The plot thickens. Hamlet has killed Polonius and the fourth act opens as Gertrude informs Claudius. Hamlet hides the body, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched to find him, Hamlet is sent to England, Fortinbras’s forces draw near, Ophelia loses her mind, Laertes returns and leads a revolt against the king; on his way to England, Hamlet discovers the true purpose of the trip, is captured by pirates, and brought back to Denmark; Claudius turns Laertes’s anger towards Hamlet. Ophelia drowns. That’s a lot to take in during the seventh and eigth weeks of our imagined course on Hamlet. What simple writing task can we imagine assigning to the students? What might they write at least five paragraphs and at most 1000 words about?
My suggestion is to let them choose their topic themselves, albeit confined to Act Four of the play. That is, don’t give them a question to answer. Just tell them they have to write an essay “about” the fourth act of Hamlet. By now they know what an essay looks like and they have some sense of how their reader, a peer, responds to what they write. They can now write about their own experience as a student of Shakespeare. Or they can write a review of Kenneth Branagh’s movie that focuses on this act. They can pick a single soliloquy to write about (e.g., “How all occasions do inform against me!” as they have already tried with “To be or not to be”) or they can summarize the action, either that of the whole act, or that of one or two scenes (as they practiced doing with Act One.) They can also try to explain why a character did or didn’t do something (as they tried in Act Two.) Or they can approach the act in some completely different way. Leave it entirely up to them.
The trick here is to remind them that they are writing for each other, their fellow students — not for you, their teacher. All them have been “forced” to read the play and all of them have, presumably, attended class. It should be more difficult to do this assignment well if you haven’t read the play or haven’t attended class. In part, you’ll lack knowledge of what you’re talking about, but, perhaps more importantly, you won’t know who you’re talking to. Some of the most important information the students will get from the class discussions will be about the mind of their reader: what will they find hard to believe, understand or agree with? Emphasize that you will be grading them in view of the conversation that you’ve had with them for the past eight weeks. Their essays should, of course, be articulate; but what’s really important is that the author appear “conversant” on the subject of Hamlet. They should demonstrate an eye for the good question, an ear for humor, and the courage of their convictions. It can be useful to tell them that you will have read everyone else’s essays. So you know exactly what the readers have on their minds.
As always, don’t let them reject the task as boring or irrelevant. In its content, it’s basically as relevant and important as the most famous play that has ever been written. In its form, it is as valuable as the ability to write down what you know in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help you consider the matter more carefully. The exercise will train their ability to understand complex actions and motivations and to recognize a broad range of human emotions. Finally, it will give them an occasion to improve their writing, i.e., their ability to compose coherent prose paragraphs in well-defined moments. These are ideas and skills that the students want to master. You’re training them in the use of the “equipment for living”.