Mary Beth Libbey, Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
What's On for Today and Why
The theme and motif of reality versus perception gallops—no, stampedes—through Hamlet. Nearly every character in the play has a problem figuring out what they know and how they know it. They cannot discern whether the things they see, hear, and touch are real. Students enjoy exploring the issue; this lesson gets them thinking about it from the very first moments of the play. The lesson focuses the students' exploration on one key word: "like."
This lesson should take three 45 minute periods to complete.
What You Need
Folger edition of Hamlet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
A Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions
What To Do
1. Ask students to read the scene out loud, with each student taking one line of text in a round robin. Follow the reading with a brief discussion of what is happening in the scene so that everyone knows the skeleton of the story thus far. You may wish to read the scene out loud a second time to clarify the discussion.
2. Then assign homework: ask the students to read the scene to themselves that night and go on a word hunt. Tell the class that there is a simple word that appears four times in this scene. It is a word we use today and its meaning (at least in this context) is exactly the same today as it was in Shakespeare's time. You may or may not want to tell the students that it is a four-letter word. Ask the students to circle the word each time it appears; you will be checking their books the next day.
1. Ask students to show the circled words in their books to you. They may have identified many different words which fit the assignment. If so, positively reinforce the effort by creating a list of those words on one side of the blackboard. However, center stage—or at least the center of the board—should be reserved for the most important word: "like."
2. Hand out some modern dictionaries and a couple of copies of C. T. Onions' A Shakespeare Glossary, and have the students look up definitions of "like." Have two volunteers write these meanings on the board, and ask all students to record the definitions in their notebooks.
3. Ask five volunteers to act out the scene in front of the class; assign parts so that the observing students can focus on individual characters and their perceptions of reality in the scene.
4. Once the scene is over, have the class resume discussion. Here are some questions that might get comments rolling and keep them lively:
What is each speaker's point when they use "like"?
What do they mean when they say, "It was like the king"?
What do you do when someone tells you something you find beyond belief? Do you ask for more details?
When you hear a story from a person about something they've seen, how do you know what they're describing is real?
How do you know the story is true?
5. For homework, ask the students to search the scene for possible synonyms of "like": for example, "appear" or "seem." Also ask the class to underline any passages in which characters talk about their senses. Tell them to bring their passages in the next day to discuss.
1. Ask two or three students to read the passages that they've identified.
2. Now ask all the students to close their eyes and imagine that they are directing this play for either stage or film. Go around the room and ask each student to name one thing they see in the opening scene—a prop, a character, a costume. Now ask the students to open their eyes and take a vote on the following issues, tracking the votes on the board:
Do you believe the ghost is there?
Ask students to write down the results of the vote in their notebooks for future reference. As the class reads the play and the issue of the "reality" of the ghost becomes murkier, ask them to refer to these notes.
Is he the king?
Who believes that Horatio saw the ghost?
Who believes that Marcellus saw it?
Who believes that Barnardo saw it?
How Did It Go?
This exercise does not demand formal assessment; it's more of a discussion starter. What I look for is engagement and evidence that the students have started to think about this central idea in Hamlet: how do we know what we know? And how do we express uncertainty about what we know through our language?
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.