"Beaming Hamlet Up to the 21st Century:

Using the Internet to Help Teach Shakespeare"

by John Kendall

(Note: A shortened and edited version of this article appears in the Spring, 1999 issue of FOCUS, the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English's Newsletter)

Shakespeare can appeal to students in the 21st century just as much as he has in the past. But English teachers can "upgrade" their methods of teaching him by using the Internet in addition to traditional approaches.1 Two books might help put this approach to Hamlet in better perspective. Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (http://web.mit.edu/jhmurray/www/HOH.html) helps both "traditional" and "modern" English teachers to bridge the gaps in examining how literature is evolving into the new millennium. Ironically, Stephen Berkoff's intensely personal two-year journal of directing and acting in a ten-person troupe of English actors touring Hamlet all over Europe in I Am Hamlet offers a good model of "hypertext"2 in linear form. Thus, a "traditional" reader or English teacher can use a familiar format to imagine how the budding "cyberspace3 writing" may operate.

An English teacher could use the Internet to improve her teaching of Shakespeare in half a dozen ways, from a private, personal level, to involving her whole class in creating a web page,4 to interacting with other schools or the World Wide Web at large, had she the time and resources.

Beginning teachers or those with only very limited or personal Internet access can benefit from "cyber peers" to give them increased information and strategies. Russ Bartlett, a fellow teacher from my department, won a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship last summer to the Folger Library workshop (http://www.folger.edu/education/teaching.htm), and recommends their site as providing everything from specific lesson plans of the month (http://www.folger.edu/education/getlesson.cfm) to an archive of past lesson plans. Isolated teachers can drop into the virtual Teacher's Lounge to swap views on everything from the just released movie "Shakespeare in Love" to who's their favorite Claudius in the numerous films versions.

If a few students in the class have Internet access at home, but your school does not, or if you don't have sufficient access to be able to require Internet involvement, you can still use the Folger's "Favorite Links" page, as well as Internet sites such as the Shakespeare Web (http://www.shakespeare.com/), the Shakespeare Magazine (http://www.shakespearemag.com/ -- if you like magnetic poetry," try their "Shakespeare Web Poetry Applet."), and Shakespeare and the Globe (http://www.rdg.ac.uk/globe/Links.html), to name only a few.

With the dozens of ideas from these archives of lesson plans, you can customize assignments for those individual students. You may invite them to use web resources to document a research project. They could supplement traditional writing with information on specific productions (I found half a dozen interviews of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version still on the web this week, with 5 minutes' searching). They could also structure a comparison/contrast analysis of two film productions, such as the "Glen Close vs. Julie Christie" dueling Gertrudes, on one of the Branagh sites (the "official" movie site is no longer available, alas).

If your whole class has access to computers, and your school has a web site, you can construct a hypertext analysis of the text with your whole class(es), which is what I did this year. First, I went to the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library (http://etext.virginia.edu/bsuva/) site,conveniently hot-texted at the Folger page and downloaded the complete text of Hamlet in only a few minutes. Then I sub-divided the work into separate web pages for each act and made several links by scenes and important lines, so my students could navigate" more easily.

Using Berkoff's Hamlet acting diary as a model, my twenty Junior English students each selected about 20-30 lines of text which intrigued them, found the text on the web pages, and copied and pasted the lines into a word processing document of their own. They wrote 8 to 12 single sentence responses, paraphrased lines, contrasted movie interpretations, suggested how they would act or orally interpret the line, and made other connections with the imagery throughout the play (e.g. the uses of the ear, rotting vegetation and acting were favorites). They could also write one or two paragraphs which responded to 5-10 lines of a passage, if they preferred a lengthier, more sustained commentary. I asked them to type their comments double spaced between the lines from Shakespeare, or otherwise indicated exactly where there comments began and ended (underlining and numbering the text was the easiest solution).

I had then planned to ask for a second draft to check for spelling and careful sentence structure and have my kids submit their work on paper (hard copy is often easier to edit and a ring notebook of collaborating with almost two dozen people was not only handy, but more portable than my electronic equivalent). I would copy their commentary onto a new web page, made their underlined text "hot," so that readers could click on the colored words to see additional thoughts, and then return to Shakespeare's play.

This sounded like a great idea, until freezing rain, ice and snow canceled the last two days of our semester, on Jan. 14 and 15. Were Shakespearean cybernauts daunted by winter tempests? Hardly. Over half my kids e-mailed me their text, and by mid-week end I had over ten of their commentaries posted on our web site, so their classmates could use "Mr. Kendall's Hamlet Page" (http://www.rutgersprep.k12.nj.us/upperschool/english/hamletfolder/assignments.html) toreview, for the Tuesday Mid-Term Exam, which had not been postponed. Without sliding around on dangerous streets, my 11th graders talked about Ophelia's fragility, the grave digger's humor, and Hamlet's struggle with sanity, responsibility and lost love.

My fellow Junior English teachers might contribute to the project as well, by adding their own class's comments, and have our hypertexted Hamlet offer valuable reinforcement for the whole Junior class. Inviting other schools from the NJCTE could make this a more extensive reference work still, should other teachers be interested. "There are more things in Heaven and earth" than Horatio might have dreamed of centuries ago, but English teachers should not be afraid to follow Shakespeare into the new millennium and into cyberspace, where he will undoubtedly continue to fascinate readers.

kendall@rutgersprep.org

 

Thanks to A.P. for peer editing this article.


Footnotes:

1NJCTE members can also access this lesson plan on the NJCTE web site (http://www.bergen.org/NJCTE/)

2hypertext=instead of reading a text in the traditional "linear" fashion, having one beginning, a sequential course of events, and then a single conclusion, the reader uses a computer to view a work on software or the Internet, and may select a number of choices for the narrative, often with multiple endings. The popular children's reading series of "Choose Your Own Adventure" books offered an early model of this idea, although it was still in print form.

3 cyberspace=an all-inclusive, but casual term to mean work either available over the Internet or accessible through computer software and hardware, instead of the print medium

4web page=a screen of text and often graphics on the World Wide Web portion of the Internet


Bibliography:

Berkoff, Steven, I Am Hamlet, Grove Weidenfield, New York, 1989

Murray, Janet H., Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, The Free Press, New York, 1997

Shakespeare Set Free, edited by Peggy O'Brien, Washington Square Press, NY, 1994

the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia, The Modern English Collection (AD 1500-present), (http://etext.virginia.edu/bsuva/)

the Folger Shakespeare Libraryweb site (http://www.folger.edu/education/teaching.htm)

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