shakesfear and how to cure it book cover

For teachers and lovers of Shakespeare, ShakesFear and How to Cure It provides a comprehensive approach to the challenge and rewards of teaching Shakespeare and gives teachers both an overview of each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays and specific classroom tools for teaching it. Written by a celebrated teacher, scholar, and director of Shakespeare, it shows teachers how to use the text to make the words and the moments come alive for their students. It refutes the idea that Shakespeare’s language is difficult and provides a survey of the plays by someone who has lived intimately with them on the page and on the stage for over 40 years.




If Shakespeare has become literature’s biggest business, then Hamlet is its largest subsidiary. The Folger Shakespeare Library shelves the commentary on each of Shakespeare’s plays together by title. Slighter works such as Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors may each take up a dozen or so, and major works such as Othello and King Lear may use twenty, but the commentary on Hamlet requires thirty-seven shelves. Something in this strange play draws people from a multitude of disciplines and puts them in the mood to publish. That something is primarily the title character himself, although in many ways Hamlet is unappealing. He is self-absorbed; he is erratic; he is normally in a bad mood; he is morbid; he is inconsiderate and can be downright nasty; and he has little compunction about killing people. Yet he envelops us.

In this longest play of Shakespeare, Hamlet has 40 percent of the lines, and when he is not speaking, he is onstage directing our gaze. From his first black-clad entrance amid a colourful court, he is the watcher, and we watch through him as he famously bides his time – and ours. His great burden in the play is remembering his father, and the essence of his conflict with those around him going on with their lives is that they live only in the present: for Claudius, Gertrude, and the court, the past seems not to exist. ‘That it should come to this’ (1.2.137) he says, and that phrase demonstrates the temporal arc of his thinking. His morbidity is simultaneously a sense of the flimsiness of the past and the oblivion of the future. The message he would have Yorick’s skull bring to his mother is that the present without connection to the past is body and sensation only, and body and sensation cease with death – ‘to this favor she must come’ (5.1.192).

Hamlet stands before us as an emblem of time, his father’s picture in the one hand counterbalancing Yorick’s skull in the other. His memory is fixed on the past, his imagination on the future, and the play built around him squeezes him and the audience between time past and time future. And time past keeps intruding on the play’s movement forward by knocking at the door of the present.

Knock, knock. ‘What is between you?’ (1.3.98) Polonius asks Ophelia, and the past appears before us in glimpses of ‘tenders’ and ‘holy vows’ and Hamlet’s admission to Ophelia that ‘I did love you once’ (3.1.115). Knock, knock. ‘Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ (2.2.1) says the King to two friends ‘of so young days brought up with [Hamlet]’ (11) who will try to trade on a vague past they share with Hamlet. Knock, knock. ‘Welcome, good friends’ (423), says Hamlet to the actors, finds many changes in them ‘since I saw you last’ (424), and asks for a speech ‘I heard thee speak . . . once’ (435). Knock, knock, knock. ‘Enter Fortinbras [the nephew to old Norway] with his Army over the stage’ craving a ‘promised march’ through Denmark (4.4). Knock, knock. ‘I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’ (5.1.160–1), the Clown tells Hamlet and adds that he became sexton ‘the very day that young Hamlet was born’ (146). Knock. ‘Alas, poor Yorick,’ and we are suddenly looking back at Hamlet as a child riding piggyback on a court jester’s shoulders. And, of course, knock, knock, knock – the most insistent intruder from the past – the Ghost: ‘Remember me’ (1.5.91).

Shakespeare puts past time onstage in the ‘Murder of Gonzago’ and even does so twice, first as dumb-show and then as play. Just as Hamlet makes Gertrude look at the husband that was, he forces the King (and the audience) to watch the murder that was, to look at the past. For Hamlet, the performance of the play is the metaphoric gesture that stands outside of the movement of time and is part of past, present, and future. The reason Hamlet appeals so powerfully to us is that he and his play operate as our minds do – at once part of the flow of time and outside of it, aware simultaneously of past, present, and future. Shakespeare’s three-dimensional characters are like real people, like everyone beyond ourselves, but Hamlet is four-dimensional, like ourselves.

