Making a Scene: Clemente Seniors Bring Shakespeare to Life
For as long as William Shakespeare’s plays have been in print, students have been reading them in English classes. But just because a play is old doesn’t mean the classroom approach should stay the same. Using engaging resources from the Folger Shakespeare Library, seniors in Mr. Van Loon’s Diploma Programme Language and Literature class tackled one of the Bard’s most challenging plays, Hamlet, to develop a deeper understanding of the tragedy of the melancholy Dane.
The Folger Approach
For 2017, Clemente’s senior English department decided to study one of Shakespeare’s most daunting plays: Hamlet. In the past, Clemente students studied Hamlet and the Bard’s other dramas by reading aloud them in class and watching selected scenes from the film versions. This year, however, the senior teachers applied the Folger approach to Hamlet. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, their approach:
- Connects students with Shakespeare’s language head on, so that they own the plays and everything in them.
- Builds on that foundation with elements of performance and scholarship, at a level and in a way that only the Folger Shakespeare Library can.
- Supports all students in reading closely, asking good questions, citing textual evidence, and benefiting from lasting relationships with words and ideas.
“Classroom Resources.” Folger Shakespeare Library. Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d. Web. <http://www.folger.edu/classroom-resources)>
Understanding Shakespeare’s language can be a challenge for even the most motivated and dedicated reader, and the Folger Library provides educational tools that work to make the language more immediate and relatable without deviating from the Folio text.
Famous Last Words
Before the seniors jumped into Hamlet, they began with an exercise that would help them comprehend the language by first understanding the characters’ motivations. Mr. Van Loon asked the seniors what they knew about Hamlet and Shakespeare before reading, and several said that “everyone dies” in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Although that’s not entirely true, there is some truth in that comment.
With that in mind, Mr. Van Loon gave each student the last words uttered by a Shakespearean character before their on-stage death. Without context or additional guidance, it was up to each student to determine the cause of death (Sword fight? Poisoning? Bear attack?) and act out the dramatic final moment accordingly. Without altering Shakespeare’s language or relying on a “no fear” translation, Clemente students were reading, acting out, and understanding some of the Bard’s most challenging lines with little hesitation.
Enter the Ghost
One of the most chilling and challenging aspects of staging Hamlet is the depiction of his father’s ghost. For the “Enter the Ghost” activity (developed by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago), Mr. Van Loon’s Language and Literature students utilized Clemente’s World Media Center as a stage for the moment in Act I, Scene 5 when young Hamlet interacts with his father’s ghost.
To capture the ethereal quality of the ghost, Mr. Van Loon asked the seniors to lie on the ground and “become the ghost” as an ensemble. They began by making the sounds the ghost might make: low moans and harsh growls. Next, Mr. Van Loon fed the ghost’s lines to the ensemble, and they voiced them as one in a hushed whisper. Students took creative risks; some lingered on the vowels of words like “revenge” and “doomed” while others emphasized the harsh consonants in “flames” and “pity.” Slowly, the ensemble rose as one to end the scene.
As a fitting capstone for the Hamlet unit, Clemente seniors were treated to a performance of the Shakespeare Project of Chicago’s 50-minute Hamlet production. Clemente seniors won the special performance by writing letters for a contest. Using two actors to play all of the roles, the highly abridged version captured the play’s tragedy and sublime language while adding some modern touches.
By engaging in new and exciting approaches to these 400-year-old texts, Clemente seniors were able to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare and his language.