Turning the tragic tale of Hamlet into one students can call their own.
‘OK, guys, take your seats,” I said to my 10th graders as they began to settle in at 8 a.m. in the basement classroom. “Today, as promised, I am going to tell you a story—a very old story. And it won’t take too long, because it’s a pretty simple story.”
Thirty pairs of eyes locked onto my head, at least momentarily interested, as I paced slowly in front of the blackboard.
“See, long ago, there was this kingdom, on the coast of an ocean, and it was ruled over by a guy named Ham-Ice.” (At the time, many of the most influential rappers used “ice” as part of their stage names, as in Ice Cube and Ice-T, so I co-opted this device for the more important names of the players.) “Ham-Ice,” I continued, “was a good king who ruled benevolently and looked out for justice in his land. He had a brother named Claudi-Ice and a wife named QTrude and a son named the same as he—Ham-Ice. And as he ruled, things went along pretty well. You have any idea what he looked like?”
“He was big and tall, with dark skin and big arms and a big chest and a big crown and long flowing robes. He looked a lot like Danny Glover,” said Hamikeo, a tall, gangly kid from Los Angeles.
“Sounds good. Everybody OK with that?” I asked.
“He mighta been short,” said Jerome, who was a short kid from the South Side of Chicago.
“Yes, he mighta been short. In Jerome’s version, he was definitely short. So, remember I told you he had a brother? Well, all his life his brother had been looking at Ham-Ice, and he’d been thinking, Why does—"
“I know what he been thinkin’,” piped in Bret, a skinny kid from St. Louis. “He been thinkin’, How come my older brother gets all the good stuff and alls I get is his hand-me-downs? That’s what he been thinkin’. I know ‘cause that’s what it’s like up in my house. My older brother get everything he want, and I gotta get what I can on the d.l. There ain’t no justice in that,” he finished, shaking his head.
“Well,” I said, “It was the same way there. Ham-Ice got all of the stuff, just because he was the first-born. But he was a good king. Now his wife, Q-Trude, what do you think she looked like?”
Cora, a compact girl from Detroit, raised her hand. “She light-skinned and tall, with high cheekbones, and she have a beautiful gold- fleck scarf in her hair, and she walk real careful, like she floating, and she have beautiful, graceful hands like Whitney Houston.”
“OK. That sounds good,” I said. “So, what happens next?”
“She gonna have an affair with Claudi-Ice, I know she is,” said Cora. “Just like on TV.”
“Do you know this story already, Cora?”
“This your story, Mr. Robb. How can I know it?”
“This is not my story,” I said. “This is an old, old story, as old as stories in this culture get, but it is not my story. It’s our story.”
I’m a teacher from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a small village at one end of Cape Cod bounded on three sides by water. Several years ago, at the end of a summer of graduate school, I was casting around for a job, ready for a change, and I happened on one in Mississippi, at the Piney Woods Country Life School, a historically African American boarding school in a settlement south of Jackson, Mississippi. I drove down there in the tough, old diesel hatchback I had then, getting 50 miles to the gallon, and as I drove, I wondered what my new students would be like.
After two days in the car, I arrived at Piney Woods. It was evening, and I’d driven through Jackson, and then south on U.S. Highway 49 for a while, with my window rolled down. The air smelled hot and sweet, and smoky from brush fires that smoldered in fields along the highway. I rolled past truck farms and small businesses, then turned east across the northbound lanes and into the school, letting the little car climb past the pine trees to the gate, where a gentleman asked, “May I help you?”
“Yes, sir. I’m here to teach English this year.”
“Dan. Dan Robb.”
“Oh, yes. Professor Robb,” he said after scanning his clipboard. “We been expectin’ you. Just go to that building there, where that bright light is. You be stayin’ there tonight. In the morning, you got a meeting with Dr. Beady at 9.”
He gestured toward a two-story dormitory building further up the hill. I thanked him and spent a comfortable night there.
In the morning I strolled across the campus—a collection of modest, sand-colored brick buildings forming a rough circle on a low hill—and walked along neatly kept paths bordered by flower beds. It was not a grand or imposing place, but it struck me as a quietly proudcampus.
