The Rotten State of Denmark -
a Study of Shakespeare's Hamlet
|California Language Arts Content Standards|
|Standards Addressed in this Unit|
IntroductionThere are many points of entry into this exciting and complex play - a revenge tragedy? Hamlet as arch procrastinator? an exploration of dysfunctional families? Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this complexity is to focus initially on one interpretation before going on to explore a wider range of viewpoints.
This unit takes as its focus the view that there is an immoral and corrupt influence at the heart of court life in Elsinore, and that the tragic events of the plot, the motivation of the characters, several themes, motifs and aspects of the language can be linked to this immorality.
Guidelines for Use
- The class works through a range of activities, focusing on the corruption and immorality of the court, as they study the five Acts.
- In small groups of 2/3, students then prepare and deliver a peer-assessed seminar to the class about an aspect of corruption in Hamlet. Students should provide a summary of their notes for their peers, and visual aids may be used to support their points, such as Powerpoint, OHTs or dramatic performance.
- Students then produce an essay on the topic which will be formatively assessed by the teacher using the rubric supplied.
- Students can then complete a timed essay in class as the final summative assessment.
Conditions:This unit requires both classroom and homework time.
Students should be given class time to peer critique and rehearse their seminar presentations with sufficient homework time to follow up the suggestions made, ready for the final delivery in class.
Students should complete the formatively assessed essay as a homework exercise while the summatively assessed essay should be completed under timed conditions.
Teacher Background ReadingThere are some full teaching guides available on the internet for Hamlet; see list of Resources at the end of this Unit. Also useful are background notes on aspects of the play relevant to the central theme of this unit:
- Order / disorder
- great chain of being
- summary of the theme of corruption - "Corruption - an incurable disease"
TEACHING AND LEARNING ACTIVITIESSelect and adapt these learning activities to best meet the needs of your students, and to fit the time available:
By the end of their study of Act 1, students should appreciate that Claudius' crimes (fratricide, regicide) plus his usurpation and 'incestuous' marriage mark him as the protagonist of the immorality in the court. Hamlet must engage with Claudius to confront this corruption, and in doing so, he must confront his own perceived inadequacies. Other characters' lack of trust, the presence of the ghost and the concept of revenge are all evidence that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. The frequent use of imagery related to disease, dungeons and weeds is an important indicator of this theme and should be noted as it occurs.
- Begin by introducing this theme through discussion of the details in Act 1 Scene 1, such as the omen of the ghost, the time of night, the chill in the air, the forebodings of the soldiers in a time of war and disorder....
- Before reading the first scene, watch the opening scenes of the play on video (see Resources), up to the ghost's first appearance (end of scene 1). Mel Gibson provides a good version (although it is not completely faithful to the actual order of the text). Discuss with the class how the uneasy mood and atmosphere is conveyed in the film version.
- Complete a dramatic reading of Act 1 Scene 1 in class. Perhaps warm up the reluctant readers with a quick game of wink murder or another good drama warm up game (PDF).
Continue the discussion about which details in the plot and language in the first scene create a sense that all is not well in Denmark. Compare with the video version which they saw earlier.
- Now complete a full reading of the entire Act in class, focusing initially on the basics of plot, who's who etc. so that students can grasp the basic story as it unfolds. Online study guides for the play can be useful at this point, plus a prose version of the play. Ideas for activities that might enliven class readings include:
- Individuals taking key roles
- Performances of key moments in small groups
- Freeze frames created by small groups of key moments
- Intersperse video clips of key moments
- Prepared readings - allocate key speeches to prepare for homework to read/perform the next lesson
- Rex Gibson has many other great ideas in his teachers' book (see Resources)
- Ask students to complete the response to Act 1 (pdf) which traces the elements of disorder - these establish for the audience that something is 'rotten' and corrupt in Elsinore.
- Students then take a closer look at the character of Claudius using Worksheet 1 - split the class into two - one side takes the 'positives' as listed on the sheet, the other side the 'negatives' - to gather both positive and negative points about his behavior from Act 1, scenes 2, 4 and 5. Each group then feeds back to the class. Gather their comments on the board so they can take notes.
- In pairs, students then explore Hamlet's feelings of disillusionment which so frequently inform the uneasy atmosphere at court. They should closely analyze the language of his soliloquy using Worksheet 2; this is also a good opportunity to teach the finer points of iambic pentameter, imagery, connotative language and the dramatic function of soliloquies to your students.
- Book a computer room or assign this as a homework activity. Research the following background topics in small groups to then feedback to the class; they should provide an oral summary of these background notes for their peers and explain how they believe the information on these topics is relevant to the events and ideas of corruption in Act 1 of the play:
- the nature of revenge tragedy;
- significance of ghosts
- the political implications of the Great Chain of Being
- the Divine Right of Kings (which has influence on Shakespeare's play despite Denmark being an elective monarchy);
- the story of Cain and Abel
- the motifs of poison (and why it might be a metaphor for corruption in the play)
By the end of their study of Act 2, students should appreciate that the court is peopled with other characters who, like Claudius, contribute to the atmosphere of corruption and mistrust in the play. Others, such as Ophelia and Hamlet, are caught up in the chaos that has resulted from Claudius' original actions....
