Getting to Know Shakespeare's Characters

byBarbara Prillaman

Introduction and Rationale

One enters the room and feels the excitement. Thirty-three adolescents are sitting at desks arranged in small groups of four or five. Each is armed with books, post-it notes, highlighters, and pencils. Walking around the groups, one hears each of them speaking in English, taking turns to talk about the text that they have been reading. These English Language Learners (ELLs) are motivated and excited about what they are discussing. One sees their arms moving around, fingers pointing to parts of the book, and hears their voices as they get louder and louder trying to convince their group members that their opinion or idea is correct, that what they think matters. I walk around and stop at one group. I overhear Brenda, an ELL who has been in the United States for three and a half years, state, "Impossible, NO WAY this relationship is for real." Jose asks why. Brenda replies, "Three days, PLEASE, no way Romeo and Juliet met, fell in love, got married, and killed themselves in only three days. It does not happen that way." Imagine the pride and wonder I feel as their teacher. I think, "They get it, they really get it." What do they get? Shakespeare, can you imagine? My ELLs are reading, understanding, and discussing a revered author who is still feared by many students and adults alike!

Since my students stay within our program for more than one year, over two-thirds of the students in my 2008 - 2009 English Language Arts (ELA) class will remain with me in the upcoming academic year. These students had the benefit of being introduced to Shakespeare and his work this past school year. Together, we followed the unit I had created in the 2008 Yale National Initiative's Seminar, Race and Gender in Shakespeare. This unit, English Language Learners (ELLs) Investigate the Identity of Shakespeare and His Characters, exposed students to an author study of Shakespeare and a discussion of a few of his plays, including Romeo and Juliet. As a whole class, we read a comic strip, a children's version of the story, and then excerpts from the original play. This process was important as it scaffolded the English language for these students, who are currently reading between the second and fifth grade level in English, giving them the support structure necessary to comprehend the text, going from comic strip format with few words and many illustrations to the Shakespearean language of the original plays. Building upon our prior experience, this year students will be able to take what we have learned and apply it to the new information that we will acquire in the proposed unit, giving them a strong foundation for comprehending Shakespeare's works as well as the art of characterization.

Our focus will be on how students must be able to analyze characters in literature. According to state standards, students must be able to demonstrate an overall understanding of a story's elements including: plot, setting, and characters. In this unit, students will be required to analyze some of the most famous and complex characters in three of Shakespeare's plays - Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear. Analyzing characters and the role they play in developing a story's plot helps students better understand the stories they read. An analysis should involve a detailed examination of all aspects of the character, including but not limited to: traits, features, and motivation. Traits are considered to be words that can describe the persona - who is the character; a description of what he or she is like. Features are physical attributes: large, short, hairy, or muscular, among others. Motivation indicates why someone does what they do - what is responsible for their actions.


Our school is in transition, changing into a science and mathematics magnet school serving students in grades 6 - 12. This school houses one of the two middle level transitional bilingual programs (Spanish/English) in our district. At our school, this special program is indeed a "school within a school" serving approximately 85 students in the sixth - eighth grades. These students are English Language Learners (ELLs) who share Hispanic ethnicity. As recent immigrants or migrants, they are simultaneously acclimating themselves to a new school system, country, culture, and way of life. These students have all of their content area classes (English Language Arts, social studies, mathematics, and science) with the program's three teachers. I am one of these three teachers.

This unit is designed for these middle school ELLs in a multi-grade English class. The class is leveled so that sixth, seventh, and eighth graders performing at the highest English ability level (second to fifth grade reading level in English) are grouped together. In our classroom, this unit will take almost four weeks of block classes (84 minutes) to complete.

The Three Plays

The three plays chosen for this unit are Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear. All three of these plays were discussed in our seminars during the May and July meeting times. All three were new to me. Just as my students have improved their ability to read Shakespeare over the past year, so I have improved mine. I began my Shakespearean fest with the original plays and read them aloud. I have found that just as my students do, I am better able to understand the language by doing this. Things sure have changed, as last year I began with the comics strips first! After reading the six plays we were responsible for, I began to think of my students. Which plays would be most interesting to them? I outlined the main ideas for each of the plays - what were the story lines? More importantly, what were the characters like? Since this seminar focuses on human character, I wanted to be certain that there was enough depth in the main characters of the plays I chose. Of course, with Shakespeare this is easy as he breathes life into his characters; inner turmoil, passion, rage, among other emotions are common and essential to who his characters are. Lastly, I returned to the comic strips, children's versions, and graphic novels to determine which formats were available for each of the six plays we were responsible for reading. After evaluating all of my sources, I chose the three aforementioned plays. All three are considered tragedies and include history, murder, madness, and bad family dynamics, among other themes - all wonderful topics for adolescents! The following is my summary of each of these plays.


