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This is introductory lesson is first in a series of 11 to the study of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but can be adapted as an introductory lesson for any of his plays. Students use contextual strategies to make predictions about the characters in the play and to help them choose the character they will read for in class.
We begin class by looking at the Dramatis Personae or list of characters at the beginning of the play.
I ask my students, "What order do the characters seem to be in?" They study the list carefully for a few moments, and then someone says, "It looks like the most important ranked person comes first."
"Would you expect that?" I ask. The students are quiet, for a few more moments. "No", a student shakes her head. "I would expect the main characters to come first."
I want the students to start thinking about who is going to be important in the play, because it is a way for them to start predicting, and to consider what kinds of relationships the characters might have. They will be reading the play out loud in the voices of these characters and they need to have a sense of who the characters are before they take on that character's voice.
I ask them to take out a piece of paper and write down who they think are going to be the most important characters in the play, and then list them in order of importance.
Not surprisingly, the students put Valentine, Proteus, Silvia and Julia as the four most important characters.
They used the descriptions and titles of the characters to help them decide who was going to play a big role in the play.
Next I have students place their list of characters next to Shakespeare's list and compare them.
I ask them to write down 3-4 key differences they see between there list and the way it is ordered in the book.
The main noticings they come away with seem to be: Class and rank determines placement on the list; women are listed after men, even if the woman is more important than the man; you can't tell which characters have more lines than others.
We then discuss the characters names and see if they can determine what kind of character they might be.
I help them out with Proteus name, which means 'change' in Latin.
The rest the students are able to tease apart with discussion. They predict that Valentine will be very loving and desired. Julia they connect to another Shakespeare heroine, Juliet, and predict that she will be naive. Silvia they connect to silver or another desirable object, and sense that because she is the Duke's daughter she will be the girl in the middle.
They think Speed will talk and/or move very quickly, and that Launce is going to be a fool and comedic relief.
They get very excited to see a dog listed in the credits and want to know if Shakespeare in the Schools will bring a real-life dog with them. I mention that it's doubtful, but with actors anything is possible.
Now that the students have a better grip on the characters and have some solid predictions about who they are and what they might do, it's time for them to pick the character they are going to read.
I want students to bond with that character and make it their own, so I allow a lot of discussion and division when it comes to deciding parts.
There are almost always two or three characters who get the most attention: the comics and the bit parts. Students who have read Shakspeare with me before know how important the bit characters can be, and also look for fewer lines.
I try to be diplomatic and give those parts to the students who are a little more shy.
Depending on the size of the class, I also divide up the main characters between two to three students, and make sure it is a different student reading soliloquies or long speeches. Unless the student is in speech or drama, it's hard to listen to the same student reading lines day after day.
Once the parts are decided I encourage students to read their character's lines on their own, and to be responsible for queues and stage directions.