Teaching “Hamlet” in Dreamland Last Night

(a beautiful black and white version directed by and starring the great Laurence Olivier)

(a recommended resource I bought and used for my gr. 12 class in 1967; this is still the most engaging look of a student book version I have ever seen other than the student magazine I did which was not published)

You just never know what themes or subjects you will re-experience in nightly dreams.

Anyway, if I was to do it again for real, I would still issue paperbacks of the play and start the first day by letting kids listen to the first scenes of the play, stopping to discuss and answer questions. The chosen text would have to have footnotes for unfamiliar words and phrases at the bottom of the page.

I think I would still have kids act out the subsequent scenes, occasionally taking on one of the parts to liven up readings. I would show some movie scenes from the Branagh production like “To be or not to be” and the nunnery scenes as well as the conclusion after the Claudius-Laertes secret meeting.

Because the play is a masterpiece and very thoughtful, I would still ask kids to write an essay from a list of topics. If they wanted to suggest a topic, it would need approval first.

Hamlet changed my life forever in grade 12. I knew then that I would go on to read more Shakespeare (Othello was next). I own two productions on DVD: the Olivier which still has its own atmosphere and charm; it was the first one we saw back in grade 12 and found unintentionally funny, imaging our own better versions. The Branagh features the complete text and has many strong performances; it’s the ultimate movie version, in my opinion. Richard Burton’s performance recorded on vinyl in the mid-60s may still be the best production of all, though. That magnificent voice!

Was Hamlet 18 or 30? In grade 12, we imagined the former, though the text is very clear Hamlet is 30, albeit an occasionally immature, cynical 30. For this reason, Gertrude should always look 50 or older.

(Burton’s many-nuanced voice made this a successful Broadway show in the mid-’60s; worth seeking out in stereo if you have a turntable)

(the best Hamlet movie non-pareil)

(a personal treasure; ltd. ed. signed by Branagh)


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