Bits and Pieces

Teaching Hamlet

This semester I’ve been honoured with the opportunity to teach tutorials for unsuspecting first semester students. Unsuspecting because I feel like a fraud teaching them, while they obviously think that I know what I’m doing. But with impostor syndrome being a common ailment among students everywhere, I’ve come to the realisation that I’m probably actually doing OK.

Also, I get to benefit from the fact that the professor teaching the introductory lecture is the same professor who taught said lecture six years ago, when I myself attended the lecture as a student. Conveniently, we’re also reading the same books we read back then, which means that I get to revisit Shakespeare’s  Hamlet and Henry James’ A Portrait of a Lady.

The edition we’re supposed to use is the extensively annotated Arden edition, which caused a bit of a panic among the students. Admittedly, an edition whose pages consist mostly of footnotes to the actual text is scary, especially if that text is written in a foreign language. Oh, and then I guess Shakespeare isn’t the easiest starting point either. To alleviate the fear of Shakespeare a little, I let my students in on a little secret: not all of the annotations are vital for the understanding of the text and for first time readers it can even be an unnecessary distraction to pay too much attention to every single footnote, as it slows down the reading process and interrupts the flow of the play.

However, since this wasn’t the first time I’d read Hamlet, I actually endeavoured to read the play text with all the annotations, which turned out to be very interesting, as the footnotes do not only serve to explain difficult or outdated vocabulary, but also refer to the play’s history on stage, various staging conventions and common issues that any director who wants to produce this iconic play is likely to face.

Thinking myself well prepared, I was very surprised by some of my students’ questions. I noticed that there are some things in Hamlet that I had never really questioned because, well…that’s just how it is, right?

For example one of my students wanted to know why the new king of Denmark, Claudius, allows young Fortinbras to march his army through his kingdom, after Voltemand, one of the Norwegian ambassadors, had earlier in the play informed Claudius about Fortinbras’ original intention to use his alleged plan to gain possession of a small plot of land in Poland as a ruse to march his troops into Denmark and attack there – a strategy well known to anyone who’s ever played Civilisation I suppose: you enter into an alliance with another civilisation, march your troops into their territory and then breach the treaty by attacking them.

It had never occurred to me that the king’s behaviour in this matter is decidedly strange – especially given the fact that Claudius is definitely not new to the concept of betrayal and should therefore be less naive than that.

Ultimately it turned out that the reason why Claudius, the character who managed to become king of Denmark by killing the old king and marrying his wife, was nonetheless stupid enough to let young Fortinbras march his army into Denmark was that young Fortinbras had promised to behave:

[…] Fortinbras, […], [r]eceives rebuke from Norway and, in fine, [m]akes vow before his uncle never more [t]o give th’assay of arms against your majesty. Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy, [g]ives him threescore thousand crowns in annual fee [a]nd his commission to employ those soldiers [s]o levied (as before) against the Polack, […].

Hamlet, II.2, 68 – 75

This should sound fishy to any experienced Civilisation player and probably even more so to a king, but hey: at least we answered the question. (And all this talk about Civilisation really made me want to play that game again some time soon!)

One other question that threw me completely off course was a question concerning Hamlet’s death*. One would assume that the death of the play’s protagonist would be a somewhat big deal and that the point at which Hamlet receives the deadly because poisoned blow would be distinctly marked in the play text. Turns out: it really isn’t. At least not in my edition.

*Sorry, spoiler alert: (almost) everybody dies in Hamlet, even Hamlet. You did not know this? Oooops.)

As with the other issue that my students raised, this question had never occurred to me before. Everybody knows that Hamlet dies at the end, and there is so much death going around in the last scene, that it is a little hard to keep track I suppose.

We went through the scene in order to identify the exact moment in which Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned rapier. However, there is no stage direction that actually says “Laertes wounds Hamlet” while he is holding the poisoned rapier. All we found is this:

[In scuffling they change rapiers.]

Hamlet, V.2, 285

After this point Hamlet is in possession of the poisoned weapon and it is clear that he kills Laertes when Osric announces:

They bleed on both sides.

Hamlet, V.2, 289

Since Hamlet dies from having been wounded with the poisoned rapier before Laertes and Hamlet switched weapons, he must have received the fatal wound in the scuffle that lead to the rapiers being exchanged. Still confused about the lack of a stage direction indicating the point at which Hamlet is fatally wounded, I promised to ask our professor for his opinion on this. I did, and to our shared amazement we found out that said point was actually clearly identified in his slightly older edition, meaning that someone must at some point in the editing process during the last couple of decades have decided to replace the very straightforward stage direction that indicated that Hamlet is wounded by Laertes before they switch rapiers with the one quoted above.

Oh. I should probably stop now. Kudos to everyone who actually read all this. Bonus points if you aren’t a literature student yourself. Seems like I got a bit carried away here. Oops….it happens… 😉

Thanks for reading!


Did you ever experience impostor syndrome? 

Also: If you have a cure for it, let me know! 

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Hamlet

  1. Yup, impostor syndrome is definitely a thing. And no cure found yet. Actually I found your text interesting to read. Seems like you’re enjoying your scientific research:-)

    Liked by 1 person

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