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"To be or not to be" -- Appreciating the Language and Interpreting the Meaning of Hamlet's Soliloquy

Teachers' Rating:
  8 ratings

Greg Wyatt, Hamlet

August 2010

Carol Moran Petrallia, retired, taught English language arts classes which included  ESL/ELL students at Columbia High School, South Orange/Maplewood School District, Maplewood, NJ. 


Plays/Scenes Covered
Hamlet, 3.1
What's On for Today and Why

This lesson introduces students to Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be" in which he questions himself and his need to act in avenging his father's death.  They will be encouraged to listen to the language and the sound and rhythm of the word choices.

Students will use the attached word study list of words/phrases to discover meanings and etymologies and to begin to form an appreciation for and understanding of this well-known soliloquy. ELL/ESL students are interested to learn that native English speakers are as challenged as they are when reading Elizabethan English, and they are often understanding of the fact that a dynamic language is always developing and changing.

Students will also view, discuss, and write in response to two film presentations of Hamlet's soliloquy. They will use specific criteria to compare the different interpretations that each actor brings to his performance.

This lesson will take two class periods of 45 minutes over two days.

What You Need
  • Folger edition of Hamlet
    Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

  • Notebooks/files in which students have been keeping word studies, references to specific lines of dialogue, and notes on performance/directing activities
  • Print or online dictionaries that include etymology information
  • Two different film versions of Hamlet's soliloquy




Word Study List
What To Do


1. Write the first line of Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be -- that is the question" on the chalk board or Smart board for students to read. For ELL/ESL students, you might note that, as the son of a murdered king, Hamlet describes his turmoil in this soliloquy, and debates whether he should or should not avenge his father's death, and he considers his own death.


2. Write the words "bodkin" and "fardels" on the board. Explain that some of the words Hamlet uses will be unfamiliar. For instance, the lines "with a bare bodkin" and "who would fardels bear" make use of archaic words choices which are not used today. When researching the word "rub" in the dictionary, students will find that the current use of the idiomatic phrase to "rub out" is included, but has a different meaning. For students, particularly ELL/ESL learners, this pre-reading discussion should help to reduce the confusion that occurs when confronting unfamiliar words and allows students to concentrate on the text.


3. Hand out copies of Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be," 3.1.64-98, pages 127-9. Have students highlight/underline unfamiliar words/phrases. Let students know that this soliloquy introduces and explains Hamlet's decisions and actions in Act 3 and will serve as a reference point as they continue to read.


4. Have students read the soliloquy aloud by "reading around the room" with each student reading a line and stopping at a punctuation mark or end punctuation mark. Encourage students to read and listen to Hamlet's description without being concerned if they don't understand every word/phrase.


5. Ask students to highlight/underline words/phrases that are descriptive and have students identify the descriptive words they chose and why they did so. 


6. Have the students read the soliloquy aloud a second time starting from the opposite side of the room from the first reading. Ask students to highlight/underline any additional descriptive words/phrases and discuss.


7. Hand out copies of the Word Study list. Assign students to work in pairs or small groups and complete the word study. Students should be encouraged to use the Folger notes whenever possible. Have students note the words' etymologies and to make observations about why they may be interesting and/or important to their meaning. ELL/ESL students may find similar word origins in their native language and should be encouraged to share these with the class.


8. Ask students to select several lines/phrases from the soliloquy which are descriptive and then explain their choices. For example, they may want to refer to the sound and rhythm of the phrases and/or the image created. Discuss in class and have students keep their responses in their notebooks/files.



1. In preparing to view the films, discuss and list several criteria of good speaking and acting, being sure to include the use of voice in volume, expression, emphasis, and phrasing.


2. Write the names of the actors/character roles on the board for students and ask students to write comments in their notebooks about the individual performances, including notes about each actor's vocal expression and physical demonstration of emotion.



3. View two film performances of Hamlet's soliloquy (Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson, for example). After viewing the films, and before discussion begins, have students write their responses to the performances, making reference to the criteria of good speaking and acting that the class established earlier.


4. As a class, discuss and/or review in writing the reactions to the performances. You might also discuss the delivery of certain words/phrases students identified as descriptive during the first day. Have students raise questions they may have about the performances. Questions could include:

  • Which performance was better? Why? Refer to expression and emotion in delivery. 
  •  Did viewing the films help to give meaning and understanding to the soliloquy? Ask for specific examples 
  • Explain Hamlet's arguments. What options does he think he has as the son of the murdered king? What option do you think he will pursue? Why?
  • Why must Hamlet avenge his father's death? 
  •  What do we learn about Hamlet's character from this soliloquy?
  • How has reading aloud, completing the word study, discussing, and viewing the performances helped to give meaning to this piece of literature?

How Did It Go?

1. Were students able to understand what is happening in the soliloquy?

2. Were students able to identify descriptive words in the soliloquy?

3. Did students see differences in the two video performances?

4. Were students able to compare and contrast the performances?

5. Were students able to complete the word study and discuss the etymologies of the words?

6. Were students able to write/talk about their personal reactions to the soliloquy?

7. Were students able to answer the suggested questions following the viewing of the films?



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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