During the next few days, I got to know the place a little, and when I spoke to friends up North on the phone, they would ask me whether I was the only white person at the school. I would say, “Well, no, there are four others—a French teacher, another English teacher, a gym teacher, and a history teacher. That’s about it, though. Everyone else in the community of 500 or so is black.”
It was plain to me that within a community so (seemingly) homogenous, I would need to be sensitive to the issue of how to present literature across cultural boundaries.
It was plain to me that within a community so (seemingly) homogenous, I would need to be sensitive to the issue of how to present literature across cultural boundaries. Like it or not, we are a society defined by class, dialect, and culture, and I was for once the odd man out, a man (and a member of the dominant paradigm) threatened with invisibility. It was into this beautiful ferment that I plunged at the beginning of the year, pondering a few questions that needed to be answered: What literature must I teach? And through which cultural lens shall my students and I view the literature we are to study? Through the lens of the upper-middle-class dialect that I speak, or through the lens of “Black English” (as James Baldwin called it), which is a different lens yet offers a view just as sharp?
This second lens has a perfectly logical grammar of its own, and it was the lingua franca of the hallways, avenues, dorms, and dining hall at the school, at least in casual conversation. I had to be careful not to make the mistake of portraying it as lesser, as the teachers during my childhood and adolescence always had. Better yet, perhaps I could move my students toward being conversant in more than one dialect. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Piney Woods School is a remarkable place. It was founded in 1909 by Dr. Laurence C. Jones, an African American with a degree in agricultural science and not much else to his name when he began teaching a boy to read as they sat on a log in the woods. Since that time, the school has grown steadily, serving primarily African American students in an era that began with few opportunities for them. During Piney Woods’ early years, the curriculum encompassed the three R’s and vocational skills considered relevant to a student’s reasonable aspirations (reasonable, at least, to the watchful eyes of Mississippi society). Now the school’s mission is to provide a college- prep education of the highest quality, and graduates routinely go on to some of the best colleges in the United States. Times have changed, at least to some extent.
But some things, like “torturing” students with the works of William Shakespeare, have not. So it fell to me to teach one of literature’s older tales, Hamlet, and somehow make my students feel that the story was first their own and then Shakespeare’s. But, again, let me backtrack a little.
The student body at Piney Woods (in reality) was notably diverse. There were children from the affluent suburbs of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit. There were children from embattled neighborhoods in the same cities and a dozen others. There were children from Jackson and smaller towns in Mississippi, and there were a number of foreign students, sons and daughters of Ethiopia and Angola, to name two countries represented in my classes. Folks from around the country seemed to look to Piney Woods as a haven where their kids could escape the inner city or connect with what was, at base, a very Southern and African American education. This Southern quality was found in everything—from the softness of the Mississippi air and the unbelievable heat of afternoon; to the collard greens, corn bread, and fried chicken often served at lunch; to the deceptively slow speech patterns of the administration. Nonetheless, school officials expected me to deliver student evaluations promptly and believed in a no-nonsense disciplinary code, requiring the students to be in uniform every day. And that’s how they were dressed as I spun my tale for them that January.
“So, King Ham-Ice is getting old, and his brother is a few years younger, and this brother has a lot of time on his hands, so he has time to do two things—romance QTrude and think of ways to get rid of Ham-Ice senior and assume the throne.”
“‘Assume the throne.’ That’s what my grandfather says when he disappears into the bathroom for an hour after lunch,” said Marvin, a big, strong-looking kid who sat in the back so he could keep his eye on things. “‘I am going to assume the throne.’ When my grandfather says that, you don’t want to get in his way!”
“Claudi-Ice is a bad man?” asked Sidney, a serious kid whose shirt was always tucked in.
“He wants to kill his brother. What do you think?” I asked.
“My brother makes me mad, but I wouldn’t want to go that far.”
“So Claudi-Ice is a bad man. Who do you think he looks like?”
“He looks like Billy Dee Williams, except his eyes have pupils shaped like a cat’s, and they’re red,” said Maurice, who enjoyed writing short stories about ghosts and vampires.
