Archetypes: Shakespeare 101

The start of a new unit on Shakespeare, either in the drama classroom or with an English class, is an opportunity to demystify Shakespeare and enthuse students. It doesn’t always work out that way though. As I flagged in my previous post, starting with a crash course in Elizabethan England doesn’t always work for students, and diving straight into reading can be confusing for them.

My practice is to begin with practical exercises that orient students in the plays as theatre, giving them theatrical tools to help unlock the play or plays being studied.

Over the years I have collected many books on teaching Shakespeare, and one of the best for working with high school students is Fiona Banks’ book Creative Shakespeare: The Globe Education Guide to Practical Shakespeare. This book offers many extended exercises and is an excellent resource if you want to delve deep. I tend to find that, with limited time in a crowded Australian curriculum, it’s not possible to engage with all the ideas set out in the book, so I use a selection of these exercises in a truncated form as an introduction. Be sure to check out the full book if you’re looking for more ideas or to extend these activities further.

Introduction: Thought Experiment, the first post in this series, can be found here.

The first activity, set out below, focuses on archetypes. Keep coming back over the course of this week for more exercises that can be used separately as warm ups at the beginning of a lesson or (my preference) run one after another to fill an hour long period. These could be used to launch Shakespeare as theatre in the hope that the play lives on throughout the unit primarily as it was intended, as theatre rather than as literary text.

When should I use this exercise?

This exercise is a great way of introducing the four basic archetypes in Shakespeare’s plays.

Of course, part of the sophistication of Shakespeare’s writing is that his characters, while broadly fitting a recognisable archetype, also deviate from it.

This exercise can be used at the beginning of a Shakespeare Unit, as an introductory exercise to give students a grounding for understanding the characters they will encounter. It can also be revisited later in the study of individual plays to provoke discussion of those moments when the characters act against their archetypes.

It is interesting to consider how characters grow and develop, moving from one archetype to another as part of their character journey. Or perhaps the way that the context of the scene, or who they are speaking to influences their presentation of the archetypes. For example, Gertrude (Hamlet), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Titania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet).

How can I adapt this to my classroom space?

In my experience this activity is best completed in an open space, allowing students to move around the room. The focus should initially be on physicality rather than speaking or using dialogue. Students who are less comfortable performing, could create frozen images of these characters while standing behind their chairs. I find it helpful to count down from 5 to allow students time to formulate an idea. All students should have found their frozen image by the time the teacher gets to zero. Positive reinforcement of those images that are more obvious is a good way to get other, more nervous, students on board.

Step by Step Instructions:

Step 1:

Students create each of the following archetypes in turn, Ruler, Lover/Carer, Warrior, Trickster/Joker.

The instructions for their physicality, example characters and optional lines of dialogue can be downloaded in PDF form here.

Step 2:

Ask each of the following questions and give students time to think of responses in their own heads. You might ask for a couple of responses to be voiced to the class as appropriate.

a) Is the head held high or does this archetype avoid eye gaze?

b) When standing or moving like this archetype do you feel like being sociable?    

Do you want to engage with others or hide away and keep to yourself?

c) How does this archetype physically relate to other characters? Do they advance or retreat? 

d) What words do you associate with this character? 

Extension Option 1:

Optional addition of lines of dialogue. If students are more comfortable with performing and moving about the space you might like to introduce a line of dialogue to extend the physicality into the voice. The lines listed below are applicable to an introductory session for Romeo and Juliet however you could use any appropriate lines of dialogue from other plays. The key is to keep these short so that students can repeat them easily, building confidence in the language.

Extension Option 2:

Have two students face one another while moving as two different archetypes. For example, what happens when the Lover/Carer meets the Trickster (like Romeo and Mercutio)?

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