Shakespeare in the City

I recently completed my final unit with my senior class–Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While I was told that Shakespeare would be nearly impossible for my students to relate to or enjoy, I was determined to teach this play. My reasoning behind this was manifold. First and foremost, being aware of the reputation of Shakespeare as difficult and sophisticated, I wanted to give my students–students from an urban school identified as “in need of improvement” by the state–the chance to tackle a task that most degree-holding adults shy away from. I knew they were bright and I knew they could handle it, and I wanted everyone to know it. Second, I liked the idea of a unit where I could teach some acting skills as a form of understanding and expression. I am a huge proponent of instruction that allows students to move and play–it tricks them into loving what they’re learning and is immensely entertaining to watch! Third, I have a deep respect and love for the tragedy of Hamlet–it approaches so many important and universal questions. Is life worth living? Why are we here? Where’s the borderline between sanity and insanity? What is honor? What costs go along with revenge? What sacrifice is love worth? How do our choices create our ultimate destiny?

Throughout the unit, I gave my students a wide variety of support in addition to the original text which, yes, they did read in entirety. However, every day I gave them a different way of interacting with the play’s plot, characters, and themes: Modern language interpretations, pop culture references, video clips from both modern and traditional performances in film and on stage, non-verbal expression, fine art, graphic novels, music, non-verbal expression, character roleplay, creative writing, debate, and (of course) acting.

While initially intimidated by the antiquated language, my students soon embraced Hamlet. They connected readily to the ideas at the core of the play–the truth that we all have people who we love, we all have pain, and we all have tough choices to make. Hamlet is merely one man’s journey through the challenging life that we all must take part in. As we got further and further into the text, my students became adept at interpreting Shakespeare’s language and reinterpreting it in discussion. By the time we were reading the final scene, they were so into it that when a student stumbled over the words for a moment, the class couldn’t handle the suspense, yelling “JUST LEAVE IT! KEEP GOING! READ!!”

For their final projects, my students staged full scenes from Hamlet in the original Shakespearean wording, using what they learned about verbal and non-verbal expression to convey character emotions, motivations, and thoughts. They did not let me down. Each performance was heartfelt and spot-on–the Elizabethan English rolled off their tongues in a fresh, genuine fashion, like a mixture of rap and lullaby. It was an English teacher’s paradise. And they were very proud of tackling and succeeding at such a formidable literary challenge. I can’t tell you how much glee it brought me to have conversations like this with other staff members walking past our door:

“Uh… What are you all doing in there?”

“We’re rehearsing scenes from Hamlet.”

“What?”

“You know, Shakespeare’s famous play.”

“Really?   …   Oh.”

With their devoted, standout performances, my students obliterated the normal expectations of their school. I was in awe of them.

Moral of the story? Shakespeare’s still alive. And while it is a stretch for today’s students to connect with his words at first, it is possible. And really teaching it well is fufilling, meaningful, and very, very fun.

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