Hamlet and his father's ghost
Credit: Henry Fuselli
Be hole, be dust, be dream, be wind
Be night, be dark, be wish, be mind,
Now slip, now slide, now move unseen,
Above, beneath, betwixt, between.
–Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an excellent source of instruction for students at the middle school level. It is a tale full of mystery and suspense and peppered with elements of the supernatural. Everyone loves a good ghost story! The popularity of the ghosts in the Harry Potter series and in The Graveyard Book attests to the appeal of the paranormal for this age group. These ghosts manifest as translucent spirits, yet they impact the physical world and certainly add life to the story line. Figments such as Rowling’s histrionic Moaning Myrtle and Gaiman’s mysterious Silas provide guidance for the young adults in their time of need.
What better way to expose middle school students to a first taste of Shakespeare than from the angle of the ghost story? The first time Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, lines 13–31) is one of the most dramatic moments in theatre and a prime opportunity to teach the often dry and boring subject of verbs. Through the ghost of Hamlet’s father, students receive an introduction to the language of Shakespeare in a context they can understand. In this lesson, they will learn to distinguish generic verbs from vivid verbs by working with selected lines in Hamlet’s Ghost scene. Students will then test their knowledge of verbs through a crossword interactive puzzle. In Hamlet’s own words: “the readiness is all.”
In one of his most successful and far-reaching tragedies, Hamlet (written 1600–1601), Shakespeare borrows freely from earlier historical texts written by Saxo Grammaticus and Francois de Belleforest. These texts tell the true story of a Danish prince whose uncle murders the prince’s father in order to ascend the throne. But Shakespeare made some modifications to the original story line. He focused more on the slower and more philosophical investigation of Prince Hamlet, a modification that fit perfectly with the popular mindset of the Renaissance — the belief in the power of the human mind — that had originated over a century earlier. An easily accessible overview of the culture of the Renaissance is available through an interactive project at Learner.org.
Much more detail about the period can be found at the following site available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library: Life in Elizabethan England: A Compendium of Common Knowledge. The major themes exposed in Hamlet, the meaning of life, the problem of choosing action over inaction, the mystery surrounding death, were reflections of man as the center of things, which was a major concern of the Renaissance. By keeping in tune with the past and the present, Shakespeare fashioned a play that drew tremendous interest, even as it does today, because even though philosophies change, we never do.
The primary text for the lesson is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, lines 13–31. EDSITEment- reviewed Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet is a wonderful source for background as well as the text of the Ghost scene. This site also contains a Critical analysis of Hamlet; especially useful is theonline book, Hamlet and the Daemons; An Inquiry into the Nature of the Ghost and its Mission.
EDSITEment-reviewed The Folger Shakespeare Library: Online Resources for Teachers contains several valuable resources to guide teachers through this material:
Illustrations of ghosts and other background materials on the Ghost scene can be found at the NEH-funded website, Hamlet on the Ramparts, which is designed and maintained by the MIT Shakespeare Project in collaboration with the Folger Shakespeare Library.
While reviewing the lesson plan, download and print out documents and worksheets you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
At the beginning of this lesson: Read an excerpt from a classic ghost story scene from literature, solicit examples of famous scenes from movies the students may be familiar with and will relate to, and /or watch and discuss a ghost scene clip from a popular movie. Examples of ghost figures in literature, folklore, and film are: Jack London’s Call of the Wild, end of chapter 7: the description of the Ghost Dog; Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “Stave 2: The First of the Three Spirits.”
Pass out handouts of act 1, scene 5, lines 13–31, or show a copy of the electronic text through projection.
Explain what has happened in the play leading up to Hamlet meeting the Ghost. Make a reference sheet with summary or a link to one.
Read the text slowly to the class.
Another option would be to show a movie version of the Ghost scene from Hamlet, such as Lawrence Olivier (1948), Zeffirelli (1990), or Branagh (1996), and follow the text as the scene is being acted out.
Go back over the reading, making sure the students understand what is being said.
Discuss the action in the scene: The ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears to a group of soldiers on a platform at the castle of Elsinore. Horatio, one of Hamlet’s closest friends, tries to get the Ghost to speak, but the Ghost refuses. After the Ghost reappears and again refuses to speak, Horatio tells Hamlet. Hamlet goes with Horatio to the castle and waits. Finally, the Ghost appears and beckons Hamlet to follow him. The Ghost then speaks, telling Hamlet about the circumstances surrounding his murder. He further explains his terrible condition and the only method by which he can be freed.
Discuss the concept of “revenge.” Ask students what they would feel if they were in Hamlet’s shoes. Have they ever experienced an impulse to revenge some wrong done to them in their own lives? What did they do with that impulse? Discuss how revenge is both a noun and a verb,
Explain to students because the Ghost can’t exact revenge on his own, he must depend on his son. When he first speaks, he must carefully choose strong words that will inspire and convince Hamlet to act. For the Ghost, eternal peace depends on the language he uses.
