The One Text You Probably Haven’t Read that will Help Your Students with Hamlet

text to help with HamletI can’t believe I’ve been blogging for six months and I haven’t mentioned Hamlet!  It’s one of my favorite things to teach and I have so much to say about it.  

Hamlet can be hard to teach because there’s so much in the text.  There are so many different directions you can take that lesson planning can get chaotic.  It’s also hard to know how to introduce the play and what to front-load.  Iambic pentameter?  Revenge tragedies?  Mental illness?  

I’m going to suggest that you start where Shakespeare started.  No, not in Stratford-upon-Avon.  I’ve always felt that biographical information on Shakespeare doesn’t help students understand the play much better.  But begin with the text that Shakespeare started with: the story of Amleth.

Amleth who?

If you’re not familiar with Amleth, he’s a 12th century Danish prince.  Stories about him were passed down orally, and then a Danish scholar named Saxo Grammaticus gathered them in a history book called the Gesta Danorum.  And Shakespeare clearly based his Hamlet play on Saxo Grammaticus’ Amleth story (see how if you move the “h” from the back to the front Amleth becomes Hamlet?).  

There’s a fairly long version of the Amleth story available online here and a shorter, but not super reliable, version here.  I prefer the focused  and reputable version of “Amleth’s Revenge” from this book.  My school librarian was nice enough to track down a copy for me (shout-out to all those librarians who come through for you in a pinch!).   

Why bother with Amleth?

Right about now you may be wondering why you should care about a 12th century Danish prince and I don’t blame you.  But stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll show you how it can help your Hamlet unit.

First of all, reading Amleth is a really nice way to give an overview of the whole play without spoiling anything, because you always have the question of “Did Shakespeare change this part?” And he did make some changes.  But Amleth has your basic Hamlet ingredients: feigned madness, a father-killing and mother-marrying uncle, eavesdropping, a trip to England, etc.  That’s right, even elements that seem so quintessential to Hamlet, like the closet scene, are in Amleth.  So an introductory reading can help students get off on the right foot with a basic understanding of what the play is about.

In fact, it’s close enough that students can also do textual analysis by matching up passages from each of the texts, which is a nice activity.  You could also do a discussion or even a writing assignment about the changes that Shakespeare made.  I always find Horatio to be an intriguing character, for one, and he’s been added by Shakespeare.

Making the most of the differences

As you get further into Hamlet, the differences can also help you frame other things your students might struggle with.  For example, “Amleth’s Revenge” is a folk tale while Hamlet is a play.  Both are meant to entertain, but in different ways.  Thinking about those differences and the importance of story might help your students with things like the meter and the play within a play.

It’s also interesting to see how Amleth behaves when he’s acting crazy and how others test his sanity (warning: it involves prostitution).  Paying attention to these passages can help introduce students to the idea that insanity has a component of cultural construction.  Since every culture defines boundaries of acceptable behavior a bit differently, unacceptable behavior is also going to look different.

Including Amleth also gives you a way of framing the various movie versions of Hamlet.  The Mel Gibson version is probably closest to Amleth, with medieval costuming.  I find that students often resist modern settings, such as the 2000 Ethan Hawke version, claiming that Shakespeare has to look old (well, and 2000 already looks a bit dated).  But the Amleth story was already as old to Shakespeare as Hamlet is to us.  That’s pretty incredible.  Does that mean the story is universal?  Or open to interpretation?  I worked on Hamlet with a professor who claimed that it was far from perfect, but instead imperfect and unresolved in such a perfect way that it got us to ask its questions.

I think the key with Hamlet isn’t in finding the answers, but in asking interesting questions.  And including the story of Amleth might help your students access some of those questions.

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