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Language Comparison and Introducing Themes: Young Adult Literature and Hamlet: Prince of

Hannah Stevens
As most teachers would agree, educating and trying to engage students in the works of
Shakespeare can be a daunting, and borderline impossible task. Gone are the days of reading
verbatim from the page, and more often than not themes and important aspects of the plays are
lost in the performance if that is the route that is taken. The students may have their own
interpretation of what the play is trying to say, but themes may not seem applicable to them,
hidden behind the archaic language, and seemingly otherworldly topics. Not only that, but a lot
of students are unable to connect with characters that are too complex to relate to, despite some
of them being teenagers who might even be going through some of the same every day trials.
Pairing contemporary young adult literature (YAL) that speaks on a different level to students, in
a language that they understand is the key to keeping students connected to Shakespeare. As
Sarah Barber states in her article Supplementing Shakespeare: Why Young Adult Novelizations
Belong in the Classroom, they [Young Adult novelization] become an ideal vehicle for
teachers who seek to enable their students not only to identify with the plays characters, but to
critique their themes (Barber 1). Young adult novelizations allow students to see themselves in
the characters and themes. The language can be worked through with tools like Spark notes No
Fear Shakespeare, but in utilizing this website, the student is only walked through the work.
They are not shown how the play applies to them and their lives. This is also not a tool
applicable to teachers as the play is just spelled out and not worked through with classroom
activities, and lesson plans. According to Pamela Sissi Carrol, who writes a section of Joan F.
Kaywells book series Adolescent Literature: A Complement to the Classics, In addition to
exploring themes... YA literature can also be used in tandem to teach, reinforce, and enhance
students understanding of literary elements (Kaywell 54). Not only can a paired novel help
students work through complex themes, but can also pave the way for other literary elements, in
order to increase their understanding of what it means to read and understand a work of
literature. Pairing the work with a Young Adult novel shows students just how well a
Shakespearean play translates to issues in society, years from when the play was written. YAL
helps to bridge the ever increasing gap between classic literature and contemporary. Although
Shakespeare cannot be ignored, as Barber states in her essay, Shakespeares plays are
valuable and necessary reading (Barber 1), his plays can be worked through with activities, and
reading through the play passage by passage. It isnt hopeless, and students can learn to love the
works of the Bard.

Deciphering Language in Hamlet: Prince of Denmark

Examining important passages in Hamlet is not only relevant and valuable to both the student
and teacher wishing to teach the play, but it can help to open new meanings, as the play is made
to be spoken. So much of the meaning of the play is carried out through a specific Soliloquy or a

speech delivered while the speaker is alone (solus), calculated to inform the audience of what is
passing in the characters mind (Harmon 449). Meaning can also be shown through what is
called an Aside, a dramatic convention by which an actor directly addresses the audience but is
not supposed to be heard by the other actors on the stage (Harmon 43). There may seem to be
little difference between the two as actors are usually always on the stage somewhere when these
conventions are being used, but when reading the play in a classroom setting and not seeing it in
the theatre, knowing and understanding the distinction will become very useful to understanding
language. I will briefly address an example of both a soliloquy and an aside from Hamlet,
explain the significance to the play, and further show that through YAL these literary elements
can be eased and therefore the plays will seem less daunting, allowing the themes to blossom.
The most famous example of a soliloquy in Shakespeares plays is Hamlets To be or not to be
speech. In this soliloquy Hamlet is featured alone on the stage as far as drama will allow him
because Ophelia is reading somewhere around him, but seems to not be affected by what he is
saying. Hamlet speaks:
To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms agains a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them (3.1.57-61).
Here, Hamlet contemplates the state of his life at the moment. He is trying to understand if it is
nobler to stay in the current state that Denmark is in, or to end the troubles that oppose him. It is
unclear in this particular passage above whether he means killing Claudius, or himself. By
standing and talking to himself, not only is the audience aware of what is happening within
Hamlet, they further relate to what he is going through. Perhaps not on the same level, but his
troubles are very relatable as we have all contemplated the state of our lives at one point or
another. Internal conflicts begin to be made more clear through soliloquies and certain themes
begin to take shape as the language is worked through in this way (figure 1.3)
To uncover the difference between an aside and soliloquy it is important to understand the
proximity between the person speaking and who is around them. An aside is literally the actor
speaking leaning his head to one side to appear as if he isnt speaking to the others around him,
but more to the audience. In both instances we see a part of the character that isnt implicitly
stated or shown throughout the play, but other characters are not supposed to be aware of these
internal struggles. It is also noteworthy that in the case of Hamlet most of Hamlets asides are
satirical or the response to the struggles of a typical teenager; his asides are rarely polite, when

