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UNIT: Using Music to Explore Shakespeare's Characters

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Nieuwen ieucht spieghel. Ca. 1620 (Detail).

April 2005
David M. Gutierrez teaches English and Debate at Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Plays/Scenes Covered
This lesson can be tailored to use with any play in which there are a number of songs or references to music. Good choices include A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Cymbeline.
What's On for Today and Why

Music provides a perfect vehicle to help draw students into Shakespeare's plays. In this unit, students will look at how music is used specifically within the plays to develop characters and themes and to advance the plot.

This unit is particularly useful with students who are aural learners, and students who have difficulty with Shakespeare’s language. By understanding characterization and themes through music, students will be able to apply their knowledge to analysis and performance of text.

What You Need

Folger editions of your chosen play

Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts


Examples of musical motifs from television and film


Recordings of Elizabethan Music on compact disc (optional):

Shakespeare’s Songbook, Volumes I & II, Azica ACD 72229, 2004.   

Shakespeare’s Music, Dorian Recordings, DOR-90017, 2000.    

Shakespeare’s Musick: Songs and Dances From Shakespeare’s Plays, Phillips Classics, 446 687-2, 1997.

Songs and Dances from Shakespeare, Saydisc, SDL 409, 1995.

Using Music Handout
"The Principles of Musik," title page
Page 2r
Pages 2v, 3r
Pages 3v, 4r
Page 4v
What To Do

1. Ask students to discuss how music is used to enhance the films and television shows they watch. Does it merely provide entertainment, or does it contribute to the story itself? Ask them to cite examples.

2. As students read one of Shakespeare’s plays, ask them to think about the following questions:

a. When do songs occur in the plays? Read the lyrics carefully. What has happened in the scene leading up to the song? What happens directly after? Which characters are present or referred to while the song is performed? Ask students to fill out the grid in the “Shakespeare's Use of Song and Music” handout (see below) as they read. Have them draw some conclusions about how the particular songs help define characters, or highlight themes within the play.

b. If you were to choose a contemporary song to identify each major character in the play, what would it be, and why? Are your decisions based on the lyrics, the melody, or both? Be able to defend your choice with specific passages from the play.


3. Ask students to share their findings with the class. What conclusions did they reach about the songs? What direct associations did they make with themes or characters?

4. Have students choose a scene to present to the class. Ask students to include a musical component that will help identify characters and reinforce the play's themes. For example, they may substitute other music for the songs that occur in the play. They might also include a brief leitmotif (music associated with a particular character) and play it as the character appears on stage. Ask them how using music affects their ideas about interpretation, staging, and interaction between characters.

5. Next, ask students to read the primary source document, The Principles of Musik In Singing and Setting by Charles Butler. Ask them to make connections between Butler’s views and how characters are portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays. List specific qualities that various characters have, and how the songs illustrate those qualities. In Shakespeare's plays, how is music used to show social status?


6. You may want to ask more advanced students to examine the use of music in specific plays in light of Butler’s argument. In The Merchant of Venice, ask students to note 2.5.29–40, 4.1.48–63, and 5.1.57–97. In As You Like It, have them note 2.5.1–60, 2.7.1–7 and 181–201, 4.2.1–19, 5.3.11–47, 5.4.202–208. Ask them to formulate a thesis about how music helps to define characters, and write a short paper defending their idea.

7. As a final activity, you may want to play recordings of music from the plays and the period. Good examples are included below. For students who can read music and wish to perform songs from the plays or the period themselves, refer them to Ross W. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.

How Did It Go?

Did students have fun coming up with songs for the characters? Did it help them to understand the characters and articulate ideas about them?

When students consciously noted the role music plays in television shows and film, did it help them to see its importance in drama as well? Did relating contemporary music to Shakespeare's plays help them to make personal connections to the themes in the plays? Did you find students composing their own songs relating to the text?


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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  Common Core State Standards

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