“What do you read, my Lord?”
“Words. Words. Words.” (II ii Polonius to Hamlet)
While driving home today, I was struck by the multiple refractions of teaching – especially 4U English. My class has been watching different versions of Hamlet, critiquing on many levels. Today’s class felt a little like I was peering through layers of lenses – each having a complete view, yet forever superimposed. I wanted to extract them.
We start with making sense of the text, so the play exists in our heads as words on a page and specifically with words on the left of the page explaining the words on the right. This is a distancing from the immediacy of a live performance – a pulling back and pulling away. Yet it must be done to have some grasp of the text. The notes in the book give context for the play in many time periods. Shakespeare and Elizabethan times are referenced; the thoughts of various actors and scholars over the ages are alluded to. This elastic band lets us pull away and snap in again.
We put the lines into context in the plot lines of the play and talk about the characters like they are real people. Questions are asked which are not answered anywhere in the text. I can feel the frustration in the room. This desire to believe in the characters as real people pulls us into the text. Then the lack of answers snaps us out again.
Movie versions of some scenes give answers to some of the questions – like, ‘Did Hamlet ever love Ophelia?’. Some of the versions create more questions. We sit outside the action on the screen and try to decode it. What do the actions mean for other questions we have about the play?
We think about the choices of setting, costuming, camera angles, acting choices, interpretations of lines and implications for understanding the text. What is the vision? Do we agree?
All this the students participate in. Then I think about my teaching. I view the room as if from a video camera mounted in a corner of the ceiling. I’m spying on myself, critiquing the lesson. Are the students engaged? How could I improve what’s happening? Am I becoming Polonius? Spying. Extemporizing.
My husband read an earlier draft of this post and said, “I’m not sure I get the thrust of your post.”. In explaining it to him, I had to conclude that I hadn’t made it clear in the earlier lines. This is more of a journal entry than a true, high end blog post; however, to bring it all together, here are a few ideas.
Hamlet, the character, has a lot of important questions he’d like answered. Staging, watching, reading the play, forces us to ask and answer many of those questions. This is life. We live it, asking questions, analyzing actions and answers, wondering what unexplained things mean and how we fit in. The classroom can feel like the play, like life – it is life – questions are asked and sometimes there are answers. It is the quest – the desire to know that unifies the students with the characters with the teacher with life.
Hamlet spends a lot of time thinking. I thought it was time I did something: I put some ideas on electronic paper.
Thanks for the inspiration – MW, my students, my husband.