Teaching HAMLET, Again?

Hamlet – Perennial Text

Hamlet? Yes, Again!

In all five states in which I’ve taught, Hamlet has been on the required reading list for seniors. So, after teaching Hamlet for umpteen years, I continually have to remind myself that for most of my students this will be their first and maybe only time, reading this canonical favorite. I want this to be a positive experience for us all, something that will keep the play fresh for me and compelling for the students. How can one resist the frustration of teaching a favorite play year after
year after year? Sounds paradoxical?  Keep reading.

It was not enough simply to pass along to them what I’d gotten out of reading the play. Instead,  this series of lessons should be an opportunity for them to wrestle with the language, delve into complex character relationships, and emerge with insight into both Elizabethan and 21st Century issues. Moreover, I had to develop a realistic attitude towards the readily accessible my students could find in print and on-line. After all, those are place look for ideas to enhance my own  assignments.  Instead, my goal was to share the experience of reading the play with them using the tools available to us all.


How, I wondered, can I design lessons that get them into the play before them want out?

What are strategies to get through the play to utilize and hone the reading, writing, discussing and reflection skills they’d been learning throughout their years of schooling?

What will make the lessons intriguing enough for them to stay the course…read closely, participate actively in class, and resist the temptation to depend on published articles, critiques and books about this Shakespeare classic just to do well on the graded assignments I’d be giving?

So, among the assignments I adapted from the zillions in print and on line are those I’ve stored here on my website. These are assignments that each year seemed to re-ignite my interest and inspire my students to read with zest and zeal.

(If you designed any of these strategies, thank you. They come from notes accumulated over the years.  Teachers have regularly shared with from one another and, for years, it was not customary for teachers to keep notes on where one borrowed ideas, and at workshops and seminars presenters distributed their handouts but seldom included their names.)

Interested? See “Language Arts Resources link.  Note Shakespeare Out Loud and In Color!

First, I want my students to know that they can understand Shakespeare’s language. So,  one of their first assignments has been to paraphrase Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act I. You can do the same by creating a document set up in columns with the soliloquy on the left and space for students to paraphrase on the right. This assignment can be completed during class time. Pairs can read their paraphrases to one another and then volunteers can read theirs aloud to the class. Write along with the students and see what you learn doing this assignment afresh each year. See “Teacher Resources” tab  for one of my recent versions.

Paraphrase this speech HAMLET’S SPEECH, Act I, ii, 129-159..Click your cursor to the  right, opposite the line you’re paraphrasing. You must account for every line.
Original Lines from Play Student Paraphrase


  1. Plays are written to spoken and viewed. You could begin with recorded dramatic readings of Hamlet, played as students follow along in their texts. Once students get a sense of what the language sounds like, more of the students are willing to read aloud passages they’d already read for homework.
  2. Once we’re into the play, using during Act II, bring in film versions – both dramatizations on stage and those shot on realistic sets, to show the students what the setting and attire could look like. Seeing video helps students visualize as they read.
  3. Plays also are written to be viewed in a single performance. Therefore, in order to  maximize the power of the playwright’s skill, I encourage you to assign reading the play through the first time as quickly as possible, then would go back and look at structure, dramatic devices, themes, etc. Once the students have a sense of what happened, they’ll be ready to do the expected analysis and reflection our ELA curriculum standards require us to measure.
    Waiting frustrated me in my early days because I wanted to get to those activities much too soon. Then I remember, I’ve already read the play…umpteen times, but the students haven’t.
  4. Give students as opportunity to memorize and perform lines they choose. Let them know earlyin your reading that they’d be asked to recite lines from the play, to pay attention,
    make their choices and sign up soon. To keep things interesting, I’d have no more than two students doing same speech. On recitation day, the line-up of speakers can be the order the speeches occurred in the play. We then had pretty good review of the whole play before the students turned in their final essays.
Hamlet Recitations can be  evaluated on the following criteria
      • Memorization – Do you know the lines? Make no, few, or many errors?
      • Characterization – Do you personify the character appropriately for the scene in the play?
      • Phrasing – Do you phrase the lines so that the thoughts are clearly conveyed?
      • Articulation – Do you pronounce the words clearly and correctly?
      • Appearance – Do you use your hands and body effectively to relay the message of the passage you’ve chosen?


To help focus their reading, I asked them to keep journals that included answers to the basic 5W’s and H? Yes, I checked with spot quizzes.

Can you answer the following  questions?

  •  Who? Main  characters and their relationship to each other
  •  What? Conflict(s) problem(s) to be solved.
  •  When? Setting (time)
  •  Where? Setting (place) Same or different from last scene read?
  •  Why? Motivation (reason characters do what  they do?)
  •  How? (method(s) Shakespeare used to draw us in  to find out what happens next)


Wanting the students to have some sense of the universality of this Elizabethan drama, you could design assignments that ask them to make connections between Hamlet, the play and Hamlet the character, and between what they’d observed or experienced themselves. You know – text to text; text to self; text to the world.  Typical questions for Act IV

  • Were  you surprised by the turn of events in this act? Describe your reactions.
  • How  do you explain Hamlet’s interactions with other characters in Scenes 2, 3,    and 4.
  • Why  do you think Claudius responds as he does to Laertes?
  • Why  do you think Ophelia goes mad?
  • What  is a foil (in literature)? What important aspects of Hamlet’s character are reveals by means of the contrast  between Hamlet and these two foil characters?
  • Who  do you think is the most sympathetic character at this point in the play?
  • How  do you think the treatment of Ophelia by Polonius, Claudius, Laertes, and  Hamlet would be viewed today?

Most important, I want my high school seniors  to believe that they have something to add to the discussion, but that I do not  expect them to come up with something new or radical. So, among the end of the play assignments is  an essay for which they are asked to write about what impressed them, to  support or refute at least two of the critical essays we’d read about the play,  and to connect the play to something contemporary.

You’d be surprised how refreshing it was to  read their essays. See the “Language Arts Resources” link  for the rubric that alludes  to that assignment. It was pleasant to learn that few students felt the “need” to cheat because their own ideas were  welcomed and valued. And because I did  the assignments along with them, the play remained fresh and alive for me.

Links to Assignments:

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