Julie Kachniasz, Folger Shakespeare Library.
What's On for Today and Why
One of the most engaging discussions to have about the play Hamlet concerns the sanity of Hamlet and Ophelia: Is Hamlet truly mad or just feigning madness? Does Ophelia commit suicide or drown by accident? This lesson introduces students to the variety of interpretations offered by the text. By studying an image before reading the lines, students perceive one set of possibilities for the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. When they test that interpretation against the text, they become aware of the ambiguities and, thus, the possibility for other readings.
This lesson should occur prior to reading Act 3. It will take one to two class periods.
What You Need
Folger edition of Hamlet
Dante Gabriel Rossetti illustration
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Dante Gabriel Rossetti illustration
What To Do
1. Place the students into small groups and distribute copies of the handout below to each group. Ask the students to study the image, which is an illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of Act 3, scene 1 of Hamlet.
2. Ask the students to discuss in their groups what is happening in the image. They should address the following questions: What does this image tell us about Ophelia's character? What does it tell us about Hamlet's? How do Hamlet and Ophelia respond (both emotionally and physically) to one another? What might be occurring in this scene? In answering the questions, the students should consider facial expressions, posture, and the overall composition of the illustration.
3. As a class, discuss the students' ideas. What conclusions have the students made about Hamlet and Ophelia based on the image? How much do the interpretations differ?
4. Have the students return to their groups and read through Hamlet 3.1.96-175. They should read aloud, sharing the parts and assuming the roles they inferred from the image. As they read, have the students mimic Hamlet's and Ophelia's postures as well. (This need not be a formal performance, but the students should get a feel for how Hamlet and Ophelia would be speaking to one another.)
5. Now, ask the students, together with their groups, to think about and discuss the choices they made while reading. Did they emphasize certain words? What about the tone of their voice? Why did they make these decisions? How do they reflect what they saw in the image?
6. Give the students a few minutes to jot down their observations about their impromptu performance. Then, have them return to the text. Ask the students to consider other ways of reading the scene. If they stressed different words, how would the meaning change? What if they altered their tone of voice and posture? How would these changes affect the scene? Instruct the students to decide as a group on another possible reading of this scene.
7. Then, direct the students to read through the scene aloud again, altering their tone, posture, and emphasis to reflect the new interpretation. Some or all of the groups may want to perform for the class.
8. Either in class or for homework, ask the students to write a brief essay discussing their two interpretations of Hamlet 3.1. They should address what aspects of the text make the two interpretations possible. Remind students to cite Shakespeare's text and to refer back to their description of the Rossetti illustration. In addition, they should provide a description of an image that would reflect their second interpretation. (If students prefer, they could create their own illustration.) Finally, the students should address similarities and differences between text and image. Does one allow for greater freedom of interpretation? Why or why not?
How Did It Go?
Were the students able to interpret a work of art and relate it to the text of the play? Could they recognize the possibilities inherent in the text? Were they able to perform 2 different readings of the play? Did their writing reflect an understanding of the text and the image and their interplay?
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.