Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Extra Credit Reading: Hamlet

To continue “Hamlet” month, I bring you books.  Fiction based on Shakespeare is a major item “within the book and volume of my brain.”

I did this back in January for Macbeth,  and do plan on more! 

Hamlet itself is based on the tale of Amleth, which you can tell almost immediately is the basis for the story when Feng, the brother of king Horwendil, kills the king outright and marries his widow, Gerutha – who already has a son, Prince Amleth, who feigns madness, goes on adventures, and eventually avenges his father.  It is also said to have taken inspiration from other Revenge Tragedies of its time, but stands out because of the emotional journey of the hero, Hamlet.

Many books or plays about Hamlet choose to examine background or lesser characters, rather than delve into the noble prince’s mind themselves.

To start with, one of Tom Stoppard’s greatest plays is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The two minor characters appear in the play’s background with no idea why they are there and nothing to do until they are given direction. They expound on fate’s inexorable pull on their lives, while they can do nothing. “There must have been a moment,” Guildenstern says before they are killed, “at the beginning when we could have said ‘no.'”

A more local play to the District is Elsewhere in Elsinore by Caleen Sinnette Jennings.  The cast is only women: wives, mistresses, or characters in their own right from Hamlet. The play examines the role of women in the politics of men: Gertrude is abused, Ophelia is coddled, and the fiancees of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are scheming with the murderous king and his cold hearted queen. It’s certainly an interesting “what if” in the heart of a classic tragedy.

Young Adult Novels have been more interested in the women characters in the play, specifically Ophelia. One of my favorite novels based on Shakespeare is Ophelia by Lisa Klein. There is also Lisa Fielder’s Dating Hamlet.  Klein’s novel is a bit darker, and even more dramatic in that the events do not really differ from the play’s action – even knowing what is to come you may be surprised at how the characters are interpreted. Fielder’s lighthearted novel is a bit harder to swallow, but who doesn’t want a happy ending for Hamlet?

Finally, John Updike makes an appearance in this list with Gertrude and Claudius – a novel which takes the story all the way back to its Amleth roots. The characters’ names and time period appear to change in each section, but the backstory for the two complicated monarchs is a superior examination of character.

Keep an eye on http://www.folger.edu/studyguides for our upcoming guide for Hamlet, which will include many more resources!  Where do you go to examine these characters in the classroom?


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