"Remember Me": Retribution and Reconciliation in Hamlet

By Mary Ellen Dakin
Revere High School
Revere, MA 02151

Introduction

From the most ancient texts to the most modern, the relationship between parents and children has been a constant source of drama. Nurturing and inspiring at its best, demanding and destructive at its worst, this relationship between generations ties the past to the future with invisible strings. In Act I, Scene 5 of Hamlet, a dead father calls for revenge, and a son is forever changed. The poet Seamus Heaney describes Hamlet as "pinioned by ghosts." In this lesson, students will examine the Ghost’s influence upon Hamlet, and the ways in which the Ghost’s speech (lines 43-92) contribute to the themes of corruption, revenge, and forgiveness.

Goals: To determine the Ghost’s purpose and the nature of his influence upon his son through an analysis of the text; to question, listen, and contribute to ideas in small group and whole class discussions; to compare a stage and film production of this scene through an analysis of the verbal and nonverbal components of each performance.

Skills: Close reading of literary texts; making inferences; examination of the denotations and connotations of words; analysis of the organization of a speech; critical viewing.

How Long: 2-3 class periods.

Suggested Grade Level: 9-12.

Lesson

1. Preview: To prepare students for today’s task, list the following verbs on the board or distribute them on a handout. Tell students that at the end of the lesson, they will choose the verb or verbs that they think best express the Ghost’s purpose in confronting his son on the ramparts.

In Act I.5, it is the Ghost’s purpose to

corrupt help save
destroy induct seduce
empower infect tempt
enslave inspire transform
ensnare invade use
guide    
   
…his son.

Briefly discuss and define each verb. Note the positive and negative connotations of each.

2. Guided reading, lines 1-48: Before assigning readers for the parts of Hamlet and the Ghost, ask students to simply look at the first 98 lines of scene 5. How many of those lines are Hamlet’s? (only 12!) What might that imply about their relationship, about the Ghost’s influence over Hamlet, and about Hamlet’s state of mind?

Begin a reading of lines 1-48, stopping after Hamlet says, "O, my prophetic soul! My uncle!" Encourage discussion about the nature of the Ghost, and about where this conversation is heading. (Why is it suffering? Where does it come from? What exactly does the Ghost mean when it uses the word "revenge"? What sort of action does "revenge" require? Can you think of any modern stories or examples of revenge? What are the consequences of revenge?)

3. Unlocking the language in lines 49-98, the Ghost’s speech: Distribute a copy of the Ghost’s speech with room for synonyms and/or definitions.

Read aloud, or listen to an audio recording of this speech, instructing students to circle any words they do not understand. There will be many! Working chronologically through the speech, ask students to identify the words in each line that they do not know, recording these on the board. Using the explanatory notes found in the Folger text and/or dictionaries or a Shakespearean concordance, assign small groups of students to a part of the list; encourage groups to define words based upon context clues first. Groups will share their work with the class.

Arrange a second oral reading of the Ghost’s speech. This can be done line by line or sentence by sentence, but make sure that everyone has the chance to read aloud.

4. Finding the argument: Tell students that, using the language as a guide, they will work in small groups to find a way to divide the Ghost’s long speech into several logical parts.

List these categories on the board:

Moral corruption

Physical corruption

Forgiveness / hope / redemption

Using three different colored highlighters or pens, tell groups to scan the speech and circle any words or phrases that name or describe the three categories.

Using the language as their guide, groups will divide lines 49-98 into three different sections, and label each section of the speech according to what seems to be its main topic. (Students usually site the first 16 lines as pertaining to moral corruption, the middle section up to "O Horrible" as having to do with physical corruption, and the final segment as pertaining to redemption.) Encourage groups to share their work in a whole class discussion.

5. Analyzing the theme / thesis of the argument: Just what does the structure of the Ghost’s speech reveal? Are the Ghost’s ideas arranged by order of importance, and if so, what is the order…least to most or most to least important? Are the Ghost’s ideas arranged in a cause/effect pattern?What does this speech reveal about the nature of the Ghost? Encourage students to wonder about these things in a whole class discussion.

6. Analyzing the Ghost’s influence upon Hamlet through comparative viewing:

Tell students that they are now ready to watch and listen to a stage performance, an interview with a director, and a film performance of these lines.

Tell students that one of the most basic decisions that any acting company must make at this point concerns the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and the Ghost. (Remind students that they too will need to address this issue when they complete the activity on the Ghost’s purpose that was introduced at the beginning of this lesson.)

Visit this Hamlet on the Ramparts Website with your students. Together, you will view a stage production of this scene performed by the Georgia Shakespeare Festival (View Film Clip).  (Go to Tutorials & Guides: Staging the Ghost for a tutorial on this Georgia production where students can also listen to interviews with the dramaturg of this production.) Finally, students will view this scene in a film, preferably the Zefferelli production.

Students will view these resources with eyes and ears attuned to the Ghost’s attitude toward Hamlet and Hamlet’s reaction to what he sees and hears. Prepare students for critical viewing by distributing a Critical Viewing and Hearing Guide and assigning groups of students to specialize in each of the categories.

Critical Viewing and Hearing Guide

Follow the viewing activity with a whole class discussion in which students share their observations.

7. Extending the lesson: Assign students to complete the sentence introduced at the beginning of the lesson. Instruct students to select the word or words that best complete the sentence, and then to write a paragraph explaining their choices with evidence from the text and from the class discussions.

 

Links:

Full Text of Hamlet 1.5

Mary Ellen Dakin's Homepage

Mary Ellen Dakin's Bio