This tragedy written in 1600 - 1601, is Shakespeare's longest and what some acclaim to be his first true masterpiece. Set in Denmark, it is the story of a son who is trying to seek revenge for his father, the king. Hamlet returns home from his university studies to find his mother, Gertrude, has quickly married his father's brother, Claudius, after his father's death. As a result, Hamlet is robbed of the position of king - although no one thinks this is important to him. Yet even more disturbing to him are his mother's actions, which he considers to be incestuous in nature. He is in turmoil and contemplates suicide. However, his friend, Horatio, tells him that he has seen his father's ghost; Hamlet looks for this ghost whom he encounters; the ghost insists that he seek vengeance for what has been done to him. Hamlet's inner struggles with what he is undertaking (the killing of his uncle) cause him to delay his actions. His behavior becomes more and more unusual and many of those around him are disturbed by his actions and what he says. Hamlet continues to seek more proof to justify the act he believes that he has to commit. To help him prove his uncle's guilt, he has traveling performers put on a production that includes a death scene reminiscent of his father's. Claudius leaves abruptly during this scene, giving Hamlet the evidence he needs as to his guilt. Claudius, fearful of Hamlet and to ensure his own safety, determines that Hamlet must be sent away to England. When Hamlet later goes to his mother's bedchamber to confront her about her despicable actions, he stabs a person in hiding. It occurs to him after he has done so that it may be Claudius. However, it is Polonius, a counselor to the king and father of Ophelia to whom he was romantically linked. Ophelia kills herself in response to multiple reasons including Hamlet's actions against her father. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent with Hamlet to accompany him to England. Claudius has also given them a sealed envelope with orders to kill him upon their arrival. Pirates prevent Hamlet's ship from arriving in England, so he returns, having successfully arranged to consign Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to his own intended fate. Claudius conceives a plan to have him fight Laertes, the son of Polonius and sister to Ophelia. He also has a poisoned drink as a back-up plan. According to tragedy format, the queen drinks the poison and dies, Laertes wounds Hamlet who dies slowly from the poison on the blade and cuts himself so that he too dies. Lastly, before dying Hamlet succeeds in avenging his father by injuring Claudius with the poisoned sword and having him drink the remainder of the poison so that he too dies.

Julius Caesar

This play, written in 1599, depicts the plot to kill Julius Caesar. This tragedy is set in the year that he was killed, 44B.C. He had been a well-thought of leader for two years and an all-conquering general for much longer. In fact, the people of Rome believed him to be almost god-like. A military and political figure and friend of Caesar's, Brutus, is concerned that Caesar is too highly revered and that people will want to give Caesar ultimate power instead of the oligarchic Senate. His talks with Cassius, another military and political figure, make him even more concerned about this issue. Cassius uses these feelings of unrest to manipulate Brutus into thinking with more certainty that Caesar is a too-ambitious leader and should be killed. Key to this plot is a letter that Cassius plants. Brutus reads in this letter that the people of the Republic are concerned about the powerful Caesar. Cassius arrives at Brutus' house and together they devise a plan to rid the Republic of Caesar and his control. As Caesar readies himself to leave his house to go to the Senate, his wife convinces him to stay at home due to the premonition of his death in her dreams she had the night before. He concedes but later changes his mind when one of the conspirators comes by to assure him all is well. Although he is warned again by a soothsayer and a citizen of danger, Caesar arrives at the Senate with the conspirators, who attack and kill him. Antony, a military and political figure, swears revenge for the death of Caesar although we do not know this for sure until his oration. He speaks at Caesar's funeral, convincing the crowd of Caesar's good will and love for Rome and its people. The crowd becomes outraged and seeks to avenge his death. Brutus and Cassius are exiled and begin to raise armies outside the city. Caesar's adopted son, Octavius, returns to Rome and works with Antony and Lepidus to fight against Brutus and Cassius. Due to misinformation, Cassius orders his own death by the sword that had killed Caesar. With certain defeat and the death of his friend, Brutus too asks for the help of his men as he stabs himself with his own sword. Antony speaks warmly over Brutus' dead body, saying that Brutus was the best of Romans as his actions were in the name of the Republic. Brutus is honorably buried.

King Lear

This tragedy, written in 1605, takes place in Britain. It is the story of a king and his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. King Lear has decided to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters. He wants to be king yet not have the responsibilities of the position. Summoning the three daughters, he has each of them describe how much she loves him. Both Goneril and Regan flatter him, which he loves. However, when he asks his true favorite daughter, Cordelia, the same question, she responds that she will divide her love between her father and her future husband. King Lear is not satisfied with this answer. He is most disappointed that she did not flatter him in the same way that her sisters did so he disowns her. One of her suitors, the King of France, still decides to marry her, stating she "is herself a dowry". 1 Cordelia goes to France with her new husband. Not long after, Lear realizes he has made a mistake. His daughters, who should be caring for him, treat him horribly. He begins to go insane as he realizes that his daughters are betraying him and wanders off in a horrible storm to walk around on the heath. Gloucester, an elderly nobleman, also has his own familial problems. His illegitimate son, Edmund, gets him to believe that his legitimate son, Edgar, is trying to kill him. Edgar, fearful for his life, also heads out to the heath disguised as a beggar. Regan and Cornwall discover that Gloucester is trying to help Lear so they blind him and he is left to wander around. His son, Edgar, encounters him and brings him to the city of Dover where Lear is also to be found. It is there that Cordelia is with a French army trying to save her father. Edmund's troops defeat Cordelia's army. She and Lear are captured. What follows is a series of "tragedies": Edgar kills Edmund, Gloucester dies, Goneril kills her sister, Regan, and then herself, Cordelia is killed by Edmund's order, and Lear dies of grief.


This year the seminar's central theme is human character. Conversations have highlighted questions such as: What is character? What do we mean by the phrase "human character"? As a group we have decided that there is more than one way to think about character. A character is a person who speaks, who has lines in a theatrical performance or in a book. Our discussions in seminar also focused on Aristotle's description of character. He thought that it is something that embellishes the plot but the characters are not particularly necessary in the story, meaning that "faceless people" could deliver the plot. Shakespeare appears to think that the characters are more important than the plot. His characters' speeches reveal their traits, showing how they will act. They also indicate what the character wants other people to think of them versus what they really are. E.M. Forster 2 posits that in life we do not fully know others. We make guesses according to external signs. However, in a novel - or in this case a play - we can come to completely know the character - "their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed." 3 Soliloquies give special voice to a character's thoughts, giving us an opportunity to experience what Forster refers to.

