Helping students understand Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy

I think we can all agree that Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy is probably the most famous soliloquy in the English language. It has resonated through the ages because we can relate to much of what ails Hamlet. Hamlet’s angst encompasses much of the pain and annoyances of life, whether it be lost love, lack of trust in our fellow human beings, grief, and much more.

By this point in the play, Hamlet views himself as a coward because he has not sought revenge on his uncle Claudius for murdering Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet. In the soliloquy, Hamlet weighs whether or not he should take his own life with a “bare bodkin.” He muses that maybe death is just like going to sleep and that might be a pleasing outcome, but then, in true philosophical fashion, Hamlet surmises what comes after death, “the undiscovered country” might be much worse than living, and so he “loses the name of action.”

When I teach the play Hamlet, I make sure the students fully understand Hamlet’s thoughts and words. We read it a few times together, and then I assign a project.

The project entails students creating an abstract work of art, and writing an essay. Once again, I wanted to think of a hands-on way for students to interact with Shakespeare’s work.

I divided the soliloquy into 5 sections and handed (at random) the students one of those sections. The students had to explain what their section meant, what those lines had to do with the play in general, and Hamlet’s feelings and motivations. Next, they had to produce a rough draft of a project that would encompass only abstract shapes and designs. We discussed the visual effects of certain shapes. For example, the use of horizontal lines suggests balance. Thus, we quickly decided Hamlet is certainly not balanced in this soliloquy, so no one was going to create abstract shapes with horizontal lines. We also discussed the symbolism of certain colors. For example, blue suggests melancholy, so blue would be a fitting color for everyone to use in their project. Once their project was done, they had to write an essay explaining their lines, shapes, and color choices, and how that all relates to the soliloquy.

I was quite pleased with the results. The students were quite challenged with this project because no one has ever assigned something similar.

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