Volume VII - 2002-03

Shakespeare for ESL? “Hamlet” through Imaginative Writing
     by Todd Heyden

     Todd Heyden, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of English at Pace University in New York City, where he teaches composition and literature to immigrants and international students. He taught ESL in Japan and Mexico prior to completing a doctorate in English Education at NYU in 1996.

Shakespeare for ESL?

     In terms of themes and characters as well as of particular speeches, sentences and phrases, Shakespeare has left a linguistic imprint on the English that is sharper and more memorable than that of any other writer.Who can imagine an English without Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth? Although his language seems peculiar,even to contemporary native speakers, it is nothing less than a cultural privilege and obligation to make oneself familiar with at least a selection of Shakespeare.We are touching on a whole argument that holds that culture is part and parcel of language.According to this position, unless we give ESL students a strategy for accessing the cultures of the English speaking world,we have not quite done our job as English teachers. Of course,this holds true with the teaching of any second —or first —language.

Unsuspected Pleasure

     As unlikely as it may seem,pleasure and interest are keys to engaging non-native speakers in reading Shakespeare.One of the first things we do is rewrite the famous “To be or not to be ” soliloquy, working in small groups. This demonstrates to students that there can be a sense of play and fun in reading in a literary text.It relieves them of the oppressive feeling that they will sit silently all term listening to lectures. Confidence is another key.It initially feels daunting to non-native speakers to read Hamlet. But, by beginning with the rewriting of the soliloquy,they quickly come to feel that Shakespeare is something they can undertake. They feel their own power as learners as they set about changing words in the speech. The other key is to reduce students' anxiety and resistance to reading a text that is not in modern English. As they rewrite the soliloquy, they start to identify many words that they already understand, and to realize that reading is not going to be a solitary activity done with a dictionary: they and their group partners read and write about it together. Along with rewriting speeches, students send letters to characters, invent dialogs and create simplified scripts for enacting a scene from the play. No less an English playwright than Tom Stoppard has essentially done this exercise and successfully expanded it into a whole play —e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. These activities work best when students write in pairs or small groups on computers,but they are suitable for any classroom setting.


     The activities are effective for two main reasons: they stimulate students' intrinsic motivation to learn (Rogers,1990); and they provide a sense of security (Krashen,1991). In terms of motivation,the writing is purposely student-centered, with students working in pairs or small groups where they can benefit from their peers' insights (Vygotsky,1978). The tasks require active collaboration (Lefevre,1987), or as one student characterizes it: “We 're doing Hamlet —not just reading it.” In terms of security, writing in groups builds a sense of community (Tobin,1992), and engaging together in the activities is less intimidating than encountering the play by oneself. The underlying intention is not to cover the entire play, but to engage students in activities that make Hamlet more accessible. In particular,writing enables them to explore their own interpretations and express emotional reactions to the experience of reading it. Ultimately, the aim is for students to develop a genuine connection to what they are reading (Rosenblatt,1983). Best of all,they come away feeling empowered. One student characterizes her experience this way: “Hamlet is not something I would normally read,but now I know can.”

Rewriting a Speech

     Rewriting a speech encourages students to read closely.As they work with the “To be,or not to be” speech, replacing some of Shakespeare's words with their own,they have to consider how the original speech is constructed. They notice such factors as how words sound,where they are placed on the page,the number of syllables,and the rhythm and intonation of the speech. Furthermore,what might look like sacrilege,tampering with a sacred text,is in fact a first step in understanding what the speech means and appreciating the beauty of its words. Ultimately,when students work directly with the language of Hamlet's speech, it gives them an opportunity to claim something of Shakespeare as their own (Widdowson, 1992 ). Following is an example of how we proceed in gaining access to the language of the 17 th Century in which Shakespeare wrote. Revised is the “To be or not to be ” speech.

To be or not to be
That is the question
Whether it is 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 live or not to live
That is the dilemma
Whether it is braver in the mind
to accept
The insults and attacks
of unfair fortune
Or to take action
against an army of worries
And by fighting end them

Sending a Letter to a Character

     Students write a letter to a character whose speech they are currently reading. This activity is meant to elicit what they are experiencing as first-time readers of the speech. This is an opportunity to interact with a character,to ask him or her a question, offer a suggestion, or give the character a piece of their mind.Addressing a character lets students know that Hamlet is not sacrosanct, and that there is a place in the course for their own reactions as readers. Sharing the letters in class is often entertaining,and can provide a welcome bit of comic relief before proceeding to study the rest of the play. Most importantly,by expressing their first reactions and tentative interpretations concerning Hamlet, students begin to develop a genuine connection to the play (Rosenblatt,1983).