A character analysis is a detailed examination of all aspects of a character. It refers to the methods that a writer uses to develop a character, such as a description of what the character looks like, what the character chooses to say or do, what other characters say about him. All of these things give us insight to what a character is like. Analyzing characters enables readers to better understand their actions, thoughts, conflicts, relationships with others, and appreciate how they may change throughout the course of the story.

The following section expresses a synthesis of the information I gained from readings and seminar sessions about the main characters in Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and King Lear. These aim to provide background knowledge regarding Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Brutus, King Lear, and Cordelia.


A central question is, is Hamlet is pretending to be mad or is he really mad? Hamlet appears to be very self-pitying. His whole world has been turned upside-down. He returns from his university studies in response to his father's death and suffers from extreme despair regarding his mother's marrying his uncle so quickly. The anguish and disgust that he feels over her marriage is expressed when he says, "My father's brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules. Within a month,/Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears/Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,/She married. O, most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!/It is not, nor it cannot come to good./But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue." 4 Over and over, Hamlet brings up the idea that his mother has re-married too quickly and to an inferior person. Before the play begins he responds ironically to Ophelia's comment that his father has been dead for two months, "So long? Nay then, let the devil wear black,/for I'll have a suit of sables. O heavens! Die two/months ago, and not forgotten yet." 5

Melancholy is a word that is used to describe Hamlet by many critics. However, this could be viewed in two ways: he is melancholic by nature or he is melancholic by circumstance. The Signet introduction refers to A.C. Bradley's work, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) in which he wrote that he believed Hamlet's melancholy is not the norm for him. This feeling was brought about by the murder of his father and the incestuous marriage of his mother to the killer. 6

He deliberates and hesitates constantly in regard to killing his uncle. On various occasions Hamlet speaks to his indecision about what to do - should he seek revenge and kill his uncle? Is he justified in committing such an act? He is in turmoil throughout the whole play. He wants undeniable proof that he should do what he has been charged to do by the ghost and is fearful that the ghost could be a demon in the disguise of his father. His action needs to be justifiable, as this could damn him for eternity. Indecision is evident when he comes upon his uncle praying, an easy target, yet Hamlet is unable to kill him, believing that at the moment his uncle would go to Heaven. Later in the play, after meeting up with the Norwegian heir-apparent, Fortinbras, who explains about his desire to fight for what Hamlet considers only a small piece of land, he finally is coming to terms with what he needs to do - kill his uncle. Later he tells his friend, Horatio, "Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon -/He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother,/Popped in between th' election and my hopes,/Thrown out his angle for my proper life,/And with such coz'nage - is't not perfect con-/science/To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned/To let this canker of our nature come/In further evil." 7

Hamlet is contradictory when it comes to his actions. He is concerned about making a wrong move in killing his uncle for his father's death and internally debates the morality of this action. Yet he stabs and kills Polonius behind a curtain, not even checking to see who it was. People are uneasy about Hamlet's erratic behavior. Ophelia is concerned. Their interactions cause her more alarm as he does not indicate that he returns her love. In fact, he states that she should get herself to a nunnery to avoid becoming a "breeder of sinners". 8 She continues to pray for his sanity to be restored as he denounces marriage. Erratic behavior is demonstrated again when the players are to begin their performance and he makes merry with Ophelia. One wonders at his highs and lows. He is playful with her at first and then in her company insults women in general when he also compares the brevity of the performance's prologue to a woman's love. Later, he answers in riddles when it comes to telling where he has left Polonius' body. "The body is with the King, but the King is not/with the body. The King is a thing-/ and ends with Of nothing. Bring me to him. Hide fox, and/all after." 9

Until the very end he is preoccupied with what he has done and wants others to know that he was correct in his actions. He speaks to Horatio about this[:] "Thou livest; report me and my cause aright/To the unsatisfied. 5.2 line 340. And, "O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,/Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!/If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile,/And in this harsh world draw they breath in pain,/To tell my story." 1 0 Hamlet's tortured self is still evident to the very end.

Julius Caesar

Caesar is the leader of the Roman Republic, yet our first view of him appears to be contradictory to what we might envision in a leader. We have a glimpse of him as someone who might be impotent and is publically blaming his wife. He tells Antony to be certain to touch Calphurnia, his wife, to rid her of the curse of sterility. "Forget not in your speed, Antonius,/To touch Calphurnia, for our elders say/The barren, touched in this holy chase,/Shake off their sterile curse." 1 1 His insecurity comes through as he mentions this to be certain that the public does not think that it is he who cannot have a child. Superstitious is another word to describe Caesar. He listens to his wife's recollection of her disturbing dream in which blood comes from Caesar. He gives in to her saying, "Mark Antony shall say I am not weu,/And for thy humor I will stay at home." 1 2 He does tell others of her dream and that he has chosen to stay at home as a favor to her. Decius, one of the conspirators, interprets Calphurnia's dreams for him in another way, not making it seem dangerous. His superstitions are eased and he is persuaded to go about his day and go to the Senate, telling his wife that he is ashamed at having listend to her. "How foolish do your fears seem now, Calphurnia!/I am ashamed I did yield to them./Give me my robe, for I will go." 1 3 Does this type of behavior truly demonstrate a ruler's demeanor[?—] being easily swayed from one side to another? Furthermore, his infirmities are accumulating. His deafness is referred to in a few scenes: "Who is it in the press that calls on me?/I hear a tongue shriller than all the music/Cry 'Caesar.' Caesar is turned to hear." 1 4 Again there is reference to this: "Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,/And tell me truly what thou think'st of him." 1 5 Cassius also provides evidence, speaking about when they were in Spain and Caesar cried out for help when he had a fever, reminiscent of a "sick girl". 1 6 Casca explains that Caesar "swooned and fell down at it" 1 7when offered the crown three times. Casca follows up by saying: "He fell down in the marketplace and foamed at/ mouth and was speechless." 1 8 Yet despite all of this, he has done magnificent things for Rome. He has conquered many people and their lands bringing great wealth and power to the Republic. He did refuse the crown three times although Antony tried to give it to him repeatedly. Also, Antony mentions Caesar's will (after he has been murdered) in which he offers his gardens to be made public and, "To every Roman citizen he gives,/To every several man, seventy-five drachmas" 1 9, aiming to show that his heart was in the right place.


