Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Moving Beyond Explaining – Part 2

Sword fighting on the Folger lawn. (Image: Deborah Gascon)
Sword fighting on the Folger lawn. (Image: Deborah Gascon)

Every year, Wildwood School, the independent progressive school in Los Angeles where I teach, hosts an event called Hamlet Night put on by the current junior class. It’s the culminating project of the junior year, the apotheosis of the three months the students have put into reading, performing, studying, and writing about the Bard’s most performed play. The best way to describe it is a sort of variety show that features original projects, from skits to music performances to films to non-performative pieces such as displays of artwork or beautifully wrought event programs, that students have created, rehearsed, and fine-tuned using their critical and analytical understanding of the text. The students work on both their Hamlet Night projects and on their big Hamlet Literary Analyses at the same time, the intention being that the synthesis of the critical and analytical work of writing an argument with the creative work of interpreting the play in a scene or art piece creates a richer, fuller understanding of the play. Hamlet Night is a major capstone project for our project-based program, and it’s easily my favorite time of the year. Watching students take ownership over their learning is the reason I became a teacher, after all.


Hamlet Night is always a blast, but after several years of managing it, I began to feel uneasy. I was noticing a fairly obvious dissonance between how Hamlet was being taught and how my teaching partner and I were expecting students to make use of the play during the creation of the project. We would assign a reading of an act or a scene, and then in class, we would facilitate Socratic seminars on the text that were all based on figuring out what had happened and then analyzing key pieces of evidence for its meaning. Inevitably, we would take the lead in these discussions, coaxing understandings by careful questioning and sometimes just straight up explanation. Occasionally, the students would perform a scene or a skit in class but only when we teachers felt fairly confident that they understood the content.


The student experience was this: read Hamlet on your own, but don’t worry about understanding it or enjoying it, because your teacher will help you figure it out in class. This experience isn’t that useful when it comes time for students take ownership of the text themselves in a performance-based project. What ownership can anyone feel about a play that was explained to them? The projects we got for Hamlet Night were always fantastic, but the process of getting there was often a bit fraught for our students who felt suddenly adrift when it came to working on their projects. They weren’t practiced in working with the text on their own! And way too often, the projects didn’t include any of the text. We got a lot of updated, modernized scenes that were funny or beautiful or sad – but still missing that inimitable Shakespearean flavor, the language, the text, the essence of the play itself.


Essentially, this kind of teaching was unintentionally communicating that Shakespeare is too difficult, that students need the teacher in order to understand the language, and that the whole point of this is to have the right answer: essentially, the exact opposite of what we want from them when working on their Hamlet Night projects. Shakespeare is definitely not a light read, but he’s not too difficult for anyone to read once they understand how to read his work. Students shouldn’t need a teacher to understand anything; they need the teacher to show them how to understand for themselves. The point isn’t to simply regurgitate the right answer in a paper; the point is knowing that the text can offer a multiplicity of meanings, that it was meant to be seen and done, not merely deconstructed into neat pieces of information to be used later.


At the Folger Summer Academy last summer, I learned how to turn the study of Shakespeare in the classroom into performance. I brought that learning back to my school this past school year, and the results for both the study of Hamlet and Hamlet Night speak for themselves.


This year, my students read out loud a scene in several stages and in several different ways, some on their feet. Each read through of the scene focused on a different outcome, from simply figuring out who is who and what is going on to understanding the nuances of character motivation to blocking the scene out. Students worked as both actors and directors in this process. The final iteration was a performance of the scene, fully blocked and considered. The teacher’s role? Facilitate the work, keep students on track, but do not offer any information or answers. Give students the space and authority to dig in themselves, to work with the language, to get frustrated when it’s not clicking right away, and then to get back to text when the only way forward is the text.


The ultimate outcome is that students are pretty stellar at reading Shakespeare. They get it. They really get it. And I don’t just mean they simply understand what happens. That first level of understanding is nothing to the interpretations and the critical and dynamic connections they make when they are the ones in charge of their learning. They own the text.


