…that may be the question, but the answer is most decidedly YES! Freshman CAN work with Hamlet, and do an amazing job at it, too.
There is much noise and clamor that Hamlet is “too much” for freshmen. The play is too dense, the argument goes; there’s too much intrigue and psychological machinations and ambiguity for younger students to fully comprehend. The popular opinion seems to be that Romeo and Juliet is the way to go with ninth graders; Hamlet is so far beyond the capacity of youngsters to comprehend as to be completely inaccessible.
Oh yeah? Well, that may be true in a lot of cases, but I’m here to tell you that my freshman 200 level kids KICKED HAMLET’S ASS these last two weeks.
I had planned a unit that revolved almost entirely around Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, which was released in 1990 and stars Mel Gibson, Glen Close, and Ian Holm, among others. This version is perhaps my favorite, not only because I’m comfortable with the actors, but because it isn’t set in modern times – I have trouble with modern settings for Shakespearian works. Anyway, I love this version. Yes, Zeffirelli makes some creative adjustments to the original text – most notably transposing the “to be or not to be” soliloquy and the “are you honest? Are you fair?” confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia – but, not being a purist, I don’t feel these changes negatively impact the work as a whole.
Really, though, I love the film because it’s accessible to young people. Even these kids, who were born two years after this film was released, know many of the actors – they’ve seen the Lethal Weapon movies and most of them recognized Helena Bonham Carter, though they didn’t know from where. They’re often put off by the language – Zeffirelli uses Shakespeare’s words – but they feel as though they can “get” this if they try. It doesn’t seem dated or foreign to the students in ways that other, older productions seem to.
I approached the unit with my main focus being the film. We started out by reading the “to be or not to be” soliloquy (see the “I love my life” post for a comment about that) and spent a day or so really digging into what it means. The kids came up with a lot of really good insights, especially considering none of them admitted to having any prior experiences with the play. They were able to figure out, without any translations from me, that Hamlet was contemplating suicide but that he was afraid to take his own life because, they said, he didn’t know if the life he was living now, as bad as it was, wouldn’t be better than whatever life came after death (and they even talked about how suicide was a “sin” and he might face an eternity of punishment for it, which didn’t help his decision-making any). I was amazed by how well they managed to work through that particularly dense piece of drama, and by how tenacious some of them were about getting it “right”.
We watched the film in bits, mostly because the classes are only fifty minutes long (and these kids still haven’t figured out how to come in and settle right down, so we’re usually left with only about half an hour of actual class time when all is said and done). While it’s not the most enjoyable way to watch a film – in fact, it bugs the crap out of me, personally – I stopped the DVD every so often to ask the kids what was going on and, much to my giddy delight, most of them had a pretty good handle on it. Sometimes, though, I stopped the DVD because they asked ME what was going on – and I’ve got to tell you that, most of those times, they asked about particularly difficult scenes. They were confused by Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, they didn’t get a lot of Polonius’ ramblings, and they missed the bit about Claudius sending Hamlet to England to be killed (and, being freshmen, they were completely grossed out by how much families kissed each other on the lips, which I thought was funny).A few days into the film, I photocopied a couple of scenes from my favorite annotated version and asked them to read the text ahead of watching the scenes in the movie. Without a whole lot of prompting from me, they were able to speak to the differences between the text and the film and how those differences affected the mood and tone of the scenes they watched. Though none of them was particularly eloquent, they had the right ideas, and it was profoundly exciting for me as their teacher. One student, commenting on the omission of most of Ophelia’s dialogue during the “are you honest, are you fair?” scene, struggled to explain that her silence made her seem weaker and more vulnerable, and that same student mentioned later that the mood set in that scene helped make Ophelia’s insanity later in the play much easier to believe. Another student said that he didn’t quite get the “feel” for the scene through reading, but that it made much more sense after seeing it. They were able to talk about how Hamlet knew he was being watched by Claudius and Polonius and was testing Ophelia when he asked her where her father was. When she answered “at home,” and Hamlet knew full well that she was lying to him, the students talked about how this betrayal of trust on Ophelia’s part only fueled Hamlet’s anger and confusion and helped explain his behaviour toward her later in the play. One particularly attentive student decided that Zeffirelli transposed that scene and “to be or not to be” (“to be or not to be” comes before “are you honest, are you fair” in the original version, if you don’t know) so that Ophelia’s lie contributed to Hamlet’s despair and contemplation of suicide. It was beautiful.
We finished the movie on Friday. As a final assessment, I asked them to pick a scene that best illustrated Hamlet’s true character, then write a short essay explaining to me why they felt the scene was so telling.
Most of them chose the final scene, particularly where Laertes, after being wounded with his own poisoned sword, confesses all to Hamlet and begs his forgiveness as they are both dying. They watched Hamlet forgive his friend, and beg his forgiveness in return. They watched as Queen Gertrude, portrayed as completely innocent in the film, dies in Hamlet’s arms. They saw how Claudius responds to both the queen’s death and Laertes’ accusations. They loved it.
And they wrote. Several of them really dug deep and came up with the opinion that Hamlet was never crazy at all – that it was all an act. They explained that every single thing he did throughout the play was motivated entirely by love – his love for his father, his love for his mother, his love for Ophelia. They wrote that Hamlet only ever wanted to do the right thing and that not always knowing what the “right” thing was was what led him to his frustrated outbursts and “madness.” They wrote about how much he loved his parents and how devastated he was by his mother’s behaviour. They wrote about how smart and calculating Hamlet was in asking the players to recreate his father’s demise, so that he could be sure that the ghost had not misled him and therefore not exact revenge where none was warranted.
They kicked ass. I am SO proud of them.