at the end of the play.

Ultimately, students must use the textual evidence they find in the play to support their song choices.  Students might compare particular quotations spoken by or about the character to specific lyrics from the song, or explain how certain elements in the music connect back to a central emotion the character exhibits.


Sara Lehn teaches at Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York, where she has worked with all grades from 6 through 12.  She is an alumnus of the 2012 Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Sara can be reached at slehn@roslynschools.org.