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Hamletas Play

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

The importance of Hamlet seems nearly inarguable. References and allusions to Hamlet abound in American culture, as do theatrical productions and films: in the last decade I’ve seen nearly a dozen takes on the bard’s longest play, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Shakespeare in the Park to the experimental Wooster Group. Our department decided to teach at least one Shakespeare play in each grade, and thankfully Hamlet became part of the AP® Literature curriculum.

I think Shakespeare at the high school level invites a sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t attitude in teachers. If you teach it, you face the daunting prospect of having to inspire a love of  Shakespeare in your students; if you skip it, you’ve denied your students the privilege of having studied Shakespeare.

Luckily, Hamlet is a masterpiece that is flawlessly constructed, painfully resolved, and has a protagonist who is irresistible to young adults. Still, despite its many strengths I often find myself reminding students that it is, in fact, a play intended to be experienced, not a book intended to be read. But how do I provide students with an authentic but entertaining Shakespeare experience? Should I just keep repeating, “See, this is really fun”?

So, I took Hamlet to the stage, as I have now for a few years. Luckily at my school I have Internet access, a computer, and a projector, so I’ve been able use films and recorded performance to accompany the script each step of the way. Rather than assign students a scene to read, I assigned watching/reading: students were to watch a scene, then respond to it in their blog, discussing interesting phrases, words, even rhymes.

As anyone who has studied a foreign language will tell you, context is everything. Watching Shakespeare performed is much easier than reading the text on its own. By exposing students to as many film versions of Hamlet as I could to dispel any notions of a singular, correct version of Hamlet, I also wanted to show students that actors and directors interpret Shakespeare’s words and characters differently.

This is a much more sophisticated notion than it would seem, at least more so than the usual book versus movies conversation. I asked students to focus on very specific moments and several textual points of comparison.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 version of Hamlet, starring David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame) received rave reviews, and rightly so. Tennant’s boyish frustrated Hamlet is certainly among the best on film.

Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet is perhaps the best known of recent film adaptations. Set in a castle, sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, Brannagh’s classic take on the Danish prince offers an excellent point of contrast with the clip above.

If students remained doubtful as to the depth of actors’ and directors’ analysis of Hamlet, I would have them watch a sort of “making-of” Hamlet, called Discovering Hamlet, in addition to listening to This American Life’s fantastic episode about a production of Hamlet performed by inmates at a prison.  One of my students, Laura Duarte, reacted to the radio clip this way:

“These men are playing the roles they've played all their life. They truly mean the lines they say. They've been through what Hamlet's has been through, done what Claudius has done. In other words, they are murderers playing the roles of murderers. Can there be a better interpretation?”

The other great thing about teaching Hamlet—its popularity aside—is the plethora of major writers and artists that have written about the play. Freud outlines what would later be called the Oedipal Complex using Hamlet as an example in The Interpretation of Dreams. T.S. Eliot pulls the play apart in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems.” Both offer unique—and well-known—takes on the Danish prince’s story.

To end our unit, my students were assigned a short scene to perform. They were expected to demonstrate a distinct interpretation from those that they had seen and written about. (This was in addition to a traditional paper in which I encouraged them to focus on the scenes they had memorized.) I was able to give the students dramaturgical direction once or twice in the month leading up to our Hamlet performance, but it was mostly up to them to rehearse their scene.

The day of the performance, students showed up early, nervously pacing around reciting their lines and readying their costumes. With three sections of AP® Literature, it took over two hours—after school—to get through all of the scenes and yet everyone, myself included, was enraptured in the age-old tradition of entering a dark theater to watch life manifest itself.

Students were graded individually [based on their interpretation and delivery].  When we finished after 5 o’clock, over pizza and soda, the students told me how much they had enjoyed the activity, and at the same time they found it nerve-wracking and extremely challenging. That, to me, meant success.

As Hamlet demonstrates in the play he stages for Claudius, the cathartic power of theater is often more revealing than any sort of rhetoric. Best to let the play be the thing to catch the consciences of students.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.