Introducing modern pupils to Shakespeare’s characters

Floyd Rumohr

Floyd Rumohr is founder of STAGEiT! Shakespeare, an expert panelist at 501(c)(3) University, and executive director of Brooklyn Community Pride Center, Inc. He was a master teaching artist for dozens of schools between 1989 - 2004, and directed several plays 1998 - 2003. Floyd is a fellow for the Empire State Partnerships / New York State Council on the Arts Summer Seminar, and is also an adjunct professor of education at the Long Island University Graduate School of Education.

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Image credit: Hamlet // British Broadcasting Corporation // Originally published on 8th January 2016. Image credit: Hamlet // British Broadcasting Corporation // Originally published on 8th January 2016.

“Thinker”, “Hero”, “Avenger”, “Pioneer”, “Lover”, “Gossip”, and “Fool” are all words that remind us of types of characters in movies, plays, books, and perhaps our own lives. These one-word character descriptions immediately paint vivid portraits in the reader’s mind and can be a useful way for pupils, age 8+, to bring characters to life.

Imagine! What would Shakespeare’s Othello be like without Iago as the archetypal Villain or The Sorcerer’s Stone without Harry Potter as the adventurous Wizard? The Braggart incarnated by Bugs Bunny and The Glutton represented by Homer Simpson are current day models, based on archetypes, that have amused us for centuries, long before animation or movies were invented.

Archetype is a universally recognised character often described in one word. The term stems from the ancient Greek root “arche,” meaning “the first”. “Type” means “to imprint/impress” or “pattern”. Putting the two roots together to form the word “archetype” is a “first impression.”

Archetypes are complex three-dimensional figures whereas stereotypes are oversimplified one- or two-dimensional characters. See the below chart:


Archetype Stereotype
An original concept, opinion, or image upon which others are based. A conventional or oversimplified concept, opinion, or image.
Core impressions from observers. Surface impression on observers.
Comes from “within” the character and represents enduring attributes observed over time. Comes from perceptions of character by observers of a single interaction or event.
Makes an impression on observers of a character’s internal life such as desires and motivations. Makes an impression based on opinions and ideas that pre-exist in the minds of observers and could have little to do with a character’s internal life.
Stimulates deep thinking about a character’s “back-story.” Discourages deep thinking about a character’s “back-story.”
Provides vocabulary to express and describe complex multi- faceted characters. Provides vocabulary to express and describe simple one-sided characters.
Encourages students to consider characters as complex (made up of several archetypes in a story). Encourages students to oversimplify characters (possessing a single attribute in a story).

Hamlet is an example of the “inner world” made visible by archetype and the “outer world” of stereotype as in:

Stereotype: (Spoiled) Rich Prince
Archetype: (Fighting) Avenger

What a difference! Which of the two gets you thinking deeply about the character? The description “spoiled rich prince” might paint the one-dimensional "Different archetypes could be assigned at different points in the story."portrait in the reader’s mind of a bratty young person of inherited wealth, and compel the student to write descriptions of the character based only on that information. Students at PS6, The Lillie Devereaux Blake School in New York City, however, chose to characterise Hamlet as The Thinker at one point in the story, and then The Avenger. This fleshed out a three-dimensional portrait that activated their imaginations to wonder about what Hamlet might fight for, how he behaves, and what drives his behavior. Rich discussions ensued about how The Avenger might restore his kingdom to order.

Were we to settle with Spoiled Rich Prince, then most likely that’s what we’ll get in the minds of readers with little to no understanding about what the character is thinking, feeling, or what motivates his or her behavior.

Students make choices about archetypes based on his or her interpretation of the character’s actions and experiences. Different archetypes could be assigned at different points in the story, as the students did at PS6. Hamlet might be The Victim suffering from his mother’s marriage to Claudius, The Explorer when the Ghost leads Hamlet away from the castle to inform him of the pernicious plot, The Thinker as he contemplates killing Claudius, and ultimately The Avenger who seeks revenge for the murder of his father.

Exposing students to a range of archetypes will help them understand that characters have a complex inner world while providing them with a vocabulary to describe it. But how can the student deepen his or her experience with an archetype to better understand it?

Strike a pose! Actors make their interpretations of archetypes visible to an audience through a still position or shape of the body and students can use this approach, too. It can sometimes be referred to as ‘body language’. The Avenger, or any other archetype, becomes visible when embodied this way.

Clues to finding an archetype pose can be found in the prevailing actions of any given character because those actions reflect what the character wants or aims to accomplish "The student moves their body to express the action before an audience of his or her peers."at any given moment. The Avenger, for example, might want to punish or avenge. Students may explore these intentions through an aggressive, staccato gesture or movement that conveys the intention to punish or avenge. The ending position or shape of the body, which is held by the actor in stillness, is the resulting archetype pose. To put it another way, the student moves his or her body to express the action and holds the resulting shape of the body before an audience of his or her peers who can provide feedback about they see. The still shape is the archetype pose that conveys the essence of The Avenger.

Archetype poses can be particularly helpful for students if they are going to act out a scene or are struggling with written assignments that ask students to describe characters. Poses are everywhere in the world around us. Newspapers, magazines, and the Internet capture people in poses that convey information about who they are. Pupils can study these poses and discuss if they are archetypal, stereotypical, and what they learn about the character based on visual information.

Sustaining a pose for a few seconds allows the student to make an impression on observers and could build understanding when accompanied by some guiding questions from the teacher such as (ask the questions of both student actors and the student observers, then compare and contrast the responses):

  1. What does the still shape of the body communicate? Why? How do you know?
  2. What adjectives would you use to describe the still pose?
  3. What did you learn about the character from a still pose?
  4. What was most surprising about the archetype pose?
  5. What is the character doing at this moment? How do you know?
  6. Do you think archetypes are more or less helpful than stereotypes in understanding characters? Why or why not?

After a reflective discussion as above, ask the student actor(s) if they would like to share a revised pose. In this way, the process is like writing: drafting, editing, redrafting, etc, and could herald more three dimensional descriptions of the characters they read about.

Watch writing come alive and pupils’ imaginations ignite!

How do you bring literature to life? Share your tips below!

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