Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Hamlet Meets Chushingura: Traditions of the Revenge Tragedy

Created September 7, 2010


The Lesson


Hamlet Meets Chushingura: Traditions of the Revenge Tragedy

Blades and Mountings for a Pair of Swords (Daisho). The image depicts the only known complete set of daisho mountings by Iwamoto Konkan, one of the most famous makers of sword fittings in the eighteenth century (Chushingura was written in 1748).

Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This lesson sensitizes students to the similarities and differences between cultures by comparing Shakespearean and Bunraku/Kabuki dramas. The focus of this comparison is the complex nature of revenge explored in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Chushingura, or the Treasury of the Loyal Retainers. Students will learn about the Elizabethan revenge ethic as reflected in Hamlet and about the Tokugawa revenge ethic as reflected in the Japanese Bunraku/Kabuki play Chushingura or the Treasury of the Loyal Retainers. What similarities and differences are present in Hamlet's situation as compared to the situations of the forty-seven ronin? What difficulties do we face in making such a comparison between the revenge ethic in two different cultures? How do cultural beliefs and expectations shape an audience's response to a play? Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a sequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson, Hamlet and the Elizabethan Revenge Ethic in Text and Film.

Guiding Questions

  • To what extent does a desire for justice motivate the acts of revenge depicted in these plays? What are the consequences of violent acts of revenge depicted in these plays?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the traditional theatres of Japan, including Bunraku and Kabuki
  • Draw parallels between Kabuki and Elizabethan theatre as public theatres rising from the middle class
  • Recognize the cultural implications and limitations of theatrical conventions
  • Explore the nature and implications of honor, loyalty, and revenge in these cultures as presented in texts, plays, film, and video.
  • Analyze and compare the playwrights' uses of characters' language and actions as motivating forces for revenge
  • Compare interpretations of modern film and video with the texts and events on which they are based

Preparation Instructions

  • This lesson builds on the complementary EDSITEment lesson, Hamlet and the Elizabethan Revenge Ethic in Text and Film. Both lessons require student texts of Hamlet to be available in the school, but also draw upon Hamlet: The Cambridge School Shakespeare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) for its resources on Elizabethan revenge tragedy and Elizabethan views of tragedy. The Cambridge edition also contains excellent information on Hamlet as a character and on the stage history of the play. Also required for the lesson is a class set of Chushingura, or the Treasury of Loyal Retainers (Donald Keene, tr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971). The introductory material is quite helpful, and the translation is easy to read and comfortably conversational.
  • Providing students with an introductory list of key characters in Chushingura and their relationships will help students to keep the various groups of characters clear in their minds as they begin their study:
    • Ashikaga Shogun, Lord Takauji, whose palace was in Kyoto
    • Lord Ashikaga Tadayoshi, chief of Board of War, Takauji's deputy
    • Ko no Moronao, governor of Kamakura, chief lieutenant of Ashikaga Takauji
    • Wakasanosuke Yasuchika, younger brother of Momonol, lord of Harima (Moronao's officers charged with entertaining)
    • Wakasanosuke's household:
      • Kakogawa Honzo Yukikuni, chief retainer
      • Tonase, wife of Honzo
      • Konami, their beloved daughter, betrothed to Oboshi Rikiya
    • Hangan's household:
      • Enya Hangan Takasada, lord of castle of Hoki
      • Lady Kaoyo, wife of Enya Hangan
      • Oboshi Yuranosuke, chief retainer of Enya Hangan
      • Oboshi Rikiya, son of Yuranosuke, fiance of Konami
      • Hayano Kampei, retainer of Enya Hangan
      • Okaru, young girl of Hangan/s household, loves Kampei

    As more characters appear, students can add to this list and describe the characters' relationships. An easy method of helping students with pronunciation is to let them know that vowel pronunciations are the same as in Romance languages and a long line over a letter does not change pronunciation but lengthens the amount of time it is held.