Ask student to identify the verbs in the scene. The teacher should highlight these if using a screen projection of the electronic text or have student individually highlight the verbs in their copies.
Discuss what constitutes a “vivid verb” and what constitutes a “generic verb.”
Teachers whose students require a more extensive introduction to Vivid Verbs may tap these materialsfrom Thinkfinity partner ReadWriteThink:More than One Way to Create Vivid Verbsand Related Resources.
List all the verbs from the scene. Define these verbs together as a large group or in small groups. Students will discover how the word’s meaning is sometimes different and sometimes the same as our own contemporary usage.
Discuss how differences in language between Shakespeare’s time and ours might turn people off from wanting to experience Shakespeare but also discuss how recognizing the similarities that remain between Renaissance and modern English might be a way to attract people to the plays.
Verbs from the Scene (Infinitive forms are in parenthesis.):
Am (To be)
Doomed/Doom’d (To doom)
Confined (To confine)
Done (To do)
Purged (To purge)
Be (To be)
List (modern: to listen)
Decide as a group which verbs are generic and which ones are vivid; have students explain why.
Give Worksheet 1 to students with one list of generic verbs from this scene and another list of vivid verbs from the scene. Have them change the list of generic verbs to vivid verbs. They may consult a thesaurus. Then have them change the vivid verbs to more generic ones.
In small groups, have students reread the Ghost scene from Hamlet. As they read, have them replace the generic verbs in the text with their own choice of vivid verbs that depict a more specific action. Discuss how the new verbs change the scene.
Have students reread the Ghost scene and now replace Shakespeare’s vivid verbs in the text with the students’ own more generic ones. Again discuss how this affects the meaning and intensity of the scene.
Suggested responses for Worksheet 1: Distinguishing between Generic Verbs and Vivid Verbs
Examples of Changing Generic Verbs to More Vivid Verbs
More Vivid: Stroll
More Vivid: Whisper
More Vivid: Compel
More Vivid: Rise
More Vivid: Cherish
Examples of Changing Vivid Verbs to More Generic Verbs
More Generic: Hold
More Generic: Rid
More Generic: Hurt
More Generic: Open
More Generic: Jump
Student “Acting Verbs” Exercise
Guide students through the performance exercise, “Acting Verbs.” Students spread out in a large space (outdoors, the stage, the classroom with desks pushed back against the wall, etc.). For the purposes of this lesson, the teacher calls out a generic verb and has students act it out. The teacher then calls out a vivid verb and has them act that one out. In this way, students can clearly see the difference between the two types of verbs and discuss why a verb like “cherish” is a more effective one than “love” or why “stroll” is more effective than “walk.”
A wonderful way to reinforce the verbs learned in this lesson is by using the crossword puzzle student resource in pdf form. This crossword can be done in a whole class setting, small groups, or individually. Additionally, the crossword puzzle can be used as a competition. For example, the first three students who solve the crossword correctly get to choose from a prize box.
Give the interactive to the students without the list of verbs previously studied in class. The crossword will provide the students a fun, engaging, and enriching method of assessing their verb vocabulary in a different setting. With the clues provided, the students shouldn’t have any problem finding the solutions. The teachers’ key is also provided in pdf form.
Acting out the Ghost Scene
Students act out a brief portion of the Ghost scene, and then compare it to the scene portrayed in at least two of the film adaptations referenced in Activity 2. The Branagh film and the Zeffirelli films are a good example of two very different portrayals of the ghost scene in general, and the ghosts specifically.
Writing a Ghost Story. Using the list of new verbs, students will construct their own ghost stories. Remind the students that they must use only verbs they have generated on the handout. Here is a suggested framework providing students with a prompt to help structure their writing.
Framework:A ghost with some type of problem reveals itself to a living person and asks for help. The problem the ghost is having can be nearly anything: a stutter, a conflict with another ghost, a special need to contact a family member still alive, etc. However, there’s not much time before the ghost returns to its home forever. With the clock ticking, the person must help the ghost as quickly as possible.
The student’s story can take many twists and turns. It can be silly or frightening and the problem doesn’t necessarily have to be solved. The main thing is that vivid verbs are used throughout the story. Have the students:
Publish the ghost stories the students have created on PowerPoint slides, placing each ghost story on its own unique slide. PowerPoint slides can be displayed as a show-and-tell classroom presentation, or during a parent-teacher conference;
Organize a presentation to share the ghost stories with other classes;
Get parents or guardians involved by having them create ghost stories that complement the ghost stories from the students
For further reference, see lessons and resources from Thinkfinity partner, ReadWriteThink:
1 class periods