To be, or not to be

I’ve always liked and tried to weave in some elements of English and American culture and literature into my classes, as I believe that they are inextricably connected to the language. And recently I’ve been thrown into the deep end, as one of my advanced students told me that she would like to focus on literature in our classes.

I’d never taught a similar course, but I sprang at the idea with enthusiasm, since English and American literature is something I studied in university. On top of that, I’ve always been a voracious reader myself, and the perspective of finally teaching something completely different was also very appealing (not that I complain, teaching EFL in all its varieties is also great fun, but you know what I mean).

At the time my student was reading Hamlet anyway, so it was natural we started with Shakespeare (as if we needed an excuse for that). In an introductory class we read a brief biography (I will post the lesson here soon). Then it was time to tackle bits from Hamlet.

Obviously, watching the whole play was out of question. Discussing the whole play, with its myriad of motifs, characters, problems, etc. was also not on the cards. So I decided to focus on the “To be” soliloquy, which arguably is the best know part of the play, and which summarises and touches upon many things that happen before and after it, as well as providing a great springboard for discussion.

As a basis for the lesson  procedure, I took an old handout I’d been given by another teacher some years before.After publishing the post, it was pointed out to me that originally the handout was published on BC’s website by Paul Kaye from BC Syria in 2005. What I did was to expand and change his lesson by e.g. moving the focus to listening, and I hope this lesson is not seen as a copy of Paul’s, but rather as an extension and elaboration of his ideas with my own take on the theme.

As an aside, I think this lesson will also be suitable for general English classes (from strong Intermediate onwards), as I’ve done similar things on literature with individuals and groups many times with usually a very positive response from the students.

Primary lesson aims:

  • to understand Hamlet’s situation and his moral dilemma
  • to practice listening for gist

Secondary lesson aims:

  • to facilitate future reading of Shakespeare through showing how to understand the meaning of a text without understanding all the words

Lesson Plan

1.    Lead–in:
Read the quotations below. How do you understand them? What do they tell you about Hamlet’s mood?
  • “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
  • “To be, or not to be: that is the question”
  • “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
  • “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
  • “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
  • “When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!”
  • “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”
2. Schema activation:
Many bad things have happened to Hamlet.
a) Read the statements below and decide which of them are true, and which are false:
  • Hamlet’s father has been murdered.
  • As a result, Hamlet’s mother wanted to commit a suicide.
  • The girl Hamlet was going to marry has eloped with another man.
  • The ghost of Hamlet’s father visits him every night.
  • Hamlet wants to take revenge, but cannot find the strength to do it.
b) Discuss these questions:
  • Knowing more about Hamlet’s situation, how do you understand the quotes from exercise 1?
  • Who or what might they refer to?
  • How would you feel in Hamlet’s position? List some adjectives:
  • What would you do? Why?
  • Have you ever experienced a big failure in your life? If not, do you know anybody who has? What happened?
3. Gist listening:

You are going to listen to and watch Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “To be, or not to be”. Knowing what you do about the position Hamlet’s in, what do you think he’s going to talk about? List one or two main ideas.

Listen and check whether your prediction was correct.

(NOTE: I chose Jacobi’s version available on youtube here, but that’s just my personal preference – a follow up idea would be to compare the 3 or 4 best versions of the speech, e.g. Olivier, Jacobi and Branagh) 
4. Gist listening 2:
Look at the ideas Hamlet expresses put into modern English. Can you arrange them in order? Listen again and check.
  • It’s difficult to bear problems here on Earth, but the thought of the unknown life after death is quite scary. Maybe more problems lie there? That’s why most of us choose to just get on with their earthly problems.
  • Is it better to suffer silently in your mind, or step up and fight against the problems, and try to overcome them?
  • Who can bear so many problems at once? Wouldn’t it be easier just to kill yourself and so put an end to all the troubles?
  • The more you think, the more time you lose, the less decided and less likely you are to act.
  • If die, we sleep. And if we sleep we might dream. And here’s the problem: what dreams might we have in that deadly sleep?
  • Death and sleep are a great way to end the problems.
5. Listening for details:

Now your teacher will give you the jumbled text of the soliloquy. Match it to the ideas from exercise 5. Then listen and read the text to put it in order.

(NOTE:you can either find it on google and cut it up to 6 chunks corresponding to the ideas a to f in the next exercise or email me, and I’ll send it to you – I have no idea how to attach documents here, unfortunately)

6. Text analysis:

Hamlet mentions many problems, and the language might be difficult to understand. Look at the below quotations. How do you understand them? Can you put them into modern English? Use the context and the full text to help yourself.

 (NOTE: stress that students shouldn’t translate word for word, but rather use the larger context of the soliloquy, as well as the ideas discussed previously)

a) The pangs of despised love
b) The law’s delay.
c) The whips and scorn of time
d) The insolence of office
e) The proud man’s contumely
f) The spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes
7. Discussion:
Now try to give a modern example of the problems that Hamlet has. Below are some suggestions:
  • Your employer is horribly rude to you.
  • Legal cases take forever.
  • You feel old.
  • The girl you like never answers your calls.
  • Somebody treats you horribly, even though you’re always nice to them.
  • Your arrogant friend always disrespects you.
9. Discussion 2:
  • Have you ever been in a situation when you needed to act but couldn’t? What happened?
  • Why does Hamlet hesitate? Why is he unable to act?
  • What moral dilemmas does he face? Are they still relevant to us? Why (not)? Give examples.
  • What advice could you give to Hamlet?
10. Writing:

At home write a response to Hamlet’s dilemma, giving examples from present times. Among other things think:

  • whether some problems are insoluble
  • if it is better to suffer silently or to take revenge
  • why some people commit suicide

3 thoughts on “To be, or not to be

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