This method also a super cool integration of a bunch of different ways of learning: it’s visual learning when the students chart their notes on the board while they work; it’s auditory learning when they’re going over and over the lines, picking up the meaning of the language as they go; it’s reading and writing when they’re tasked with cutting the scene down but still keeping its shape and outcomes; it’s kinesthetic when students are on their feet and using their bodies to understand why a character suddenly seems to burst into angry speech, seemingly out of nowhere. Just as I learned to pay attention in a stage sword fight (or any sword fight, I guess) by wrangling with April on the lawn of the Folger, students learn just about everything they need in order to understand how to read and engage with Shakespeare.


My teaching partner and I incorporated this essential method into many of our current teaching modules on Hamlet, introduced new modules, and rethought how we approach the initial readings of the scenes. The way we teach Hamlet now is more truly project based, reaching out to all kinds of minds, and allowing students to practice the skills they will need to go forward with their own personal projects. It also reinforces something I mentioned earlier: ownership of the text. Authority. Confidence, the kind that comes when you have rigorously pillaged the text for meaning and can confidently make a claim based on strong interpretation of that text.


For example, this year, a number of my students didn’t believe that Ophelia goes mad at all. They saw her actions and speeches in Act 4 as a sign of her emotional state and interpreted that state as appropriately mixed up: her dad is dead, and her ex-boyfriend was the one who killed him. Anyone would be mixed up in that situation. It’s not Ophelia’s fault that no one gets what she’s singing about or why she’s handing out flowers. Many saw the scene as infuriatingly indicative of the way we tend to dismiss the words and thoughts of young women. I got a number of Hamlet papers and Hamlet Night projects that focused on this very issue. In my now eight years of teaching Hamlet, the question of Ophelia’s madness had never been a major topic of conversation. I’m certain that it came up this year at least in part because by using the Folger method, I was backing off on my interpretations and thus allowing students to take more authority in their interpretations of the text.


Now that may sound a bit scary and unwieldy, but remember that one of the ultimate goals of learning how to read critically and analytically is understanding the relationship between claims and evidence. Some things are factually true, but others are up to interpretation; the job of a strong analyst is fleshing out the connection they see between the text they analyze and their claims about what it means. Many of my students were able to offer fairly compelling reasons why I should view Ophelia differently than I had in the past, which is pretty darn cool.


It’s not all new readings of the text, either. I was struck this year by how much the students understood about character and theme through this method without me needing to intervene and explain. For example, for many years in a row, I had to point out how pompous Polonius is and how full of crap his speech to Laertes is in Act 1. (I “had” to.) This year, as my students were working through that scene, they were the ones to notice that Polonius had just urged his son to hurry up because the ship was about to sail and then took up a page or so of lines in a big farewell speech. They were the ones to point out how subtly selfish and self-interested the speech itself is. They did it on their own. It was amazing.


The essential learning I took from my experience at the Folger Summer Academy is the supremacy of the text. What I mean by this is that the text, the actual words, gives you what you need in order to know what’s going on. Minus a few archaisms, most of what’s in the play can be understood simply by working with the language, figuring it out, using the body and the brain and the process of trial and error and collaboration with peers. Don’t bog them down with pictures of the Globe and historical facts about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Or, OK, do, but don’t start with that. Start with the text. Shakespeare and his actors did, after all.


For this reason, my teaching partner and I decided to create a new requirement to the Hamlet Night this year: each Hamlet Night project must include at least ten lines from the play that have been meaningfully interpreted and included in the act. (Side note: frankly, how was this not a requirement before?) Doing this brought the students back to the text yet again, and the results were fantastic.


One student transformed Hamlet’s first soliloquy (“too, too sullied flesh”) into lyrics for a song about Hamlet’s emotional state at the beginning of the play. In order to do this, my student had to really understand every word in that soliloquy, what each beat within it communicates about the exceptionally uncomfortable state Hamlet finds himself in at the top of the show. She also had to know when to alter the lines to fit the music of the verse, or when to include her own original lines, all of which require strong analytical engagement. Inevitably, the song turned into a sort of synthesis of Hamlet’s personal despair with my student’s own stresses and struggles managing the difficult course requirements and pressures of junior year. That’s ownership.


