Teaching Hamlet Adaptations

Today, I did three new things with my students that all worked much more effectively than I expected: I taught an article I wrote, we discussed seven different versions of the same scene from Hamlet, and we finished with William Sanders’ short story “The Undiscovered.”

I was hesitant about teaching my own article:  while it is about Shakespeare adaptation, my article is about an adaptation we’re not reading in class (Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series).  But since the particular course I’m teaching has the explicit goal of introducing undergraduates to the research performed by professors and graduate students at UConn, I felt it was important to actually show them my work.  I thought it would also have the added benefit of being an argument that I know inside and out, and I could also talk about what the drafts looked like (all 42 of them), the initial research questions that prompted the project, the scholarly conversations that I envisioned the project entering, etc. So for our actual discussion, I framed this as a writing exercise, rather than simply one more theoretical text.  We dissected it in terms of the moves that Joseph Harris discusses in his book Rewriting, which we’ve been using as our primary writing handbook.  We looked at moments where I “came to terms” with someone else’s argument, where I did forwarding, where I countered other arguments, and where I “took an approach” or used the driving questions from one project to interrogate another text.  My students did a great job figuring out how transitional moments are designed to cue the reader to these moves (especially countering).  Then I asked them to turn these issues on their head by coming to terms with my article, and then speculating about how they could forward, counter, or take an approach from my article.  As an exercise, it seemed to work really well, and I hope will help them when they start reviewing each other’s writing in a week.

The second activity for the day was a dissection of the “to be or not to be” playlist I had constructed on youtube for them.

We focused mostly on the “real” adaptations of the soliloquy, which go in chronological order after the “A Small Rewrite” sketch, starting with Olivier, followed by Burton, Gibson, Branagh, Hawke, and Tennant.  We also talked a little bit about the clip from Slings and Arrows, in which a director talks with his actor for Hamlet who isn’t sure about how to play the scene.  This clip is great because it gets students to think not just about the mis-en-scène, the shots, the acting, and the lines (which I had asked them all to focus on when they were watching the playlist before class) but also on the way actors/filmmakers bring awareness of other versions to their own adaptations, as well as the issues inherent in interpreting and setting up Hamlet’s speech with regard to whether he knows if Polonius, Claudius, and Ophelia are in the room, and whether or not Hamlet is aware of them, and how that can change the meaning of the scene.  My students did a fantastic job dissecting how the shots in each version worked, though they had a bit of a harder time interpreting the change in costuming and mis-en-scène in the Slings and Arrows clip.  At the end, students seemed to have universally liked Burton and Tennant’s versions the most, but for opposite reasons: Burton’s because it’s energetic, forceful, and thoughtful, all at the same time; Tennant’s because it was “spine-tingling” and causes the viewer to really feel how exhausted Hamlet is.  Branagh came in third because of the really fascinating over-the-shoulder shot into the mirror behind which Polonius and Claudius hide, but my students didn’t seem as enamored with his actual delivery.  I think they found Olivier’s version campy, Gibson’s bland in everything but setting, and didn’t quite know what to do with Hawke’s version out of context.

The final thing we discussed was William Sander’s short story “The Undiscovered,” which is an alternate history story in which Shakespeare accidentally gets shipped off to the New World, where he is captured by Native Americans and turned into a slave. He is then captured by another tribe, the Cherokees, which is where the short story starts, as narrated by a member of the Cherokee tribe.  Shakespeare learns their language(s), and he decides to translate Hamlet into a play for the Cherokee, but they all think Hamlet’s a comedy, and he swears off play-writing from then on. I was surprised by how much my students loved this story. It produced some of the most energetic discussion we’ve had all semester, and we’ve had some pretty energetic discussion. The story is great because it talks about the problems of cross-cultural translation, and also poses some challenges for the idea of the universality of Shakespeare’s genius.  My students did some “taking an approach” work on the fly, borrowing some of the critical moves I made in my article and thinking about whether they worked for this story, too (ultimate conclusion: yes, but with some caveats).



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