  • Launching into the study of Hamlet requires an historical context that students can gain after they have become familiar with Elizabethan attitudes toward revenge and the popularity of revenge tragedies. Student-oriented background information on these issues can be found through two links on the EDSITEment-reviewed Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet: 1) Francis Bacon: On Revenge; and 2) Ian Johnston's "Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare's Hamlet" (see especially the first and second pages). This background prepares the way for students to compare Elizabethan attitudes toward revenge with those of Tokugawa Japan. The Introduction to the Chushingura text will also help students to understand the problem of censorship of such a current and provocative story. Links indicated in the lesson plan will help students understand the similarities and differences in cultural attitudes. Additional background information on Elizabethan attitudes toward revenge can also be found in the Cambridge version of the play.
  • For the activities described in Suggested Activity 2. Analyzing Film Versions and Videotaped Performances of Chushingura and Hamlet, below, a VCR and monitor will be needed in the classroom on days when students will view and work with scenes from one or more film versions of the plays. Discussing at least one film interpretation of Chushingura affords students the opportunity to observe the kinds of choices modern directors must make as they seek to move their vision from text to film. Legal permission to use the film or films in class must be obtained. If only one film version of Chushingura can be shown, Genroku Chushingura, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi (IMA Productions/Shochiku Films, 1941), offers students a chance to view scenes depicting the actual events of the story, not the play. This version has been considered a 1941 propaganda film calling for a return to nationalism and the values of earlier Japanese culture. For an excellent overview of the film, refer to Darrell William Davis' book, Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). The quiet beauty and deliberately understated violence of this film make it an excellent teaching tool for film study and present a sharp contrast to the flamboyant style of the Bunraku/Kabuki play.
  • Few if any full length productions of the play are available on video, but a recent tape made to explain Kabuki as an art form is available through NHK as part of a three-part set entitled, Japanese Culture: Old and New. The specific video is entitled, Kabuki: Tradition in Today's World and is produced by the Mid-Atlantic Region Japan-in-the-Schools (MARJiS) Program at University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, and NHK Enterprises (1990. Color. 29 min.). This tape includes numerous clips from actual Kabuki performances, including Enya Hangan's seppuku scene in Chushingura, and explains many aspects of Kabuki drama that students will find fascinating. Included with the video is an instructional guide, lists of follow-up student and intercultural presentations, opportunities for interdisciplinary study, a list of similarities and differences of Elizabethan public theatre and Kabuki theatre, a teacher background glossary, and a bibliography. All of these tools can be useful in the teaching of Chushingura. Because many students have little exposure to drama in other languages and from other cultures, they may need to be made aware that the art form they will be studying will probably sound quite unfamiliar and unusual to them and will incorporate stylized music and movement very different from what they know about Western theatre. This art form has become popular throughout the world, and touring companies from Japan regularly travel around the world presenting plays to packed audiences of enthusiastic theatre goers. Kabuki as theatre is wonderfully flamboyant in its acting, staging. and storytelling. Students may gain a better opportunity to appreciate the tape if they can see photographs or hear some introductory information about and viewing of Kabuki.
  • Entry into a discussion of revenge as it relates to today's films with which students are familiar can offer a segue into the treatment of revenge in other cultures, specifically Japan. Alternative ways of integrating this literature may include beginning the study of Chushingura at the end of the Hamlet study by means of the revenge link or the comparison/contrast of Elizabethan drama with Bunraku and Kabuki drama. Possible combinations of the works may include in-class reading and close analysis of Hamlet with concurrent outside reading of Chushingura, short concurrent outside readings of Hamlet and Chushingura for immediate comparison, or a study of Hamlet followed by Chushingura. Analysis of film clips may be integrated during or after the study of the plays.
  • For more resources related to this unit, see Edo Art in Japan: 1615-1868 from the EDSITEment-reviewed National Gallery of Art; at this site you will find a collection of art and artifacts from the Edo period of Japan from the National Gallery of Art's recent exhibition. (The original exhibition included Kabuki garments, ukiyo-e, and an online Virtual Edo tour that is also available on disk.) See also Kabuki for Everyone, which contains a history of kabuki and links to related sites (especially helpful is the Genroku Period section). For a wealth of knowledge in early periods of Japanese art, see the pmjs Interdisciplinary Forum.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Comparing Hamlet and Chushingura
  • Read and discuss Act I of Hamlet (for activities and discussion questions, see the complementary EDSITEment lesson, Hamlet and the Elizabethan Revenge Ethic in Text and Film. Discuss with your students the nature of revenge tragedy in Elizabethan times, sharing with them the student-oriented materials Francis Bacon: On Revenge and Ian Johnston's Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare's Hamlet; for further information, refer also to the Cambridge edition of Hamlet. These sources will help students to understand prevailing attitudes toward revenge in Elizabethan England and the context of revenge in Hamlet.
  • Once students are sensitized to the nature of revenge in Elizabethan society and in Hamlet, they are ready to explore the nature of revenge in Chushingura. Students will find the EDSITEment website Bushido: The Way of the Warrior helpful to acquaint them with the ethic of the samurai and the nature of revenge as it relates to the true story of the 47 ronin. This site includes information from the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai and summaries of the actual events of Chushingura and of Chushingura, or the Treasury of Loyal Retainers, the Bunraku/Kabuki play.
