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

August 2002
Jeremy Ehrlich, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Jessica Menter, student, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA.
Heather Bouley, student, West Springfield High School, Springfield, VA.

Plays/Scenes Covered
What's On for Today and Why

Students will use online resources in order to examine patterns of imagery in Hamlet. By comparing these patterns to those of other Shakespeare plays, the students will draw conclusions about the different reasons Shakespeare uses imagery in the play.


This lesson will take two class periods.

What You Need

Internet-linked computer lab for the class period or available for homework

Folger edition of Hamlet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

Optional: "There's No Plays Like Home" Handout
What To Do

1. Demonstrate the use of the online concordance at http://shakespeare.clusty.com. You might want to show students a variety of online concordances, such as the one at http://www.it.usyd.edu.au/~matty/Shakespeare/test.html.


Explain that a concordance groups together all the uses of each word in a piece of literature. Show students how to search for a particular word on the site.


2. Divide the students into pairs. Give each pair of students a set of images to explore in the play. Make sure they know they will have to look up all the different forms of the word: a student with the word "blood" may need to enter "blood", "bloody", "bleed", "bleeds", etc. Possible sets of images to use include: fair/foul; sight/sightless; night/dark/black; day/light/white; murder/revenge; die/death/dead; live/life/alive; act/actor/play/player; heaven/pray/faith/hell; tongue/mouth/speech/word; mother/father/king; doubt/question/reason/purpose; hand/ear; or nothing/none/something/one.


3. Have the students use the online concordance to examine their sets of images. At each stage, make them attempt to draw conclusions: what does this information tell them about what Shakespeare is trying to say with his imagery? First, have them find and examine the uses of their word(s) in the play. As a conclusion, they may note the relative frequency of words in the play: they may note that "dark" images occur much more frequently than "light" images, giving the imagery of the play a decidedly dark feel.


4. Second, have them examine each use of the word in the context in the play in which it appears. Can they find any patterns in the way a word is used throughout the play? They might note that, despite the prevalence of dark imagery in the play, the imagery is specific to tone and not color: images of dark colors (such as "black") are used less frequently. Coax them to use this information to draw conclusions: how does the imagery in this play work to set up a specific kind of dark tone?


5. Third, have them go back to the concordance and compare Shakespeare's use of these words in Hamlet to his use of them in some of the other plays he was writing around the same time. Before Hamlet, scholars think he wrote Julius Caesar, and before that As You Like It. After Hamlet, scholars think he wrote Twelfth Night and then Troilus and Cressida. How is his use of imagery different in Hamlet than in the other work he was doing at the time? What kinds of conclusions can students draw from that information? In these four other plays, they might note that the words "actor" and "player" rarely appear, despite the obvious theatricality of some of the texts, while in Hamlet they appear with great frequency. How does this change the way students see the self-consciously theatrical elements of the play?


6. Finally, have the students examine Shakespeare's use of these images within the context of his entire body of work. Students might note that the images of actor/player stand out among all of Shakespeare's works as especially prevalent in Hamlet. What can students conclude about the reasons for these differences from the rest of the canon?


7. Have students report their findings to the whole group. Have groups compare other students' findings with their own to see if they can uncover any larger patterns of imagery in the play.


8. Optional extension: download and copy the 12-page handout "There's No Plays Like Home". This is a dramatic retelling of the Wizard of Oz story told entirely with lines from Shakespeare. It was written by Heather Bouley, a sophomore at West Springfield High School in 2000–01. Bouley's class used online resources to identify Shakespearean lines relating to the Oz story. Have students read this play. Then, give them a well-known fairy tale or modern story to research online. For extra credit, see if students can retell this story using Shakespeare's language as Bouley has.

How Did It Go?
Were students able to draw conclusions from the information they received from the concordance website? Were they able to generate a discussion about the imagery in the play? Did the exercise show the students image patterns they had not seen before?

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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