Robert M. Schwartz
Words as Daggers: An Introduction
@Gertrude: “These words like daggers enter into my ears! @Hamlet #LeaveMeAlone”
Words, as we grow to know, can hurt as much as sticks or stones. Even though we try as we may to shield our children (our own and our students) from being hurt by the words of others with perspective and old adages, we humans as social creatures predominantly feel enough of a need for belonging that the words of others can wound us as deeply as any physical harm. Therefore perhaps better than the sticks and stones lesson would be to instill in our children the perspective that words
have the power to harm, and the knowledge and history and skills in analysis are helpful defenses. However even then, even at our most enlightened, we are all human and sometimes those daggers will break our defenses, and the rest, as Hamlet says, is silence.
The strategies surrounding this curricular unit, therefore, will predominantly deal with brief, succinct sentiments: words and phrases that - at times intentionally and at other times not - jar the recipient so much that their entire being is affected. In
, the foremost targets of these assaults are Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, even Claudius, which is where we find our most common thread of this concept, the donor of these blunt verbal maladies: Hamlet himself. Sentiments with such brevity yet such impact are heavily prevalent in the play:
Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty--- [III.iv.91-94]
Hamlet says much in addition to this when confronting Gertrude in her bed chamber. But if we turn this into a tweet from Hamlet to Gertrude, we might be able to engage students in analysis:
@Hamlet: “@Gertrude You are #Stewed in corruption!”
Hamlet is implying that Gertrude has made herself impure in the bed of his uncle – the word “stewed” here, focused on as a hashtag, may not pop out to a high school student otherwise, yet once the meaning of “stew” as a brothel is explained, the ferocity of this son’s assault on his mother becomes clear. One might ask students, once this has been analyzed, if they agree that this word is important enough to make the “trending topic” (hashtag) in this speech.
Gertrude’s response is also apt to our theme of brevity. It is only finally with these heavy, nasty lines uttered by Hamlet that she gives up, expresses that she has had too much in few words of her own:
O, speak no more.
These words like daggers enter in my ears. [III.iv.95-96]
Or, if replied as a tweet:
@Gertrude: “These words like daggers enter into my ears! @Hamlet #LeaveMeAlone”
Deciding on the tweet is a way of introducing the question whether Gertrude is hurt by the suggestion that remarriage is a kind of adultery or by the implication that she has been insensitive to her son’s pain, regardless of her own views on remarriage.
like daggers, as Gertrude points out. And we find that the same is true today, very true indeed. The advent of Twitter, Instagram, text-messaging and many other such vehicles for brief, impactful speech have shown us what creatures of terse communication we are. Or, much as Bloom asserts that Shakespeare invented the human (ie, we get much of who we are from Shakespeare’s plays), this exercise raises the question – Do we Tweet because we know how deeply words can affect us, or do words affect us so deeply because they are Tweeted (brief, intentionally impactful)?
It is advisable, then, to begin a lesson on this with student-generated examples of times when brief words have had great impact – from a family member, friend, teacher, bully, the media – accompanied by what they believe are the reasons so few words can affect us so deeply. This can be in the form of a journal entry or warm-up question posed on the whiteboard, which is expanded into more detail in the below section on “Classroom Activities.”
To Tweet or Not to Tweet: Public Vs. Private Conversations in Modern Media and
The above is expressed via twitter as a bit of a public battle, at least to the followers of @Hamlet and @Gertrude, and it is appropriate here to point out to students (if a clever one or two has not already) that – isn’t this a private conversation in Gertrude’s bed chamber? How, then, might they express the conversation differently in modern communication media than by tweeting to each other? Would they text message this or Direct Message the conversation? I think that, although this conversation is private, to analyze it using Twitter one must consider that while there is a fourth wall in a production of the play, there may also be one in its study related to Twitter. Therefore, in an example like the above, it will be OK for students to suspend their disbelief and agree that tweeting this pivotal argument between Hamlet and the queen appropriately represents the sheer drama of it.
However, there is an opportunity here to additionally utilize modern communication media to identify the idiosyncrasies in character interaction within
. We have already contemplated how Hamlet would express his desire for Horatio to guard the feigning of his antic disposition via private message as opposed to public tweet. In the below section we will continue tweeting
, but in addition raise the question of which mode of modern communication – more public or more private – each scenario would most befit.
Tweeting the Daggers of
can be as personal for an educator as playing the prince can be for an actor. The play is so deep, rich and vast that even with guides like this curricular unit, instruction will always come down to many personal choices. Here, I will give examples of themed lines from the play that carry a very big impact despite the fact that they are brief, and ruminate on their impact if converted to Tweets as examples of scaffolding for students to develop an understanding, then do the same. One might use these examples as they are given here, use some and some of one’s own, or simply use this as inspiration or background knowledge to formulate one’s own for teaching purposes. I begin and involve this section with three important, impactful lines from the play – one at the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end. All are uttered by Hamlet, two of them to the audience (in his soliloquys), and one uttered to Horatio who, according to Howard Bloom, is the play’s “inside outsider” – the character representation of the audience.
