Every year, starting in April, when the long-simmering hunger for prom, summer, and The Great Adult Beyond bubbles over, I teach Hamlet to my class of high school seniors. My students were born a few years before the first iPhone-anvil crashed through our attention spans. A more merciful teacher might cut a word-drunk dinosaur like Hamlet, but I won’t. Not because I’m a canon-worshiper who thinks the mere presence of Shakespeare suggests rigor. With each passing year, I see my students struggle more and more to decipher Hamlet’s torrents of language, but they are also increasingly comfortable with Hamlet himself. As faith in the inevitably progressive trajectory of their world falters, they inevitably understand and identify with him.
Hamlet has always been a vehicle for our existential vibrations, but the angst of my students has spiked. The class of 2022 negotiated the normal contortions of teenage growth on abnormally unstable ground—school closures, remote learning, masking, sickness. Isolated, shepherded onto already-addictive devices, watching an insurrection and police and vigilantes shooting unarmed Black men on their cell phones, seeing Covid case counts tick up and down and up again, they felt despondent, vulnerable, annoyed, and anxious. When asked to participate in class, younger students reddened and fidgeted, waiting for me to leave them alone. It wasn’t unusual to notice a ninth grader swiping the mousepad like a DJ scratching an inaudible record, watching an unfinished document shake and blur on the screen. The kids are not alright has become a tedious but accurate copy editor’s headline crutch. It wasn’t going wonderfully for American teens before the unimaginable froze their lives, but now it’s worse.
Time went out of joint, and so did they.
Every May, my seniors give short speeches for a public audience. This year, four concerned procrastination, and all but one fittingly felt hastily written. Many reflected on various unanticipated disruptions to their teenage lives, the buffet of slings and arrows that torpedoed their plans: adjusting to remote learning, being hospitalized for severe allergies, moving to a new city, healing from a season-ending sports injury. Inspired by college rejections, one student, an aspiring actress, wrote of accepting an uncertain future: the identity of a dedicated artist in a world that doesn’t always value art. The starving artist feeds the world, she wrote.
I begin our Hamlet unit with an anonymous poll.
My first question asks students to assess their world: is it chaotic, confusing, beautiful, unfair, disappointing, boring, or full of possibility? They can check as many boxes as they like. When I gave the poll in April, 10 shoppers at a Buffalo grocery store had not yet been murdered in a hate crime, and nineteen children had not yet been massacred in Texas while police officers waited outside of school. This poll might yield different results now. You can see the breakdown below.
Their assessment feels less withering than complicated, honest. I suspect some students checked every box—the savvy move. Even in April, these young stakeholders on the brink of graduation were fixated on the years stretched out before them, their fields to plow, their selves to shape and proclaim, and decided, like Shakespeare’s protagonist, that they saw a mess, a jumble of uncomplimentary realities and feelings.
Sometimes I have students write short stories for class, where they can work through hardships under the protective veil of fiction. Impenetrable, challenging, Hamlet is likewise an appealingly foreign playground for reflection. Disinterested as they might be in royal succession drama, students find the play reveals, in Hamlet’s words, their “inmost part.” Other questions in that same poll document their difficulties with decision-making and knowing themselves, as well as the same constellation of family problems that afflicts Hamlet (minus, usually, the murder).
Reminds me of Hamlet, I sometimes write on senior speech grading rubrics.
When I watched HBO’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven earlier this year, I thought of my seniors and Hamlet. The show uses the play to examine how people respond to disruptive events beyond their control—including a global pandemic far deadlier than ours. Individual characters perform scenes to express feelings they cannot otherwise communicate.
Station Eleven largely revolves around Kirsten, a lead player in a ragtag theater troupe that formed in the two decades since the pandemic decimated the planet. In the second episode, she plays Hamlet in his first appearance, when he sees his recently widowed mother marry his slimeball uncle. He’s grieving, resentful, calling the world “an unweeded garden.” At age eight, Kirsten lost her parents to the pandemic. Right before the performance, she loses her close friend, Charlie, the actress playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Charlie’s about to give birth. Before they go onstage, Kirsten counsels a fledgling member of the troupe—the new Gertrude—who isn’t sure he can play the part.
“I’m not a mom,” he frets.
“It’s not about you,” she says. “Put all your attention on me. It’ll free you up.”
Dressed in a bizarre costume—a speed skater’s cowl, a cape with what look to be Sideshow Bob’s dreads protruding from the back—Kirsten’s losses nonetheless consume her. Her raw, halting performance is spliced with a montage of scenes from the crushing start of the pandemic—the taping of air ducts, the text from the hospital announcing her parents’ death. When I’m watching, I tear up. Given our real pandemic, her trauma feels familiar. Burdened by her sadness, she’s strapped on Hamlet like a suit, a role as heavy as the cape swaying behind her. Shakespeare freights the personal pain, the representative pain of a traumatized world, with an ancient weight, a reminder that there’s nothing new about despair in the face of the absurd and devastating. I have taught too many teens who have lost parents and friends—I grieve for them. I imagine my own daughter losing me to absurdity. Kirsten chokes through the scene. It isn’t amazing acting, despite her talent and passion, and it’s also not quite healing. It might even be torture. But this creation and sharing of art is the only arena where anything resembling catharsis can happen, where Kirsten might let her wounds meet air.
