I’m really enjoying seeing how my students are responding to Hamlet.

As part of a class assignment, one student took some friends to see the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Park all-female production of Hamlet. One of her friends is from Vietnam, and my student was very proud that she could answer his questions about what was going on.

Many students, even the English majors, confess that in high school they never tried to read Shakespeare’s language, but instead depended totally on modern-language paraphrases. That means that from year to year, they never got any better at understanding Shakespeare’s original language.

Early in the term, I usually walk students through the first act, introduce the major characters and tell them what to look for in Act II, and then leave them to figure out the rest of the play on their own. Because this is an online asynchronous class and we can never have real-time discussions, they do a lot of forum postings. I usually spend about 10 days per play, and I give deadlines of about 2 short responses each M, W, or F. (For each response, I usually ask them to write about 100 words or upload a media recording in which they speak for about 45 seconds.)

For a typical play, they respond to a short “context” lecture, their initial response to each =as they read it, and then a “synthesis” post that they write after they have finished the whole play (where they can revisit their initial impressions, if they wish).

Some of these students reported that when they worked act-by-act through the actual language Shakespeare wrote, they were amazed at how well they were able to “get” acts IV and V.

For the last few weeks, I introduced students to just the first acts of The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Jonson’s Epicœne. After they had sampled all four, they had a week to finish one play of their choice, and then the next week I asked them to do an informal podcast connecting their chosen play to any other play.

So we are heading into Hamlet after students have had some experience engaging with Shakespeare’s scripts on their own terms. I’m really pleased with what they are finding in the text, and how they are helping each other critique their initial impressions and look for evidence to support their understandings.

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