Kevin J. Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, MD
Act 2, Scene 2, lines 575-634 ("O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!")
Common Core State Standards covered: RL.6-12.1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7
What's On for Today and Why
In this lesson, students will discover, through performance, that each speech - whether in dialogue or in soliloquy - is, in itself, a psychical journey.
Characters speak to discover what they think and feel in the moment, and not merely to report what they already know and believe. And, like characters at the end of a play - at least the ones who live! - characters who journey through long speeches often find themselves changed in small or large ways. As a result, students will discover that Shakespeare’s plays, and in particular his long speeches, are not static poems but are active explorations of the mind. They will see why Shakespeare’s characters need to speak these words in order to continue on their dramatic journey.
Students may also use this lesson to explore the playing conditions of Shakespeare’s theatre. With the audience in full light, either in the outdoor amphitheatres like the Globe or in the indoor playhouses like the Blackfriars Theatre, spectators not only witnessed the character’s journey, they served as partners in the character’s self-discoveries.
What You Need
Folger edition of Hamlet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
- Photocopies of Hamlet’s soliloquy from 2.2
- Folger's video: "Hamlet's Journey" (below).
Paper and a hat to draw names when choosing Hamlet
What To Do
1. View the Folger video, “Hamlet’s Journey,” and note, in particular, the section (2:15-3:05) where Casey Kaleba, the fight director of this production, imagines one of Hamlet’s great challenges: “What does it feel like to be asked to do something that is bigger than you? What is it like to have your entire life direction changed in an instant?”
2. Using these questions as a starting point, have students read Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of Act 2, Scene 2, lines 575-634, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” Students should take turns reading to a full stop, noting any words that are strange and need defining. Read the speech a few times this way until the students have a strong sense of what Hamlet is saying at this moment. Presumably, they will have read the scene for homework and will know the context. If not, explain the scene for them using the summary at the beginning of the Folger edition of 2.2, or have them read a good synopsis like the ones found on www.shakespeareswords.com
3. Hand out double- or triple-spaced copies of the speech, and have the class break into small groups. The objective is to have about 10-11 groups working on about five lines of text each. Establish group sizes and line assignments that make sense in your class.
4. Once groups are established and lines have been designated, students should read their lines carefully and create responses or questions to Hamlet’s statements and questions. These should be specific and provocative. For example, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” can be responded to in a number of ways: “You certainly are!” or “No, Hamlet, you’re a nice guy!” Students should create responses that emerge from their understanding of the moment and 2) will give Hamlet something concrete to which to respond.
- Encourage students to have their statements/questions spring logically from the Hamlet’s lines;
- Be sure that students write these responses/questions on the handout itself; the page should look like dialogue.
5. Once students have completed this, they should cast themselves in one or more of the responses; ideally, each student will have at least one response to one of Hamlet’s lines -- or at least a part of Hamlet’s lines.
6. Have students pick names out of a hat to determine who will play Hamlet in this speech (obviously, that student will have to have his or her response lines re-cast for another student).
7. Once a Hamlet is chosen, she or he should stand in the center of the room, and students should form a circle around Hamlet -- but they should not stay with their group. It’s important that the circle be random so that Hamlet cannot anticipate where the responses will come from; this will keep Hamlet physically active during the speech.
8. Hamlet should begin his speech, and students should speak their responses directly to him after their cue line comes up.
9. When Hamlet is interrupted with a response or question, he should then address the very next line to the person who interrupted him. This should continue throughout the entire speech. You may wish to run this exercise a few times -- first, making sure that students and Hamlet do not rush through this dialogue. Then, a second time, the pace can be picked up.
10. When the speech is done, have Hamlet join the circle and debrief by having each student finish the phrase, “I noticed . . .” or “I learned . . .”
11. Return to Kaleba’s questions, and engage students in a discussion about how Hamlet handles the knowledge that his life might change in an instant based on what action he takes towards his uncle, King Claudius. Also note how the speech is active and is, in Patsy Rodenburg’s phrase, “thought in action.”
How Did It Go?
- What was the effect of having active, random, vocal respondents to Hamlet?
- What did it do for the person playing Hamlet?
- What did it reveal about how Shakespeare speeches work?
- Are his speeches static or on the move?
- How did the physical activity of turning and moving toward respondents parallel the psychical journey Hamlet goes through in this soliloquy? Did this exercise underscore why each speech is a journey? What did this experience do for the students responding to Hamlet? To their expected relationship with the actor in a meaningful way?
Transfer and Application
This exercise can be used for any speech in any play, and works well for long speeches in dialogues or soliloquies. It may also be used for Shakespeare’s Sonnets (27, 73, or 138), his long poems, and for works by lyric and dramatic poets in virtually any era.
Other poems, like John Donne’s "The Sun Rising" or Browning’s "Porphyria’s Lover" would be interesting choices for this lesson as well.
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.