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some thoughts on teaching Hamlet normatively

Start by asking them if they know of any situations where they have been or have seen people afraid to act because they don’t know who is on their side and who is against them. Obviuosly you’ll want to simplify and you may want to begin with stories they’ve read (say, David in the Bible).

Ask them for as many details as they are comfortable sharing. At a certain point, ask them what they think was the best action to take.

Aside: the school setting approaches Hamlet’s paranoid context fairly closely. Even in very good schools, there is as much scheming as in Denmark’s palace.

You want them to be able to relate to the extraordinary pressure and difficulty Hamlet confronted, or they won’t be able to appreciate him and will rush to judgment.

In addition, find some other things in Hamlet that they can relate to or have already studied (being in love, feeling a little crazy, teachers who give boring lectures, ambition, the power of drama to set cultural attitudes, the paranoia of the Tudor dynasty etc. etc.) and get them talking about them. Don’t even worry about connecting them to Hamlet; the play will take care of that.

Once you’ve had some time to invite them into Hamlet’s world through those discussions, read the first scene. Discuss it in light of whatever experiences and insights and feelings they’ve shared.

then read scene 2. Here you might go ahead and give them a summary of the whole story, spoilers and dilemmas explained throughout. Ask them what they think Hamlet should have done, but keep it very hypothetical. Let them take sides and disagree.

Once they’ve done that, you can read the play and defend or change positions as you read. Every single scene will give plenty of means to test assumptions and revise their opinions. And while they are doing that, they will read it much more closely than a worksheet would ever allow.

If you need to, have them take a test at the beginning and end that will reveal to them how astonishingly much they have learned and maybe have them write an essay. If you can, take one week per act. Or a year. As long as you can.

Then read everything else by comparing characters, actions, even settings, themes, and motifs to Hamlet.

I’m idealizing. Do like the widow with her mite: what you can! It’s still amazing what kids come up with when they are allowed to read it like they would read anything if they could.

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