Those are my musings on why the play has inspired more such musing than any other. I assure you that the play will appeal to your students for reasons that have nothing to do with theories about the fourth dimension. Next to the Henry IV plays, Hamlet is the play of Shakespeare most about their concerns, but to get your students to see that, you’ll have to steer them quickly past all the old potholes about this play. Here is a quick rundown of fifteen of the most frequently raised questions about Hamlet and, in some cases, my answers:

  • Is the ghost real?
    Sure, for the purposes of the play, he is at least as real as Patrick Swayze’s ghost in Ghost. For students contemptuous of superstitious sixteenth-century Londoners, you should make sure that they consider the popularity of a film like The Sixth Sense or my own favourite ghost movie, Truly, Madly, Deeply.
  • Where does the ghost come from?
    He says he is from purgatory, but it sounds more like hell to me, which explains why he, like Dracula, cannot abide the daylight. This much we know: a heavenly, Christian ghost would not be asking for revenge.
  • Was Gertrude in on the murder?
  • Were Gertrude and Claudius lovers while Hamlet the elder was alive?
    Maybe, but I don’t think so. See what your students think. Have them say why. What clues do they find for that charge? What clues against it?
  • Is Claudius’s marriage to Gertrude incest?
    For us, no; but the quick marriage to her husband’s brother is pretty creepy. For Shakespeare’s audience, the official answer had to be yes. To say differently was treason. Queen Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, to marry Elizabeth’s mother, had his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled on the argument that she had previously been married to his brother and that to continue in that marriage was incestuous. To hold that the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude was lawful was to hold that Henry’s second marriage was illegal and that, therefore, Queen Elizabeth was illegitimate.
  • Does Ophelia commit suicide?
    The gravedigger thinks so, but I don’t. In a modern court, she could plead insanity. As far as she is concerned, she was just taking a little lie down on the river. Your students may disagree, but it doesn’t seem to me a profitable line of discussion.
  • Does Hamlet know the King and Polonius eavesdrop on his talk with Ophelia?
    I think he figures it out right before he asks, ‘where’s your father?’ (3.1.130). Certainly a realization that Ophelia is letting herself be used to betray Hamlet helps to motivate his anger. Discussion of alternatives can be useful in showing the importance of this production decision.
  • Who did Hamlet think he was stabbing behind the arras?
    The King . . . as Hamlet tells us. Despite the illogical assumption that Claudius could have positioned himself behind the arras before Hamlet got to Gertrude’s room, Hamlet is not in a logical mood (and maybe he knew about a secret passage). Weak discussion question.
  • Is Hamlet in love with his mother?
    Freud thought so, but he also thought that was normal. I think Hamlet cared about his mother a lot.
  • Were Hamlet and Ophelia lovers? Have they had sex?
    I’d say no, based on Ophelia’s obedience to her father, on Hamlet’s apparent belief that the sex act is not to be taken lightly, and on my sense of what Elizabethans felt was proper in their heroines. A counter argument, however, could be based on Hamlet’s language in his two scenes with Ophelia, on the mad Ophelia’s bawdiness, and on Hamlet’s behaviour at her graveside. A good discussion might emerge from considering the difference such a relationship would make on the play as a whole.
  • How old is Hamlet?
    Thirty. The gravedigger says he has been sexton for thirty years and came to it ‘the very day that young Hamlet was born.’ Not much room for discussion.
  • Isn’t thirty a little old for Hamlet still to be at university?
    That is odd, and a good question for discussion. It leads to such conversations as the nature of universities then and now. It also can lead to a discussion of that particular university (Wittenberg) and to its two most famous graduates, one real the other fictional: Martin Luther and Faustus. Shakespeare makes Hamlet a fellow alumnus of those two quite serious alums of the school in Germany, and at the same time he makes it clear that Laertes goes to university in Paris (the Sorbonne). Paris or Wittenberg? Wittenberg or Paris? Ask your students about that choice.
  • Shouldn’t Hamlet have become king after his father’s death?
    Yes. The dying Hamlet prophesies that ‘th’election lights on Fortinbras’ (5.2.362–3), but the play is not a lesson on medieval Danish political science and works to that moment on the assumptions of an hereditary monarchy.
  • Why doesn’t Hamlet try to win back his rightful throne?
    Good question for discussion.
  • Is Hamlet insane?
    No. He puts ‘an antic disposition on’ and acts (pretends to be) insane, just as he said he would. Insane looks like Ophelia in Act Four. Hamlet gets pretty close during the Hecuba speech, but I think he pulls back. Still, this is a good question for discussion, since what we decide (or what the actor playing him decides) shapes a good deal of what we think of him and his musings on life.