“All right, that sounds a lot like the Claudi-Ice I have in my mind,” I said. “So, one day he thinks of it, and he just can’t stop smiling. He knows that every day his brother the king takes a nap in the castle garden, and he has heard of an unction that is so—"
“What’s an unction?” asked Indaka, a willowy girl from Baltimore.
“It’s like a potion. It’s a liquid poison.”
“Well, kind of like a paste. Like the consistency of syrup.”
|One of the truisms about teaching Shakespeare’s works is that in his day, stories were much less the intellectual property of one person.|
“So Claudi-Ice has heard of this unction, and he gets one of his henchmen—one of his ‘boyz'—to sneak up on the king with it when he’s sleeping, and what do you think he does with it?”
“He makes him drink it,” suggested Walter, a stocky kid with thick glasses, and Marvin’s cohort in the back row.
“Remember, this is the king. He is tall and strong and still a great warrior. One man can’t make him drink it very easily. So what do you think the assassin does?”
“How would you get poison to someone’s brain without waking him up and with no one being able to tell afterward?”
“I would inject it,” said Kenron, a jumpy kid from the South Bronx. “I would stick a needle in his big old butt.”
“Good idea, Kenron, but they really didn’t have needles then. So, what did he do? He poured that poison right in the king’s ear. By the time the king knew what was up, the bad guy was gone, and the king fell right down dead.”
“He died right then?” asked Cora. “That must have been some strong stuff.”
“Yes, it was. And then Claudi-Ice told everyone that the king had been bitten by an asp.”
“A what?” asked Kenron.
“A very small, poisonous snake. A deadly snake. And everybody believed him. Except Ham-Ice the son, because he had sort of a sixth sense about these things. You know what that’s like, when someone can tell you’re lying, but you don’t know how?”
“Yeah,” said Helena, a standout on the basketball team who sat toward the back, her hair in tight cornrows. “I know what that’s like. Like when a boy tell you he ain’t two-timing you, but you know he really is.” She smiled and slugged Juan—a wiry guy with a quick grin who always sat next to her—in the shoulder.
“Ow! What you doin’ that for, girl?”
A thin, quiet girl named Marie had raised her hand. “Mr. Robb, do they have asps in Mississippi?” she asked.
“No, they don’t. But they do have cottonmouths and some other dangerous snakes, so this plan could still work here.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said, smiling.
Four months earlier, in September, I’d been presented with a rigorous set of teaching objectives, in terms of grammar and the finer points of English, that we (the English faculty) were expected to teach. But with texts, there was flexibility in the syllabus, so though I was required to teach certain literary styles (the short story, the essay, poetry, and the like) I was also able to teach some of what I wanted. And what I wanted to teach at Piney Woods was a little different than what I might have wanted to teach had I been in Vermont. A little different, but not markedly so.
That fall, we’d read a variety of pieces by storytellers more accessible to modern audiences than Shakespeare, among them August Wilson. Wilson’s plays were open books to my students as they were told largely in an African American dialect whose rhythms and slang clicked with my classes. (The Ethiopians and Angolans were the exceptions; they found him nearly as hard to decipher as Shakespeare.) Wilson is originally from Pittsburgh, and his project, begun in the 1970s, is to write 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, each depicting the African American experience. He is, to my thinking, one of our great dramatists, and his characters are so clearly drawn that it’s easy to understand their motives—why, for example, Ma Rainey (in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) wants to control her own music and why Boy Willie (in The Piano Lesson) plans to sell the family piano.
Wilson’s plays seemed to jump off the page. I knew that when we came to Shakespeare, I would have to find another way into the text. But if I used the teaching methods I’d run up against in high school, I would be lost. Back then, in an orange-carpeted, ‘70s-style building, a fluorescent-lit concrete box with gray-tinted windows that didn’t open, a valiant teacher (of whom I remain fond, for she gave it her best shot) tried to jam Julius Caesar into our heads. She, in her tweed skirts and ribbed turtlenecks, had us read for homework passages we could hardly comprehend, then act out the scenes in class. Afterward, we’d watch English actors wearing tights perform on grainy videos in a stagy Rome with chartreuse skies.
To this day, Julius Caesar remains my least-favorite play. I, who went on to become an English major and to teach English and write books, could (at the time) find nothing of my own in the play. I was not an emperor, nor did I aspire to depose one. The story felt, well, foreign, and I couldn’t make out most of the weird Elizabethan dialect. It all sounded tinny and garbled and forced.