Brutus, the play's most complex character, is Caesar's best friend who loves him dearly. Yet he is a true Republican; looking towards the good of the State above all else. Above all he is noble. Examples of this are seen throughout the play. From the beginning of the play he is worried about Caesar's aspirations and those of the Romans who revere Caesar to be more god-like than man. Brutus believes this is dangerous to the stability of the State. Brutus refers to an inner struggle or war with himself. He verbalizes these fears to Cassius: "I do fear the people/Choose Caesar for their king." 2 0 Later Casca states that the epileptic episode that Caesar suffered did not even matter to the people; they still supported and treated him as god-like. Cassius also states, "In awe of such a thing as I myself./I was born free as Caesar; so were you;/We both have fed as well, and we can both/Endure the winter's cold as well as he." 2 1 His comments support Brutus' dispassionate conviction that this situation is a matter of political principle. Not one man, who is like all men, should rule over others. Following these conversations, on a stormy evening, Brutus finds a "planted" letter by Cassius explaining that the Romans are not happy with Caesar's power. He continues to be tortured with the information that Cassius gives him and now by the letter. He tells this to Lucius: "Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,/I have not slept./Between the acting of a dreadful thing/And the first motion, all the interim is/Like a phantasma or a hideous dream./The genius and the moral instruments/Are then in council, and the state of man,/Like to a little kingdom, suffers then/The nature of an insurrection." 2 2 Others persuade him that Caesar must die to preserve the Republic. While planning this undertaking, he demonstrates his nobleness by explaining why they should not kill Mark Antony and the manner in which they should kill Caesar: "Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius./We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,/And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,/Caesar must bleed for it. And gentle friends,/Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully./Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,/Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds." 2 3 Honor is also in the forefront when he speaks of his wife, Portia. Despite numerous pleas from Portia, Brutus leaves her out of a plan that has been hatched to kill Caesar to save the State. In her despair, Portia first wounds herself and later commits suicide. Brutus comments, "O ye gods,/Render me worthy of this noble wife!" 2 4 After her injury he indicates that he admires her and hopes that he can be just as strong, Although Brutus acts in the name of republican ideals, I can only imagine that when he participates in the killing of Caesar and Caesar says to him, "Et tu Brute? - Then fall, Caesar" 2 5 (line 85), Brutus must feel some remorse for his actions against his friend. At Caesar's funeral, Brutus speaks briefly to the crowd before Mark Antony begins his address. Brutus asks the crowd to remember that he too loved Caesar, honored him, but because of the danger he represented to the Republic, the act was necessary. At this point, he leaves. Why? In our seminar discussion, I was reminded that Brutus is noble. He believes that Antony will do the right thing; say the right thing. However, this does not happen. Brutus, once again, makes an error in judgment much like the ones before, when he decides to spare Mark Antony against the desire of the conspirators. At the end of the play when Antony speaks over the body of Brutus, he confirms that Brutus was not following the same path as the other conspirators with their personal grievances but that he did join and commit himself to the killing of Caesar in the name of political ideals. As was suggested in our seminar, the key to Brutus is his exaggerated, distorting devotion to what he thinks of as "reason".

King Lear

King Lear plans to divide his kingdom into three parts, giving each of his daughters a share. This is a strange plan. It goes against what a king should do, promoting the division instead of the unity of a kingdom. 2 6 He seems to want the "rewards" of a kingly position but none of the responsibilities. When dividing up the kingdom, he asks his daughters to proclaim their love for him, describing how much each of them loves him:

"Tell me, my daughters/(Since now we will divest us both of rule,/Interest of territory, cares of state),/Which of you shall we say doth love us most,/That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merit challenge." 2 7 Although Lear begins with the idea that each daughter will inherit a comparable piece of terrain, this quote makes us think otherwise. He proclaims it a challenge and further indicates that the daughter with the most pleasing answer will be rewarded with more or the best land. He is most disappointed with his youngest daughter's comments, as he has loved her the most, and banishes her from the kingdom. His older two daughters to whom he has bequeathed everything do not care for him. In fact, they want to take away things from him that they determine are too costly and that he does not need. He faces numerous humiliations in which he is the selfish ruler wanting only more and more flattery from those around him, until he becomes an old man who realizes the truth of his youngest daughter's love. She proves this by fighting for his safety and enduring a needless execution in prison. Although his values have changed and he is transformed, he dies from the heartbreak of losing Cordelia.