I recommend that you keep in mind the real reasons that your students will be interested in these questions and frame discussions of them in the context of the connections that will matter to them. After all, Hamlet is about an undergraduate whose situation at home has changed radically. He must cope with the grief of losing a father while he wrestles with his anger about a stepfather he doesn’t like and a mother who, two months after his father’s death, has eyes only for her new husband. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is trying to break up with him and helping her father spy on him, and two of his oldest friends are treating him like he’s crazy and pumping him for information to give to his parents. And throughout Hamlet spends his time questioning the meaning of life and the possibility of suicide and has no interest in climbing the ladder of success. None of this will seem distant from your students; all will have felt Hamlet’s alienation, and many with step-parents will recognize the pressures placed on children by the love lives of their parents.

This play and its protagonist seem in counterpoint with the world and the hero of Henry V. Hal knows what he wants and he knows how to get it; your students will understand that he is the model of political and worldly success. In Hamlet, Fortinbras represents the same kind of success, and Shakespeare has Hamlet consider his opposite, ‘a delicate and tender prince, whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed, makes mouths at the invisible event’ (4.4.48–50). By contrast, Hamlet’s spirit, rather than defying invisible events, negotiates and renegotiates; and Hamlet, so far from being puffed with ambition, seems primarily eager to retire from the world. Here, then, are two models of living that your students will recognize. What do you want to be when you grow up? For the majority I have no doubt that the preferred model will be that of Hal and Fortinbras, who are, after all, patterns of successful CEOs, but some may think Hamlet’s examined life more worth living.


A. Have Ghost Try-outs

Scripts: Ham 1.1, 1.5, 3.4

Prep: Prior class intro

In class: 30 minutes

Equipment: audio


Ghosts were (and still are) good box office, but how might Shakespeare’s company have staged the ghost scenes in the sunlit Globe at two in the afternoon? And how might the actor playing the Ghost (tradition has it that Shakespeare played the part) have made it ‘ghostly’? Announce to your students that in the next class you are going to have Ghost Try-Outs and name good prizes (book, CD, movie pass, pizza) for the scariest ghost, funniest ghost, and most believable ghost. The rules are:

  1. The lights stay on.
  2. The equipment permitted is taped music or sound effects pre-set for immediate play.
  3. Each contestant has a maximum thirty seconds for his or her try-out.
  4. Costume and/or make-up is allowed but not necessary.
  5. Contestants must speak at least one word from the text and may speak up to ten.
  6. Decide the winners of each prize by student vote.

Afterwards, lead a discussion on whether or not the Ghost in Hamlet has to be scary. If not, what should he be instead? If so, what are the elements that go into making something frightening?

B. Try Claudius for the murder of his brother

Prep: Prior class intro

In class: Full class

Players: 11 actors, 7 jury members

As I suggest, we see the events of Hamlet through the eyes of its main character. To restore a sense of what the world looks like from outside of Hamlet, have a trial in which Claudius must defend himself against the charge of murder. You can choose to let the prosecution, defense, and witnesses prepare for an assigned ‘trial date’, or to do it start to finish in a single class.

Imagine that, because of the Prince’s accusations, Claudius is arrested in the uproar following the death of Polonius.

  1. You will play the judge. Your job as judge is to keep the proceedings moving towards trial. If, for example, the defense moves to dismiss the trial for lack of evidence, you must explain why you think the circumstantial evidence is strong enough to warrant continuing.
  2. Assign the parts of Claudius, Hamlet, Gertrude, Ophelia, Horatio, Laertes, Barnardo, Marcellus, Voltemand, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, all of whom may be called as witnesses (though Gertrude may not testify against her husband).
  3. The Ghost cannot appear as a witness or otherwise.
  4. Appoint a seven-person jury, and split the remaining students into the defense and the prosecution teams. Make sure both teams understand the concept of character witnesses. Each team must select someone to head their case.
  5. Give the teams ten to fifteen minutes to prepare and organize their cases.
  6. All evidence must be based on the text, and witnesses cannot make statements about character or events that contradict the words in the play. During the trial, impose time limits on various procedures (for example, two minutes for examination or cross examination of each witness, three minutes each for summation to the jury, and so on).
  7. After the final arguments have closed, your jury should then hold its deliberations in front of the class (which cannot intrude in any way) but it should vote on Claudius’s guilt on secret ballots, which its foreman should tabulate. When you ask the foreman for the verdict, he or she should be the only one who knows it.

I wouldn’t follow this ploy with a discussion. Let the outcome have the same finality that a verdict has in real life.

C. Compile a video montage from various productions of the play

Prep: Video compilation

In class: 40 minutes

Equipment: AV equipment, access to YouTube

Because of the large number of Hamlet productions available on YouTube, you can edit a video that will entertain your students and show the power of extra-textual choices. To stress the filmic choices that directors have to make, choose a silent moment for comparison.

Select some visual decision common to all productions – the first view of Hamlet, what the Ghost looks like, what Ophelia does when she gives out her flowers, the stage arrangement of the ‘mousetrap’, the design of Gertrude’s bedroom, and so on – and record a sequence of these moments from at least six Hamlets. No sequence should exceed fifteen seconds. Make certain that the segments appear in chronological order so that your students can discuss the way one director might have influenced another. Your compilation might thus begin with Olivier’s opening shot, followed by Richardson’s, followed by Zeffirelli’s, followed by Branagh’s, followed by Almereyda’s, followed by the same shot from the Animated Tales of Shakespeare. If you look at no more than fifteen seconds from eight different productions, your compilation will only take up two minutes of class time.

Then you can move on to the first view of the Ghost in the same order. And so on.

Show this compilation first with the volume turned off (which means that you can use foreign versions) so that your students can concentrate on the visual elements. Discuss the effect of such elements as camera angle, lighting, casting, costuming, pace, and movement. You can then run it again to show the impact of sound.

D. Put on a production of the play from Dogg’s Hamlet by Tom Stoppard

Parodies of Hamlet abound, but Tom Stoppard’s 20-minute version in Dogg’s Hamlet is a brilliant piece of compression, which Stoppard immediately tops with a frantic 90-second version. Your students will love it.

Scenes for alternative Readings
A. Hamlet welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Act Two, Scene Two, 221 (‘God save you, sir’) to 316 (‘delights not me?). Three speaking parts.


In the first version Hamlet is on to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the start, clearly dislikes them, and just wants to get rid of them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, truly care about Hamlet and are embarrassed about their cooperation with the king and queen. In the second version, Hamlet is delighted to see his old friends, wants to confide in them, slowly realizes who they are working for, and is deeply hurt by their betrayal. In this version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are nervous around Hamlet, assume he is dangerously insane, and just want to get whatever information they can out of him and report to the king. Discuss the implications of each of the versions for the play.

B. Hamlet is mean to Ophelia

Act Three, Scene One, 88 (‘Soft you now, the fair’) to 162 (‘what I see’). Two speaking parts (for bold actors).

Do one version ‘Victorian’ and one version ‘modern’.

In the first version Hamlet and Ophelia are formal with one another. In keeping with Ophelia’s earlier description of him (2.1.77–84) to Polonius, Hamlet is distracted for the entire exchange and at no time expects that anyone is overhearing their conversation. Ophelia, meanwhile, is shy and frightened and perhaps a little weepy.

In the second version, the two have clearly been lovers. Everything up to ‘where’s your father?’ is playful, even sexy, banter during which the two caress one another continually.

For example, with the line, ‘I humbly thank you, well, well, well,’ Hamlet might be kissing her between the ‘wells’. Until ‘where’s your father?’ Hamlet is happy and affectionate. At that point, though, he realizes that someone is listening and goes berserk at Ophelia’s betrayal. The Ophelia in this version is strong and funny and does not weep. [Before attempting this second version, you must be certain that both students have agreed on the physical contact they will use.]

C. Hamlet and Gertrude with and without the Ghost

Act Three, Scene Four, 94 (‘O, speak to me no more!’) to 158 (‘heart in twain’). Three speaking parts.

Many productions of Hamlet stage the ‘closet’ scene without the Ghost. Such a decision turns the scene upside down: with the Ghost we have a mother who is ‘blind to her husband’s spirit’; without the Ghost we have a son who is ‘seeing things’. Stage these two versions. The first version is a scene about a shallow and insensitive establishment; the second version is a scene about a crazy young man. In the version ‘without the Ghost’, the actor says his (or her) lines as if they are a voiceover of what’s going on in Hamlet’s head. In the discussion that follows have your students discover the consequences of this big directorial choice.