In Mississippi that fall, I wasn’t sure how I’d get my students to buy into the old tale of a slain king and his sorrow-crazed son so that they’d feel it was their story first, and only then begin to study how Shakespeare had adapted Hamlet to his purposes. I mulled over the problem during my daily runs down the levee by the Pearl River in Jackson, as the grass beneath my feet turned brown and the blackberries ripened in the thickets. Often, I would pass a green heron standing motionless in the shallows of the river, waiting to strike.
“So,” I went on, “Claudi-Ice kills Ham-Ice, and a month later he marries QTrude and things settle down for a while.”
“Claudi-Ice was a just king?” asked Sidney.
“Well, he was OK, but not as good as his brother. But then something happened. One dark, misty night, the watchmen were patrolling at the top of the castle wall, and what do you think they saw?”
Silence. I knew this was one of those times that happen occasionally for a teacher, when students listen. I enjoyed it for a moment, then asked, “No one knows? They saw a ghost, walking toward them. Who was it?”
“Ham-Ice the dead king,” said Walter, his eyes wide.
In Mississippi that fall, I wasn’t sure how I’d get my students to buy into the old tale of a slain king and his sorrow-crazed son.
I went on to explain the meeting between Hamlet and his father’s ghost, then asked them if they would ever trust a ghost.
“Nah way,” said Martha, an extremely thin, usually silent girl from Tallahassee. “I would never trust a ghost. They can be the work of the devil.”
“Ham-Ice felt the same way. So he had to find a way to see if what the ghost had said was true. So, how could you do that?”
“You could threaten the king,” said Kenron.
“You could give the new king truth serum,” suggested Sidney.
“Well, those options would probably work, but right then a traveling theater company arrives at the castle, and they are friends of Ham-Ice. So what does he do? He asks them to make a special play. What do you think the play is about?”
Kedla, an extremely quiet kid from Ethiopia who, until now, had rested his head on his folded arms, said, “He will ask them to make a play of the murder, and it will be for the new king-man like seeing a ghost.”
“That’s right! Do you know this story, Kedla?”
“It is something like a story we have in Ethiopia.”
“Really,” I said. “After I tell this story, maybe you will tell us how that story ends. So Ham-Ice gets everybody together for the play one evening, once it’s ready, and what do you all think happens when the king sees the play?”
“He has a heart attack,” said Bret.
“Well, pretty much. He gets so upset that he has to run out of the hall, and who is watching this? Ham-Ice! He knows now that the ghost was telling him the truth. So then Ham-Ice goes to talk to his mother. Because he knows now for sure that his uncle killed his father, and he wants to confront his mother and see if she knew his father was murdered.”
“Did she know?” asked Cora. “Because if she knew, then she a bad woman.”
“Well, I’m not sure if she knew,” I said.
“You don’t know? It’s your story.”
“No, it’s our story. I’m giving it to you, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what a character knows. It depends how you play them.”
“She had to know,” said Walter. “She’s both their wives!”
So what about this idea of ownership? One of the truisms about teaching Shakespeare’s works is that in his day (the late 1500s, early 1600s), stories were much less the intellectual property of one person. It was OK to take someone else’s story, trim off the less-than-good bits, and adapt it your own way. This is reflected in the fact that Hamlet’s tale has its beginnings in Norse legend. The name “Amlothi” seems to have meant “desperate in battle,” perhaps with the implication of insanity. Also, a character named “Amleth,” in circumstances somewhat similar to Hamlet’s, appears in the third book of the Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus, which was written in Latin around 1200 and first published in 1514. The old story was then adapted by several writers, and it was only in 1604 or so that Shakespeare’s version popped up.
In effect, this explodes in a wonderful way a commonly held view of Shakespeare as inviolate. If he was busy finding old stories and tailoring them to his needs, if many of his plays have their origins in myth, then this confirms our partial ownership of the plots and our right to adapt them as we see fit. So I’d decided, after 40 or 50 runs down the levee, to proceed with the job of remaking Hamlet as a spoken fable. My students would hear it first from me and would (I hoped) welcome it into their own canon of stories, imagining it in a way that made sense to them. Only then would I ask them to climb the hill of Shakespearean dialect.