When asked to flatter her father with words of her love she has none. She knows that she loves her father dearly and while she listens to her sisters speak she knows that their words mean nothing. She tells him, "I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty / According to my bond; nor more nor less." 2 8 When urged by him she replies, "Nothing." Her words are not enough for Lear who banishes her from the kingdom. Cordelia's purity and the depth of her love for her father even after she has been banished from the kingdom are demonstrated when she asks her sisters, Goneril and Regan, to take care of their father: "Love well our/father./To your professed bosoms I commit him." 2 9 She is the opposite of her sisters, who embody pure hatred, selfishness, and evil: treating their father poorly, lusting after another man - the same man - although they are married themselves. Cordelia's purity is all the more noticeable in contrast to these two although she is not even in a large portion of the play. Her strength is demonstrated when she returns to Dover with an army to save her father who is wandering around insane. Her undying devotion to her father and the true love she feels for him are displayed when she says, "O my dear father, restoration hang/Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss/Repair those violent harms that my two sisters/Have in thy reverence made." 3 0 Her sisters' armies defeat her own and she and her father are imprisoned. She exhibits her strength again when she proclaims, "We are not the first/Who with best meaning have incurred the worst./For thee, oppressed King, I am cast down;/Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown." 3 1 True to a tragedy, word comes too late to save Cordelia, so she is hanged. Lear follows in death due to his uncontrollable sorrow.


Students will learn how to analyze a character in a Shakespearean text. Using the scaffolding method of introducing students to Shakespeare, they will first look at a comic strip representation, then a children's version by E. Nesbit 3 2, afterwards a graphic novel and, finally, at excerpts of the original play. This method worked wonders last year in our unit. After being introduced to the comic strips, students said they were disappointed there was not enough information! This was a perfect bridge to the more challenging children's versions, graphic novels, and play excerpts. Armed with this understanding of Hamlet's plot and characters, students will be taught how to follow a process in analyzing the character of Hamlet and to write a character analysis about him. Last year, the unit's focus was on the identity of a character. Students expressed what type of person the character was by listing personality traits such as friendly, young, angry, intelligent and provided evidence from the text to prove what they had listed. This year's focus goes in-depth, explaining HOW to analyze a character and how to write a character analysis.

Our state's recommended curriculum units are created following the Understanding by Design model based on research and theory by Grant and Wiggins 3 3. The overarching idea is to teach for understanding beginning from the end, focusing on the question of what you want students to know. Enduring Understandings are the big ideas of the unit and are vital to students' comprehension of content and concepts. They have lasting value and help to make the content meaningful. In this unit these Enduring Understandings include: students will understand the author's use of a variety of means to develop the characters in their stories. They will also recognize that authors use characters to reveal aspects of human nature and/or life. In addition, they will realize that analyzing characters helps one to better understand the author's story. And lastly, they will come to appreciate that Shakespeare was a "master" at developing his characters, which makes his plays all the more interesting.


These native Spanish speaking ELLs face many challenges as they enter middle school: reading pressures escalate due to more demanding texts and they must learn the English language in addition to content area information. Incorporating literacy skills into each lesson is essential to my students' success. This is especially true for adolescent ELLs who are reading well below grade level. The use of these strategies in the students' reading of Shakespeare's plays is essential if they are to understand what is happening in the plays and be able to effectively analyze the characters.

Analysis Process

This analysis process was discussed during our seminar time and refined to meet the needs of my students as well as stay true to the text. It is divided into two sections: Dramatic Evidence and Textual Evidence. The dramatic evidence (the left side of the graphic organizer) includes ethics, motivation, actions, and the effects of the character's behavior on others. It can also be referred to for the students as what we learn from a character's behavior. The textual evidence (the right side of the graphic organizer) comprises the historical time period of the play, words and items/props representative of the character in addition to their interpretation of the author's thoughts and reading between the lines - which refers to the implicit thoughts of the characters. What we learn from reading the play is a reciprocal relationship in which we construct meaning from using our background knowledge to connect to what is written.

The following areas will be focused on for the character analysis:

  1. Ethics
    • An individual's moral principles; 3 4 making just or unjust choices; what does this say about the character?
  2. Actions
    • "Something done or performed; act; deed. An act that one consciously wills and that may be characterized by physical or mental activity." 3 5 One can learn a lot about a character from how he behaves, what he does.
  3. Motivation
    • Pros/cons of characters' internal thoughts in relation to external actions. It is necessary to distinguish real motives from false or apparent motives.
  4. The effects of the character's behavior on other characters
    • A person's ethics and motivation lead them to their actions - what they do. These actions have an effect on other characters.
  5. Historical period
    • The historical period of a text gives clues as to why a character might act in such a way. "Put the character's actions and thoughts into context." 3 6 Sometimes information is embedded in the text that helps the reader to determine the historical time period giving us references as to how and/or why someone would act in the way that they do. At times, some direction or frontloading information for students about the historical time period of the play may need to be given for them to make the distinction between the time period of the play and the time period in which Shakespeare wrote his plays.
  6. Repeated words that describe the character
    • "These words often give insight into a character's psychology and motivations." 37
  7. Items/props associated with the character
    • These may indicate what the character is like at the time - what is their "state of mind." 38
  8. What does the author think about the character?
    • Many times the author's writing includes clues that give insight into what they think about their own characters. What judgments do they have about them?
  9. Read between the lines
    • What a character does not say is just as important as what he does. Many times when reading stories or plays, the reader must be able to look for clues, look for things that are not written.

Accompanying this process is a graphic organizer that I have developed (Appendix B) in the hopes that students will better understand the flow of how one step leads to another in regard to analyzing a character. Ethics and motivation both contribute to the actions of a person which in turn have effects on other people. These steps (1, 2, 3, and 4) are listed on one side of the graphic organizer as they all pertain to the character himself. On the other side of the graphic organizer the specifics that are related to the text are listed including: historical period, words and items related to the character, the author's thoughts, and information that can be read between the lines. These steps (5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) consist of information that can be found in the text. Not included in these nine aspects for a character analysis is the physical description of the character, which is located on the other side of the graphic organizer. There is also space for the students to create an illustration of their interpretation of the character's physical appearance. Students must have evidence from the text to support their illustrations - why did they draw what they did? Students will be taught "how to read" and use the graphic organizer to understand and analyze the character.

