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UNIT: Family Matters in Hamlet and King Lear



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July 2004
 
Janet Field-Pickering is Head of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
 

Plays/Scenes Covered
Hamlet, King Lear
 
What's On for Today and Why
In many ways, it is good to get adolescents thinking about choices and the consequences that result from them, and many works of literature can be examined by concentrating on this theme. Students at the secondary school level are also usually embroiled in the process of gaining independence from the family, a process that is often not a particularly calm one. This unit looks at two families in each of the two plays, Hamlet and King Lear, and examines the choices made and consequences resulting that push the characters firmly towards tragedy. The unit also stresses how these choices and consequences have larger impact on the society the characters inhabit. Students will examine a number of texts, including the plays, films, and an Early Modern primary source. They will also take advantage of an organizational grid that will pinpoint how choices and their consequences affect family relationships and characters, citing act/scene/line support from the plays.
 
What You Need
Texts:
The Folger editions of Hamlet and King Lear
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Films:
Mel Gibson Hamlet, directed Zeffirelli, 1990
Ian Holm King Lear, Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, 19- Primary Sources:
A Godly Forme of Householde Government, pages 14-19 This early 17th-century book assigns roles to each branch of the family, which author Robert Cleaver identifies as "the Governours" and "those that must be ruled." Handout Choice and Consequences Grid
 
What To Do
1. Assign a journal entry where students discuss a choice they made in their lives and write about how it affected themselves and their families.

2.Use the primary source document as an introduction, citing it as an example of how one of Shakespeare's contemporaries wrote about family life. A Godly Forme of Householde Government, pages 14-19, is of particular interest to this unit as it states that the family must be ruled as a government; therefore, what happens in a family mimics what happens in the state. It is apparent at the end of Hamlet and King Lear that family matters have contributed to a complete wreck of the societies and government in both plays.

3. While students are working their way through the plays (or after studying Hamlet and King Lear) have students complete the organizational grid. You may want to assign students to work in pairs or as groups and focus on particular families or characters on the grid. (The grid below may not have enough space for students to write in. It is meant to be a model of something you might use in class.) Remind the students that for the purposes of this analysis, the choices and consequences listed on the grid should have family ramifications. For example, take the character Hamlet. One of his first choices might be, "Complain about Claudius being your stepfather" with the text support: "A little more than kin and less than kind" (1.2.67). One consequence of that choice might be, "He arouses Claudius's suspicions" with the text support: "Well, we shall sift him" (2.2.61).

4. After students have prepared their grids, discuss in small group and then class discussions, sharing points and evidence. Begin to draw larger connections and conclusions. How are the secondary families in each play, The Poloniuses, the Gloucesters, affected by the other family unit? Are the families functional or dysfunctional, and in what ways? Can one compare or contrast families between plays and draw any conclusions? How do the families' problems reflect or impact the larger societies they inhabit? How does what they've discovered reflect back on A Godly Forme of Householde Government?

5. Select several family scenes from the play to view on film, and show these in class. Discuss how the film versions and actors' interpretations lead the audience's understanding of the film. Do the film versions support the class findings about the families and their relationships?

6. Assign the students to refine a topic from all of their investigations. Once they've gathered all this information, what idea stands out in their minds? How can they formulate it into a working thesis? (They have already assembled textual support.) Assign a 3-7 page paper on a topic of their choosing.
 
How Did It Go?
The different tasks—creating a journal entry, reading and discussing a source from the 17th century, reading two of Shakespeare's plays, analyzing text in terms of character and theme, filling out an organizational chart, viewing selected scenes from films, formulating an original thesis and writing an essay-required of students completing this unit seem daunting, But the overriding theme of the unit is one which students, especially secondary students on the verge of making important choices about their lives, should find familiar. To judge the success of this unit is to see if students were able to make connections and to see how the theme pervaded a number of different texts. Did the theme of choice and consequences and the process used illuminate the material for the students?
 


If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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