“Anyhow,” I continued, “when Ham-Ice is going to see his mother, he yells down the hall that he is coming, and Q-Trude is visiting with another man, Poloni-Ice, who is an adviser to the king.”
“Is she having an affair with him, too?” asked David, clearly displeased with the ethical disposition of ancient Denmark.
“No, no,” I said. “He is an old man, an adviser to the king. He is the father of Ham-Ice’s best friend, Laert-Ice, and although he thinks Ham-Ice is nuts, he is pretty harmless.”
They took this in, so I went on.
“Well, Poloni-Ice hides behind the arras—"
“What’s a arras?” asked Indaka.
“An arras is a big heavy curtain that covers some of the cold stone wall in a castle room.”
“Oh,” she said. “OK.”
‘You come up with some weird stories for us, Mr. Robb.’
“He hides behind the arras while Ham-Ice speaks to his mother because he knows that Ham-Ice won’t be honest if he is around, and Ham-Ice basically tells his mother what he knows. What do you think she thinks of that?”
“It upsets her, because he is showing her how messed up her life is,” said Sidney in a quiet voice.
“Yes, and as he is telling her this, he hears a noise from behind the arras. Who do you think he thinks it is?”
“He thinks it’s Claudi-Ice!” said Letitia,an outspoken girl from a small town onthe Natchez Trace.
“Right! He figures maybe Claudi-Ice is going to jump him from behind the arras, so he takes out his sword and stabs through the curtain, just like that. But it turns out to be Poloni-Ice, and his blood makes a puddle on the floor. So now Ham-Ice is a murderer, too. How do you think Claudi-Ice feels about this when he finds out?”
“He know that boy is going around half-cocked. He know Ham-Ice gunnin’ for him,"said Bret.
I went on to tell them of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the King’s foiled first plan to kill Hamlet, and then mentioned Laertes’ return from France. “And how do you think he feels about Ham-Ice?” I asked.
“He want revenge. He want to take revenge on Ham-Ice for killing his daddy. It say in the Bible, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but if somebody kill my daddy, I’m gonna think twice about that.”
“That’s understandable, Letitia.”
“‘Cause if somebody kill my daddy, I know I’m not gonna be thinking straight, and that person might better step back, ‘cause I might let my temper get the best of me.”
“Well, that’s understandable,” I said. “So you’ll haveto be careful if that everhappens....”
“Yes, I will,” Letitia continued with conviction, “because there’s a lot of violence in this world, and I don’t want to get caught up in it.”
“So,” I went on, wondering as I spoke how we’d make sense of this violent story in the end, “Claudi-Ice sees this, and he is no dummy. He sets up a friendly sword fight between Ham-Ice and Laert-Ice, which was a pretty normal thing to do. But he takes Laert-Ice aside, and they put a special poison—"
“An unction?” asked Indaka.
“Yes, an unction—they put this on Laert-Ice’s sword, so that if he just scratches Ham-Icein what appears to be an accident, it will kill Ham-Ice.”
“That Claudi-Ice a bad man,” said Letitia. “He the kind of man you can’t never change.”
“Yes, he is,” I said. “And then, to make sure, Claudi-Ice sets up a big goblet of wine, and he says to Ham-Ice, in front of the whole crowd, that every time Ham-Ice scores a point by touching Laert-Ice with his sword—that’s how you score points in the game they are playing—every time he does that, Claudi-Ice will put a beautiful pearl in the wine, and Ham-Ice just has to drink that wine to get those pearls.”
“He gonna put poison on those pearls, I can see it a mile away,” said Letitia.
“That’s right! So the fight begins, and a little while into the match Claudi-Ice takes a drink of the wine. Then Ham-Ice scores a hit on Laert-Ice, and the king drops a pearl in the wine, and offers Ham-Ice a drink. But Ham-Ice says he better not while the match is going on. Then he scores another hit, and who do you think comes down to take a drink of the wine as a toast to Ham-Ice?”
“Mrs. Old Ham-Ice.”
