Hamlet Teaching Resources

Hamlet English Key Stage 4

What can an opera bring to our understanding of the characters in Hamlet?

The play Hamlet is nearly four-and-a-half hours long. The opera is roughly half this length, and also has to make space for the singers to deliver text at a pace dictated by the music. This means that a lot of the detail of the original play has had to be left out. However, there are tools that an opera composer has, that a playwright doesn’t. Here is the text for the beginning of the first speech delivered by Claudius – (it is the old King Hamlet to whom he refers in the first line). He is explaining the current situation to the assembled court. Read it on your own, then discuss the following questions in groups: What is the ‘tone’ of the speech? Solemn? Pompous? Celebratory? How is this tone achieved? What linguistic features help you to understand the nature of the character of Claudius? (Look at his use of pronouns, for example, and any obvious rhetorical features).

Now look at the section of the opera where this speech occurs. What immediately strikes you about the way that the character of Claudius is portrayed? As you watch and listen to this section of the opera, what extra tools can you see and hear that the composer and director have been able to use to help us understand the character of Claudius?

There are many smaller roles in the play Hamlet – many of them have been cut out entirely from the opera. However, some are critical to the plot, and so it is important that the audience get a quick and clear understanding of exactly what these characters represent. Here is an edited section from the play in which Claudius and Gertrude talk to the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The new king and queen are trying to persuade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on their friend Hamlet. Read it, first on your own, and then discussing it in groups – perhaps taking a part each. What strikes you about the language that each character uses? What does this language tell you about the characters, and what they are trying to achieve in this scene? Can you find at least one short quotation from each character that sums up their status and intention?

Now listen to one of the appearances of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the opera. It is from Act 2, where the pair have been sent to encourage Hamlet to accept a duel with Laertes. In fact, they have been sent to lay a trap.
  • How has Brett Dean (the composer) understood the characters in this scene?
  • How effective do you think his characterisation of these two is?
  • Can you point to at least one specific example of where something that Brett Dean has done has helped clarify a particular feature of Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern that perhaps you picked out from looking at the play excerpt above?

Homework

Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia, and meets a sticky end halfway through the plot of HamletHere is perhaps his most famous speech in the play, in this speech Polonius is giving advice to his son, who is about to leave to go to university. What sort of character do you think would have made a speech like this? Try and isolate at least three different character traits that this speech might give away, and justify them with a short quotation.

Polonius appears in the opera, but this speech has been cut. When you see the opera, think about how the character has been portrayed. Is it what you expected? If so – why? If not – why not?

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