- Read through the Act as a class and establish key plot events. Continue to use the video or activities as suggested for Act 1 as support, if time allows.
- Divide class into three to focus on Polonius, whose sycophancy and mistrust of his children contributes to the deceit and moral corruption of the court. Each group looks at one of the aspects of Polonius' behavior towards one of the following: Claudius, Laertes, Ophelia, as shown on Worksheet 3. Gather their comments on the board so they can take notes.
- Motif of spying and deceptive appearances:
Students should list the occurrences of spying so far in the play. As a class, discuss how it adds to the claustrophobic, deceitful mood -and hence the theme of corruption - at court. Update the list of examples of spying as the play continues.
- Motif of madness:
Read the notes on how various actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company have portrayed Hamlet's madness. Discuss with the class why madness as a state of mind has relevance to Elsinore as a diseased place as well as a place in which appearances can be deceptive. The class should appreciate that Hamlet's madness - his 'antic disposition' - is perceived as a 'disease' of the mind and a way of avoiding reality; in his madness, he can play other roles and deceive those around him. As a class, make a list of all the instances so far in which madness and pretence has occurred. Update this as the play continues. As a homework activity, students could read the background information provided here as to whether Hamlet is truly mad or not.
- Hamlet mocks Polonius and dissembles with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Scene 2. Look at his speech to his friends on Worksheet 2 and in pairs discuss how the ideas and language add to the theme of corruption at court. Gather their comments on the board so they can take notes.
By the end of their study of Act 3, students should appreciate that the corruption in Elsinore has lead to hysteria, deception, further plotting and the death of Polonius...
- Read through the Act as a class and establish key plot events.
- Act 3 scene 1: "Get thee to a nunnery". Read through the scene again in pairs, including Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and his dialogue with Ophelia to list as many references as can be found to corrupt and diseased images, such as "breeder of sinners". The students should appreciate how spoiled Hamlet's view of the world and people around him has become following the unnatural death of his father and his mother's marriage.
- Stage the mousetrap scene (in an abridged form, perhaps) as a class, making sure that as many of the class as possible has someone else to watch to emphasize the elements of spying and layers of deception at work in the play. Remember that we, the audience, also watch the actors beyond the 'fourth wall' of the theatre. Freeze the action at tense moments and thought-track some of the characters.
- Take a close look now at Ophelia - give out to small groups of students moments from the play so far which feature her, one scene per group: Act 1 scene 3 / Act 2 scene 2 / Act 3 scene 1 / Act 3 scene 2 . Students should produce a group Mindmap of her character on OHT/poster to explore the way she is presented as a victim of the corruption at court; look at her actions, her reactions, and her language. The disillusionment which consumes Hamlet as a result of Claudius' actions causes him to reject her and murder her father, resulting ultimately in her death in Act 4. Mindmaps should be displayed to the class by each group and explained. Groups could then make notes from the mindmaps.
- Students complete a close analysis of Claudius in Scene 3, using Worksheet 4.
- Scene 4: discuss Hamlet's view on Gertrude's marriage to Claudius - how is this symptomatic of his views on the court being corrupt? Polonius' murder - what comment might Shakespeare be making here?
- Hamlet says to Gertrude that he must be heaven's "scourge and minister" - what might this suggest about his role within the theme of corruption in the play? Students should grasp that Hamlet may correct the fault at court but, in Elizabethan terms, by opting for revenge, he is taking the law of God into his own hands and will be punished himself.
- Read through the Act as a class and establish key plot events.
- Ophelia as victim: in pairs, students should look at the way she is presented in scenes 6 and 7, commenting on how the language and imagery (e.g. flowers) conveys her innocence in the face of others' immorality. Gather their comments on the board so they can take notes.
- Book the computer room or a data projector so that students can view famous pictures of her as another way of discussing the way she is presented. Discuss which elements of the play have influenced the various artists in their interpretations of her.
- Claudius's last attempts to regain control: split the class into two, each side to make notes on one of the following aspects of his behavior with reference to scenes 1, 3, 5 and 7:
- Claudius is desperately keen to be a strong ruler and uses diplomacy to attempt to restore order;
- Claudius is manipulative and corrupt.
- Conduct a whole class debate on the issue, in which every person from each team must stand up and contribute one point to further their team's argument. No one must speak twice. Keep score on the board, giving points for any reasonable point well made or even just attempted, quotations used etc. and removing points for anything you feel is justified! Extra credit should be given for references to the language used by the various characters. Establish the rules beforehand though. Alternatively, have the two sides condense their arguments down for an 'expert' panel of three students from each side which can present their case in a more traditional debate format.
- Separate the class into three, each group taking one of the following: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Ophelia; Laertes. Brainstorm and feedback in discussion on their actions in Act 4 and how these actions perpetuate the theme of moral corruption in the play at this point. Gather notes on the board for the class.
