Is Hamlet Overrated?

How to make teaching Shakespeare fun
Still struggling with making Shakespeare fun? This blog post gives tips on making Shakespeare engaging and interesting to even reluctant readers!

Over the years, I’ve taught Hamlet over a dozen times and to several different levels of learners. In my first AP Lit teaching position I taught it since it was already in the curriculum. I loved its complexity and discussion potential, but I easily tired of what I perceived was Hamlet’s whiny personality.

When I moved schools in 2010, Hamlet was in my Shakespearean Lit curriculum and Macbeth was our AP Lit Shakespeare text. Since then, Hamlet has moved into AP Lit, and back out of it again. Today, it lives in my Shakespeare course. My Shakespearean text in AP Lit is King Lear (for right now), and that’s only if we have time for it.

I’ve wavered back and forth on my opinions on Hamlet. It seems like it hit its AP Lit hey day from 1994-2000. In that time, it was a fixture on suggested titles for Q3. In my time as an AP reader, Hamlet was so frequently analyzed (and abused) that I began to roll my eyes at it. However, when done well, essays on Hamlet can be some of the highest-scoring in the bunch. Here are the benefits and alternatives to teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Hamlet Unit Bundle on TpT
Hamlet Unit Bundle, available on TpT!

Note: In this post I share some links to Hamlet resources from my TpT store. All of these resources are included in my Hamlet bundle (they are not included in my AP Lit Full Course bundle, unfortunately). If you’re considering teaching Hamlet, this resource is geared for any level, not just AP!

The Benefits of Teaching Hamlet

Depictions of Grief

When I first began teaching Hamlet was overly dramatic, whining about his father’s death to avoid doing anything of purpose. Since then, I’ve really come around on our favorite Dane. Part of that transformation stemmed from witnessing my own father’s reaction to his mother’s death.

My grandmother passed away from cancer in 2005. She was preceded in death only a month earlier by my grandfather, who died from a massive heart attack while my grandma was in the shower. His death was so shocking and unexpected that our wounds were still raw when my grandma followed him only a month later, ironically on my 21st birthday. Several years later, I noticed my father grew irritated and moody at mentions of my grandma, my grandpa, or anyone else in his family. Relationships with his siblings grew more strained until they were officially estranged. I mentioned once to my other grandmother that he never seemed to get over his mother’s death. She responded, “Why doesn’t he just get over it? People die, you know!”

Hamlet: A Study of Grief
This free resource allows students to analyze Hamlet’s progression through the five stages of grief.

I’ve since watched my husband’s family grieve over the loss of my father-in-law, and in 2014 I lost my beloved grandfather, the man to whom I owe my love of story-telling. Grief is a universal feeling, however, everyone grieves differently. Some, like Gertrude, throw themselves into new adventures or even relationships. Others, like both Hamlet and my dad, need to feel that grief longer than others. And both are completely acceptable.

One of my favorite activities to pair with Hamlet is a discussion of the five stages of grief. In this free resource on TpT, students can track Hamlet’s progression through the five stages, and even discuss other Hamlet characters’ grief as well.

Range of Interpretations & Performances

Another benefit to teaching Hamlet is the rich variety of teaching possibilities it includes. It seems like almost every scene has multiple perceived meanings. Every line touches on at least one theme. There are so many quotes! So many big moments! And then, there’s the performances!

If you search for Hamlet on IMDB, you’ll find over 50 results. More than 50 performances you could share with your students. I like to show a variety of Hamlet interpretations to my students and let them pick a favorite. My three favorite to show in class are:

To be or Not to be Comparison Chart
This chart helps students track the different variations
of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech.
  • Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet starring Kenneth Branagh, 1996. Pure in dialogue, this movie skips no scenes or even lines, resulting in a very long film (over 4 hours!). It’s still rich in interpretation, however, moving the action to an updated baroque palace and making some bold choices in Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship.
  • Franco Zefferelli’s Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, 1990. While I don’t believe the acting in this one is very strong, it’s setting appears to be in medieval Denmark as the play depicts. Hamlet’s soliloquy from the castle’s catacombs is also useful for explaining themes for struggling readers.
  • Gregory Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, 2009. Tennant’s t-shirt wearing Hamlet is a bit more zany and approachable with teenagers. Its modern setting helps students see the relevancy with this play, and its play-within-a-play scene is truly fun.

When we get to “To Be or Not to Be,” I show the same speech from all three of these performances (plus sometimes Benedict Cumberbatch’s, if I can access it!). Students take notes on the subtle differences in setting, props, movement, inflection, and other decisions. The repetition and variations allow them to fully appreciate this powerful speech, and the complex feelings behind Hamlet as he contemplates suicide.

Psychological Analysis

It’s not hard for students to grasp that Hamlet is struggling with depression. Other than “to be or not to be,” Hamlet’s battle with self-doubt and uncertainty is present in every scene. However, Hamlet is not the only one experiencing mental health issues.

Hamlet Act IV Scaffolded Lesson
This scaffolded lesson guides students in a study of
Ophelia’s lines to Laertes, right before she kills herself.

Can we talk about Ophelia for a moment? Poor Ophelia, who is constantly steered around by the men in her life? She slept with Hamlet because he asked her to (note, that’s my own personal inference). Then, she dumped Hamlet because her father and brother told her to. But if that’s not enough, her father then uses her as bait to see if Hamlet is truly mad. This results in the infamous “Get thee to a nunnery!” line. Ophelia must feel so conflicted and anxious, yet she has no one to talk to. Remember, she dumped Hamlet and Laertes is off at school. By the time Laertes returns, Polonius is dead, Hamlet is a wanted man, and Ophelia has become completely unhinged. If there isn’t enough material to analyze Hamlet psychologically, students will certainly find plenty to discuss with Ophelia.

One activity you can do to study Ophelia in depth is a deep dive in her final conversation with Laertes in Act IV. If you’re teaching Hamlet, this resource, as well as other scaffolded activities, are available in my Hamlet bundle on TpT.

Alternatives to Teaching Hamlet

While Hamlet is excellent and arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play, it comes with drawbacks. For one, it’s Shakespeare’s longest play. Secondly, it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite hard. Increased difficulty usually means more time, so it won’t be one you can tackle in two weeks. Finally, Shakespeare’s plays come with the inevitable language barrier, which will lead to increased confusion. A strong teacher will need good strategies to break down these language barriers.

If you’re looking for some alternatives to Hamlet that are still by the bard, consider these excellent texts:

Othello

Othello and Desdemona painting

Despite my love for Hamlet, Othello is my all-time favorite Shakespeare play. I wish Hamlet explored Claudius’ villainy and motives deeper, but we’re left to explore those mostly through inferences and his single soliloquy in Act III. Conversely, Othello gives us one of literature’s most masterful villains. My students delight in tracking Iago’s manipulations, calling him the ultimate puppet-master by the play’s end. Pair that with Othello’s own self-doubt and uncertainty due to his new marriage and his race, and you get a rigorous and engaging Shakespearean play.

King Lear

King Lear movie poster

The only play that I consider “harder” than Hamlet is King Lear. While Hamlet has more subtext, Lear has subtext plus a bunch of extra characters. The plot lines alone can spin your head. Furthermore, Lear shares conflicts like madness, rights of kingship, parents vs. children, political plotting with Hamlet. But it also has issues like sibling rivalry, loyalty vs. betrayal, and a classic love triangle to complicate matters. I recommend viewing Richard Eyre’s King Lear (on Amazon Prime) if studying Lear. This film is masterful.

Macbeth

Macbeth movie poster

This is a great choice if a) you’re crunched for time, or b) your students have little exposure to Shakespeare. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, so it won’t take nearly the time that Hamlet will. Furthermore, its central theme of the corrupting influence of power is approachable and relevant with students. Although it may seem simple at the start, Macbeth is still rich in complexity and interpretation, making it an excellent addition to AP Lit. I highly recommend pairing it with Rupert Goold’s film starring Patrick Steward. This version is set in the Soviet Union with Macbeth resembling Joseph Stalin. It’s brilliant!

Twelfth Night

She's the Man movie poster

Why do we always overlook comedies? While my favorite Shakespearean comedy is Much Ado About Nothing, I don’t find it quite as complex as Twelfth Night when it comes to literary analysis. Twelfth Night brings a convoluted plot (hello secret identities), multiple love triangles, plus a fascinating depiction of orders of class in Shakespeare’s time. Of all the comedies, this is one considered the most “AP-worthy.” Plus, it gives you an excuse to show clips from She’s the Man, something my students love.

