Use this Real-Life Lens Lesson to help students dive deep into Shakespeare’s Hamlet and examine the play’s themes, action, and characters through the lens of anxiety and uncertainty. How does Shakespeare portray the influence of anxiety on a person? How do different personality types react to anxiety and uncertainty? How do anxiety and uncertainty cause people to behave in particular ways? What is Shakespeare’s message about the role of anxiety and uncertainty in human behavior?
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Introduce the Lens
To activate students’ thinking, choose one or two of the following Real-Life Links to use in an engagement activity. Have students read or watch the material and discuss the content. Encourage students to jot down notes, or record class notes on the board for future reference.
Pose the Following Big Idea Questions to the Class:
What causes young people to feel anxiety?
How does anxiety or uncertainty affect people’s choices?
1. Have students write quick initial answers to the questions.
2. Discuss the questions, either as a class or in small groups.
3. Prompt students to reflect upon their own anxieties and uncertainties. Encourage them to consider how the one affects the other. If you feel your students may be reluctant to discuss their own anxieties, they can speculate as to what they feel are common anxieties for most teens.
4. Following this discussion, give students time to revise their initial responses and ask volunteers to share what they wrote with the class.
Introduce the Driving Questions
Begin by having students write their own questions about the lesson topic. Encourage them to think about what they already know about anxiety and uncertainty and what they are interested in exploring further.
Hand out the Driving Questions Worksheet. Review the questions as a class. Students should enter initial answers to the questions as they read Hamlet. They will revisit the questions and revise their answers following the lesson activities, classroom discussion, and completion of the text. Remind students to support their responses with text evidence.
Integrate the Driving Questions into your classroom discussions. Use them to help guide students’ thinking about the Big Idea Questions.
1. In what ways does Hamlet’s uncertainty about Claudius’s role in King Hamlet’s death create anxiety for Hamlet? How does this change when he becomes certain about Claudius’s guilt?
2. People are filled with anxiety about what happens after death. How is the concept of death presented in the play? How does it affect the characters?
3. What is Hamlet’s mental state? Is he really suffering a mental breakdown, or is his madness a ruse?
4. In what ways are characters (aside from Prince Hamlet) affected by anxiety about the unknown?
5. How do the subplots in the story (Fortinbras and Ophelia) reflect the same uncertainties and dilemmas Hamlet experiences?
6. How does the anxiety that Hamlet feels about the uncertain nature of people’s motives impact his actions in the play?
7. How does Shakespeare use Hamlet’s many soliloquies to center the plot around Hamlet’s internal conflict and anxiety?
Introduce the "Through the Lens" Activity
Activity: Anxiety and Uncertainty
In this activity, students will be asked to examine how their anxieties often stem from uncertainty.
Ask students to list any anxieties they may have about reading and studying Hamlet. They may also wish to consider what types of academic activities cause them anxiety, such as writing essays, giving a speech or oral presentation, or taking tests.
Pair students and have partners share their lists. Encourage pairs to return to the Big Idea Questions and consider how their experiences informed their initial answers.
Invite three or four students to share their lists with the class. Prompt whole-class discussion with questions that lead them to see that most anxiety stems from uncertainty. Pose questions such as the following: Why do tests and quizzes cause anxiety? How does the need for academic success create anxiety?
Before moving on, explain that students will explore Shakespeare’s treatment of anxiety and uncertainty through his use of characterization, plot, and language as they read Hamlet.
Begin by having students define anxiety. Then, rather than having all students create lists, ask volunteers to offer suggestions and record their responses on the board. Each suggestion can be discussed with the class. Alternatively, have students perform the activity with a partner or in a small group.
Have students write short narrative accounts describing how they feel when preparing to take an important test and what they do to combat any feelings of anxiety. Ask two or three students to read their narratives to the class and proceed with discussion as outlined above.
Introduce the Final Project
Before moving on, introduce the final projects to the class (see below for details). Have students choose the project they will complete and encourage them to keep their project in mind as they read the text. Facilitate the formation of project groups if necessary.
Assign the Midpoint Activities
Activity 1: Comparative Analysis
After reading Act 1, students will write a well-developed comparative analysis responding to one of the following four prompts that help to reveal the impact of anxiety on different characters’ decisions.
Present the following prompts for students to choose from:
- Read Act 1, scene 2, of Hamlet. Then, in a well-developed response, analyze how Shakespeare uses literary techniques to develop the complex perspectives that Claudius and Hamlet have toward the recent passing of King Hamlet. Your response should focus on how anxiety caused by each of the character’s doubts affects his response.
- Read Act 1, scene 3, of Hamlet. Then, in a well-developed response, compare and contrast the advice that Polonius and Laertes offer Ophelia in order to convey their concerns about Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet. Be sure to consider how anxiety caused by each character’s doubts affects his advice.