speaking with Polonius, Claudius, or his mother. As asides are not quite as obvious it can
sometimes be hard to pick them out from the rest of the dialogue in the play. One of Hamlets
first lines (speaking strongly on his character) seems to be an aside as no one comments strongly
on what he has said, A little more than kin, and less than kind (1.2.65). Hamlet has just walked
into the room at this point and sassed his mother and new father in a sense as the king had
referenced him as his cousin and his son.
This aside opens up the audience to the inner workings of Hamlet, a confused and temperamental
teenager who has returned from school to find his father dead and his mother remarried as if
nothing has happened. As I have mentioned above, this may be an extreme theme to relate to, but
many young adults today can relate to parents divorcing and becoming remarried as if nothing
has happened, perhaps not knowing how this affects the young adults in the situation. In
discovering and dissecting Hamlets asides in particular the audience is further shown what he is
thinking in the moment when he it may be necessary for him to the polite on the outside. Asides
take us into Hamlets head and give us his true thoughts on the matter, similar to how a Tweet or
Facebook post would lead us towards the inner workings of teenagers today.

Figure 1.3
Exploring Soliloquys
As a class explore your way through Hamlets main soliloquy, To be or not to be (3.1).
Explicate the speech line by line (however far you wish to go) in order to explore how
Hamlet feels at this moment in the play. After explicating, have students rewrite this
famous soliloquy in their own words, not worrying about Shakespearean conventions, but
looking at how this particular section would translate in contemporary language. There
soliloquys might look something like this:

To live or not to live: That is the question

Is it more noble to suffer
The burdens of misfortune
Or to rise up against the troubles
And by fighting them, end them

After students have written their own, have a discussion on why it is important to keep
the language as such, and hypothesis whether adaptations of the play will contain this
soliloquy. Why do they think it will, or why do they think otherwise? Through putting this
soliloquy into their own words, students may find it easier to relate to what Hamlet is
going through.

Using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a Paired Novel of Different Perspective
It is common for students and readers of Shakespeare alike to get caught up in the workings of
Hamlet as a character as he is the main character and most of the struggle happens around and
because of him. While this is important, it is also important to not forget about the side characters
and their struggle that influences both Hamlet and the themes of the play; most of what Hamlet
goes through is because of the choices of others, not of his own accord. Again, language
becomes a struggle as it is hard enough in the constricted school schedule to decipher all of
Hamlets asides and soliloquies and work through that of his mother, Ophelia, Claudius, Polonius
and many other characters. It can become very overwhelming for everyone involved.
Introducing another play into the picture, one written from the perspective of two very minor
characters who happen to not be royalty, so written in what was considered low English, so it is
better understood can become very beneficial. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is written
by Tom Stoppard, and follows the musings of two minor characters from the original play:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlets friends from school, brought to Denmark by
Claudius in order is distract Hamlet from his madness. Ros and Guil as they are referred to in
the reimagined play, are Hamlets best friends and he tells them a lot throughout the play, and
they see much more that allow them to spin their own tale of tragedy and further reveal thematic
elements to help students grasp the play on new levels.

Main Characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Rosencrantz (Ros)
A school friend of Hamlet, called upon into the classic play by Claudius, Hamlets uncle who is
trying to get Hamlet out of his own head, so to say. Ros initially seeks to find the cause for
Hamlets assumed madness taking cues from Claudius, but in seeking Hamlets role he becomes
disillusioned by his own role. Ros uses a carefree attitude to hide dread about his own
disillusionment about his own fate.
Guildenstern (Guil)
Also, a school friend of Hamlets called into the play for the same reasons. Guil also worries
about his own fate, but has a calming presence that surrounds not only him, but his role in the
play. This calming nature allows Guildenstern to believe he can understand his life and the roles
of those around him.
The Prince of Denmark and school friend of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet has deep
personal dilemmas when his father dies and his mother marries his uncle Claudius. Thought to be
mad throughout the play, he uses this assumption to his advantage in crafting a ploy to avenge
his fathers death, thus pinning the murder on the culprit.