After students parachute into Hamlet, once they machete through thickets of words, activities further graft it to their lives.
I’ve adapted “Wheel of Existential Torture” from a colleague. Hamlet sits in the middle of the board. Students consider secondary characters: what does each value, and how is Hamlet clearly, or potentially, influenced by their relationship? Students see how Hamlet gets nudged and inspired and dismayed by others as he pursues authenticity. Spokes shoot out from him, the axis point. There’s one for the gangster-king Claudius, another for the late King Hamlet,an apparent paragon of monarchial prowess; and one for those false friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “sponges” who cynically chase vicarious power. There’s even one for the Actors, free-spirited shapeshifters, adaptable and good-humored. You see Hamlet imitate or engage every spoke at some point, trying on values and inclinations like costumes.
Then, students create their own wheels, identifying the friends, mentors, family members, and even fictional characters who have guided them. They see how they’re also nudged, inspired, and dismayed, how they too accept, reject, and revise maps drawn by others. It’s a complicated tug-of-war, not usually harmonious. An older brother, for example, models what a teacher rejects. The contradictions and discomfort and messiness that come with a search for meaning are the point. Hamlet is a portal, a way to get them out of themselves and then back in again.
Sometimes, we do “Act VI,” a fan-fiction experiment in which students write and perform the first episode of an imagined “second season.” Characters survive the Act V bloodbath and check out of the hospital, I explain. The rest is not “silence”; instead, students find opportunities for dialogue, healing, reinvention, and justice—a way forward for the characters, as should be true in real lives inevitably scrambled by tragedy.
In the final episode of Station Eleven, a young man named Tyler uses an Act III scene for a wrenching reunion with his mother, Elizabeth, once a well-known actress. She’s Gertrude now, and he uses Hamlet’s fury as a conduit for his own. Later, Clark, a rival and friend to Tyler’s father, becomes Claudius, and Tyler gets to (almost) play out a vengeance fantasy—a spur for Laertes and Fortinbras as well as Hamlet. Here, a wiser Kirsten directs, matching people and characters, conscious of how the work they do as actors fits the work they must do as people.
“It’s the only way he’ll talk to me,” Elizabeth tells Clark, explaining why she wants to play Getrude opposite Tyler’s Hamlet. “It’s all I want.”When he’s playing Hamlet, Tyler presses a dagger to Clark’s neck in a divergence from the script. “I loved him too,” Clark gasps, referring to Tyler’s father. Art—the willingness to create within it, to build off the source material—averts calamity. The show goes on. The characters survive. They’re freed up.
Unlike the silenced artifacts in Clark’s Museum of Civilization, an installation intending to preserve pre-pandemic culture, Hamlet doesn’t live under glass. It is a perpetual motion machine, forever ripe for reimagining, renewal, infinite meaning-making. The storyworld of Hamlet has become an infinite space to explore and mine. That’s what fuels me, I tell students, that’s why I do my work of teaching. We need art to show us who we are. Survival, as the show’s tagline (and the troupe’s motto) goes, is insufficient.
There is another narrative thread that runs through Station Eleven, one that takes place in the leadup to the pandemic, when Kirsten and Tyler are children. In flashbacks, we meet Miranda, a brilliant, obsessive, and isolated artist with profound pain in her past. She feverishly devotes herself to her work: namely, a graphic novel that she has been writing for years, about a marooned spaceman who “can’t feel time.” She makes only a few copies of the completed graphic novel before the pandemic strikes, but they find their way into the hands of young Kirsten and Tyler, who grow to treat the book like gospel.
Like my student, the actress committed to her craft, Miranda has no pretense about whether her work will endure. Whether it will be forgotten or canonized, whether it will disappear or, like Shakespeare, reach readers centuries in the future. All creation is uncertain in this way. But my student got it right: The starving artist feeds the world.
Last June, I gave a speech at the 2021 graduation ceremony. I used a line from Hamlet—“the readiness is all”—to try to explain that, to cope with future crises, graduating seniors would be buoyed by flexibility, a sense of justice, compassion, humor, and the desire to maintain the dignity of others. Not toughness. Not mere resilience. A year and several surges later, in the wake of mass shootings, the Roe reversal imminent, climate change perhaps irreversible, the point holds. Tragedy, I attempt to explain at some point, is about the audience, not what it watches. Tragedy, I say, is about you, me, us. The calamity can be averted. Maybe not the tragedy of a country or world. But maybe the personal tragedy of settling for an unexamined life or committing to inauthenticity or collapsing with fear or stepping on others to gain sops of privilege.
If they learn nothing else by the time their graduation caps land, I hope they learn this.
“Shakespeare – Hamlet” by Dimitri Tavadze is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.