Hamlet in the Classroom
Hamlet remains an intriguing, exciting play, and the main theme is one that young people around the world readily sympathize with. It is a fine play to work with in class, even if we can never hope to plum its depths in the fairly short time we have in the English Vg3 course.
Let us eavesdrop on two teachers and textbook writers, John and Richard, considering how they would “teach it” in class. They want an active approach, an approach that is also favoured in Access to English: Literature.
John: Any ideas about using Hamlet in the classroom?
Richard: Well, my main idea is, naturally, to get students to read or act some scenes. Actually, it will probably be a mixture, since it is difficult to act when you have to hold the text, and, anyway, some students may be reluctant to “act”. All the more reason for doing it!
John: Easier said than done!
Richard: Yes, but some “easy” things are ill-advised, in my opinion. There are two easy things I refuse to do. First, I refuse to start off by dumping the students in front of a television and letting them see a video of Hamlet. Second, I refuse to stand in front of the class and tell them my deep thoughts about the play. No, it’s much better to use the play for what it was made for: acting.
John: I agree with you, especially about not showing them the video first thing. What I do sometimes, is work with a scene, and then let them see that scene on video after they have developed a good feel for it. They understand the performance better, and I have even had cases where the students disagree with the way the scene is produced in the video! Maybe they think the actor doesn't sound angry enough, or remorseful enough, or mad enough.
Richard: I also agree about the students acting out the scenes. Failing that, another approach is to have them read the lines out loud, not necessarily acting, but a “live reading”. I insist on them showing feeling! And if I don't get it the first time a line is read, I make them read it again – with feeling!
John: All in all, students should work with the text. They'll start to understand it better. Any particular scenes you have in mind for acting?
Richard: It’s usually a good idea to start at the beginning! Shakespeare’s beginnings are marvels, and Hamlet has one of the best beginnings of all his plays, as many critics have noted. It’s especially interesting, as many people have pointed out, because Hamlet himself, the prince, is not mentioned until line 170*? That’s ten minutes or so into the play.
John: Wouldn’t it be better to act a scene where he is central? After all, the play is about him!
Richard: Yes, of course it could be, but this first scene is so interesting I think it is worth doing; as well as other scenes, of course. There are no women in this opening scene, so the female students might feel a bit hard done by, but never mind. Another scene I like doing is the scene where Hamlet talks “daggers” to his mother, then kills Polonius.
John: That's a very harsh scene, but full of fantastic language, where you really understand how angry and upset Hamlet is at his mother's very quick decision to acquire a new bed mate after his noble father's death. But did you choose this scene because it has a woman in it?
Richard: Well, perhaps, but there are only two female parts in the whole play, so girls must act boys. No problem.
John: What is so special about the first scene?
Richard: Lots of things. T. S. Eliot has said that the first twenty or so lines are “built of the simplest words in the most homely idiom”. Just look at them on the page – all broken up into short sharp statements and questions. Snap, snap, snap. So the register of the language is fascinating, and might blow away a few prejudices students have about the bard’s language.
John: Another thing about the opening: it’s political. The whole play is a political play. Well, I know it's a lot of other things as well, but it is a very political play. Note Horatio’s line 69. “This bodes some strange eruption in our state.”
Richard: Yes. There’s an air of crisis in Denmark. Marcellus goes on to describe what this “strange eruption” involves. I think the opening of the play, on the battlements of the castle, with its strange mood of unease and nervousness, wonderfully conveys this feeling of crisis, fear of war, danger, and so much more. Getting the students to feel the tension in the text is not easy, but is very valuable. Shakespeare had to do without all the sophisticated stage equipment, especially lighting-effects, that modern directors can use: he had to use words, gestures and some noises. For example, Francisco must really shiver when he says “ … ’tis bitter cold” (line 8) and must make something of “And I am sick of heart.” (line 9). Shakespeare doesn’t tell us why he is “sick of heart” – so this is something the students can discuss when they are planning how to say the lines.
