Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Debating Ophelia’s Death—and Becoming a Better Teacher

I am an English teacher because of my English teachers.

 

What dedication I have I learned from a man who had Paradise Lost taken off of his syllabus but came into work an hour early, each day, to teach it to a small group of curious readers. What patience I have I learned from a woman who made my awful papers bleed, only to sit down and teach me how to stitch the gashes. What courage I have I learned from a man who, instead of reading William Butler Yeats’ “Down by the Salley Gardens,” sang it, to a room full of “wonder wounded hearers.”

 

The debt I owe is enormous. The best of my pedagogy is only a shadow of the alchemy that they once performed. However, if the great many of these strange and rapturous magicians have one lesson left to teach, it is that I must learn to teach differently.

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I teach at a public school in an urban environment. Though I love what I learned and how I learned it, that information and those methods are not always appropriate for my students—nor are they very helpful. As much as I enjoy pointing out Polonius’ idiocy or Claudius’ desperation or Gertrude’s mischievousness (all of which were once pointed out to me, in brilliant spectacle), Shakespeare’s genius does not require that I be the one to point it out; my students are more empowered and better prepared when they can do so, on their own.

 

This epiphany was one of the many I had while re-reading Hamlet in Washington D.C. at the 2015 Folger Shakespeare Library’s Summer Academy. We were given an assignment at the beginning of the week to use the stacks and the rare materials that the Folger has to offer to construct a teaching module to present to our peers. I decided then that I would look for the moment in the play that I mar most severely with my educational bias and design a new way to teach it.

(Image: Folger Shakespeare Library)
(Image: Folger Shakespeare Library)

“Catholics in the early modern period believe that suicide is…” is one of the many insufficient ways that I would typically begin talking about Ophelia’s death to my students. With this introduction, I immediately convey the notion that unless these students know what I know about the church’s stance on a soul that’s died by suicide, then they cannot fully understand the depth of tragedy taking place at the moment of Ophelia’s death. What a barrier!

 

Also not to be ignored, I declare her death a suicide—a fact that the Gravedigger brilliantly calls into contention in the scene immediately following Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death by arguing what constitutes “an act,” suggesting that she, “drowned herself in her own defense,” and talking about, “crowner’s ‘quest law.”

 

Out of respect and hope for my future students, I spent my time at the Folger imagining a new way of teaching this aspect of Hamlet.

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Well, this week the work I did in July finally took shape in my classroom. The eight students I have in my Shakespeare elective put on a two-day debate to determine whether Ophelia’s death constitutes a suicide. They had the entire text of Hamlet at their disposal, as well as a plethora of sources I had printed at the Folger, and to put it simply, it was incredible.

 

These students took a lesson that I know I never taught sufficiently and transformed it into something astonishing. They stood at a podium at the head of the class and argued passionately that Ophelia’s kind nature would never permit her to saddle Laertes with either the emotional or financial burdens her suicide would have caused. Others rebutted that the self-awareness implicit in Ophelia’s songs indicates that she was not insane at the time of her death and is therefore, felo de se (a felon of herself).

 

Had I continued to teach this pivotal moment in the play as I always had—as one tirelessly echoing the instructions of his (albeit, brilliant) mentors—these eight otherwise self-motivated and incredibly bright students might have walked away from Hamlet knowing only what I once knew, instead of what they now know… Talk about tragedy.

***

One last note, I would be remiss if I did not thank someone who made this day in my classroom possible.

 

In the “very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of [my] passion,” it seems that in my time at the Folger, I forgot to copy two crucially important pages from one of the secondary sources that I printed out for my students. Embarrassed and panicking I went to www.folger.edu/ask-a-librarian and begged for someone on staff in the library to scan and email me the missing pages. Within moments, Abbie Weinberg, a reference and outreach specialist at the Folger sent me the pdf. Thank you, Abbie!

3 Comments


  • What a great idea for teaching Act IV of Hamlet! I am most interested in audience reception – what the early modern audience knew that would help explain the play. You did that here in this lesson. I plan to try this out!

  • I just finished our Renaissance drama unit with my seniors. I applied my 2015 Hamlet Academy skills and we experienced an unprecedented dose of Shakespeare through sonnets, speeches, swordfighting, and three plays. My hug-to-my-teacher heart moment came when a student lingered after class and said, “I can’t believe we’re done with Hamlet. I really liked learning all that stuff.”


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