After going through the scaffolded process, the whole class will discuss the play's main character, Hamlet. The graphic organizer should be modeled for students using the character Hamlet. Step-by-step, working together, the class will determine the dramatic and textual evidence to better understand Hamlet. Beginning with Ethics on the Dramatic Evidence side of the graphic organizer, students may state things such as: Hamlet was tormented regarding the decision to murder his uncle. Motivation is clear in that Hamlet is to avenge his father's murder. Actions are many and may be varied in student answers. These could include: he acts mad, he has a play performed for proof that his uncle did commit the murder, he mistakenly kills Polonius, and he does not kill Claudius in the church, among others. His behavior affects others. One effect is that Ophelia kills herself from the shock of her father's death and Hamlet's "madness". On the Textual Evidence side of the graphic organizer, students will learn that the play takes place in Denmark in the 12 th century to complete the Historical Period of the Play. Words describing him multiple times include mad. Items associated with Hamlet could include: sword, curtain, ghost, skull, goblet, and poison. Author's Thoughts and Read Between the Lines will prove to be more difficult. Having small group and whole-class discussions will assist with this matter. After gathering all of this information, students will complete the second side of the graphic organizer. Students will illustrate Hamlet as well as describe what he looks like. After all of this is completed, students will be able to construct a two-paragraph analysis: paragraph one consists of the dramatic evidence and paragraph two of the textual evidence.

Teacher Read-Aloud and Think-Aloud

How students read is as important as what they read. Reading aloud is an important tool, even for older learners. It can be used to allow students to focus on comprehension rather than worrying about pronouncing everything correctly. At the same time, it does also provide a model of expressive reading and correct pronunciation. It makes the text more accessible, builds their oral English capability, and helps them construct meaning from the text. 3 9 For the Hamlet lesson, a teacher read-aloud is used because of the students' limited English proficiency levels. In doing this, I will model the English language for the students. The read-aloud provides students access to the true Shakespearean language of Hamlet without making them frustrated with the text itself. Students will have multiple opportunities to hear me read this language before they try it for themselves.

Teacher think-alouds are vital for students to hear someone, in this case the teacher, verbalize the process of reading by using the proficient reading strategies. Fitzgerald and Graves 4 0 posit that this helps students to glean more meaning and interest from the text.

Graphic Organizers

A graphic organizer is "a visual and graphic display that depicts the relationships among facts, terms, and ideas within a learning task." 4 1 In my classroom, two of the first words students learn in English are "graphic" and "organizers"! Using graphic organizers helps to make content more supportive for students, scaffolding the information to be learned and giving them access to content that otherwise might be too difficult for them. This also helps to organize complex information into a much easier-to-read format 4 2 which is helpful to ELLs. In our case, we will use it to help bring structure to our planning for our writing project - the character analysis.

Literature Circles

Student discussion is vital in the Shakespeare unit. Students need multiple opportunities to read, re-read, and discuss texts with each other. Literature circles provide ELLs with opportunities to use the English language in meaningful ways while being supported by their peers. They may be unable to do this in whole class situations because they are self-conscious and do not want to look foolish in front of a large group of their peers. Due to the smaller group size, students are able to have more turns to participate in a conversation, and experience less anxiety about speaking in front of others. In Literature Circles, students co-construct meaning by using good literacy practices such as questioning, clarifying and connecting new information to what they already know. Imagine their discussions of love, betrayal, death, and war, amongst other things. Shakespeare's plays are excellent resources for providing an opportunity to promote language development.

Proficient Reading Strategies

This unit will be taught during the early weeks of the beginning of the school year as a follow up to our end-of-the-year unit introducing Shakespeare. Although most of the students have already been in our class, many, if not all, will need assistance to become proficient in the use of or familiar again with the reading strategies. They are able to learn these strategies by having a teacher explain, demonstrate, and apply them while reading. I will do just that during the teaching of the first play, Hamlet. It is vital to allow for opportunities to practice the strategies with the students, providing feedback and time for discussion. ELLs' use of proficient reader strategies (predicting, making connections, questioning, inferring, visualizing, determining the main idea, and summarizing) to assist them before, during, and after reading is critical to their comprehension of complex texts. Imagine what fun we will have using the proficient strategies while reading Hamlet. They may predict that Hamlet will kill Claudius, make a connection that they too have had troubles understanding why a parent has done something, and question why Hamlet is waiting so long to take action. All of these strategies can provide ELLs with the tools they need to construct meaning from the complex texts, such as Shakespeare's, that they are required to read.


This is a teacher-maintained website in which students are regularly required to write about what they are reading, including comments and questions about the reading material. Students "interact" with each other in a written format to develop their English written skills. In doing so, they are communicating with their peers orally (in their Literature Circles) and in written format, providing multiple opportunities for using the English language. This provides an entertaining atmosphere for students to write in English.

Classroom Activities

Lesson One - Character Analysis

How does analyzing a character help a reader to better understand the story? How are the character's characteristics revealed?

This introductory lesson gives students an opportunity to learn more about characters, characterization, and how character study can be applied to their own lives and later to the lives of characters in Shakespeare's plays.

Anticipatory Set: Have students brainstorm what the word character means by putting all words that come to mind on a poster paper.