  • Once students have traced the actual events of the revenge, ask them to read pages1-7 of Donald Keene's Introduction to the text or go online to find summaries of the historical events of the revenge of the 47 ronin compared to the events in the Bunraku/Kabuki play Chushingura or the Treasury of the Loyal Retainers. Ask them to write parallel outlines of the events and corresponding characters so that they can observe the changes that helped the play pass the censors of the period. These parallel outlines will also help them when viewing the video of Genroku Chushingura, which reenacts the original events on which the play is based. Then discuss with them the similarities and differences of the stories, noting the similarities of characters' names and some of the key events. Donald Keene writes about some of the changes made to the Bunraku play as it was adapted for the Kabuki theatre. (pages 22-25). Have students speculate which additions to the actual events seem related to the flamboyant nature of the Kabuki theatre and the possibility of spectacle onstage. Provide students with basic information about the Bunraku puppet theatre and Kabuki theatre to help them with understanding the art forms from which Chushingura, or the Treasury of Loyal Retainers comes.
  • Discussion of the nature and treatment of revenge in Chushingura includes the establishment of Moronao as critical and disrespectful in his treatment of both Wakasanosuke and Hangan; Wakasanosuke's determination to kill Moronao because of his mistreatment; Mononao's attempted seduction of Lady Kaoyo, Hangan's wife; and Lady Kaoyo's rebuffs. Discuss with the students the juxtaposed plots of Wakasanosuke's and Hangan's desire for revenge. Then compare these plots to the juxtaposed plots of Hamlet's and Laertes' quest for revenge. After Moronao's taunts and Hangan's outburst of violence, the juxtaposition of Yakushiji's contemptuous remarks to Hangan with Hangan's respectful submission to the shogun's command to commit seppuku and his concern for his guests' comfort create a striking contrast, much like the contrast between King Hamlet and Claudius that Hamlet and the Ghost describe. What Hamlet and the Ghost can only allude to because of the past events of King Hamlet's recent death, Moronao and Hangan can depict visually because of the immediate unfolding of the events onstage. Hangan's final words to Yuranosuke, "Avenge me!" echo the Ghost's final words to Hamlet as he departs at dawn. However, in Act IV of Chushingura, Hangan's "dagger as a memento" makes concrete the pain and injustice Hangan has suffered for his understandable yet intolerable offense. The narrator's description of Yuranosuke's response to the dying words could well be the description of Hamlet upon hearing the Ghost's final words. A key word to describe these men and their purposes is the word "noble"; yet this word will give Yuranosuke "a name for loyalty and rectitude to resound through all the ages" but will drive Hamlet to bring about the destruction of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as Laertes and Claudius.
  • Act III, scene iv of Hamlet, often considered the turning point of the drama, compares interestingly with Act VII of Chushingura, considered the "high point" of the play (page 14). Each involves the hero's "antic disposition" being questioned and challenged, his unseeing stabbing of one of the villain's henchmen, his anger over the villainy itself and his mistreatment, and the tears and anguish of the woman present. Ask students to point out the similarities and the differences of these key scenes and the effects of the scenes, citing points from their study of Elizabethan and Tokugawa attitudes toward revenge.
  • In Act IV, scene v of Hamlet, Claudius's coercion of Laertes to murder Hamlet provides a direct comparison with the Ghost's commands to Hamlet. Both father figures play on the son's love of and loyalty to his father, but the Ghost motivates Hamlet with the description of King Hamlet's death and Gertrude's seduction yet provides no guidance to Hamlet's revenge other than to avoid tainting his mind and hurting his mother. Claudius, however, does not dwell on the father's death as he did in Act IV, scene v, when he first "juggles" with Laertes, but focuses instead on what Laertes can do to prove he is a loyal son by punishing Hamlet. Thus Claudius generates a dishonorable plan of revenge for which Laertes can "be the instrument" of Hamlet's destruction. Discuss with students the differences in Claudius' motivating techniques when compared with the techniques of King Hamlet and with the few words and actions of Enya Hangan, that stand as a motivating force for the vengeance of his loyal samurai.
  • Act V, scene ii provides students an opportunity to assess and compare Laertes's corrupt revenge with Hamlet's and Yuranosuke's revenge and to evaluate and compare Hamlet's destruction of others' lives with Laertes's illegal and lethal use of his rapier. Yuranosuke's methods, as depicted in the play, reflect his honor and determination in orchestrating the plot that brings about the death of Moronao but also Hangan's loyal retainers. Of further interest at this time particularly are the basic similarities and differences of Elizabethan and Kabuki theatrical conventions, as well as the similarities and differences in Hamlet's and Yuranosuke's uses of "an antic disposition," their evaluations of self and commitment, and their physicality in taking revenge. Discuss with students the functions of the soliloquy as an Elizabethan dramatic convention for characters to share their innermost thoughts with the audience and ponder key questions about their lives and situations and how it becomes a vehicle for Hamlet's assessment of self, situation, and philosophy. Then ask students how the lack of this convention in Japanese traditional drama impacts on Chushingura and the implications for characterization and for plot. Also discuss the use of the narrator in the Bunraku and Kabuki tradition and how the narrator impacts on the play itself. Then ask how the lack of narrator impacts on Hamlet as a drama. A comparison of Claudius and Moronao and their deaths also provides opportunities for discussion of what constitutes villainous behavior in their cultures and justice versus revenge. Finally, the deaths associated with each plot and the attitudes toward death, especially suicide, provide students with different cultural orientations to life and its value in relation to honor and loyalty. From Hamlet's first soliloquy and Hangan's mandated seppuku to the announcement of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths and the seppuku foreshadowed for the ronin at the close of Chushingura, the loss of life in these plays, whether pitiful or valiant, cowardly or ironic, reflects a world in which good as well as evil must suffer but concepts such as honor and loyalty provide the context for life's meaning.
Activity 2. Analyzing Film Versions and Videotaped Performances of Chushingura and Hamlet

