In “Hamlet and his Problems”, T. S. Eliot famously suggested that Shakespeare’s most famous play is an artistic failure. I have always thought that his argument depends on thinking of Hamlet, the man, as an existential failure, and that this in turn depends on misunderstanding his problem. My opinion doesn’t matter, of course, since “the Hamlet problem” exists in the scholarly conversation independently of my solution to it. The fact that I’ve solved it to my own satisfaction does not mean that the problem no longer exists. It arises for every reader of the play and finds, or fails to find, a solution in the mind of that reader. In the ninth and tenth weeks of my imagined course, as we’re reading the final act of the play, that is precisely what we’re asking the students to do: make up their mind about what Hamlet’s problem was and how well he solved it. A natural essay question here would be, simply, “Did Hamlet succeed?”
As usual, the students would be given one thousand words, and it would be strongly suggested that they compose at least five paragraphs. By now, this form should be familiar to them. They would know that the first paragraph should motivate and outline their argument, demonstrating that they understand the question and are able to organize a coherent answer. The rest of the essay should support, elaborate or defend that answer. They would hopefully by now be used to addressing their intellectual equals, i.e., the other students in the class who have also read and discussed the play over the past ten weeks. They would understand and accept that they will be graded on their ability, not to persuade their teacher, but to converse with their peers. From an epistemic point of view, i.e., in terms of what they know, there’s really no difference between their performance here and in a formal debate with another student. But in an essay they will also obviously demonstrate their ability to write coherent sentences and paragraphs.
Success and failure are ordinary notions. We can talk about the success and failure of social movements and business ventures, of literary projects and theatrical productions. We can mean different things by “success” but we all know it has something to do with accomplishing what you set out to do. When analyzing a series of actions we can assess them relative to their goals. A student who can do this well in the case of Hamlet has a skill that can be applied to other cases. So, once again, a seemingly trivial question about an infuriatingly “canonical” text offers an occasion to demonstrate a valuable everyday competence.
Let me also emphasize again that Hamlet serves as a somewhat arbitrary example here. The course could be organized around any other well-known and widely studied event or story. Students could be studying the Bell breakup or the Paris Agreement, The Pale King or The Lion King. It is essential that there is something like a canonical text, a body of documents that stipulate the central facts of the case, but these documents don’t have to be unambiguous. In fact, it is preferable that there’s a great deal of room to interpret them, since these interpretations are really the content of the course. The material has to be rich enough to sustain twelve weeks of study and bounded enough to keep the students from pursuing completely unrelated questions, and building up disconnected domains of knowledge. You want to make sure that they can address each other as peers; you don’t want them always to be experts (on some esoteric detail) addressing each other as non-experts.
In this course on Hamlet, the question of the hero’s success allows the students to bring everything they know to bear. They will specify Hamlet’s goal and the difficulty it implies. They will assess his actions and inaction and the state of things at the end of the play. They may realize that everything depends on what Horatio and Fortinbras make of the mess that lies before them. What is the story that will be told in Denmark of what happened at Elsinore? A teacher who has been teaching Hamlet all semester should be looking forward to reading these essays. How they are written will say a great deal about how well the course went. They will be worth much more than any set of evaluations.
I have one more post left in the series. There are two more weeks in the course to think about, and there’s a final exam.
[Update: I never did get to those posts, but I did reflect on the required and suggested readings here.]