Kevin J. Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, MD
Hamlet Pre-Reading Exercise
Common Core State Standards covered: W.6-12.1, 2, 4, 9
What's On for Today and Why
Students will explore their notions about what or who a hero is Using the Folger video, “Hamlet’s Journey" from the Insider's Guide. This lesson will engage them intellectually and physically to examine their assumptions about heroism in order to create a working definition -- or set of definitions -- that they will establish prior to the study of Hamlet. Regardless of whether the definition(s) change or stay the same, this lesson will provide a launching point that will help to guide their study of this vast, expansive play.
This lesson will take 1 or 2 45-minute periods.
What You Need
- Folger edition of Hamlet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
- Folger's video: "Hamlet's Journey" (below).
- Paper, Pens
What To Do
1. View the Folger video, “Hamlet’s Journey,” and review the section where the play’s dramaturg, Michele Osherow, discusses Hamlet as either a hero or an anti-hero (3:55 - 4:30). In particular, highlight her point that one of the things she thinks defines him as a hero is that, for Hamlet, “it’s difficult for him to kill.”
2. After viewing the clip, facilitate a discussion where students offer their thoughts about the video. Ask them for adjectives and phrases about what they think a hero is; write these down on the board.
3. Have students break into small groups and, using use the words and phrases they just generated, have them develop two short, contrasting scenarios where they act out a scene of heroism. Encourage them to think broadly and imaginatively and to take risks; any scenario can work. They should work on these rather quickly: 5-6 minutes.
4. When they’ve done this, have them sit in a circle and call groups into the center to play one scene. Go around the room, and, when everyone has performed, begin again with their second scenario.
5. Once everyone has finished, do a circle check-in where every students begins a sentence with “I noticed . . .” Take note of anything new that comes out of this debrief.
6. Then have these groups, which can stay the same or be mixed, collaborate to come up with a working definition of heroism. This should be a 1-2 sentence definition.
7. Have each group share their written definition with the class, and keep these on-hand as you lead them through their study of Hamlet; you may return to these at the end of the unit.
How Did It Go?
- Did the students agree or disagree with Osherow?
- Did their adjectives and phrases change at all after they performed their heroic scenarios?
- Did their written definitions remain consistent with their adjectives and phrases, or did these grow or change in any way?
- Do they have a heightened awareness of heroism as they prepare to study Hamlet?
Assessment: At the end of the unit, have students reflect in a carefully written, textually supported essay that confirms, refutes, and/or redefines their initial views of heroism now that they have experienced Hamlet.
Transfer and Application
This pre-reading exercise can work with just about any Shakespeare play. In particular, this lesson would work well with the following plays and characters:
Romeo and Juliet (Romeo, Juliet)
Henry IV, Part 1 & 2 (King Henry IV, Prince Hal)
Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus, Cassius)
King Lear (King Lear)
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.