John: It could be interesting to have different groups of students act out this scene and then let them compare the different ways they interpret the lines, the intonation and tone of the speech and the different staging solutions they find. Usually, when I do this in class, I suggest minimalist scenery, partly out of necessity, but also so the students remain focused on the language. But I let them dress for the part if they want, and that's an area where I have seen imaginations run in many interesting directions. I really think this is a fun way to get the students into the play.
Richard: That’s interesting. We never dress up at all. But why not? Yes I think they can have some fun. They must put energy into what they say. But even more important, is they get a better understanding of what Shakespeare intended, and they do this actively working with the play, deciding things on their own. That's better than letting the teacher, or Kenneth Branagh, do it for you.
John: Yes, absolutely. The intention of the way we have presented Hamlet in Access is to get the students to work with the text and play with the text. We feel this is the way they can learn to appreciate Shakespeare best. They will learn more about the play this way and understand the language better. And just think about the first scene, when the ghost appears, the students must really act out their terror.
Richard: They can also have fun deciding what sort of ghost it is. Or if there is a visible ghost at all!
John: Yes, and the student playing Horatio must “pretend” to be a man overcoming his fear, in lines 46-49. And of course they can have lots of discussions about how to stage the scene. There’s another point about the mood of this first scene. It’s this “we don’t know what is going on” mood. This runs through the whole play, and all through the play people are spying on one another to find out what is going on.
Richard: Yes, and the students will be much more aware of this when they have acted out the scene or at least had a live reading in class. That could be a question for students, by the way: how many instances are there of people spying on one another?
John: I think this approach to working with Hamlet will help the students realize something important – that the audience knows more than the characters do! Once you've got that across to the students, you can then introduce the literary term dramatic irony. In other words, let them experience it first, and then tell them what it is. They'll have already seen its effect and understand the whole concept of dramatic irony much better.
Richard: And there are lots of examples of dramatic irony in the play. The excerpts in Access draw the students' attention to one of the main ironic moments when Hamlet could have killed Claudius but decided not to because he thinks he's praying.
John: What a good example! Here you could even read the language to your students, in a dramatic voice of course – or use the CD – and have two students mime Hamlet and Claudius, with the student playing Claudius giving a great "what's-the-use” shrug at the end.
Richard: And this scene is another example of where you could let different groups interpret the scene in different ways.
John: I'd like to go back to your other point, because it is so important too. You really have to try to let your students feel their way to an understanding of the text and the play. Get them to tell you what's going on rather than you tell them. But sometimes this is easier said than done because the language can be difficult. What do you do about language?
Richard: Well first I let them try to work with the words on their own, using the word list the book has supplied and supplementing when they ask for help. Then, if it’s a long speech I'll ask them to break it down into sections, and sometimes I suggest these sections myself. This is the way it is done with the major soliloquy ("Oh what a rogue…") that is given in Access. One of the exercises has the students label each of the sections to help them understand what is being said, then suddenly the language is not such a problem anymore.
John: Yes, another technique is to get them to chant lines – one by one. Take the soliloquy you just mentioned --– I think it's a little over 50 lines. You could have each student chant one line, one by one up and down the rows of your class. They can hear the cadences in the language, and perhaps some of the divisions into sections become clearer. Then you could have them work on a section per group, responsible for explaining to the rest of the class what is being said. You are just the "guide on the side"; they're working on understanding together.
Richard: Sounds fun, and useful. Yes, and another fun thing I've had students try, if you have willing students, is to do what you suggested with the Claudius scene; have one student reading the lines while others mime out what the words mean, or mime Hamlet's emotions! That can be a lot of fun too, and even if this is a serious play, learning about it should be fun.
John: You could also try to think of different ways of having your students read the lines. Perhaps you could have groups shouting lines at each other, or send them on an alliteration hunt. Let the imagination run wild! Tell me, how long do you spend on the scenes?
Richard: It all depends on how it goes. My lesson plans often get blown to pieces!
*Line references are to the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the play. The same text is used in the Cambridge Schools edition.