Dear Hamlet,
     I am getting really tired of studying your long speech that begins with “To be,or not to be.” I
can 't even find some of your words in my dictionary. But what really bothers me is your tone of
voice. Why are you are whining and complaining? You know what you sound like?Like this : “ I
don 't know if I can do what my Dad said. I am so confused. And I am really mad at my Mom for
getting married again so soon.” What a cry baby.Get over it,will you?Be a man.
Dear Gertrude,
     Basically,I think you are a cool character and I like your argument with Hamlet in Act III that
starts with: “Hamlet,thou hast thy father much offended.” Two things bother me, though. Are
you innocent,or did you and Claudius plan the murder of King Hamlet together? I can 't really
tell. Secondly, you kiss your son Hamlet like a lover, which is really creepy. You two are way too
close if you ask me. We are also reading Oedipus the King in our class, and I think you should
check it out.

Converting a Scene into Modern English

     Writing a scene in modern English is an effective means of getting students to articulate their understanding of characters' emotions and motivations. Putting words in the characters' mouths lets the students connect with the emotional content of the scene. They may not know what every word in the original scene means,but the words they give a character to say must be plausible in terms of the character's emotional state at a particular point in the plot. Students often write what the characters are thinking in parenthesis. This helps them to refine their understanding of the motivations for the actions of the characters (Widdowson, 1992).


Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Mother, you have my father much offended.

Have you forgot me?

You are the queen,your husband 's brother 's wife. And, would it were not so,you are my mother.

You 've been rude to your step-father young man.
[Why can 't he get along with my new husband?]

Yeah,well you have insulted my real father.
[Doesn 't she know how unfaithful she is being?]

Who the hell do you think you are talking to?
[Is he crazy or just depressed about his father 's death?]

My uncle 's wife —who I am ashamed to call mother. [Does she know that her new husband killed my father?]

Inventing a Scene

     In addition to writing a scene in contemporary English, students can invent a new one. This activity permits them to take on the creative role of scriptwriter, which they tend to do enthusiastically. Here again,any changes made to the original scene must be plausible in terms of each character's emotional state and motivation. In this example, the ghost of King Hamlet appears and directly confronts Claudius, something he does not do in the original text.


Well,well,well,my dear brother!We meet at last!

What?What areyou doing here?I thought you were dead!

Well,there 's been a little change in the script and I 'm here now.

The Queen and the crown are still mine,and there 's nothing you can do about it.

Actually,I have my son working on that right now.

You mean “Mama 's Boy?” Oh,,I 'm so scared.Ha!Ha!Ha!

You laugh now,but Hamlet is going to make you pay.And if he doesn 't,dear brother,I will!

Shakespeare “Lite ”: Simplified Acting Scripts

     It is difficult for ESL students to maintain a sense of the emotions of the characters and the movement of the plot when they try to enact a scene from Hamlet.The length of the speeches is as much of an impediment as the unfamiliar language. In order to facilitate acting out a scene,students create simplified scripts in which some of the language in the longer speeches is removed. This works best with scenes that contain a great deal of action, where it is more apparent which lines of a speech can be deleted. Working with these simplified scripts students can, with greater ease,have a direct experience of speaking the words in the play. In this example, students simplify and enact the dramatic, bloody scene that concludes the play.


No,no,the drink,the drink — Hamlet,I am poison 'd.
Oh my dear Hamlet —
The drink,the drink!I am poison 'd.[Dies ]

: O villainy!Ho!let the door be lock 'd: it out. Treachery!Seek it out.

It is here,Hamlet: Hamlet,thou art slain; No medicine in the world can do thee good; In thee there is not half an hour of life; The treacherous instrument is in thy hand, Unbated and envenom 'd: the foul practise Hath turn 'd itself on me lo, here I lie, Never to rise again: thy mother 's poison 'd:
I can no more: the king, the king 's to blame.[Dies ]

The point!—envenom 'd too! Then, venom, to thy work.

King Claudius:
O, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt.

Here, thou incestuous, murderous, Damned Dane, Drink off this potion.Is thy union here? Follow my mother.[Dies ]


Oh my dear


It is here. Hamlet, thou art slain The instrument is in thy hand, Envenom 'd. I can no more: The king 's to blame.

Envenomed! Then, venom, to thy work.

King Claudius:
O, defend me, friends.

Murderous Dane, Drink this potion Follow my mother.


     Little has been written about using Shakespeare with ESL students, which suggests that this is new territory that is well worth exploring further. Despite the reservations some teachers may have, approaching Hamlet through imaginative writing can be effective and enjoyable. ESL students have a remarkable capacity to learn,and can do more than we, or they, think possible when given the right circumstances. These writing activities are meant to provide an optimum balance of security and stimulation, an environment in which students can have a positive experience with a Shakespeare play.


Lefevre,Karen.(1987).Invention as a Social Act.Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.

Rogers,Carl.(1990).Freedom to Learn .NY: Bell and Howell.

Rosenblatt,Louise M.(1983).Literature as Exploration.NY: Noble &Noble.

Tobin,Lad.(1992).Writing Relationships.Portsmouth,NH: Boynton Cook.

Vygotsky,Lev S.(1978).Mind in Society.MA: Harvard University Press.

Widdowson,Henry.(1992).Practical Stylistics .Oxford University Press.

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