I have broken up with Hamlet on more than one occasion. The first time was in the Spring. It’s so lovely out, I thought, and this play is so tragic. Let’s read something more cheerful. We did. But the breakup didn’t take – Hamlet and I tried again a semester later. It didn’t last. It’s winter, I thought, and everyone dies in this play. Let’s read something more current. So I left him again. This time I was sure we were over. We stayed apart for a couple of years.
Times changed. In the English office, we teachers discussed whether or not we should teach Shakespeare every year of high school. I maintained that, while I love Shakespeare, he is over-represented in our curriculum. Some of us argued that great literature continues to expand and wondered about the place of a long-dead English guy in our students’ world. Others insisted that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of literature. We didn’t reach a conclusion – how could we? – but Hamlet and I stayed broken up. Each semester I asked students if they thought we should get back together; every time the nos far outweighed the yesses.
Then, during the pandemic online learning, a few students picked Hamlet for their choice unit, so I got to spend some time with him again. I was… intrigued both by the on-line options and by the students’ reactions to the play. They loved it – and Hamlet was on my mind again. Last semester we were in a weird pandemic limbo so I didn’t even think about Hamlet, but this semester… well, we had enough time for one more unit before the end of the year and I offered options. Hamlet was one of them – but I also offered a focus on social media, a “banned book” book club, a non-fiction children’s book study. They chose Hamlet.
I was wary – our class includes students from all over the world, some of whom are still learning English. (Honestly, in many ways we are *all* still learning English – but that’s another post.) They have plans to study computer science, engineering, medicine, economics, political science and more. I don’t think any of them plan to study Literature. And look, I know why I find Hamlet attractive, but I was unsure that he was the right fit for them. Still, it’s what they chose.
So, cautiously, I introduced them. We got our bearings and set some goals for our time together – boundaries, if you will: no, we will not read every word; yes, we will actually say the words on the page; yes, we can use No Fear Shakespeare and the internet; no, we will not stay in our seats. Then, tentatively, I invited Hamlet back into the classroom.
Look, I said, the play starts with a question – but the wrong person is asking it. Soon, students were patrolling the ramparts and trying to decide if they believed in ghosts. By Tuesday, someone gave a low whistle when Claudius taunted Hamlet, “’tis unmanly grief”. That’s HARSH, Miss. Another student replied, Well, he is behaving like a jerk. A student who has a spare during our period has started attending the class, just to read along. Today, Hamlet compared his dead father to a sun god and thought about killing himself because it was, frankly, all too much. He’s so *dramatic* sighed one student. I mean, it is kind of a terrible situation, but still. A lively discussion broke out about Hamlet’s response to all this – which made it that much worse when Horatio showed up and said, um, so, about your dad… “methinks I saw him yesternight.” One student shook her head gravely and said, Oh, this is NOT going to go well.
Tomorrow we will meet Ophelia. And I probably shouldn’t tell her, but I think I just got back together with Hamlet. Again.