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.