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Activity One “The Duke at Bardland”

The Duke at Bardland:
Modern Musical Interpretations of Shakespearean Sonnet Style
By Line Marshall, Columbia High School
Maplewood, New Jersey

Lesson Focus:

Most students find popular music as accessible as they find Shakespeare’s language and meter challenging. This lesson utilizes jazz and popular music to reinforce a previous lesson on the basic technical aspects of iambic pentameter or blank verse. Before starting the lesson, students should have been introduced to the basics of Shakespearean sonnet structure (14-line lyrical poem) and iambic pentameter (i.e. ten syllables per line, alternating stressed and unstressed syllables etc.). Focusing on how Shakespeare’s signature style of poetry and its meter are reinterpreted by more recent composers and musicians renders Shakespeare’s writing style more accessible and relevant to students.


Students will them to develop their own metrically accurate interpretations in the forms of original sonnets or soliloqies.

Alignment with Common Core Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem, evaluating how each version interprets the source text.

Grade Levels: 9-12

Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare

1. Copies of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, double spaced, so that students can mark them up.
2. Copies of “3-2-1” Chart handout for formative assessment. (Provided below)
3. Video recordings from YouTube* of the following (See links below):
a. “Heartbeat Sound Effect” (Optional)

b. “I Believe I Can Fly” (with lyrics) by R. Kelly

c. Excerpt from Antoni Cimolino/Stratford interview from (time signature- 00:39:32 to approx.. 00:40:38)

d. “Sonnet for Caesar” by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

(Fast forward three and a half minutes into video recording)

e. “Sonnet 29” by Rufus Wainwright

*If you cannot access YouTube for classroom use, audio recordings of each of the above musical selections are readily accessible for nominal fees via iTunes, Amazon and other vendors.


1. For a DO NOW activity, hand out hard copies of Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”) as students enter the room. Instruct students to begin reading the sonnet with a partner for syllabication only. Students should have previous lesson’s sonnet notes on their desks for reference.

2. Once class is settled and students are reading, begin playing the heartbeat sound effect. As students begin to react to the sound, elicit responses that note the similarities between the sound effect and the meter of the poem. Introduce students to the idea that one line of iambic pentameter is meant to imitate the rhythm of five human heartbeats.

3. Ask the class to read a few lines of the sonnet chorally to the beat of the sound effect.

4. Next, tell the class that they are going to listen to a very popular song for how it incorporates these “five heartbeats”. Play “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly. [With careful listening, students should be able to discern that the verses are written in iambic pentameter]. Tell students that another easy way to recognize iambic pentameter (apart from the “five heartbeats”) is if they can “sing” a line of poetry to the melody of the verses of this song. [Student volunteers may want to try this with Sonnet 29 for starters].

5. Point out to students that while the rhythmic connection between Shakespeare and R. Kelly may be coincidental, legendary American composer and band leader, Duke Ellington, a great admirer of Shakespeare’s works, composed an entire suite of music, Such Sweet Thunder, inspired by Shakespearean characters and dedicated to a famous Shakespeare festival in Ontario, Canada: [Play two-minute excerpt from Antoni Cimolino interview].

Excerpt from Shakespeare Central Interview: Antoni Cimolino (General Director, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Ontario, Canada)

Musicality/Power of Shakespeare

00:39:32 AC: Well, he came here in the 1950s. First of all, I think for the year that Chris Plummer was playing Hamlet. That would have been, I bet, in 1958, and was just really interested in Shakespeare. And he would sit and just listen; he would be at the back of the room listening. One day during one of the dress rehearsals Christopher Plummer who, you know, could get very antsy at times if you’re in that moment where you’re just trying to make sure you’ve learned our lines and you’re getting ready to get on and he was in a dress rehearsal and he noticed somebody at the back just sitting on the steps listening, and he stopped the rehearsal and he said to the director, “Look, can we please clear the tent of people who aren’t in the show? I just want to . . . .”

00:40:10 And the director, Michael Langham, said “Chris, just a moment. Do you mind if I introduce you to someone who is here as our guest.” And he brought him up and he said, “This is Duke Ellington.” And Chris, you know, just kind of was mortified because he’s a huge jazz fan and a great piano player and just, you know, fell down the steps backwards, went back on the stage.

00:40:32 And eventually Ellington wrote, you know, an ode to that Hamlet. He then wrote – composed beautiful music for Michael Langham’s production of Timon of Athens, and was here and was a major fan. And you can, in listening to the arithmetic – the joyous and complex arithmetic that is in Ellington’s music – you could see why he would be an enormous fan of Shakespeare. Just, you know, just because of what – the juxtapositions that are there in Shakespeare’s language as well as what it does to your heart.

6. Four of the pieces in Such Sweet Thunder are musical “sonnets” in which Ellington uses music to literally re-create the sonnet structure, including the iambic pentameter and the 14 lines.

7. As an introduction to Ellington’s “Sonnet for Caesar”, ask students what they might expect a musical sonnet based on a tragedy to sound like. What instruments might best reflect the story of the hero’s downfall or the tragedy’s solemn tone? [Elicit thoughts/suggestions briefly and then play video.] As music plays, help students recognize the fourteen ten-note “lines” of the sonnet played by a solo clarinet [If time permits, re-play all or part of the piece]. After listening, ask students to discuss how Ellington interprets the “five heartbeats” [They should note that he slows them down considerably (to achieve a dirge-like effect)] Ask: How does this interpretation affect the mood of the “sonnet”? Discuss.

8. Finally, call students’ attention back to Sonnet 29. At this point students would have read the sonnet but may still not have truly understood it. Keeping this in mind, play Rufus Wainwright’s musical version, asking class to focus primarily on the mood of the song. Ask: Does the mood remain static as in “Sonnet for Caesar” or does it shift? If so, where? [Note: There are musical variances among all three quatrains and the final couplet however the most notable shift in mood occurs during the third quatrain, as the speaker’s state of mind improves]. Again, replay video if time permits and continue discussion as needed.

Suggested Formative Assessment:
A. At the end of the lesson, ask students to complete individual “3-2-1” charts (Student Handout):
3. Things I Learned
2. Things I Found Interesting
1. Questions I Still Have
Students may complete these at home and return them the following day as “admit slips” if time is an issue.

B. Challenge students to find other popular songs that employ iambic pentameter.

Going Forward:
For the ensuing lesson, you may want to re-visit the Wainwright piece to help illustrate how the quatrains and final couplet operate as units within Shakespeare’s sonnets. Then have students apply what they’ve learned in these lessons to close readings of self or teacher-selected Shakespearean sonnets and soliloquies.

Suggested Summative Assessment:
Assign students to compose original sonnets or soliloqies in iambic pentameter to perform for their classmates. Final products may be rendered in words, music, or both.