Discussing clips from several film interpretations of these two plays offers students the opportunity to identify the choices directors made as they moved their visions from page to film. It also allows students a chance to compare a film clip from a stage performance of the Kabuki play to a film depiction of the original events that inspired the Kabuki. The traditional Kabuki art form, costuming, stylized movement, and vocal patterns contrast vividly to the Mizoguchi film, set in the time period of the real events, with costumes and sets of that period.

  • Chushingura (from Japanese Culture: Old and New/Kabuki: Tradition in Today's World). Enya Hangan (Lord Asano character) commits seppuku. His ceremonial suicide leads to his whispers of revenge and giving of a weapon to Yuranosuke (Kuranosuke Oishi character). This weapon becomes important again at the end of the play. Compare his language and stylized Kabuki movement and delivery to the Ghost's command to Hamlet in text and on screen. Have students note Hangan's white kimono and surroundings as traditional color symbolizing death and Yuranosuke's response. Discuss with students the nature of respect and honor shown by Hangan and the retainers.
  • Genroku Chushingura (Mizoguchi). Death of Lord Asano is not on screen. Officials conduct inventory of his possessions as he nears his death. As his death occurs, viewers watch instead the ritual actions of his wife and the cropping of her hair. The severing of her hair parallels the severing of his life. Compare the staging of the death and Lord Asano's command with the Kabuki staging and with the command in Branagh's Hamlet. Also compare to Branagh's deliberate flashback of King Hamlet's death rather than focusing on the Ghost and Hamlet as Shakespeare does. Ask students to speculate why Shakespeare did not include the death and possible reasons for its exclusion. Further exploration by students can lead toward a better understanding of censorship during the Elizabethan period compared to censorship during the Tokugawa period.
  • Genroku Chushingura (Mizoguchi). The presentation scene of Kira's head at Lord Asano's gravesite portrays the original Chushingura story set in the Tokugawa period in which the actual events took place. Although commissioned as a "propaganda" film, it shows no attack by the ronin on Kira's home, no death of Kira, and no viewing of their actual seppuku. The film is often characterized as thwarting or subverting the government's intention because of these omissions. However, it quietly presents the honor, integrity, and dignity of the ronin in a film era quite opposite (Davis, 131-180).
  • Genroku Chushingura (Mizoguchi). Compare the final scene of seppuku of ronin, especially Kuranosuke Oishi, to triumphant onstage battle and foreshadowing of seppuku in Bunraku/Kabuki play. Discuss what is gained and what is lost by such choices. In this film all of the ronin's seppuku is off screen, but names of the ronin being called can be heard in the midst of daily activities. Compare to the final scene in Branagh's Hamlett.
  • Hamlet Act V, scene ii (Ninagawa Yukio, 1988. Professional video of a live performance. Japanese, no subtitles). This Japanese video records a theatrical performance of the Ninagawa Yukio company and features a fusion of Japanese traditional costuming, stage design, and some stylized vocalization and movement with Western equivalents. Although no subtitles are provided, the plot and dialogue follow the text so closely and are so clearly rendered that subtitles are unnecessary. Nonverbal cues include Laertes' wearing of Western black for mourning and Hamlet's wearing Japanese white for death in the last scene. Earlier, the play within the play is staged in Elizabethan clothing; in the "closet" scene, the Ghost enters in traditional costuming of the Noh drama from the Kabuki hanamichi. Fortinbras' attitude, final posture, and modern military clothing, as well as his seated image on the throne in the final tableau of the play, are quite chilling, especially with only Horatio's weeping over the dead Hamlet while the rest of the characters crawl and then cling submissively to Fortinbras. Compare to final court scene in Branagh's later film.
  • After viewing one or more of these clips, discuss with your students one or more of the following questions:
    • What overall similarities do we see in these plays from different cultures?
    • What have we learned about revenge in each culture?
    • What has made these plays and stories live on?
    • What are some ways modern films have changed these plays?
    • What do these film changes imply about directors' expectations of their audiences?

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

8-10 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Research