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"Importing the Argument": Dis-Covering Hamlet’s Soliloquies

Teachers' Rating:
  4 ratings


August 2012

Kevin J. Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, MD


Plays/Scenes Covered

Hamlet’s Major Soliloquies (1.2, 2.2, 3.1, 3.3, 4.4)


Common Core State Standards covered: RL.6-12.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

What's On for Today and Why

In this lesson, students will work actively and collaboratively on Hamlet’s major soliloquies to experience how they represent Hamlet discovering who he is and what he wants, what he questions, and what he concludes in real time.


Students will study the structure of the speeches, and then they will perform them in the class. At the conclusion of the lesson, they will have performed close readings of the major soliloquies, will have spoken the language of the play, and will have a strong sense of how Shakespeare structures his soliloquies.


This lesson will take two 50-minute classes and can function as a review of Hamlet’s major soliloquies at the conclusion of your study of the play. It can also be adapted to reading assignments during your study. It may also be a valuable pre-reading lesson if you wish to familiarize your students wthl some of the most famous passages in the play.

What You Need
  1. Folger edition of Hamlet
    Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
  2. Folger’s YouTube Video, Hamlet's Soliloquies
  3. Different colored highlighters for the class

An open space

What To Do
  1. Hamlet's Soliloquies Video Look especially at the section between :34 - :53 and 3:00 - 4:00 where the production’s dramaturg, Michele Osherow, the play’s director, Joe Haj, and the actor playing Hamlet, Graham Hamilton, talk about what the soliloquies are for; Osherow calls them “secrets,” for instance, which are shared by the audience.
  2. Facilitate a discussion about ways that we encounter (and produce) soliloquies in our own lives. Do we talk to ourselves when we’re alone, walking or driving? Do we talk to ourselves when we’re working out a problem, or shopping at the grocery store? So we rehearse arguments or things we’re going to ask of others before we actually do them? Why do we do this? What work does this kind of soliloquizing do for us? As we talk to ourselves, out loud or in our heads, do we always know what we’re going to conclude?
  3. Break the class into five groups of five or six students (you may need to adapt this to your class size, but don’t let the groups dip below three or get bigger than six, if possible)
  4. Assign each group one of Hamlet’s major soliloquies (they occur in 1.2, 2.2, 3.1, 3.3, 4.4)
  5. Have each group do a read-around of the speech. The first time, students should read until they hit a full stop (period, question mark, colon, or exclamation mark); the second time, each student should read until he or she thinks there is a change in direction of a thought (obviously, this is up for debate, but their negotiating where these breaks might be is valuable analytical work); the third time, each student should have a turn reading the soliloquy aloud to his or her group. This will allow each student to get very comfortable with the speech.
  6. As students work collaboratively on the above bullet, they should have a good dictionary or access to www.shakespeareswords.com in order to look up any terms they don’t know -- or don’t know well.
  7. Next, read the following, which is by Cicely Berry, the RSC’s former voice teacher, who says in her book, The Actor and the Text,

“There is a dialogue going on within nearly every speech. Within that dialogue thoughts are moving at different rates, lines are moving with varying emphases, vowels and consonants are adding textures . . . It is as if the character proposes his theme, the argument. He then sets about replying to the initial statement, and continues to argue it through in different blocks of thought until the end” (Berry, 128).

  1. Next, hand out different colored highlighters to each student and have them do the following (this highlighting step draws on a technique adapted from Bruce Williams, former Director of Summer Training Congress at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, CA):
    1. Underline what they think is the “theme” or “thesis” phrase or line of the speech (you may want to look at the most famous example, “To be or not to be; that is the question”). This “thesis” should be what they think is the central question or problem of the speech that gives rise to what follows.
    2. Next, they should work through the speech highlighting thought units -- what Berry calls “blocks of thought” -- in alternating colors. For instance, when a student identifies a phrase, line, or series of lines that deal with one thought, that gets one color; when that thought produces a change in thought, the new “block” gets a different color. Make students aware that thoughts can change rapidly or slowly. Sometimes a single idea can be carried over several lines; at other times, it could change in one line. There is no right or wrong, but they should be able to discuss intelligently why they made the choices they did.
    3. After they complete this step, they should share out their work with the others in their group looking for consistencies and differences. Students should work to create a single text; there may be differences of opinion, but this is a good problem for them to work out.
    4. Once this is achieved, students should break into groups based on the color highlighting they produced. So, for example, three “blue” groups members would break off, and three “red” group members would break off and form a small ensemble who will work on those “blocks of thought.”
    5. The color groups then will assign themselves an equal distribution of highlighted lines, which they will be responsible for speaking.
    6. Once they know what they’re responsible for, students should spread out around the room and plant themselves in different places. They can even hide.
    7. Now, one student from a different soliloquy group should then come to the center of the room (desks should be moved, or the class should move to the school’s theatre or other open space).
    8. The groups should start reading the soliloquy from their perches around the room. When a line begins, the silent student at the center should turn toward the voice, and walk in that direction. When the next voice picks up, the student should change direction and walk towards that voice. This should continue throughout the soliloquy.
  2. When the exercise concludes, ask students to go around the room and finish the sentence, “I noticed . . .” Encourage students to talk not only about what they noticed in the exercise, but also what they learned about Hamlet.
    1. Does Hamlet know what he is going to say, or does he discover it “in the moment”?
    2. Did the soliloquy respond to the “theme” or “thesis” of the speech?
    3. How does Hamlet’s soliloquy “move” -- that is, are the thoughts and lines smooth or choppy? What might the form of Hamlet’s speech suggest about his state of mind?

What else did students notice?

How Did It Go?
  • Did you see evidence of collaborative close reading?
  • Did students engage in interpretive practices with a complex text?
  • Did students engage in a discussion of the soliloquy’s form?
  • Did students discover for themselves that soliloquies are "real-time" events that characters are working out with the audience?

Transfer and Application

This exercise will work with just about any character who has a soliloquy. Some characters include:

  • Richard II, Richard II
  • Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
  • Macbeth & Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
  • Othello, Othello
  • Hal, Henry IV, Part 1
  • Richard III, Richard III


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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23 CommentsOldest | Newest

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