Directed Instruction: Explain the various literary terms for understanding a character analysis. In groups, have students talk with their group members to list examples of each of the literary terms: character, analysis, characterization, main, minor, internal and external conflict, complications, climax, motivation, strengths, weaknesses, flat, round, static, and dynamic characters and conflict. Then, the groups should share out their examples and a class example should also be noted on their individual graphic organizers (Appendix C).

Activity: Students will create an I AM poem about themselves, giving them an opportunity to think about themselves as a "character". Some class time will be dedicated to the development of the idea. The project can be completed in two ways: on the computer from the website or at in which one can download the format. This step is preparing students for when they will be creating a similar poem for the character of Hamlet and for a character from either Julius Caesar or King Lear.

Assessment: Student I AM Poems

Lesson Two - Hamlet

What aspects of human nature and/or life is Shakespeare trying to reveal through his characters?

This lesson is a scaffolded reading experience in which students will "progress" through varied texts to better comprehend Hamlet - the play - and to analyze the character of Hamlet using the Character Analysis graphic organizer.

Anticipatory Set: Have students look at the character analysis graphic organizer (Appendix B). Have them evaluate it to determine which words they understand and are able to explain and the words they still need assistance with. Then, have them focus on the meaning of the section titles. What needs clarification?

Directed Instruction: This is the teacher's opportunity to scaffold this reading experience for his/her students going from a comic strip, to a children's version of the play, on to graphic novels and/or finally to original acts/scenes from the play. First, introduce the comic strip. Think aloud for the students, explaining what you notice about the play from the clues of the comic strip. "I see that the colors on the pages start out dark, in fact, most of them are dark - grey and black. I think this means that something not good is going to happen. I notice there is a ghost that appears a few times in this play. I wonder if it is horror play? Why would there be a ghost? Does this mean that someone died? I also see that the character named Hamlet is also the title of the play. I bet he is the main character. He seems to act a little crazy. I see him standing on his head, declaring he is mad, and stabbing someone. Is he a murderer?" Second, read aloud the children's version of Hamlet, using the proficient reading strategies. "I predict this will be about because…I wonder why there is a ghost who seems angry?...I have a connection with the name Ophelia, one of my friends' sister is named Ophelia. I think that Hamlet was foolish when he did not look behind the curtain. I wonder what would have happened if Hamlet had not believed the ghost?" Third, hand out the Character Analysis graphic organizer (Appendix B). Show students how to move through the plays' acts and scenes to uncover what they demonstrate about the character. Read aloud these portions of the play with expression so that students can understand the depth of the words.

Activity: At each stage - comic strip, children's version, and plays - have students view, read, and discuss with their small groups. Together, they will create a list of the general ideas they have of the play. Then, have students focus on Hamlet. Explain that they will re-read and look through the text(s) to complete their graphic organizers. For each of these aspects they must cite evidence from the sources. Students will use the information they have gained from viewing, reading, discussing, and taking notes on their graphic organizers to complete the two culminating activities. Then, they will write an I AM poem for the character Hamlet. Referring back to the graphic organizer again, students can use the Dramatic (left-side) and Textual (right-side) evidence to write their character analysis. A two paragraph essay is easy to produce while using the graphic organizer as their guide. The writing process - prewriting, writing, revising, editing, and publishing will - be followed in the development of their two paragraph essays for the character of Hamlet and then for one of the next lesson's main characters as well.

Assessment: Literature Circle Conversations and Post-It Notes, Character Analysis Graphic Organizer, Hamlet I AM Poem (Example is Appendix E), and Character Analysis Essay

Lesson Three - Literature Circles: Julius Caesar and King Lear

What aspects of human nature and/or life is Shakespeare trying to reveal through his characters?

This lesson is a scaffolded reading experience in which students will "progress" through varied texts in their Literature Circles to better comprehend their choice of Julius Caesar or King Lear. With their Literature Circle members, they will analyze Julius Caesar, Brutus, King Lear or Cordelia, depending on their choice, by using the Character Analysis graphic organizer.

Anticipatory Set: Read to students the descriptions of Julius Caesar and King Lear. Have them write down which play they would like to read and why.

Directed Instruction: Review with the students the protocol for Literature Circles, including rules, expectations, and proficient reading strategies. Also, remind students that during this Literature Circle round they should take special care in following the 10-step analysis process of the main characters (Julius Caesar and Brutus or King Lear and Cordelia). Give students the comic strip/graphic novel, children's story, and original plays with the play lists of important acts/scenes (chosen by you). If a teacher is unfamiliar with the Literature Circle format, do not begin using this now! Literature Circles are established slowly, following a special formula. A modification for this portion is to group students to read the two plays, either by student or teacher choice.

Activity: Use the Literature Circle model to group students according to their choice of play. Students will be organized into small groups of three to six. They will use the same process in uncovering information about the play's characters as had been modeled for them in the last lesson, about Hamlet.

Assessment: Literature Circle Conversations, Post-It Notes, Character Analysis Graphic Organizers, I AM Character Poem (of either Julius Ceasar, Brutus, King Lear, or Cordelia), and Character Analysis Essay

Teacher Resources

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

This book provides critical essays regarding Shakespeare's plays.

Enotes. "How to Write a Character Analysis." Enotes (n.d.), (accessed March 12, 2009).

    Self-explanatory, really. This website provides a quick reference on how to write a character analysis in 10 steps.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. Orlando, Harcourt Incorporated, 1927.

    Useful background knowledge for the teacher regarding a novel including the plot, characters, among other story elements.

Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. United States: Anchor Books, 2004.

    Critical essays regarding Shakespeare's works analyzing the plays and their characters.

Hall, Tracey and Nicole Strangman. "CAST Universal Design for Learning: Graphic Organizers." (2002), (accessed July 12, 2008).