I believe these lines carry the very essence of the play, are strong forays into the study of short lines with very deep meaning, could feed into any teaching of
, and could make excellent Tweets! In this section, we will continue tweeting the heavily-themed lines of
, while adding the question
each would or should ultimately be communicated in modern format: that will be a point for the students to decide (reinforcing their pride that they are the experts after-all).
That it should come to this
When Hamlet is brooding over the state of Denmark and Elsinore in his first soliloquy, he laments, “That it should come to this” [I.ii.137] What would be the result of this if it were a Tweet? Certainly there would be comments from other users as to what he means – what should come to this, Hamlet? And what “this” are you so disgusted about? A deeper analysis of the soliloquy is, of course, necessary. But students may be hooked by this single, intriguing line – mysterious on its own yet so rich in context, it begs to be explored beneath the surface. One might compel students to take a second look at the soliloquy and produce what Hamlet might respond to his Twitter followers about what, in fact, is the sphere of reference. Would they focus more on how down he believes the state of Denmark is? Or would they dwell more on his lamentation of his murdered father, and a mere two months later, his mother marrying his uncle who took over the throne?
@Hamlet: “That it should come to this! #ButTwoMonthsDead #MoreThanKinLessThanKind @Gertrude @Claudius”
Would Hamlet actually tweet this (speaking this to all of Elsinore), be tweeting only Gertrude and Claudius (as in the tweet above) or be Direct Messaging them privately, or simply (as some directors have shown it) be talking to himself? This is occasion for good discussion and analysis of this soliloquy and soliloquys in general. What mode of communication would we generally expect of a soliloquy?
particular one? Others? We continue with another, next.
To be, or not to be: that is the question [III.i.56]
Hamlet’s meditation on suicide is basically summed up in this “Tweet.” Not only is this one of the more famous lines from the play, and indeed from literature, but it is one of the most succinctly representative of the themes and other lines surrounding it. Hamlet is brooding about whether he should just end it all (frustrated at his inaction toward revenge in addition to everything else that’s going wrong), or if even that would be an escape (considering no one knows what happens after death). It is one of the darker moments of a very dark play, and in the classroom this one line can incite much discussion and allow students to delve further into the soliloquy and the scene of which it is a part, in order to find deeper meaning and decide what type of stir – or to use modern parlance, buzz – this as a Tweet would generate.
@Hamlet: “To be, or not to be: that is the question. #ShufflingOff this #MortalCoil #WhatDoesItAllMean”
This one is a bit more complicated. Directors have sometimes shown Hamlet speaking these lines
the spying Polonius and Claudius – so one might point that out to students and ask them what they’d add to the above tweet in that case (an “@Polonius” and “@Claudius”), thus prompting them to wonder if he is actually contemplating suicide, or simply reinforcing his antic disposition to suspected enemies. Another take could be if this were Hamlet’s blog – what would read in the comments? Would other users compel him to explain
“that” is the question? What alternate questions (e.g., to revenge or not to revenge) might he be evading by tweeting this one?
Let it be
Extra points to the student who asks if this line is what inspired Paul McCartney to the title of his definitive masterpiece composition. He claims it was not – but if teenagers of this modern era make that connection, they deserve extra kudos anyway. One of Hamlet’s final lines, when we readers know he has reconciled himself to his impending death, when he is seemingly finally at peace, is arguably representative of Hamlet at his most powerful – accepting death as he does. As Bloom puts it: “[T]here is something far from dead in his heart, something ready or willing, strong beyond the weakness of flesh.”
What will the students make of it? If Hamlet Tweets this, what does it say about both the nature of the Prince, and about social media today? Is it so ingrained that a celebrity or public figure would actually Tweet
he lies dying? An additional point of inquiry for this quotation is that he says something very close to it to Horatio previously in the scene: “Let be.” [V.ii.225] Perhaps this signifies that Hamlet will become so accepting of his own death not simply because he will have finally brought vengeance upon Claudius, but because whatever transition he has made in Act V indicates that he has come to terms with the events of the play, and has made whatever peace of them he can.
@Hamlet: “@Horatio, let it be. #WhatWillBeWillBe #AnticDispositionOver”
By now, Hamlet might be less concerned with who does or who does not know his feelings. In fact, considering his ponderings of apologies he owes to Laertes in this same scene, he may be quite ready to make his feelings public, and so a standard tweet may actually be best for this sentiment. On the other hand, the actual apology to Laertes may be a very public occasion, and apology can be just the issue to focus attention on what is public (to one or many) and what real feelings are kept private. One can further complicate student thinking by raising the question of why you’d not find “let it be” in the previously spotlighted “To be or not to be” speech. How and why has the character of Hamlet changed (evolved?) from Act III to Act V? What might this progression look like on Hamlets twitter feed? Ask students to design it.
Each of these lines can, of course, lead into activities that can be included or be the precursor to what is outlined in the section “Classroom Activities” below.
