Hamlet Teaching Resources

Hamlet Music Key Stage 3

How does an opera create a sense of drama?

Watch this short animation. As you can see, Hamlet is a plot that deals with high passions and violent actions. Early in the story, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his murdered father – Old Hamlet. Before the ghost even speaks, he simply stands and gestures Hamlet towards him. In groups or on your own, imagine what musical decisions you might make at a moment like this in an opera. What tempo and dynamic markings would you use? Would you vary them at all? How, and why? Would you use any particular rhythmic ideas? What instruments might you use, and why? How would you imagine you could create a particular musical ‘atmosphere’?

Listen to Brett Dean’s (composer) version of the ghost’s arrival. What instruments and/or voices can you hear in particular? Pick three specific aspects of the music that immediately strike you, explain what they are, and precisely what effect they achieve. Are there any variations in dynamics, tempo or rhythm that you can hear? Do they correspond to any particular moment in the libretto?

Probably the most famous part of Hamlet is the soliloquy (monologue) beginning ‘To be, or not to be’. Here is the text to that part of the play. Thinking either about the whole of this speech, or concentrating on a particular part of it, imagine what sort of instrumentation you might use as a singer when singing these lines. Be as creative as you can – Brett Dean uses a percussion section in this opera that includes pots and pans, for example. However, you must be able to justify any choices you make – try and think about enhancing the text!

Listen to the soliloquy in the opera on the video. What immediately strikes you about what you can hear?

  • Can you work out what the strange noises are? (clue – you wouldn’t normally find them in a percussion section)
  • How is the ‘space’ of the theatre used? (Do you see Hamlet looking anywhere when particular noises happen?)
  • Think of three different adjectives or adjectival phrases to describe the atmosphere created by Brett Dean’s musical choices. What does the musical writing tell us about this particular character at this particular point in the plot?



Many other operatic composers have chosen to set Shakespeare plays. (Believe it or not, one nineteenth-century composer wrote a version of Hamlet with a happy ending. He had to re-write it, after a London audience booed it loudly.) Listen to some of these other famous Shakespeare settings, and see if you can match them to the relevant speech from the Shakespeare play:

  • The opening of Verdi’s Otello
  • ‘Ah! Lève-toisoleil!’ from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet
  • ‘Tre volte miagola la gatta in fregola’ from Verdi’s Macbeth
  • The ‘Rumble’ from Bernstein’s West Side Story

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