“Hamlet Crazy”

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Yup, that’s me in the McGuffey 2nd floor lobby during college, anticipating the day when I could wear this shirt while being a teacher. That day has come.

It’s a month into my Hamlet unit, and my students are somewhere in this spectrum:

1. They vehemently despise the play, and are not afraid to vocalize it.

2. I receive looks of utter confusion when I ask anything about the plot. Also they cannot tell the difference between Polonius and Claudius (BIG difference, but the names are so similar!)

3.. Before class, they excitedly ask “are we doing Hamlet today?!” and scream in protest when I stop the play at an exciting part because class is over (really, I just want to pique curiosity).

I have learned some pretty valuable lessons here. We have had about six snow days in a little over one month, which is definitely not normal. This has impacted momentum incredibly and exacerbated my rookie mistakes with choosing to teach the longest play in the Shakespearean repertoire. Last week, there were times where we were watching the play (Kenneth Branagh‘s version is a whopping four hours, and it is unabridged, unadulterated DRAMA) and I would stop and look around the room, only to realize I had successfully put everyone to sleep.

I remember texting my husband for some consolation. “I don’t know what to do,” I whined. “I feel like this day is a waste.” I think he said something like, “quit your whining and figure it out for your next class.” DUH! Spouse for the win.

Some lessons I’ve learned about teaching a very difficult text to students who are reading independently at a third grade level: 

1. Visuals are key. I have shown them the entire play, save a couple of scenes, with the subtitles below. This way the get the text as it is (Branagh’s version is very true to the original play), and they can see the drama unfolding, as plays are meant to be experienced. Only a few times did we read aloud, simply because we would be reading but not comprehending.

2. Choose the text you’re going to teach wisely. I now know that some of my kids can handle this complex plot and language, and some cannot. Unfortunately with our transiency, there is no way I could have planned for the chemistry to change in my classes. It just so happened that at the break we received many new students who I thought could handle this, but actually have struggled quite a lot—I hope I’m not ruining the Bard for them forever. My students from last semester are doing pretty well at this, which makes me think that I had some sort of impact on them.

3. Give them breaks. For the first two days last week (and three, with the snow day) we did a completely different lesson on persuasive writing unconnected to Hamlet. We ALL needed a brain break from Hamlet. I, right along with my students, was about to throw the book across the room the week before.

4. Do not be concerned with making them read the whole thing. There is no way. I do have enough experience to know that they do not have enough endurance for this (fond memories of making them listen to the whole audiobook read-along of A Christmas Carol last year). Knowing the big soliloquies is key—I made the kids close-read “To be or not to be” because of its enormous relevance to their lives and its position in the canon. They rocked it. They got it.  If I made them do that with the whole play, they would probably declare a mutiny.

5. I am learning as they are learning. I hate that I can’t be an expert on this. I studied this play in high school, but not college, so going through it again (some of the time minutes before the class starts) doesn’t make me very knowledgable. There have been questions I didn’t anticipate, plot points I did not understand, and a general WTF feeling about how I’m going to proceed after a dive bomb lesson (or total day).

6. Listen to the kids. They have actually absorbed a bit more than I expected, and they are hanging in there with me. Their comments are hilarious. When Hamlet begins to “turn up” on Polonius, they say “Hamlet CRAZY.” When they find out that Claudius killed King Hamlet, they said “he’s skep as hell!” Seeing them connect what goes on in this play to their world is pretty cool. We have gotten into some good discussions about motivation and universal themes, which is really the essence of this play. It makes me less concerned about them remembering weird Elizabethan names.

I have to keep reminding myself that this is a huge experiment. I can only apply the theory and research I have learned so far, but the rest is trial and error. For someone who likes to avoid mistakes and feel validated by  a ‘job well done,’ this is hard to grasp. It’s hard to feel effective. I encourage ANYONE who has advice on how to teach Shakespeare’s Hamlet (or any difficult text, for that matter) to please comment below! (Guess I should have asked for that before I taught the unit, huh?). Live and learn.

Stay warm.

-S

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5 comments

  1. Exactly right, a huge experiment! Good for you for taking on this challenge. I can see you are learning a lot from the experience through reflection. This is what makes teaching so creative and so exhausting, especially at the start of your career.

  2. Hi. I read your blog because you liked something I had written awhile back on mine. Your comments show insight and, trust me, you will improve over time. Teaching takes a lot of time and you probably need to teach a text 4 or 5 times before your are really comfortable with it. Most teachers are not experts on Shakespeare when they start but after teaching for 36 years, I could recite half of the plays to you. Keep a realistic goal always in mind and tailor your texts to your students. I taught Hamlet to academic grade 12 students who had 3 years of Shakespeare behind them. They were ready for it but some of them still struggled with the language but not the concepts within the play. What age group are your students? I would say for younger students that R&J or Macbeth are the perfect plays.
    You’re right-they don’t need to read the whole thing and watching is the best way to do it. We always watched acts or long scenes then went back and did a few questions. One of my blogs is about teaching Shakespeare ( but you may have already looked at that). Please contact me if you have questions, although I am now retired, I still love to discuss teaching strategies.

    1. THANK YOU for your insight! It definitely helps to see the perspective of a veteran. My kids are anywhere from 13-early 20s. The majority are in the 15-17 range. Hamlet’s ‘big picture’ concepts were appropriate for most of them, but the language was the real kicker (even for me). I taught Romeo and Juliet to most of them last year, so repeating that was not an option (though they probably wouldn’t have minded that 🙂 ) I’ll definitely look in to purchasing Macbeth for next year. It is an unfortunate result of their environments, but most of them can relate to the tragedies far better than the comedies. I’ll most definitely check out the shakespeare blog!!

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