- Read Act 1, scene 3, of Hamlet. Then, in a well-developed response, compare and contrast Polonius’s advice to Laertes and Ophelia and analyze how this advice exposes the different anxieties a father feels about children of different genders.
- Read Act 1, scene 4, of Hamlet. Then, in a well-developed response, compare and contrast the character of Hamlet as seen in Act 1, scene 2, with the character of Hamlet as seen in Act 1, scene 4. Your response should focus on how Hamlet’s anxiety and uncertainty shape the change in his behavior.
Have student pairs discuss one of the four prompts rather than produce a written response.
Have student pairs read each other’s responses and offer feedback on how the writing could be strengthened. Then have students revise their responses based on their peer’s feedback. Require students to include quotes from the text to support their ideas.
Activity 2: Layers of Deception
Students will review Act 3, scene 1, to examine the layers of deception and the motivations of each character. The various interactions depicted in this scene are manifestations of the anxieties caused by various dilemmas that create doubt in each character.
On the board, draw a five-column chart. Label the columns Character, Deceptive Purpose, Text Evidence, Summary of Actions, and Motivation Related to Uncertainty. Next, add the characters in the scene to three rows in the chart: Claudius, Polonius, and Hamlet.
Instruct students to copy the chart in their notebooks. Using the text and their charts, students will:
- review Act 3, scene 1 and examine how each of the three character’s uncertainties and anxieties create action and inaction by considering the character’s deceptive purpose.
- identify textual evidence to support their analysis.
- fill in their charts as they work.
Choose one character for students to focus their analysis on. Have pairs work together to fill in their charts. Then have pairs present their findings.
After students have completed their charts, have them choose one of the three characters and write a short character study that focuses on how the character’s personality, motivations, and emotional state affect his actions.
Paired Text Recommendations
Encourage students to read passages from contemporary novels that similarly feature the theme of anxiety and uncertainty. In pairing multiple texts with similar themes, students are challenged to look beyond the book they’re studying and find new ways to connect to the themes. Here are some books you can pair with Hamlet:
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
- Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike
- Ophelia by Lisa Klein
Students will work on their final projects after they have finished reading the complete text of Hamlet. Project 1 must be completed by students individually but within a group, while Project 2 must be completed individually.
Final Project 1: Literary Circle Study Groups
Students will work in small groups (groups of four or five work best for this project) to review Hamlet by dividing the play’s twenty scenes among the members of the group. Students will:
- use the Literary Circle Review Worksheet to trace the major events of the play through the lens of anxiety and uncertainty, specifically noting the relevant exposition, character interactions, conflicts, resolution, comparisons/poetic devices, and expressions of the theme of uncertainty for each of their assigned scenes.
- use their completed study guides to review and discuss the play with their peers.
Before groups begin working, take some time as a class to review how students will use the worksheet. You may want to share the sample student response to aid student understanding.
Note: Once all students have completed their assigned scenes, you can combine and bind them to create complete play summaries for each member of the group that can be used as review material.
Form groups of eight to ten students to decrease the number of scenes each student is required to review. Have one student write the group’s responses in a single study guide rather than require each student to complete his or her own guide.
Have pairs work together to complete the project, thus increasing the number of scenes each student is responsible for. Expectations for detail and explanation (especially of theme) can be increased.
Final Project 2: Psychoanalysis Essay and Social Media Page
Students will psychoanalyze a character of their choice from Hamlet. Students will:
- write an essay that psychologically examines the behavior of their chosen character.
- focus their essay on how uncertainty is a central cause of the character’s anxiety and insecurities.
- use a minimum of four vetted scholarly articles from both literary and psychology databases.
- create a social media page (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) for the character to accompany the essay that features posts, images, and links that the character would most likely include.
Record the writing prompt on the board for student reference:
Shakespeare was a student of human nature. His writing is rich with emotionally complex characters who have complex psychological problems. Choose a major character from the play and, in a well-developed essay that incorporates information from at least four scholarly articles, psychoanalyze the character, explaining how the character’s uncertainty is a central motivation for his or her anxiety and insecurities.
Rather than writing a complete essay, students can develop a clear thesis and one or two paragraphs, focusing on one or more key textual details from the play. Reduce or eliminate the number of outside sources to be used for the essay. Allow pairs or small groups to work together to create the social media page.
Have students do multiple revisions based on teacher and/or peer feedback, and institute a minimum page requirement. Have students create two social media pages for two characters of their choice.
Assess the Assignments
Use the Rubric for Student Assessment to evaluate student work on the lesson assignments.
Distribute the Student Reflection Worksheet. Guide students through the self-assessment and reflection questions.