Kevin J. Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, MD
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 in groups of four or five on a single soliloquy by Hamlet in order to
- experience how thoughts are discovered and how they build over the course of a soliloquy and;
- experience the importance of partnering with the audience in order to work out what Hamlet thinks and feels
Students should learn about the importance of each speech’s form as well as content, and they should discover how no soliloquy is never given in isolation when the audience -- as Shakespeare would have understood -- is actively acknowledged.
They will also discover that soliloquies are active events of the mind; a speech of this kind reveals a character discovering thoughts in real time and not merely reporting ideas that are already understood.
This lesson should take approximately two to three 50-minute classes depending on the size of the class.
This lesson will serve as a strong pre-reading exercise if you want to:
- introduce them to some of the play’s most famous speeches;
- review of Hamlet’s major soliloquies; or
- create a unit on Shakespeare that isn’t tied to the study of the entire play.
What You Need
- Folger edition of Hamlet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
- Folger’s YouTube Video, “Hamlet’s Soliloquies.”
- Computers with Internet access
An open space
What To Do
- Show the Folger video "Hamlet's Soliloquies." Review the section between :56 - 1:20, and focus on what the director, Joe Haj, and the actor playing Hamlet, Graham Hamilton, say about their approach to dealing with the soliloquies. In particular, ask students to consider Hamilton’s notion that the “audience [be used] as a sounding board.”
- Facilitate a discussion about soliloquies. What are they? What do your students think they are? What do they think about them? What is the point of such a device?
- Next -- and this may work best if they have some experience with seeing Shakespeare live or even on film -- discuss how a soliloquy might best be delivered: either directly to the audience or to some other object (the gods, the air, the darkened auditorium). N.B. If you wish to show different versions of how soliloquies can be delivered, you might show David Tennant’s direct address in the following BBC YouTube clip, David Tennant, or the same speech by Kenneth Branagh from his 1996 film.
- Next, break your class up into groups of four or five. Assign each group one of Hamlet’s major soliloquies.
- Working together, they should read the speech around, changing speakers every time there is a full stop in punctuation (period, exclamation or question mark, colon, or semi-colon).
- Then they should read it through again changing speakers when the person speaking thinks he or she has reached the end of a thought; at that point, the next speaker should pick up. Where a thought ends or changes is subjective, of course, but to come to a decision necessitates close reading, so this is a valuable step.
- The clarity of the speech should improve with repeated readings, so at this step, they should discuss anything that is unclear: strange words, syntax, etc. You can be available for help, but they should work out as much on their own as possible.
- At this point, they should divide the lines as equally as possible amongst themselves, taking care to change speakers where there is a logical break in the verse. Each student will be responsible for learning these lines for the next class.
- While lines can be learned in any number of ways, the following, by Caleen Jennings (Folger Teaching Artist and Professor of Theatre at American University), provides an excellent method:
“Go through the text word by word and ask the students to speak the word aloud and come up with a physical movement for each word. Encourage students to use their whole bodies. For punctuation marks, ask them to come up with a movement and a sound. They are to repeat the same movement when words and punctuation marks are repeated.” (Page to Stage: Preparing for Your Festival, p. 22, Shakespeare Set Free Toolkit). For an excellent demonstration of this technique, see Caleen Jennings in action.
- Students should begin learning their lines in class, if time allows, and then, for homework, they should complete their memorization. It’s important to note that the physicalization is a technique to use while learning lines; when they are learned, students do not have to perform their physicalizations. Rather, they should commit to the memorized language and let their bodies follow what naturally arises while speaking the words honestly.
- On day two, each group will perform their soliloquy as an ensemble. In a group of four, for instance, the student with the first section of lines will perform first and then “hand off” the speech to the next student in the sequence, and so on. Give the class 5 - 10 minutes to practice together. Ideally, the speech should flow as if one speaker is talking.
- When everyone is ready, have each group gather at one end of the classroom, and assemble the rest of the class in a ¾ thrust position around them (mimicking the audience structure of the Elizabethan/Jacobean playhouse).
- First, have the group perform with each member giving the soliloquy out to no one in particular (much like Branagh does in the video referenced above).
- Next, have the same group perform their soliloquy. This time, however, have each student make a direct connection with someone in the audience -- using them as “a sounding board” to work out the complex ideas in these speeches.
- At this point, invite the next group to go and do the same pattern. Or you may want to hold a discussion after each; this is entirely up to you.
- As you facilitate a discussion, prompt students with the following:
- How did it feel to give the speech to no one?
- How did it feel to make a connection with the audience?
- Which one felt better?
- Which one felt better for the audience?
- What did it teach you about the nature of soliloquies in Shakespeare?
- What are their function?
- Did the speech feel like a person discovering his thoughts?
To the extent that you’re prepared to do so, you may wish to discuss the conditions of Shakespeare’s playhouses -- namely, that plays were performed in light that illuminate the players and the audience. Moreover, Shakespeare wrote his plays with this knowledge, so the audience are often imagined as part of the world of the soliloquies. If time allows, show them images of Shakespeare’s Globe in London or of the Blackfriars stage in Staunton, Virginia.
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?
- Did students experience a marked difference between the two major modes of delivering a soliloquy?
- Did they have a preference for one mode over another? Why?
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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Common Core State Standards
There are no standards associated with this Lesson Plan.