Be, please (Hamlet, response paper #3)

This week we’ve made it about half-way through Act 3 of Hamlet. Every time I teach this play I feel like the first two acts are sort of a hump students have to get over before they really start to get into the story, the dramatic character development, the philosophical weirdness, and, well, the violent, bloody murder that we get to see in the remaining three acts.

Anyway, we made it over the hump, and in today’s reading we came across one of the most famous things ever written, the monologue that begins with that simple little phrase, “To be, or not to be.” Reading this monologue is pretty much the equivalent of taking the class to the Louvre to look at the Mona Lisa: Everybody knows what it is, but hardly anybody knows or cares why it’s actually cool. I love the look of lightbulbs going on above heads the moment I stand in front of a bunch of confused students with a toy knife pressed to my gut and say, “To exist…or NOT to exist.” (The effect might be more pronounced were the weapon slightly more realistic and less rubbery.) Suddenly, they see the serious business Hamlet is mulling over in his brain, and the whole monologue is redefined as a struggle with the big, existential question, dear to the hearts of all thoughtful people of all ages (and mocked by all non-thoughtful people): Is it really better to live than to die?

And that is our topic of writing for this week. Here’s the assignment:

Read through and annotate (if you choose) Hamlet’s monologue from Act 3, Scene 1 (included at the bottom of this post, if you need it).

Pay special attention to Hamlet’s arguments about living and dying in each section; see if you can summarize in your own head what he’s saying and how he feels.

Now, “adapt” the monologue for a different character of your own choosing. To “adapt” means to keep most of the same basic ideas (and even a few of the same words), while changing other key characteristics. In this case, instead of a young European prince in the 1500’s (or whenever) discussing these issues, create a new character and setting. You might consider, for example, how some of the following people/things might express Hamlet’s feelings:

  • A 15-year-old girl sitting next to her crappy boyfriend at a movie (I’m picturing Transformers, or any other Michael Bay film, for that matter)
  • An elderly, homeless man living on the wintery streets of New York
  • A mid-40’s, single, middle-manager type woman sitting in a boring business meeting
  • A 2-year-old kid whose pile of blocks was just knocked over by another crazy 2-year-old
  • A circus clown working the crowd for the 789th time before the elephant parade comes out
  • A melancholy duck standing at the edge of a frozen pond next to a pair of duck feet sticking up through the ice
  • A speck of dust, soon destined to become part of the life-matter of a high school English teacher, flying out at a zillion miles an hour from the center of the big bang
  • That same spec of dust flying back in towards the center of existence, one zillion years later, speaking one zillisecond before passing the event horizon into the middle of everything, from whence it came

Use the language that character would use, and adapt Hamlet’s ideas to make them appropriate for that specific character and setting.

Remember: This is a monologue, which means it should be written in the first-person, present tense, as if the person is narrating exactly what’s on their mind at that moment. Feel free to let your character digress (go off topic) and rant even, if they feel like it.

Man, maybe I should write this assignment. It sounds kind of fun, actually. Here’s the text in question:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action

I invite you to mess with this text in any way you please. (I guess that’s my right, as a teacher of English and one of the holy defenders of Shakespeare…)



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