But Look Where Sadly the Poor Wretch Comes Reading

My literature students have been tasked to tackle Hamlet this weekend.

I taught Hamlet last term, and I had some moderate success with it, but I feel the need to take a different approach to the play this time around. Last semester, I didn’t focus very heavily on the text at all – we were crunched for time, having really gotten on a roll with Frankenstien which ate up two weeks more than I allowed for it, and looking forward to A Christmas Carol, which I wanted to investigate very carefully. As a consequence, I used Zeffirelli’s film as the primary text for the unit and handed the students passages that I’d photocopied from my annotated text for them to investigate.

Those of you who’ve been reading me with any kind of regularity know that I have zero issues with using film as text. For all the discrepancies in the Zeffirelli version of the play, I really do love it; I find that it’s accessible to my students and they (mostly) understand it, it’s well acted and lively so it keeps the students’ attention, and the dialogue is very faithful to the Bard’s original text, even if many of the scenes are deleted and mostof those that were kept were reorganized.

It’s not that I used the film as the primary text for teaching Hamlet that’s left me dissatisfied with the success of the lessons, I think, but the lack of time we were able to take to really sink our teeth into the play. I was talking to some friends about it the other day and explained to them that one of the reasons I love teaching this work as much as I do is that it’s a lot of fun to root around in and really dig into. We don’t know a lot of information – we have no idea what Hamlet Sr. and Gertrude’s marriage was really like, for example; we don’t know what motivates Claudius to do anything that he does; we have no idea what Laertes is really thinking and feeling upon his return to Denmark after tragedy strikes his family; we don’t know whether or not Ophelia took her own life. It’s the investigation of these questions, and the really interesting and intriguing paths that students take in working out their own answers, that fascinates and excites me about teaching this text. I’m hoping, with a reasonable expectation of success, that this will be a far more fruitful and challenging unit than I was able to pull off last time.

My students are (supposed to be) reading the play this weekend. I’ve told them to just do the best that they can with the language, and to email me if they can’t figure out what’s going on in certain passages. I have something close to four different copies of the play – each of them annotated to varying degrees – and am reasonably certain that I can talk my students off of whatever ledges they may find themselves on. One of them asked if she could read a modernized version – or, rather, one that was more modern than the text in their anthology – and I told her that she certainly may, but that I’d prefer that she try to tough it out with her textbook first. I certainly think there’s a place for No Fear Shakespeare, but that’s not really what I’m going for with this experience. It’s profoundly satisfying to unravel the Bard’s language, and I want them to have the confidence to believe that they can do this – that Shakespeare isn’t unattainable to TCC students.

I’ve told the girls that we WILL see a film version of this play, but that I’m not making any promises that it’ll be the Mel Gibson interpretation that I have in my DVD collection. One student suggested that I try to find the Olivier version of the play – and I’m looking for it (can you believe my public library doesn’t have it?!). I was cruising around Local University’s library site and found that they have this version, which I’m intrigued by and so have asked TCC’s librarian if she can score it for me. While I love Zeffirelli’s film, I’m ready to see how other directors interpret the troubled Prince of Denmark, just like I’m looking forward to seeing what this group of literature students finds in the play.

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4 Comments

Filed under film as literature, frustrations, great writing, Learning, Literature, Questions, reading, self-analysis, Teaching, the good ones, writing

4 responses to “But Look Where Sadly the Poor Wretch Comes Reading

  1. Jessica

    Oh my – you have to run out right now and find a copy of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. It is seriously one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, and it is entirely appropriate for an English class. Kate Winslet plays a brilliant interpretation of Ophelia. Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play. I just started my blog today. I am a first year English teacher, so I needed somewhere to vent and explore my feelings. I decided to do it on here instead of in front of my poor boyfriend. Nice to meet you & I look forward to reading your blog!

  2. sandy

    Mrs. Chili, I know you don’t think you like the Branagh version because of the inauthentic time/setting. But Branagh’s portrayal of Prince Hamlet, in my mind, puts all others to shame. When he says the lines, I forget that they are “lines” and that I have heard them before. He *is* Prince Hamlet in anguish. I wonder if you and your students viewed the same scene in a couple of various versions if you might come to agree with Jessica and me. Mel vs. Kenneth = no comparison! (IMHO)
    Sandy (long-term lurker and fan of yours)

  3. HI, Jessica! Welcome! I’m looking forward to having you as part of my community here!

    Sandy, it’s not that I dislike the Branagh version – I don’t. I don’t always have the fortitude to sit through the entire thing, but I have a lot of respect for the man for putting EVERY WORD into his play. I do have a little trouble getting over the time and setting, but I’m working on that (I’m taking my own advice and looking at it as an interpretation, and giving some credence to the idea that the new time and setting might add something to the story). On your urging, I’ll take another look at Branagh’s film – I’ll make a visit to Amazon this morning.

    Thanks for de-lurking, by the way! I often wonder who’s out there, quietly reading…

  4. Hey it’s time for my once-a-semester rant about the Zefferelli version. But I have a new angle this time!

    It isn’t well acted. It ought to be, it’s a great cast but their ability to handle the job was somehow compromised.* I haven’t seen the Derek Jacobi version you mentioned but I will bet you (a brand new digital camera/a trip to NYC/2 dimes, a penny and a slightly linty mint?) that (accent notwithstanding) Jacobi’s relationship to the text and his flat out talent will render the play immediately more understandable to an audience and will therefore make for a richer experience and make a better ramp for discussion and interpretation.

    *Some might say that Zefferelli’s re-ordering of the text made it harder for the actors to do their jobs since Shakespeare probably wrote it in a specific order for a reason and crafted character arcs based on that order. But that’s a discussion for another class.

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