Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Teaching Hamlet

I'm teaching Hamlet for the first time in a while, and yet again it strikes me how difficult I find it to teach Hamlet.  It's a huge play.  There's so much going on, so much to it.  But the bigger problem is that a lot of students have read it in high school, and thus seem to think that they have the final answer, and so, to every question, they want to answer whatever thing they learned in high school:  it's passion!  it's Oedipal!  it's all soliloquys all the time!

This time around, I've been trying to start by defamiliarizing the play (I'm teaching it in two classes right now, by odd luck and careful planning, but I have a couple students in both classes, so things have to focus differently for each class).  In one class, I'm trying to defamiliarize by having them talk about Q1 and Q2 parallel speeches (the opening works!), as do some more famously different bits (there's the point!).  In the other class, I've started with more historical and generic contexts.

In both classes, only about a third of students raised their hands when I asked if they'd bothered to reread the play.  And then I encouraged the others to reread because what they'd learned in high school wasn't going to cut it.

How do you find teaching Hamlet (or other super familiar texts)?

What do you to do get students to take these texts more seriously at the higher level?


  1. When I taught Hamlet in humanities last semester, it was straight lecture. I used some Hamlet art work to help them think about the text in different ways. But then, that's sort of what we do in the humanities class -- use music, art, history, literature, etc. to look at different texts. It went pretty well, despite the fact that more than half of them had read the text for high school.

    In a Shakespeare class, though, there are a couple of ways to approach Hamlet differently. (1) Focus on looking at several different performances of the same speech. David Tennant, for instance, does a very different Hamlet from Kenneth Branagh. You could look at three iterations of the same speech and talk about the choices being made. (2) You can do that same thing with different iterations of the text (Q1, Q2, FF). (3) Have them perform some of it, which I think you've done before with the opening scene if I remember correctly. (4) and my favorite - have them trace a single word or concept throughout the play, and look at the way that Shakespeare plays with that word or concept. I did this with the histories with the word "time" and I've also used the word "sacrifice(s)," too. In Hamlet, my guess would be "revenge" would work if you wanted to pick a single word. Also, mad(ness) would be another interesting thing to trace. Those are key concepts, but how are those words being used? Who is using them? I just checked the concordance, and "revenge" is used by the ghost, Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius. What does that word mean to each of those men? And does it change in context? Does it change over the course of the play? There are a lot of other words I'd like to trace through Hamlet just to see what happened.

    When I'm not sure what to do with Shakespeare, I pick a word and run with it. I call it micro-Shakespeare. :) Seeing how different characters use one particular word is pretty amazing.

  2. That's a GREAT idea! Thanks!

  3. It occurs to me that I could probably write a pedagogy piece on that. I remember now that the four words we used last time I taught Shakespeare were whore, honor, time, and sacrifice. It was brilliant. We spent a whole day on each word for different plays. Very cool.

  4. I always dread teaching Hamlet for both of these reasons, and I tend to avoid R&J altogether even though I like it a lot as a play. It's too hard to get past all the things people think they know about it and get them to talk about something new, and the weakest students always want to write these terrible papers about it that are clearly rehashed from high school.

    I don't have as much of a problem with Macbeth for some reason, even though I expect it's probably the third-most-common high school play.

  5. I like the idea of word analysis! I teach Hamlet in an "Critical Thinking through Literature" class, and its possible that my methods do not elicit the kind of complexity that they should. I think that my main goal is to show them that, even after 400 years, our understanding of the play is not "finalized." I don't really use that word, but that's what I'm doing. Last semester, I found out that one of my colleagues (he teaches our Shakespeare class) has a very different interpretation of Hamlet than I do. I had him come to my class to make his case. Then I interrogated him (so to speak), offering alternative readings of some of his evidence. It was fun, and, if nothing else, I think it helped my students understand 1) how to use evidence to construct an interpretive argument and 2) that there are, in fact, multiple readings of the play.

  6. The "one word" investigation sounds wonderful! I will have to try that. ~ Here's another resource: a complete video recording of prisoners performing Hamlet at San Quentin, along with a series of "parallel plays" written and performed by the inmates (the scripts and videos are also on line):