Generalizations Vs. Pointed Attacks with Examples from Hamlet’s Relationships
Oh, mothers. They can be our dearest friends and worst enemies, our strongest advocates and our biggest emotional obstacles. Gertrude qualifies as all these for Hamlet, and he knows it. He is never easy on her. Students will for the most part be able really to identify with him. Who doesn’t have a mom who’s been tough on him from time to time? Hamlet may be a considerably hyperbolic example of this, because his mother marries his uncle two months after he (unbeknownst to her?) murders her husband. This brings us two highly impactful sentiments from Hamlet that could be used as tweets: “Frailty, thy name is woman” [I.ii.146] in Act I when Hamlet is brooding about his mother’s weakness and disrespect in finding another husband so soon after hers has died; and, as a cruel, dark send-off to her corpse as he is dying, “Wretched Queen, adieu!” [V.ii.334]. How cruel his final words to, and thoughts about, his mother.
@Hamlet: “@Gertrude Wretched Queen, Adieu! #TerribleMother #NoLongerWondering #DyingBreath”
The format: direct tweet. It is important to further explore here the difference between a generalization as a tweet, and a pointed barb. We have explored Hamlet’s sentiments, curses and explanations, and whether he would be screaming them to the world (open tweet), whispering them to himself (private blog), or pointing them directly at one of the other characters in an ad hominem attack.
The last of these options would result in a direct tweet – ie, one that was tweeted to Gertrude but can also be seen on Hamlet’s feed (which we would presume in this case includes all of Elsinore). A stage director would decide whether Hamlet addresses a dying Gertrude or apostrophizes an already dead one. The tweet equivalent of this option is a great opportunity to discuss privacy and public rhetoric generally.
Hamlet is cruel to her and, indeed, she to him. Yet she is led by others while he, as is usually the case, is led only by himself. It should be interesting to students to analyze what is essentially a relationship between a girlfriend and boyfriend and wonder if any of what transpires between them is emotional abuse. There are a lot of popular Tweets lauding the importance of awareness and action in response to domestic abuse: can Tweeting words between these two doomed lovers illuminate a connection between the play and modern day? When Hamlet demands “Get thee to a nunnery” [III.i.121], on the surface it can seem like she is simply being advised to find solace in a convent. But further scrutiny of their conversation indicates he may be telling her she belongs in a brothel. In some productions, such as Kenneth Branaugh’s film, Hamlet speaks this line after perceiving that Polonius has set her up and she is being “used.” This difference can lead to a discussion – does Hamlet perceive that Ophelia is setting him up for being spied upon (brothel)? Is he no longer a romantic partner but a prop? Or does he despair of
romance and so mean “convent” seriously?
@Hamlet: “@Ophelia Get thee to a nunnery #IKnowYou’reSettingMeUp #Brothel”
@Ophelia: “@Hamlet, I still love you though. What was I to do? #DadMadeMe #PleaseForgiveMe or I might #GoCrazy”
The format: Direct Message. We have turned many of these scenes into tweets to accentuate the drama of the scene in modern terms, in effect breaking the fourth wall in some cases and problematizing the privacy or public rhetoric of a given speech. In this case, a private conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia would be very different indeed.
we are to read that Hamlet is aware that he is being watched by Polonius and Claudius, it may be appropriate to have the conversation remain over tweets that include their respective usernames: @Polonius and @Claudius.
With the exception of the long-dead Yorick, Horatio seems to be the only major character in the play towards whom Hamlet is openly affectionate. But what Tweets can we find in definitive support of such a relationship? Certainly nothing from the end of the play where Hamlet demands that Horatio not take his own life not out of love, but so that he might ensure Hamlet’s name is not sullied after his own death.
We might consider, then:
Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. [III.ii.73 – 76]
When considering form, we might consider two opposing, or perhaps coinciding, meanings in this speech. One is a generalization and would be an open tweet to Hamlet’s followers:
@Hamlet: “Give me that man that is not passion’s slave and I will wear him in my heart’s core. #TiredOfFakePeople”
The other meaning in this speech is directed toward his friend, Horatio and may be Tweeted as such. However if students believe that Hamlet would want to say this to his friend in private, it would be a direct message. What dramatic irony it would be, were Horatio to check his Twitter account
the final, tragic events at Elsinore, to find this Direct Message from Hamlet:
DIRECT MESSAGE: “My Dear friend Horatio, after all this, I don’t know whom I can trust around here. But if there were a man that was not passion’s slave, it would be you. And I’d wear him in my heart of heart, as I do thee.”
While this example focuses on trust, there could be many student interpretations of Hamlet’s regard for Horatio. Might Hamlet be telling his friend he can trust him? Could he simply be saying “I admire your cool”? Students could be asked if this is the same message.
There is really no end to how deeply one can explore
in this way, as is illustrated in this last example’s multi-format usage. Feel free to experiment, explore, have fun while planning or while working through it with students. Like
and Twitter alike, this device has endless applications.