Conclusion

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In short, I don’t have a finite answer to the initial question. I think that answer depends on your students’ exposure to Shakespeare and their educational background. Hamlet is certainly not one size fits all, so while one class may adore it another may hate it. Another thing to consider is that the 2020-2021 school year has been filled with unknowns and a great deal of global tragedy. There is no shame in abandoning Hamlet, which discusses depression and suicide at length, for something lighter like a comedy. Or, in a different approach, it could be a great time to study Othello, Shakespeare’s only play with a black protagonist.

Tips For Making Shakespeare Fun

For 12 years now I’ve been teaching English Language Arts to high school students, and with most ELA course loads inevitably come a healthy dose of Shakespeare. Throughout my career, I’ve taught the following Shakespearean works:

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  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Julius Caesar
  • Hamlet
  • Macbeth
  • King Lear
  • Othello
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • Henry VI, Part I
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Twelfth Night

…plus numerous sonnets. In my experience I’ve discovered several methods that have helped me market Shakespeare to high school students as an enjoyable, relatable author.

Read aloud in class

This one goes directly against the number one suggestion from another ELA blogger, but I have never had success with students reading Shakespearean language at home. At times we’ll need to finish a reading as homework in my AP Lit class, but even they have a lot of questions when they come back. But sophomores? Freshmen??? Have you ever tried to teach them poetry, let alone archaic poetry in iambic pentameter? No, thank you. I firmly believe that plays are meant to experienced, if not on the stage then at least through reading them aloud.

This is why my students study Shakespeare’s words in my classroom. We assign parts. We reenact scenes. We discuss quotes, dissect lines and even words. But it all happens together. By reading together, we can learn it together, and I don’t have to recap and summarize entire scenes that were assigned as reading.

Watch a Production

I don’t teach a drama class so our short reenactments are crude and often for sake of engagement rather than drama. But Shakespeare’s works are masterpieces, and students need to see them acted out. For each unit in my Shakespearean Lit course, we spend half of our weekly block periods watching a movie that goes along with the play we’re studying. And I mean an actual Shakespearean production, not a teen movie based loosely on a plot line. Sometimes the productions are straightforward and classic (Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996), sometimes they’re a bit more interpretive (Rupert Goold’s Macbeth, 2010). I am also a fan of Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995), Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Franco Zeferelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Trevor Nunn’s King Lear (2008), and Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996). I also suggest you watch it in parts as you read the play, rather than reading it all the way through, taking the test, and having a “reward” by watching it. Just today we watched the first 45 minutes of Macbeth, and one of my students said, “This helps so much. It helps to see it.”

Use Labels & Character Maps

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Back when I first started teaching Julius Caesar, I realized right away that my students were struggling with keeping track of everybody. I don’t blame them; that play has 35 characters, not counting those labeled as “servant” or “messenger.” After the first act, I worked much more actively to help students keep track of characters. Each student was assigned to at least one JC character, then given a paper placard with the character’s name, description, and a color attributed to it. Tribunes got one color, senators another, servants another, and so on. Likewise, in my Shakespearean Lit course my students often ask for a character map. I sketch out the characters on the whiteboard (poorly; I’m not artist) and show relationships between everybody. We update the character map as we read, indicating deaths and changes in relationships. Students have told me that even though this is a pretty rudimentary method of instruction, it helps to have a quick map to refer to throughout the unit.

Make Connections to Modern Times

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One reason modern interpretations like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man are so popular is that they take an ancient story and show it updated to reflect modern conflicts. But Shakespeare’s stories already reflect so many universal and relevant themes. By making connections to our modern world, students will find relevancy to the Bard’s words, and suddenly a 400-year-old work seems personal. They just might need some help finding the connections.

Consider the following theme connections for some of these works:

Romeo and Juliet – Love vs. lust, cliques, gossip, infatuation
Macbeth &  – The corrupting influence of power
Julius Caesar – Ethics, politicians’ use of rhetoric
The Taming of the Shrew – Gender roles, sexism, marriage roles, feeling pressured in relationships
Hamlet – Depression and mental illness, coping with grief, friendship, betrayal

These don’t have to be spelled out for students, just suggested. Ask them the right questions near the beginning of the play, build on them, and soon students are making connections left and right. I can’t tell you how interesting it has been to teach Julius Caesar in this political climate!

These are just some of my suggestions to make teaching Shakespeare more rewarding and engaging. What tips would you offer to fellow ELA teachers? Please comment with any tips you may have!

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