The third act of Hamlet contains the most famous speech in, arguably, all of literature. In the context of a course devoted exclusively to the play, and, more precisely, in the context established by a week or two of discussion about the act that also contains “The Mousetrap” and the closet scene, no student should be in doubt about what is meant when the teacher asks, “What is the question?” There is a short answer: “to be or not to be?” But there are also countless longer ones, which can be presented in essays of no less than five-paragraphs and no more than 1000 words. Students can demonstrate their competence by reacting intelligently and knowledgeably to that simple four-word prompt.
With Act One, I suggested getting the students simply to say what happened. With Act Two, it got a bit harder; the student was to explain why something happened (or rather, why it didn’t). I’m now suggesting something that looks more like philosophy. The student must, of course, first recognize that we’re talking about a very particular question, raised by a particular character, under particular circumstances. If the student demonstrates no awareness of these things, then we’re not going to be very impressed. Second, the student must be aware of some of the familiar options: is it a question of committing suicide (is Hamlet asking whether he should, here and now, be or not be) or is it a question of taking action or leaving things as they are? But there are deep philosophical questions at play and it is important that the student recognizes the “existential” importance of what Hamlet is thinking through. When we ask, “What is the question?” we have to recognize that it Hamlet’s question only at first pass. At the end of the day, it’s our question too.
My own interpretation depends crucially on how we parse Hamlet’s first restatement of the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
As I read this, Hamlet is contrasting the option of “taking arms” against the option of “suffering in the mind”. Others (and I think actually most scholars) read it differently: the choices are “suffer” and “take arms” and the question is which is “nobler in the mind”. (On my view, it’s just which is nobler.) If I were to write this essay, I would do well to note both of these interpretations and even cite some famous supporters of each. I normally point out, for example, that Edward Dowden, in his 1899 edition of the play, says, that “‘in the mind’ is to be connected with ‘suffer’ not ‘nobler’.” So there’s that. My interpretation is not original, but I can demonstrate a little learning by providing a source.
Even the independent-minded student who wants to challenge the “obvious” or “boring” solution to the problem of writing the essay must acknowledge that easy solution first. “‘To be or not to be’ isn’t really a question, nor is it ‘the’ question that Hamlet truly faces,” is a perfectly good thesis statement for the essay if the student is ready to back it up with some sound arguments. Even if they will most often be wrong in some absolute sense, they can demonstrate their knowledge of the play and their ability to write intelligently while pursuing a dead end. Quality is relative to conditions they are given.
Suppose you’ve assigned these 1000-word essays every two weeks. You’re now six weeks into a course on Hamlet and every student has submitted at least fifteen paragraphs answering the questions, “What happened in Act One?” “Why didn’t Hamlet kill Claudius in Act Two?” and “What is the question in Act Three?” I’ll offer two no less obvious questions for the fourth and fifth acts soon. There are of course many other questions that would be just as good, and many other stories that could easily replace Hamlet in whatever field you happen to be working in. My aim is to defend this simple approach to teaching and learning, one that makes essential use of writing as part of a larger conversation in the discipline. My claim is that if students are doing this work then the discussions in the classroom can proceed at a higher level. I’m happy to hear why you think I’m wrong about this.