I’ve been teaching Hamlet for a few weeks now and grappling with the concept of identity. It’s a complex old play and one which causes no end of debate and discussion. However, identity is a difficult thing to grasp for all of us, never mind sixteen year-olds. The first words of the play come from Barnardo who asks, “Who’s there?’ He and Francisco are guarding Elsinore from perceived threat from Norway. It’s a question which Hamlet tortures himself with for the rest of the play, though. Who is he? What kind of person is he? On Friday I asked my class who they were.
One of the reasons for studying literature is to instill a feeling of empathy for characters and, perhaps, learn something about themselves. We choose appropriate texts partly to place students in the shoes of those who face difficulty at times; perhaps they may develop a greater sense of meaning in the world. but asking them who they were merely resulted in a bullet point list of what they were. Sister, brother, friend, school pupil etc. To really understand the trauma Hamlet goes through I wanted them to think about ‘who’ they were. What qualities might help them out in a crisis; a real crisis? Like Hamlet, what weaknesses do they recognise in themselves?
I haven’t seen the class become so focused and intent. After a few minutes of discomfort they really began to scribble down their thoughts. In fifteen minutes the lines were pouring out. I promised I wouldn’t read them unless they wanted that and they did not have to share them, which confirmed their honesty, I think. The ones I did read were touching and harshly self-critical. Ironically, I am facing my own weaknesses at the same time. ‘Hamlet’ has always caused me problems. I’m slightly daunted by the prospect of teaching the play and never feel I do it justice in class. When Hamlet recognises his own weaknesses when compares his father to his uncle: ‘My father’s brother, but no more like my father /Than I to Hercules’ it reminds me, perhaps, that we rarely recognise, not our teaching flaws, but our own character flaws.
How might we ask that initial question of ourselves as teachers? Who’s there? Professional reflection is becoming more embedded in our every day practice although contractually obligated Professional Development in Scotland rarely insists on it. It may be alluded to but any reflection I’ve ever offered has never gone any where. I’ve never been asked to reflect on the impact of Development in my every day practice. That I do so anyway suggests a necessity on my own part. Does true self-reflection stop at the school gates or should it involve a close look at ourselves as people too?
Hamlet’s procrastination causes (spoiler alert) chaos. If he had acted to overcome his weakness earlier perhaps lives would have been saved. I often wonder that after fourteen years of teaching how much time I have wasted by failing to recognise my true flaws. Facing up to the truth was a real challenge for this class of sixteen year-olds. What if we were all to do that? ‘Who’s there?’