Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Hamlet 101

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic, as set forth by The Broke and the Bookish, is "Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught _______ 101."

As I gear up for the Hamlet read-along I'm planning to host beginning Oct. 1, I've been thinking and reading extra much about my beloved play.  I did get to help teach Hamlet for a college course I assisted with while I was doing an internship my senior year, and I wish I had known about some of these back then, because they would have been very helpful.  However, with the exception of the play itself and selections from one book, I encountered all of these after college.

If I was going to actually teach Hamlet 101, here's what the reading list would look like:

1.  Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare.  I don't exactly have a favorite edition, but this version from Barnes and Noble is probably the one I'm going to use during the read-along.  Obviously, we would begin the semester by reading the play itself, and probably watching Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version too.

2.  John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet by Richard L. Sterne.  This is a little-known masterpiece.  Sir John Gielgud played Hamlet on stage more often than any other actor (I think he still holds the record), and then in the 1960s he directed Richard Burton in the role for Broadway.  One of the minor actors smuggled a tape recorder (it filled a whole suitcase!) into rehearsals and recorded the amazing, invaluable insights that Gielgud passed along.  He then revealed his actions to all involved, and got their blessing to transcribe the tapes and publish a book.  Gielgud's knowledge of this play is staggering, and I cannot do without this book.  For my fictitious class, we would then watch the recording of Burton as Hamlet from this production after reading this book.  Really, we could spend the whole semester on just these two books and films.

3.  Will in the World:  How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt.  Really, this would be required reading for any class involving Shakespeare I would teach.  It's a meticulously researched look at the world Shakespeare grew up in and how it influenced his growth as a person and as a playwright.  The discussions of hidden Catholicism in a militantly Protestant England are especially enlightening when it comes to the treatment and use of religion in Hamlet.

4.  Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt.  This explores in detail the beliefs about purgatory during Shakespeare's time and how he uses them in Hamlet as a plot device and a metaphor.  It does get a trifle deep at times, so not one I'd recommend to someone not avidly studying Hamlet.

5.  Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom.  This small volume helped me understand at last that I love the play, but not Hamlet himself.  I do like Hamlet, I'm terribly fond of him, but I actually don't love him, and I'm at last okay with that.

6.  Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor.  I would probably only have my students read selections from it, the parts pertaining to Hamlet, though they could read more if they so desired, of course.  (But, being college students, they'd make me happy if they just read the required readings.)

As part of my class, I would require that my students read one retelling of Hamlet and write a report on what they liked about its differences and similarities between the retelling they read and the play itself.  Here are four I would recommend, though of course there are many others:

7.  An Antic Disposition by Alan Gordon.  Based more on the original story of Denmark's Prince Amleth than on Shakespeare's play.

8.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.  Looks at the play from behind the scenes, as it were.  I'd let students either watch the movie version or read the play.

9.  Shakespeare's Hamlet:  The Manga Edition by Adam Sexton.  A masterful use of anime-style artwork to bring the characters to life.  A lot of it has a film noir feel to it, all stark angles and shadows.

10.  Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike.  This looks at the relationship between Hamlet's mother and uncle from several different angles, using different names from various eras for them as they go through different stages in life.

There you have it!  If you're interested in learning more about my Hamlet read-along, read this post from last week for more info.  I'm sure that during the read-along, I'll be referring to the first six books I listed here, but I promise they won't be required reading!


  1. Well, I don't believe I can add this to my reading list right now, but I'd like to add this to my Shakespeare Pinterest board. : )

    1. Ruth, I think this is enough material for 3 semesters, really. So I don't blame you for not adding it to your reading list!

  2. Fascinating stuff! :) I'll be rewatching the David Tennant version before the read-along starts and I'm thinking of giving 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' a try once the read-along's over.

    1. Hannah, thanks! I aim to rewatch a version or two before then as well. And I really enjoy the Gary Oldman/Tim Roth movie version of R&GAD -- it's both smart and funny.

  3. If my schedule permits, I will join the read-along for _Hamlet_. May I recommend Joseph Pearce's _Through Shakespeare's Eyes_ and _The Quest for Shakespeare_. The Arden texts of Shakespeare's play are by far the best editions. Well, enough from me for now. All the best to you from R. T. at Beyond Eastrod.

    1. Sounds good, RT! I'll have to seek out those two books -- thanks!

  4. Dang, I'd want to take this class! I haven't read or seen Hamlet (yes, I know, it's crazy) but it's very high up on my reading list. (-: And do you know, is the film version with David Tennant good?

    1. Elizabeth Anne, I want to take it too! And teach it. Both :-D

      Are you thinking of joining my Hamlet read-along, perchance? I would love to have you!

      And if by "good" you mean, "Is the David Tennant version thought-provoking, well-acted, and easy to understand," then yes, it is. Also, Patrick Stewart is the best Claudius I have ever seen.

      There's a little bit of objectionable material, as I recall -- a couple of sex-related sight gags during the "play within the play" and one where Ophelia finds condoms in her brother's suitcase. It's basically PG-13.


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