By Dan Bruno
Often, when talking with colleagues, I find that a difficult part of teaching well-known plays like Hamlet is making the recognizable, highly quotable speeches seem fresh and alive with possibility. Here are some activities to help students discover the originality and complexity of familiar speeches from Shakespeare:
- Make It Personal: Have you seen this take on the familiar speech? This parody opens many possibilities for teaching the speech. Consider this: first, your students read Hamlet’s soliloquy aloud, working through the difficult spots where the meaning is shrouded by so many possible variations. Now, show them this or another parody, letting them see what is possible. Then, ask them to pick something about their life as a teenager and to consider it as Hamlet makes his considerations. They could ask: “To date or not to date,” or “To post or not to post.” Afterwards, compare their writings to Hamlet’s original language. Invite a discussion around the central problem and tone of each speech. (Young philosophers especially love this.)
- Make It Alien: That’s right, go Jabberwocky on it. Students are familiar with “To be or not to be,” but they have never seen “Iz fi o nit iz fi.” The benefit here is having students analyze the relationships between the words without the intimidation of the unfamiliar language.
- Make It Comparative: As master teacher and author Mike LoMonico would say, if you are going to teach Shakespeare, teach Shakespeare. But “modern translations” have their place, in very small doses and with very specific purposes. One of the great ways to use that watered-down approximation of Shakespeare is to reveal how much the language lacks in comparison to the original. For example: “or to fight against all those troubles” just doesn’t have the same epic quality as “take arms against a sea of troubles.” Have students examine the imagery, diction, and figurative language in each version. Let them see for themselves why there’s no substitute for the real thing.
- Make It Live: Find tidbits of action in these soliloquies and bring them to life as miniature stage plays. How might one act out the first five lines? Once the plays are over, connect each back to the language of the soliloquy. Now there is a concrete anchor for all of Hamlet’s abstractions.
Hamlet’s famous speech about indecision and existence is a great start, but feel free to try these ideas on any speech from Shakespeare—from Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger…” to Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”
Dan Bruno has been a high school English teacher for nine years. He has a Master of Education in Social Foundations of Education from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He also has a National Board Certification in Adolescent/Young Adult English/Language Arts. In July 2014, Dan was a participant in the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute. He currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two sons.