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How to Teach Hamlet

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Big news in the film industry last month: Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet came out on DVD at long last. I loved Mel Gibson’s 1990ish version of this play, but so much was edited that the story wasn’t the same. Brannagh includes every line from the text he uses and it’s well worth the four hours of viewing time. The music is fabulous too.

But I always worry about watching movies before reading the book, so this got me thinking. Is this film a good way to introduce kids to Shakespeare? I don’t think it is, for a couple reasons, so let me address them.

First let me define my term. I’m discussing introducing a kid to Shakespeare, and by that I mean giving them their first encounter with the master’s work. I would have students who have read the play or seen other Shakespeare plays watch it in a heartbeat, but with a few qualifications to be discussed in what follows.

Some might object to watching a film at all, or at least before reading the play. There’s something to that, because the film alters one’s imagination rather permanently. My experience of Hamlet is strongly affected by Mel Gibson, Kenneth Brannagh, and to a lesser extent Laurence Olivier (which I don’t recommend for kids at all).

The counterpoint asserts that Shakespeare’s plays are, after all, plays, so they are meant to be watched. Well, yes. But…

First, they are plays, not films, and the experience is not the same. I have seen As You Like It in at least two different live versions, each very different from the other. But the senses react very differently at a live play from the way they do in a film. You are both more completely there and less there with a play.

Your senses are all involved, your imagination takes the task quite seriously, you are required to fill in gaps throughout the experience. Your role is active. With a film, the appeal to the senses is so overwhelming that the imagination has fewer gaps to fill in and therefore less work to do. You may find the experience more emotionally powerful, but it won’t have the same subtlety of impact on your deep consciousness. And you won’t smell the action or hear accidental noises or taste the air. It’s more “tubular” – more controlled and, yes, artificial.

I would, therefore, provide a live experience of any play before the student’s read it, but I would be very reluctant to have them watch a film version. Even the very fine BBC series that most libraries carry.

But if they’ve ever read Hamlet, if they like Shakespeare at all, if they have seen other Shakespeare plays, then I would let them watch Brannagh’s Hamlet. This film marked the peak of the Shakespeare craze that Brannagh and Gibson seem to have stoked in the 1990’s. Sadly, when Brannagh left the Bard for other films, the fad faded. I keep wishing he would do a MacBeth, Julius Caesar, and the unperformable masterpiece King Lear.

Anyway, Hamlet was the peak of the craze and it is acted with the naturalism that Brannagh used to transform the image of Shakespeare’s plays. The “what a piece of work is a man” speech still moves me to the edge of tears, without any visible suffering or loss. Nobody breaks up, nobody dies in this scene. It isn’t even a climax. But Brannagh’s delivery causes you to realize that both have happened and so much more.

If you feel a need to discuss Hamlet with your student’s, you might ask them what they think the movie is about. You could do so at both levels: what is the driver of the plot? or What is the core idea Shakespeare is exploring (the great question)?

People have often said the core idea is death. I disagree. But I won’t tell you what it is, except to say that Gertrude expresses it when she observes the newly mad Ophelia raving in her madness.

Hamlet is the greatest English play by the greatest English playwright – the chief justification for the otherwise vulgar and destructive English language (I love throwing out lines like that!). Brannagh gives us a performance that makes the play utterly unforgettable. If your students are ready, watch this with them (but beware of a couple needless flashes of something approaching sex that give what I believe to be an inaccurate interpretation of a key relationship in the film). I will watch it once a week for the next 40 years any time I can (so really, about once or twice a year).

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