"Hearing Hamlet's Voice"

by John Kendall

Shakespeare's Hamlet abounds with images of ears and hearing, from Claudius' killing Hamlet's father by pouring poison into his ear to the ghost of the murdered king rising out of the Danish mists and demanding his son to "List[en], list[en] unto me!" Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop on Ophelia and Hamlet's breaking up, Hamlet and Horatio overhear Ophelia's funeral, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern listen in vain for incriminating information from Hamlet.

Small wonder, then that students invariably understand Shakespeare more when they hear his words out loud. Just as actors sound more convincing when they have committed their lines to memory, so do students increase their understanding of Shakespeare by memorizing his words. I required my two classes of Juniors to choose 15-20 lines from Hamlet last December and to recite them to their fellow students. They also explained some of the context of the scene and how they felt about what Hamlet felt at that exact moment.

Despite the A. P. curriculum, academic judgment counted for very little in this exercise, compared to the deeper value of experiencing Shakespeare orally and mentally. Everyone earned the same grade, and everyone recited, although some struggled while others flourished. None remained indifferent to the experience, however, whether they blanked out and recited again to me privately, or because they triumphed with an actor's elan and an almost "possessed" sense of passion for the sweet Prince.

Many perceive the World Wide Web as a visual experience and only look for stimulation. But I left the lens cap on the digital camcorder and only recorded the reciter's words. My Juniors loaned Hamlet and Claudius and Ophelia their voices for a few minutes at a time. Journal entry after journal entry resonated with how much the recitations ferried students to islands of understanding in the vast sea of one of Shakespeare's longest plays. If Hamlet possessed my Junior's voices, they also began to own the Prince as well. The "get thee to a Nunnery" scene became "Aparna and Madhu's scene," "To be or not to be" morphed into "Samantha and Sarah's scene," and "How all occasions do inform against me" turned into "Emily's soliloquy."

We watched excerpts of Laurence Olivier in black and white and scenes from Kenneth Branagh's interpretation in Technicolor. But within the "O" of our gathered desks and out in the bare stage of the Internet, we could listen to two dozen Prep students voicing Hamlet aloud. They did not always, as Hannah's speech instructed, "pronounce it trippingly on the tongue," but they owned the "words, words, words" of Shakespeare's language and breathed new life into it for their classmates and anyone else who wishes to listen.

Thanks to BW '05 and RS '05 for peer editing.
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