In this lesson, students will explore the themes of grief and loss in Hamlet. The lesson will begin with an exploration of the students' understanding of how grief and loss may be experienced in life. Students will then draw a connection between these everyday examples and the presentation of grief in Hamlet by viewing a video segment from Shakespeare Uncovered. Next, students will turn to the text of Hamlet and examine the responses to grief that appear in Act I, Scene ii of the play. They will break into groups to examine the ways Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius characterize grief and mourning and draw upon their understanding of the play to speculate about the significance of these reactions. Students will then select one of three characters – Hamlet, Ophelia, or Laertes – and in a short paper explore how grief and loss is presented in the chosen character and how that grief drives the character’s actions for the rest of the play.
This lesson is best used during a reading of Hamlet.
between one and two 45-minute class periods
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
- Describe how Shakespeare explores the themes of grief and loss in Hamlet.
- Draw connections between the students' experiences with grief (personal or otherwise) with the grief experienced by characters in Hamlet.
- Interpret a literary text by identifying the techniques used by the author and how they contribute to its meaning.
- Analyze themes, plot, and character in Hamlet.
Prep for Teachers
Prior to teaching this lesson you will need to:
- Preview all of the video segments used in the lesson. Prepare to watch them using your classroom's Internet connection.
- For each student print out and make copies of the Hamlet Act I, Scene ii Text Excerpt; the Hamlet Act I, Scene ii Student Organizer; and the Grief in Hamlet Assignment.
- Print out one copy of the Hamlet Act I, Scene ii Student Organizer Answer Key for the class.
For the class:
- Computer, projection screen, and speakers (for class viewing of online video segments).
- One copy of the Hamlet Act I, Scene ii Student Organizer Answer Key
For each student:
- One copy of the Hamlet Act I Scene ii Text Excerpt
- One copy of the Hamlet Act I Scene ii Student Organizer
- One copy of the Grief in Hamlet Assignment
- Tell your students that as part of your study of Hamlet, you’ll be exploring the different ways the theme of grief appears in the play. Explain that you want them to think about what we learn from Shakespeare about how grief and loss shape us as human beings.
- Next, tell your students to think about the ways people are affected by loss. Ask: What different kinds of loss do people experience? (Accept all answers, but invite them to consider the many different ways people experience loss, i.e. death of a loved one; loss of money or property; divorce or loss of friendships; loss of a job or opportunity; loss of power or status; loss of hope of something that is wished for; loss of youth through aging; loss of health through illness). You may wish to write the suggestions on the board so students can refer to the list throughout the Introductory Activity.
- Ask your students to each pick one of the types of loss the class has identified and write a journal entry about how people are affected by that kind of loss. To help them think about this topic, ask students to address the following questions in their journal entries:
- How would this loss affect a person’s mood, behavior, or thoughts?How might you see this change?
- How might the loss impact the person’s relationships with other people?
- How might the person express their feelings over the loss? Are there any kinds of rituals people perform to help overcome their sense of loss?
- How might the loss affect what the person decides to do next?
- Introduce the video segment by asking your students to consider the following questions as they view the segment: How is the theme of grief and loss introduced in Hamlet? How has Hamlet’s story touched others, such as the actors who have played him, or even the playwright who created the character?
- Play the segment Grief-Stricken Hamlet.
- After viewing the segment, pose the questions you asked students to think about: How is the theme of grief and loss introduced in the story of Hamlet? How has Hamlet’s story touched others, such as the actors who have played him, or even the playwright who created the character? (Hamlet grieves his father, who has died just before the play starts. The actors suggest the play resonates when you have lost a loved one; that it seems to reflect the way people experience grief. It’s suggested that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet while he was grieving the death of his son Hamnet. Some students may note the play itself is a way that Shakespeare expressed his own grief and found a way to use it in his work.)
- When you are done discussing the segment, tell your students you'd like to take a closer look at how Hamlet experiences and expresses his grief in the play. Explain that as a class they will be reading aloud from Act I, Scene ii of Hamlet.
- Remind students of the context of this scene: This is the second scene in the play and it’s the first time we see Hamlet. The scene takes place in the royal court of Denmark. Hamlet’s father, the previous king, has recently died. Hamlet’s uncle Claudius has taken the throne and has also married the dead king’s widow, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. A number of other courtiers are also present, and the king has been reviewing court business.
- Distribute the Act I, Scene ii Text Excerpt. Ask for three volunteers to read the scene aloud. Remind your students there are three characters in this scene and ask for brief descriptions of each character. Answers should include:
- Hamlet: Son of the previous king of Denmark; he is currently the Prince of Denmark. He is grieving his father’s death. He is highly intelligent and tends to ask lots of questions. He doesn’t always obey authority.
- Claudius: He is Hamlet’s uncle and the new king of Denmark. He is very authoritative, but perhaps, under it all, feels guilty about his brother’s death.
- Gertrude: She is Hamlet’s mother. She loves her son and is worried about him, but she is also worried about whether he will displease the new king, her husband Claudius. She is trying to make peace between her son and her new husband.
- Wearing black ("nighted colour" – line 68; "inky cloak" – line 77; "suits of solemn black" – line 78)
- Downcast eyes ("vailed lids" – line 70) Sighs ("windy suspiration" – line 79) Tears ("fruitful river in the eye" – line 80)
- Sad facial expressions ("dejected ‘havior of the visage" – 81)
- When you are finished discussing Act I, Scene ii, explain to your students the grief we see in this early scene helps to drive the action in the rest of the play. Point out that other characters in the play also experience grief and mourning. Guide them to realize that both Ophelia and Laertes also experience losses. If students have trouble identifying these characters, prompt them with the following questions:
- During the play, which characters die? (Students should note that many characters die in this play, but the death that is a pivotal event is the murder of Polonius.)
- Which characters experience the loss of a family member or a disappointment? (Hamlet, of course, experiences the death of his father and is disappointed by his mother’s response. Ophelia is disappointed because she has lost Hamlet’s love, and then she loses her father Polonius. Laertes also loses his father.)
- What signs of grief do you see in the character?
- Is this character permitted to mourn?
- Does this character appear to heal from the grief?
- What actions result from their experience of loss?