The seniors recently wrote about Hamlet, at the end of Act Two. My wife remarked that the instructions modeled my thinking to these students, so I decided to share those instructions here. The text of their assignment below reminds me of work with Project Zero and the idea of “making thinking visible.” (In this case, my thinking becomes visible.) I have pasted the students’ instructions underneath this sentence; afterwards, I reflect on this approach to generating a question.
Hamlet Writing, after Act 2
Choose three separate lines or brief sets of lines from Hamlet’s soliloquy (2.2.501-558) that support your answer to the question below*. Following the “11-sentence” model, use these chosen quotations in your paragraph.
Hamlet mixes feelings of superiority—for example, through his confidence in manipulating people’s perceptions of him—with an apparently uncontrollable emotional side that is overwhelmed with grief. In sum, he feels above everyone else and overwhelmed—that is, in control and out of control.
*What light does his soliloquy shed on the tension between these two sides of Hamlet’s character?
(State your main idea with some version of this basic structure: “the speech reveals that . . . .”)
Summary of sample student interests in Hamlet’s character
Determined, willful; passionate; extreme; takes risks
Sense of duty; loyalty
Manipulates people while remaining seemingly unengaged; gets what he wants without appearing overtly forceful; his ability to pretend
Grief as the driving force
Intelligent; good at reading people; tricky, clever
Emotion takes over his whole being; distinctive intensity; emotionally genuine
“plays off” two completely different personalities—disingenuous and genuine
switches diction from obscure riddles to elegant poetry
mischievous side—funny, entertaining
strange logic in pretending madness while mocking others for insincerity
mistrusts others, even in family; skeptical, resistant
complex characteristics, mysterious, unpredictable
his sense of entitlement and cockiness; shows others his power
REFLECTIONS (and brief explanations)
As we were nearing the end of Act Two, I asked students to write on an index card the facet of Hamlet’s character that most interests them and to explain why it draws them in. While they read the “O what a rogue and peasant slave” speech for homework, I summarized their interests. That summary is the italicized list you see above. I considered the patterns emerging from their varied interests. You see these considerations immediately above the question. As these patterns developed, the question started to take shape–more from the combination of their interests, than from my preconceived responses to the play and its main character. I did not know what would come from examining their interests, but I was excited to find out. By transcribing, combining and studying their ideas, I started to see a tension that I could phrase in terms they would recognize. (I explained this process to them in class before they started writing, so that they would know how to read this instruction sheet.) We will see how their writing turns out, but I feel this process of creating a question from their genuine affinities has promise.
In addition, the list of student interests shows them–all of us, for that matter–how rich a character Shakespeare has created. With no prompting from me, the students have demonstrated Hamlet’s complexity. I told them we were using the term “facet,” instead of the plainer word “aspect,” because it adds the idea of a gem stone. Hamlet is a gem, and so are they. We all have many sides to us, and I am excited to see how each of the students addresses the tension they have collectively identified in Hamlet.
This kind of excitement is one of a teacher’s simple pleasures. Simple, yes, but at the same time a deep pleasure because the exercise is growing from authentic student interest. These features of Hamlet resonate with them for various personal reasons. Those connections alone help me help them.