“That’s right. Good, Sidney. Q-Trude. She comes down off her chair and she takes a drink in honor of her son, so we know she is going to die, and die soon.”
“How come she don’t know what her husband is up to?” Letitia asked. “She ought to be right inside his head. She ought to know what he’s thinking before he thinks it, and she is up there drinking that wine.”
“Well, there’s some truth to that. So, Ham-Ice is winning the match, he has touched Laert-Ice with his sword three times, and Laert-Ice is frustrated. So when Ham-Ice isn’t watching, after the referee tells them to break and go to their corners, Laert-Ice just sneaks up on Ham-Ice and slices his arm a little, just a scratch, really, but that is enough to get that...”
Here I pointed to Indaka, and she said, “Unction into his blood.”
Walter interjected, “So he gonna die?” with all the feeling a kid can muster when he sees yet again that things routinely don’t go right in the world.
“Well,” I said, “he will, but not quite yet. See, as soon as Q-Trude begins to die, Ham-Ice figures out that something’s up, and there’s a scuffle. Somehow, in the confusion, he winds up with Laert-Ice’s sword, and wounds him with it. See, Ham-Ice is a pretty fiery guy—"
“What you mean, ‘fiery’?” asked Juan.
“He means he had a temper on him,” said David.
“Oh, you mean like Helena got on her,” said Juan, and then braced himself for the punch to his arm he knew was coming.
“Yes, he was short-tempered, and he goes off on Laert-Ice and wounds him with that sword, and as soon as Laert-Ice sees he is poisoned, too, he tells everything to Ham-Ice. So what do you think Ham-Ice does then?”
A few days after the scenes were performed, I told my students for the first time that we’d been studying Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
“He slays his uncle. I mean, that’s clear, that’s the only way to resolve things, so that there isn’t any more of this murderous energy hanging around the kingdom anymore and they can get on with life,” said Jocelyn, an Atlanta resident who enjoyed providing the Olympian perspective.
“And then he makes him drink that wine, too, don’t he?” asked Bret. “You got to do that. He has to get it going and coming if it’s any kind of a good story.”
“That’s right, Bret, he makes him drink that wine, too.”
“That’s what he deserved,” said Bret, looking satisfied.
“This is worser than daytime television,"said Cora.
“What I don’t understand is how all of this means anything good for us,” said Raseana, who was from Spanish Harlem and always had her eye on the moral high ground.
“Well, maybe it can help us remember some of the things that humans are willing to do for personal gain, and how in the end those things are never worth selling your soul for.”
We had rattled through the story, but I asked them to hold it in their minds because we were going to return to it in the coming days. And then I added one more thing. “I want you to entertain a ‘what if,’” I told them. “What if I didn’t tell you about one character because I didn’t want to run out of time, but what if I left out that Ham-Ice had a girlfriend, Ophelia, who he loved? And she was Laert-Ice’s sister, and Poloni-Ice’s daughter?”
“He capped his girlfriend’s father, yo?"said Bret.
“Yo, that’s messed up, yo,” said Kenron. “You come up with some weird stories for us,Mr. Robb.”
The next step was to commission short scenes from the students, scenes structured (unbeknownst to them) along the lines of gems found in Hamlet, and to have them act the scenes out in twos and fours. Only after we had done this would I confess to them the origins of the story and have them begin to read the actual Hamlet and compare their scenes to Shakespeare’s.
I chose three scenes for their vivid quality of character and situation: Ham-Ice’s meeting with his father’s ghost; Poloni-Ice’s farewell to Laert-Ice; and Ham-Ice’s conversation with Laert-Ice after each has fatally wounded the other. One scene composed by the kids went like this:
Ham-Ice: How come you sliced my arm, yo? We was at our corners and you just come on over and slice me?
Laert-Ice: You deserve it. You gonna die now. That was unction on that.
Ham-Ice: What you mean I deserve it?
Laert-Ice: You killed my pops for no reason. Just because you are the prince is no reason why you can get away with that.
Ham-Ice: He was hidin’ on me, and I thought he was going to cap me.
Laert-Ice: My pop couldn’t cap no one— he’s too old, you know that.
Ham-Ice: I mean I couldn’t see him, man. He was all hidin’ behind the curtains, yo.