In the denouement, Shakespeare draws to a close his theme and the ending apparently restores order to the previously corrupt court. Characters that are seen to have taken the law of the land and of God into their own hands are killed, often "hoist by their own petards". The notion of Fortinbras as being the appropriate man to take the throne is, however, always up for discussion.
- Complete a reading of the play as a class.
- The graveyard scene: note Hamlet's declaration "This is I, Hamlet the Dane": his certitude about his own identity does not excuse his commitment to taking the law of heaven into his own hands through an act of revenge.
- Hamlet's tale of his escape in scene 2: how is he, too, marked as a character of questionable morals, despite his desperation to avenge his father's death?
- The final scene: stage it in class / watch it on video as well as reading it through. Discuss how far the corrupt influences in the play have been destroyed. Note the recurrence of the motif of poison. Conduct a balloon debate to explore why each character should / should not have deserved to die, with reference to the key theme they have been studying. Extra credit should be given for references to the language used by the various characters.
- Fortinbras - is he a force for good and morality? In pairs, look at all the references to him, one person to consider the pros, the other, the cons in Act 1 scene 2, Act 2 scene 2, Act 4 scene 4, Act 5 scene 2. How far has the character of Fortinbras provided a counter-view for the theme of corruption in the play? They should understand that he has followed orders (Act 2) and not been as vengeful as the other two sons in the play (Hamlet and Laertes) although he marched through Denmark on a flimsy excuse (Act 4) and largely appears strong as he is contrasted with the less courageous Hamlet.
- Quotation Quest: Split the class into two or more teams. Using Worksheet 5, read out the quotations one by one, alternating between each team. When it is their turn the teams have to identify (either quickest hand up or by conferring as a group):
- Who said it (1 point)
- When it was said (in terms of plot, rather than which specific scene) - (1 point)
- How it is relevant to the theme of corruption in the play (1 point)
Worksheet 5 could then be distributed so students have a list of useful quotations on the topic. Students should be aware that imagery of weeds, disease, chaos and poison, which run throughout the play, are indicators of the corruption within the court.
Prior to beginning their seminars, it would be useful for students to undertake some reading on critical viewpoints of the play, such as A C Bradley and L C Knight which will help students fine tune their own critical standpoints. This could be assigned as a homework exercise, in which students must read an aspect of a critical work and then summarize it for a partner the next lesson.
PREPARATION FOR SEMINAR
- In groups of 2-3, students should now be given Worksheet 6 which outlines the seminar task. Tasks could be chosen, picked out of a hat or allocated by the teacher.
- The preparation and rehearsal should take about 3 lessons plus homework.
- The teacher will need to either photocopy the notes which they prepare to distribute to the rest of the class, have the groups email notes to their classmates or students could be required to take notes as the seminars are presented.
- This is peer-assessed work: each group should be prepared for questions from the class at the end and the class needs to be ready to ask challenging questions, especially if the group has drawn conclusions with which others disagree.
PREPARATION TO WRITE EXAM-STYLE ESSAY
- Students can then be set an essay to complete for homework which will be formatively assessed by the teacher according to the standard. Alternatively, the essays could be (sensitively!) peer assessed, using the standard.
- A further, summatively assessed essay is then set as a timed exercise.
Students should be able to write at least 1500 words in which they analyze a passage from Hamlet and/or analyze a selected aspect.
- Go back through the play compiling a full character study of Hamlet - his actions, moods, typical language - and note the change in attitude between Acts 4 and 5. Each student is given a scene on which to focus to become an 'expert' on Hamlet as a focus. They compile notes on him in their scene to feedback to the class. Then you can use the 'General Hamlet Questions'. to help them develop their views on him further.
- Students could look at exemplar essays available on the Internet and assess them in groups according to the standard.
- Shakespeare, Hamlet: Corruption - an incurable disease
- Trace the imagery of decay and corruption throughout the play Hamlet
- In groups, students could select one scene which typifies the ideas of corruption in the play and perform it as a celebration of this theme. Alternatively, students select one scene and capture its essence in a freeze frame, with a key quotation chosen as a title for this 'painting'. Show to the class.
- The Arden Edition of Hamlet, ed. By Harold Jenkins (Methuen, 1982)
- Teaching Shakespeare: A Handbook for Teachers by Rex Gibson
(Cambridge School Shakespeare S.)
- Hamlet - DVD version starring Mel Gibson (1991) available on Amazon
- For an online text of Hamlet and general notes on the play, go to Hamlet Online
- Useful scene by scene commentary and notes on themes by Ed Friedlander are available on Enjoying Hamlet
- Hamlet Criticism
- Hamlet Works
A site focusing on the differing interpretations of the play over the centuries.
- No Fear Shakespeare
A site which presents the language of Shakespeare's plays side-by-side with a facing-page translation into modern English.
Teaching Guides on Hamlet:
- Teacher's Guide to the Signet Edition of Hamlet
- Teaching Unit for entire play by Andrew Kenning
- Penguin Classic Notes on Hamlet
- SparkNotes: study notes on the whole play
- Cliffs Notes: study notes on the whole play
General Shakespeare websites: