How to Teach Hamlet

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Big news in the film industry last month: Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet came out on DVD at long last. I loved Mel Gibson’s 1990ish version of this play, but so much was edited that the story wasn’t the same. Brannagh includes every line from the text he uses and it’s well worth the four hours of viewing time. The music is fabulous too.

 But I always worry about watching movies before reading the book, so this got me thinking. Is this film a good way to introduce kids to Shakespeare? I don’t think it is, for a couple reasons, so let me address them.

 First let me define my term. I’m discussing introducing a kid to Shakespeare, and by that I mean giving them their first encounter with the master’s work. I would have students who have read the play or seen other Shakespeare plays watch it in a heartbeat, but with a few qualifications to be discussed in what follows.

Some might object to watching a film at all, or at least before reading the play. There’s something to that, because the film alters one’s imagination rather permanently. My experience of Hamlet is strongly affected by Mel Gibson, Kenneth Brannagh, and to a lesser extent Laurence Olivier (which I don’t recommend for kids at all).

The counterpoint asserts that Shakespeare’s plays are, after all, plays, so they are meant to be watched. Well, yes. But…

First, they are plays, not films, and the experience is not the same. I have seen As You Like It in at least two different live versions, each very different from the other. But the senses react very differently at a live play from the way they do in a film. You are both more completely there and less there with a play.

Your senses are all involved, your imagination takes the task quite seriously, you are required to fill in gaps throughout the experience. Your role is active. With a film, the appeal to the senses is so overwhelming that the imagination has fewer gaps to fill in and therefore less work to do. You may find the experience more emotionally powerful, but it won’t have the same subtlety of impact on your deep consciousness. And you won’t smell the action or hear accidental noises or taste the air. It’s more “tubular” – more controlled and, yes, artificial.

I would, therefore, provide a live experience of any play before the student’s read it, but I would be very reluctant to have them watch a film version. Even the very fine BBC series that most libraries carry.

But if they’ve ever read Hamlet, if they like Shakespeare at all, if they have seen other Shakespeare plays, then I would let them watch Brannagh’s Hamlet. This film marked the peak of the Shakespeare craze that Brannagh and Gibson seem to have stoked in the 1990’s. Sadly, when Brannagh left the Bard for other films, the fad faded. I keep wishing he would do a MacBeth, Julius Caesar, and the unperformable masterpiece King Lear.

Anyway, Hamlet was the peak of the craze and it is acted with the naturalism that Brannagh used to transform the image of Shakespeare’s plays. The “what a piece of work is a man” speech still moves me to the edge of tears, without any visible suffering or loss. Nobody breaks up, nobody dies in this scene. It isn’t even a climax. But Brannagh’s delivery causes you to realize that both have happened and so much more.

If you feel a need to discuss Hamlet with your student’s, you might ask them what they think the movie is about. You could do so at both levels: what is the driver of the plot? or What is the core idea Shakespeare is exploring (the great question)?

People have often said the core idea is death. I disagree. But I won’t tell you what it is, except to say that Gertrude expresses it when she observes the newly mad Ophelia raving in her madness.

Hamlet is the greatest English play by the greatest English playwright – the chief justification for the otherwise vulgar and destructive English language (I love throwing out lines like that!). Brannagh gives us a performance that makes the play utterly unforgettable. If your students are ready, watch this with them (but beware of a couple needless flashes of something approaching sex that give what I believe to be an inaccurate interpretation of a key relationship in the film). I will watch it once a week for the next 40 years any time I can (so really, about once or twice a year).

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One Response

  1. At the end of my son’s third grade, he was telling me at great length about how the climate on some planet affected the religious/philosophical beliefs of its inhabitants. I can’t remember if the planet was from “Star Wars” or “Star Trek,” but I do remember wishing he knew that much about something important like Torah, History, or Shakespeare. After some reflection, I realized that the reason that he knew so much about science fiction was that science fiction was–on some level–the curriculum of our home. We were spending several hours a week watching science fiction, he was reading books from series about science fiction, and he and his friends talked about science fiction constantly.

    So I decided that for the upcoming summer, Shakespeare would be our curriculum instead. We’d see a Shakespeare play or a movie every week, and we’d read about the history of England and the history of English. It worked remarkably well, even in 1996. On vacation, we were able to find Shakespeare in the park, and we came to be great connoisseurs of local companies and the movies that we could get on VHS. He saw them all–well, not the Playboy version of Macbeth, which was just beyond my limits–but everything else we could get out hands on, including take-offs on “Hamlet” like “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” and “A Midwinter’s Tale.”

    I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that we started with Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Henry V.” I doubt that we saw a play first, as they aren’t quite as plentiful. But I know that we saw a couple of the plays at Shakespeare at Winedale, which are as authentically stripped down as can be. No scenery, little costuming, minimal props, stage right out into the audience, actors coming and going up the aisles….

    We have strong opinions about the various “Hamlet”s available, and rejoiced when Branagh’s arrived on DVD a few weeks ago. I enjoy the casting in the Ethan Hawke version, mostly due to age. It seems right for Hamlet to be college-aged, for Gertrude to be worth killing for. Mel’s just doesn’t work as well, and oh, yes, the Olivier is difficult.

    By far the most intolerable movie was one of the “Julius Caesar” versions. When I look at the list of them, I’m not sure whether it was the Brando or the second Heston, but I am sure that we did choose to read an annotated version of the play rather than finish the movie. Even though he was a strong reader, I don’t think I’d have had him read a play before seeing it. At that age, it seems like you’d need to understand the need for stage directions, which you couldn’t grasp without having seen a performance on-stage. I do agree that a movie couldn’t prepare you for that. I did always bring the volume of plays along when we went to a performance so that we’d have the synopsis and character list, and it turns out to be fun to try to follow along in the text and find the missing bits, especially when the performance is lack-luster.

    Anyway, it all stuck. Every year, we go back to Shakespeare at Winedale, which are always great fun. He went to the Globe when he visited England. We find new hidden Shakespeares from time to time, like “Scotland, PA” (“MacBeth” with fast food franchises), and some of his favorite DVDs are Shakespeare adaptations, like “Romeo + Juliet” (too cartoon-like for me). I was thrilled when he selected a college that has a professional Shakespeare company in residence, so I’m eager to go for a visit when they have a production running.

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