Laert-Ice: So why you kill him?
Ham-Ice: ‘Cause I thought he was Claudi-Ice,I thought he was about to ambush me. So I beat him to it.
Laert-Ice: Well, you payin’ now.
Ham-Ice: Yeah, and so are you, you ignorantso-and- so.
Laert-Ice: I wish we were still friends.
Ham-Ice: Word. But we ain’t. So go on and die yourself.
Laert-Ice: Let’s squash it, yo.
Ham-Ice: All right, dog.
The two boys who played the scene, Bret and Hamikeo, were subsequently able to write thoughtfully about Laertes’ and Hamlet’s last moments because, in a sense, they’d already traversed this ground. If I had my druthers—and were teaching this course again—I wouldn’t aim to read the entire play. I would try to have the students understand the mythic story, then have them assay specific portions of the text, in order to enter Shakespeare’s linguistic world on light reconnaissance only. I would expect them to read the play during their second year of Shakespeare, when he’d be considered an old pal who writes about real people. Thus the trauma which put me off Shakespeare for a good eight years could be avoided. I guess what I’m really arguing for is a stratagem in which the student is introduced to the psychological angles of Shakespeare’s work before any effort is made to read it.
|It’s been some time since I left Piney Woods, and as I look back on that year, I wonder how many of my former students have thought about Ham-Ice, or maybe Hamlet.|
A few days after the scenes were performed, I told my students for the first time that we’d been studying Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Now, I added, we were going to watch Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation (the one starring Mel Gibson), then study the play, explore the story further, and see how it had been told by others. They had heard my version and internalized it now we were going to look at Shakespeare’s.
There were groans and eyes rolling in heads. “Shakespeare! Man, I don’t want to work that hard!” sighed LaSeann. Still, they all showed up on Monday, when we began watching the film. Comments ensued.
“That’s not how I pictured the castle. I thought it was taller, and not on a cliff.”
“I thought Hamlet was black. I pictured he looked like Patrick Ewing.”
“Well,” I explained, “this filmmaker happened to be from Hollywood via Italy, so he cast the movie one way. But the story is older than Shakespeare, so in your version of Hamlet, there’s no reason why everyone wouldn’t be black.”
Further into the film, they listened raptly as King Hamlet’s ghost, played magnificently by Paul Scofield, explains to Hamlet how he was killed, and then how he was doubly wronged, not being allowed to confess his sins before dying.
“Yup, Shakespeare’s version is close to yours, Mr. Robb,” David said. “But you didn’t mention how when he died, he hadn’t had a chance to go to church to be forgiven.”
“Well, I was pressed for time,” I said, secretly pleased. “Would you include that in yourversion?”
“Well, yes, I would, Mr. Robb, because that makes Claudi-Ice’s sin that much greater.”
Later, just as the traveling players begin their version of the murder of the king, the bell rang, ending the period, but few of my students left. They all wanted to see how Claudi-Ice would react to seeing his own deed unveiled.
It’s been some time since I left Piney Woods, and as I look back on that year, I wonder how many of my former students have thought about Ham-Ice, or maybe Hamlet, since that January. Even though my teaching of Shakespeare’s play and wrestling with its great questions are on hold for now, I keep learning more about the story in unexpected ways. Recently, here in Massachusetts, I went to a concert by a man from the Gambia (on the west coast of Africa), a player of the kora. He was a griot, a storyteller and keeper of the history and mythology of his people. He spoke for a little while, then he began to play, singing one of the oldest stories of his people. It began (and I paraphrase), “There were once two brothers. They were princes, both the sons of the king, and one had been chosen to succeed his father. The other brother was jealous, and he plotted to kill his brother, so that he could one day be king....”
Had I been telling the story of Hamlet that first day of Shakespeare, or was I telling a version of a story which has no one root, which each of us owns, and which speaks to the common thread of myth we all share? I am convinced that it’s no mystery why, when Shakespeare’s work is presented the right way, any kid will take to it. His stories are basic, their themes settling easily into our understanding of human life. But there is that dreaded initial meeting to be managed, which can be eased into with a little storytelling, in the same tone as reading before bedtime, so that the dialect falls away and the adventure unfolds on its own.