‘So why are you English teachers so obsessed with death?’ one student asks, quite seriously and legitimately. ‘Erm…we’re not,’ I reply, as I foolishly attempt to cover up the class set of Hamlet I’m about to issue with some ‘Death of a Salesman’ handouts. I’m trying to convince them that we’re actually very happy people. Yes, Lennie gets whacked at the end, Willy Loman drives himself into a ditch for the insurance money, Macbeth loses his head. Oh, and Johnnycakes has to die alongside Dally if we are to understand the evils of gang warfare and Tom Robinson is up against too much for him to survive. Other than that …
It was kinda difficult to argue though. We’ve finished studying a couple of Don Paterson poems: ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ tells the story of the poet/ persona’s contemplation of life and death while waiting for a ferry. ‘Nil NIl’ deals with the manner in which life and death even each other out over time. The descent of a successful football team is compared to the death of a pilot ejected out of his crashing plane. But surely there is a greater message about life in there. Paterson considers his own mortality, accepts it and gets on with his day and I’ve always argued that to come to terms with our own inevitable death is the moment we become adults.
For that reason, I think I’m scared of Hamlet. Always have been. Not the character or the ghost but the teaching of the play. I’ve taught it three or four times and never been happy with what I’ve done with it. Its philosophical complexities are difficult to get a hold of for me, never mind the sixteen year-olds in my class. But this year I’ve begun again, planning more time to fit in all the sub plots and alleged minor characters. The very mention of Shakespeare can be a real stumbling block for some kids so Hamlet is going to be a challenge. Balancing the complexity of the ideas with quagmire of the language (for some) is going to be a challenge.
Before starting any Shakespeare play, I like to start with Trevor Wright’s ‘There is a problem…’ exercise from ‘How to be a Brilliant English Teacher’. Students begin to make connections and build a little bit of intrigue; if you include just enough of a clue to the more gruesome parts then it can be an excellent way in to Shakespeare. But jumping straight into the middle of Hamlet and the ‘To be or not to be…’ soliloquy is perhaps not the most obvious way to begin. I wanted them to get inside Hamlet’s head and get to grips with his contemplation of life and death, in a similar but darker way than Don Paterson does. And that brought us to the question which starts this post.
I suppose I’m grappling with that very idea, that we do deal with literature which involves death an awful lot. By focusing on that, though, we can prepare our students to think of the complexities of life and the maturity of accepting our own mortality. Perhaps. But perhaps I’m just terrified of Hamlet and it’s just me.