Excellent teacher resource regarding graphic organizers.

Nuttall, A.D. Shakespeare: The Thinker. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

ReadWriteThink. "Three Elements of Characterization," (2007), (accessed July 8, 2008).

Appendix E is modeled after the information from this website.

Student Resources

Brandenberg, Aliki. William Shakespeare & the Globe. China: Harper Collins Publisher, 1999.

This children's literature book is written in a play format introducing Shakespeare to young or struggling readers of English.

Chrisp, Peter. Welcome to the Globe: The Story of Shakespeare. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limted, 2000.

This DK book describes activities that occurred at the Globe Theater through its'

characters to explain what they did during this exciting time period.

Dunton-Deowner, Leslie and Alan Riding. Essential Shakespeare Handbook. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2004.

    A comprehensive guidebook to William Shakespeare's life and works.

Farrens, Brian. Graphic Shakespeare: William Shakespeare's King Lear. Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009.

    A graphic novel version of King Lear. Easier English text is available.

Ford, Michael. Graphic Classics: Julius Caesar/William Shakespeare. Hauppauge: Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

    Excellent graphic version of Julius Caesar. Characters are introduced at the beginning and the illustrations are well done.

Mannis, Celeste Davidson. Who Was William Shakespeare? New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 2006.

This resource explains historical facts about Shakespeare's life. The illustrations will captivate even your most reluctant readers!

Nesbit, E. The Children's Shakespeare. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2000.

A variety of Shakespeare's plays are re-written (illustrations included) into children's stories.

No Fear Shakespeare/Graphic Novels: Hamlet. New York: Spark Publishing, 2008.

Black and white comic strip feel-to-it version. Students will be entertained by the writing and the illustrations all the while understanding Shakespeare's play.

Williams, Marcia. Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare! London: Walker Books and Subsidiaries, 2000.

The vivid comics give meaning to the play's plots and characters.

Williams, Marcia. Tales from Shakespeare. Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 1998.

The vivid comics give meaning to Shakespeare's various plays.

Appendix A

DE ELA #1 Use written and oral English appropriate for various purposes and audiences.

DE ELA #2 Construct, examine, and extend the meaning of literary, informative, and technical texts through listening, reading, and viewing.

DE ELA #3 Access, organize, and evaluate information gained through listening, reading, and viewing.

DE ELA #4 Use literary knowledge accessed through print and visual media to connect self to society and culture.

This unit addresses each of the English Language Arts standards. Students will be reading (#2) various types of texts to comprehend (#3) Shakespeare's stories and characters. They will make connections to themselves (#4) in their discussions with their Literature Circle members and write a character analysis of one of Shakespeare's characters (#1).

Appendix B

Character: __________________________________

Protagonist OR Antagonist



Appendix C

Understanding Character Analysis (Adapted by Prillaman, 2009 from Scholastic


Appendix D

Character - Hamlet


Appendix E

    I am dutiful and disturbed
    I wonder if my uncle, Claudius, really did kill my father
    I hear myself think
    I see my father's ghost
    I want revenge in the name of him
    I am dutiful and disturbed
    I pretend to be mad
    I feel disgusted by my mother's incestuous actions
    I touch upon the truth much to my uncle's dismay
    I worry that I may be making the wrong decision
    I cry because my whole family has fallen apart
    I am dutiful and disturbed
    I understand NOW that he did kill my father
    I say revenge is just
    I dream that I will right the wrongs that have occurred
    I try to do something right
    I hope that what I do is forgivable
    I am dutiful and disturbed
    (From: Write an I Am Poem


  • 1 William Shakespeare, King Lear, I i 243.
  • 2 E.M. Forester, Aspects of the Novel, 47.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, I ii 153-158.
  • 5 Ibid., III ii 133-133.
  • 6 Ibid., Ixxix.
  • 7 Ibid., V ii 63-70.
  • 8 Ibid., III i 122.
  • 9 Ibid., IV iii 26-30.
  • 10 Ibid., V ii 345 -349.
  • 11 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, I ii 8-11.
  • 12 Ibid, II ii 59 -60.
  • 13 Ibid., II ii 110 -112.
  • 14 Ibid., I ii 18-20.
  • 15 Ibid., I ii 223-224.
  • 16 Ibid., I ii 135.
  • 17 Ibid., I ii 259.
  • 18 Ibid., I ii 263-264.
  • 19 Ibid., III ii 254-256.
  • 20 Ibid., I ii 85-86.
  • 21 Ibid., I ii 103-106.
  • 22 Ibid., II i 64-72.
  • 23 Ibid., II i 179-187.
  • 24 Ibid., II i 326-327.
  • 25 Ibid., III ii 85.
  • 26 Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, 653.
  • 27 William Shakespeare, King Lear, I i 46-51.
  • 28 Ibid., I i 93.
  • 29 Ibid., I ii 73-74.
  • 30 Ibid., IV vii 26-29.
  • 31 Ibid., King Lear, V iii 3-6.
  • 32 E. Nesbit, The Children's Shakespeare.
  • 33 Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (Expanded 2 nd Edition), 18.
  • 34
  • 35
  • 3>6 Ibid.
  • 37 Enotes How to Write a Character Analysis - Information, Facts, and Links (accessed March 12, 2009).
  • 38 Ibid.
  • 39 Jill Fitzgerald and Michael F. Graves, Scaffolding Reading Experiences for English Language Learners, 165.
  • 40 Ibid.
  • 41 Hall and Strangman. "CAST Universal Design for Learning: Graphic Organizers." 2002. (accessed July 12, 2008).
  • 42 (accessed July 13, 2009).

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