Hamlet : Word Pictures and Ghost Stories


By Janet Field-Pickering
Folger Shakespeare Library
Washington, DC


Introduction: The following passage from Hamlet (1.4.43-62) is one of the most vivid and scary passages in all of Shakespeare. Hamlet is confronted with a terrible sight-the ghost of his father. This passage is a wonderful example of how Shakespeare creates "word pictures," pieces of text that spark a child's imagination by clearly suggesting sights, sounds, smells, and feelings. Even if the child doesn't know what all the words mean, even if he or she doesn't pick up every image or idea expressed in the text, the poetry still sings with a spooky intensity that children love to explore in the light of day.

Goals: To listen to a passage from Hamlet and respond through artistic or dramatic expression as a means of understanding and interpreting text; to apply word identification strategies in acquiring new vocabulary.

Skills: listening and comprehension, artistic and dramatic expression; interpreting and appreciating text; vocabulary and word identification strategies

How long: 1-2 class periods

Suggested grade level: 4-6


1. Hand out crayons or markers and paper to your students.

2. Read the passage over and over again as the children draw. (This could take 15-20 minutes.) Their drawings can be realistic or expressionistic-some children may choose to try to portray the world of the poem; others may choose to draw shapes or symbols or explore colors. Their efforts will yield up some amazing pictures and will allow the children to get used to hearing the wonderful richness of Shakespeare's language.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!
Be thou a spirit or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell
Be thy intents wicked or charitable
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. O answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulcher,
Wherein we saw thee quietly interred,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel,
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition

(Hamlet 1.4.43-62, cut)




Extending the lesson


1. Shakespeare study also easily lends itself to vocabulary study as students try to figure out unfamiliar words through discussions of possible meanings, context, and definitions. Get out a good dictionary and have the students look up words like "cerements" and "sepulcher." Discuss what words sound like Shakespeare's "oped," "hearsed" and "corse," and see if students can guess what the words mean through association and context.

2. Another way to use this passage is to read it aloud and discuss what is going on. Assign them into mini-acting companies of 5-6 students, give them 5-10 minutes to think about how they can work together to physicalize the poetry and have each group "act out" or pantomime the passage in front of the class as you read it out loud. During the 5-10 minute planning stage, circulate around the room and encourage students to use their physical imaginations, space, sounds, and movement to stage the poem. You will be amazed at how different groups approach the same material. During the performances, celebrate each acting company's performance and stress that there are many ways to approach a poem.


Handout of Hamlet 1.4.43-62

Full Text of Hamlet 1.4-1.5

Janet Field-Pickering's Bio