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Catch up with Shakespeare: Hamlet

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Shakespeare experts have been busy hosting a series of digital talks and live Q&As with A-level pupils around the country in our popular new ‘Catch Up With Shakespeare’ sessions. In the first of a short series of blogs on the sessions, Anjna cogitates on some of the questions and themes that arose in the live session.

Anjna Chouhan

Back in April, A level students from four different schools joined us for a live Q&A on Hamlet, in which I was joined by colleagues Dr. Darren Freebury-Jones and Dr. Nick Walton, to offer our various responses to the fantastic observations and questions posed to us by the many hard-at-study pupils starting out on, or polishing up, their journey with the play. All students spent time watching 90-minutes worth of video content covering the play’s context and major themes, as well as different approaches to close reading key scenes, all provided by the three of us ahead of the live engagement.

So by the time pupils arrived at the Q&A, they were bursting with ideas and inspiration from their classroom discussions about the lectures, and absolutely thrilled to share their thoughts and questions with us.

We covered everything from ghosts and mental health to the play’s significantly placed, if not substantially lined, women. A rather unexpected question was: can the play count as a crime narrative and how important is the ghost in that story?

Nick talked about how the play is more of a thriller, whilst there was some debate about what a crime narrative actually is – and how punishment is vital to that trajectory. But there was rounded agreement that, however one wants to define the play’s genre, the ghost is certainly central to the story.

Gertrude’s innocence or culpability in Old Hamlet’s murder also came up, which opened up an interesting conversation about the deliberate ambiguity of the text. Evidence in the play doesn’t necessarily come down strongly one way or the other; however, we all encouraged students of the play to explore the character in performance, and perhaps look to actresses who have performed her, and what their insights about her backstory might be, sometimes surprisingly detailed!

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Anjna, Darren and Nick discuss responses to Hamlet, inlcuding the question of can the play count as a crime narrative?

One question that sparked much debate amongst our lecturers was around religious interpretations of the play, to which we had many responses ranging from its relevance to an early modern audience, through to its representation of conflicting humanist ideas. Ultimately, we all proposed that the very purpose of theatre is to encourage conversation and debate, so the richness of the play lies in the many questions that it evokes in, and provokes amongst, its audiences across cultures, languages, peoples and, of course, time.

We rounded off the session with a question on mental illness, which sparked conversations about Hamlet’s speeches, and their seeming timelessness, as well as the physical behaviours of Ophelia in contrast to the male experience of madness in the play.

One of my favourite questions was about Hamlet as a tragic hero existing in a kind of purgatory – which prompted Nick to say, ‘Hamlet always seems to me as though he’s about to burst!’. Together with this phrase and my impromptu description of the play as ‘a perverted snow-globe’, we hope, between the three of us, to have answered the many fantastic questions that came our way, and helped students studying the play to explore its themes and characters in new and unexpected ways.

If you’d like to know more about out Catch Up with Shakespeare sessions, please visit our Sixth Form Conferences Page.