Parody was big this year. A pair of students created a film that interpreted the chamber scene in Act 3, Scene 4 between Hamlet and his mother, as a scene from the film Goodfellas. The film married together the grandiose, swashy style of the film with Hamlet’s own hubris, and the result was a hilarious synthesis of both texts. Another student saw the humor in Hamlet and viewed the titular character as something of a head case. His project was a parody of a song from The Pirates of Penzance: “I Am the Very Model of a Narcissistic Maniac.” An absolute crowd pleaser and an excellent demonstration of all kinds of understandings. That’s ownership.


Another pair of students took on the text in a completely different way. Their skit was a pair of Renaissance-era nuns chilling out after a long day at “nunnery school” and wondering about how to meet boys. (A fairly typical dilemma for nuns, you know.) What to do but turn to Tinder? The nuns scrolled through the app on their phone, which was projected on the stage screen. The guys on Tinder turned out to be characters from Hamlet, of course, and so the skit focused on whether to “swipe right” on each one. The lines from the play were dropped into the scene more or less out of order and out of context, but that alone demonstrated the students’ understanding of the play: each line landed as the punch line of a joke, each one hilarious. The jokes just couldn’t have been funny if those students didn’t know how to use the meaning of each line both in and out of context. Intertextuality, in other words. That’s ownership.


One student had been particularly intrigued by Ophelia and yet dismayed by how much of Ophelia’s lines depended on other actors in scenes. The only two major monologues she could find were focused on Hamlet, and that wasn’t as interesting to my student as were the inner workings of Ophelia’s character. So what she did was cut together every line Ophelia has in the whole play and created a monologue of her own that deftly demonstrated exactly how Ophelia falls into madness: that is, because everyone in her life tells her what to think. My student recorded the voices of Hamlet, Polonius, and Queen Gertrude talking to Ophelia and then used them as powerful voiceovers in the scene, descending on her out of nowhere. That’s ownership.


One student was convinced that Ophelia doesn’t actually kill herself, and that Queen Gertrude’s monologue about her death is too suspicious to dismiss out of hand. Why on Earth would anyone watch the supposedly mad young maiden of the castle climb up on a tree, perch herself on a branch, fall into the creek below, sing for a while to herself, and then slowly drown, and not do anything about it? No, my student asserted, Ophelia is pushed into the creek and drowned on the orders of the Queen, who wants to get rid of the troublesome young woman saying a whole bunch of uncomfortably true things to the rest of the court. (There was a lot of anti-Gertrude vitriol this year, too, which is its own topic altogether.) On this premise, my student created a haunting film that depicted Ophelia as clearly troubled and possibly suicidal but who is ultimately pushed in by another. That’s ownership.


We got some impressive non-performative pieces this year as well. The program committee included their ten lines from the play in the form of a tribute to the junior class. They took Ophelia’s flower scene speech and cut the lines together to urge the junior class to remember the event of Hamlet Night itself (“rosemary, that’s for remembrance”). Another pair of students incorporated some of Gertrude’s and Ophelia’s lines into a conceptual art piece of melting colors that complemented the melting emotional states of both characters. That’s ownership.


My time at the Folger Summer Academy was short but intense. I don’t have the space in this post to explain the true depth and meaning of the experience: the ability to use original manuscripts from the vault, the time and space and resources to create new modules, the workshops in acting and teaching acting, the lectures and discussions on the text that introduced exciting innovations such as digital humanities, the chance to interact with some of the most passionate teachers of Shakespeare anyway, the community of teachers from across the country all devoted to bettering their practice in the middle of the hot summer. It was a singular week of learning, and there’s no way to get it all down in a few paragraphs.


But I can say this: I am a better teacher because of that experience; my students have become better readers and writers because of that experience; Hamlet Night became a bit richer, a bit more expansive, because of that experience. Thank you, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Read Part 1: Moving Beyond Explaining “The Deeper Meaning” of a Play (Part 1)