“I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart.” (Hamlet 1.3.49-50)
From the wisdom shared by brilliant teachers and scholars (Michael Witmore, Gail Kern Paster, Kathleen Lynch, Amber Phelps, Jill Burdick-Zupancic, Mark Miazga, Josh Cabat, and more—wow!) during the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Master Class and Live Q & A on teaching Hamlet, a recurring theme emerged: Hamlet (and its namesake prince) asks a lot of questions…but the play does not answer them. It’s up to actors, directors, and audience members to find the method in the madness. As Peggy O’Brien, Folger’s Director of Education and teacher extraordinaire, read questions from teachers around the country during last month’s Q &A, it was clear that my classmates and I, perhaps repeating the questions our own students posed to us, wanted some solid answers about the play: was Hamlet Sr. a good king? Is Ophelia pregnant? Are Hamlet and Ophelia in love? Does Hamlet know he is being spied on? The panelists’ answer for most of those questions was: it all depends on how you interpret the text. The Teaching Hamlet Master Class reminded me how important it is for me and my students to embrace (and even revel in) the unknown and ambiguous. I witnessed a wonderful exemplar of “this good lesson” during my seniors’ study of Hamlet last week.
The plan for the day was pretty simple: using “The Effect of This Good Lesson Keep,” the fifth activity in the Shakespeare Set Free teaching guide for Hamlet, I asked students to read a printed copy of Hamlet 1.3 from the Folger Digital Text (Laertes, Ophelia, and Polonius’s domestic scene) and prepare a contemporary improvisation of the scene to perform for the class. As they close-read the text and prepared their notes for the improvisation, students had to think about how they would describe each family member, what each family member wanted, how family members felt about each other, and which words in the text guided their answers to those earlier questions.
The students performed their improvised scenes at the beginning of class the following day. Five groups performed, and each group offered its own spin on the scene. In one version, Polonius’s oft-mocked advice was tearfully accepted in an awkward bear-hug with a Laertes who had clearly been longing for his father’s approval. In another version, Laertes inched closer and closer to the door as his father prattled on. In one scene, Ophelia and her brother teased one another as equals; in another, the student playing Ophelia sat for the whole scene while Laertes and Polonius towered over her, nearly drowning her few words with their many. I didn’t need to point out where ambiguity existed in the scene—my students had encountered it, embraced it, and exploited it on their own.
As students prepared their improvisations, I could tell that they were eager to get it “right”; how surprising, then, that their scenes were the best evidence of the flexibility and possibility of Shakespeare’s text—there wasn’t one “right” way after all. We were all a bit flabbergasted by how well every scene—no matter how much it varied in tone or action from its predecessor—worked.
As I watched the last delightfully different improvisation finish, I kept hearing the voices of the Folger Master Class in my ears, insisting upon the play’s possibilities, inviting teachers to abandon the search for the “right” interpretation and instead explore the many paths of the text, empowering us to find ways to make Hamlet fresh.
When students have the power to decide how a character will speak and behave and which scenes, phrases, or words in the text explain why, they make the play their own, not just some carbon copy of the Hamlet I imagine in my head. The Teaching Hamlet Master Class was, itself, a wonderful demonstration of the Folger Approach to teaching Shakespeare, which shifts away from “sage on the stage” teaching (and students’ exhaustive attempts to acquire one teacher’s knowledge) towards “guide on the side” group exploration of nuance and ambiguity, where everyone who makes the journey learns. As a result, everyone’s experience of the play is richer, more vivid, and more memorable. I hope you’ll join our learning community for the Folger Shakespeare Library Master Class on Teaching Othello this month. The “effect of this [next] good lesson” will surely be rich and varied.