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Enter Ophelia: Stage Directions, Promptbooks, and Film

Teachers' Rating:
  19 ratings

Monogrammist T.E. Ophelia. Oil on canvas, late 19th century

February 1999
Janet Field-Pickering, Folger Shakespeare Library, Head of Education 1996-2000.

Plays/Scenes Covered
Hamlet 4.5.1-224
What's On for Today and Why

The lesson offers students a chance to learn more about Ophelia’s mad scenes in Act Four of Hamlet by encouraging them to look at the scene as a script that has both fascinated and inspired actors and directors since the play was first written. The class will examine stage directions, text, pages from the Sothern/Marlowe promptbook (the circa 1911 record of a famous production of the play), and modern film versions of the scene, focusing throughout on the way actors and directors use space to create meaning. Through this multi-level examination, students will acquire a greater understanding of the scene in the text and in production.


This lesson has three distinct sections and will take up to three block periods to complete in its entirety. However, you should feel encouraged to adapt it to the time constraints of your schedule and the needs of your students.

What You Need
Folger edition of Hamlet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts


At least three different film versions of Hamlet, such as:

  Branagh, Kenneth, dir. Hamlet. Columbia Tristar, 1996.
  Olivier, Laurence, dir. Hamlet. Samuel Goldwyn, 1948.
  Zefirelli, Franco, dir. Hamlet. Warner, 1990.

Prompt Book Handout

Hamlet a tragedy ... The E. H. Sothern acting version. New York, 1903.

William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 1747, David Garrick promptbook, 1773.

William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 1747, David Garrick promptbook, 1773.

William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 1747, David Garrick promptbook, 1773.

William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 1747, David Garrick promptbook, 1773.

William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 1747, David Garrick promptbook, 1773.

William Shakespeare. Hamlet. 1747, David Garrick promptbook, 1773.

What To Do

Part I: Stage Directions


1. Print out the handouts from the “What You Need” section below (click on promptbk.pdf) and photocopy Handout #1, “Stage Directions,” for each student. Have students look at Part A of the handout and discuss the stage directions for Ophelia’s entrance from the 1603, 1623, and 1996 texts of the play. Ask volunteers to act out Ophelia’s entrance in front of the class, using the stage directions as given.


2. Part B of Handout #1 is designed to give students some background in discussing blocking and the shorthand used for stage directions. If your students are new to this, discuss and complete the activities. If they are old hands at staging scenes, you can skip or curtail this part of the lesson. The aim is to get students comfortable with stage terms and directions.


Part II: Promptbooks NOTE: The next part of the lesson involves looking at the images of Ophelia’s Act Four mad scene from a 1911 promptbook. The procedure to follow depends on the technological capabilities of your classroom. If you are lucky enough to teach in a networked computer lab, your students can view the images on screen. If not, you can access full-size images by clicking on the thumbnail images included in the “What You Need” section, printing the screen, and providing your students with photocopies. Either option will work with Handout #2, “Promptbooks,” which contains information about the promptbook and transcriptions of some of the more illegible passages.


1. Divide students into small groups of five and have the groups look at the Ophelia scene from the Sothern/Marlowe promptbook. Students should have in front of them the promptbook scene, a copy of Handout #2, and the New Folger edition of Hamlet. Each group should then compare the text of the promptbook with the modern version of Hamlet 4.5 to note where lines have been cut or transposed. Each group should also examine stage directions and speculate as to the interpretation of character that these directions imply. For example, what does it mean that Ophelia is dressed in white? How does having her stand center stage change the scene? (The students might also like to speculate a bit about Lark Taylor.) When everyone has had sufficient time to complete these tasks, the groups should share their findings with the class.


2. Assign the groups to work on staging the scene. Each group needs to decide how to cut, cast, and block the scene in preparation for performing in front of the class. (You may ask one or two groups to stage the scene as written in Sothern/Marlowe promptbook.) Give the students sufficient time to work on this project in class; also allow them at least one night to find and bring in rudimentary props, costumes, and music from home.


3. Have a scene festival as each group performs its version in front of the class. After all the groups have performed, discuss. How was the staging similar or different? Which lines did the groups cut? Why? What was the effect? How did the students’ staging differ from the Sothern/Marlowe version of the scene? What was the effect of the spatial choices the groups made?


Part III: Film


1. Locate at least three different film versions of Hamlet. The Olivier 1948 black and white film, Zefirelli’s 1990 film (with Mel Gibson), and Branagh’s 1996 version are excellent choices. Cue up the Ophelia mad scene in each film. Begin with the Olivier film and proceed to the most recent version, the Branagh.


2. As the students view each clip, they should take careful notes, paying particular attention to the staging elements that they focused on with the promptbook and their own performances. Ask the class to examine textual cuts and visual elements such as costumes, scenery, and lighting. In particular, students should be aware of how space is used. What blocking choices are made? What kind of physical movement do the actors have? How do the camera angles frame the actors in performance space? At the conclusion of each clip, discuss these findings as a class.


3. After viewing all the clips, discuss the impact of the films on the viewer’s understanding of the scene. Do the students have new ideas about Ophelia’s character? Also examine the historical perspectives of the film. What part does the period in which the film was made play in the interpretation of Ophelia’s character? How does it affect what the viewer sees? Are different versions of Ophelia dependent on different time periods' views of women and madness?

How Did It Go?
This lesson plan calls on many different skills--reading, performing, and analyzing film--and requires students to use those skills collaboratively. Were the students able to understand and use (both in their own performance and in their analysis of promptbook and film) the information they learned about stage directions? Did they make significant connections between stage movement and character interpretation? Were they able to critically assess what was happening in the film scenes and find important differences and similarities? And--most importantly--did their own performances display an understanding of text? If your students are making dynamic and bold choices in their performances--and feeling confident when they talk about the choices others have made--you?re on the right track.

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.

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