Making Connections
Many connections can be made between these two plays, besides noticing the similarities,
because the play has the same plot and characters. A major connection that can be made is the
theme of human existence. This theme may not seem obvious in Hamlet, but the character of
Hamlet often questions his own existence, much like how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
question human existence in general; perhaps in response to Hamlets woes. Hamlet, if taken out
of the horrors that surround him, may take life too serious in Ros and Guils opinion, as both of
them satirically walk through life, or go with the flow, as it may be considered; they dont take
life quite so serious, in this sort of nobody gets out alive notion that surrounds them. This is an
interesting theme to explore within the classroom, perhaps to an older group of students.
Comparing not only the seriousness within both plays, but the question of human existence, and
what that means can prove to become an interesting them and connection. This is not to assume a
discussion on suicide, but rather what it means to exist (Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1
Conversation on Human Existence
Split your classroom into three sections, each with a different quote:
1) If you want to be happy, be. -Leo Tolstoy
2) To be or not to be, that is the question. -Hamlet
3) Life is a gamble, at terrible oddsif it was a bet you wouldnt take it -Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead
Have all three groups discuss what they believe their quote to mean. After adequate discussion, bring the
class back together and have them think, pair, share (Think on their own, pair up and share their
thoughts, share all together as a class) based off of this question, What does your quote say about
human existence?. This will allow students to explore their own thoughts on existence and life. From
there, have students explore the use of existence and/or life within Hamlet and Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are Dead.

Using Something Rotten as a Contemporary Reinterpretation

To continue exploration of language use in Hamlet, it proves useful to choose to employ a

contemporary reinterpretation of the play paired with the classic play. Instead of revolving
around a work with the same plot and characters, Something Rotten offers the intended audience
modern characters with similar characteristics to both Hamlet, Horatio, and Ophelia from the
classic play.

Character Analysis of Something Rotten

Horatio Wilkes
Friend of Hamilton Princes. Horatio stays with Hamilton and his family during the summers.
When Hamiltons father dies and mother remarries, Horatio is the main source of consoling for
Hamilton. Horatio vows to find Hamiltons fathers killer when a video surfaces, revealing that
Hamiltons father has been poisoned.
Hamilton Prince
Hamiltons father has recently died, and mother has remarried his uncle. He does not approve of
this arrangement and lashes out accordingly throughout the novel. When a video surfaces
revealing that Hamiltons father was poisoned, Hamilton responds in his own sort of madness.
Olivia Mendelsohn
Hamiltons Ex-girlfriend. She openly protests the paper plant that the Prince family owns,
because it is polluting the river.

This current retelling of Hamlets story, is peppered with language and themes that are more
relatable to students, making the original play become less archaic. The plot of Something Rotten
is similar on the surface level: A teenager and his friend try to solve the murder of the main
characters father, whilst dealing with other problems, such as relationships, and psychological
problems. Hamilton relates to what his happening around him in an unfortunate, perhaps
contemporary, reaction: with alcohol. In a similar way, Hamiltons uncle reacts in the same way
as Claudius from Hamlet, in which he wishes to stage a literal intervention in the reimagined
novel, as they try to cure Hamlets madness in the play. These similar themes allow students to
relate to the characters on a new level, thus beginning to relate to Hamlet almost in an indirect
way. It is then imperative to look at language and be able to compare the two pieces in order to
further understand themes.
Comparing Language

The most common and perhaps the most relatable language within both the play and novel, are
Hamiltons and Hamlets response to what is happening around them. This response is perhaps
typical of anybody going through the same things: Father dying, Mother ignoring this seemingly
accidental death, remarrying, and so on. An obvious reaction to compare between the two pieces
is Hamlet/Hamiltons quick to anger responses:
He means Dad, Hamilton snapped. You remember him, dont you? Your first husband?
(Grantz 32).
A comparable speech from Hamlet comes in the form of an aside. It is important to note that a
snapped response is more contemporary, as shown through the novel, where Shakespeare
employed the feelings of his characters through asides and soliloquys, usually unheard by others.
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son
A little more than kin, and less than kind (1.2.64-65).

This response is flippant in its own way, commenting on what Hamlet is to Claudius, being that
Claudius was already his uncle, and now apparently his father. It isnt quite as blatant as the line
from Something Rotten, but had Claudius heard Hamlet, I believe the result would have been the
same; with a scornful response from whoever heard the response. After everyone has left the
scene, then Hamlet begins to express his true feelings of the situation, much like the outburst of
Hamilton towards his mother, in response to their fathers deaths. These responses are similar
and when comparing the words that Hamilton has to what happens around him and the
soliloquys that Hamlet has, both are comparable young men, going through trials in similar
ways, with similar acknowledgement.
Another comparable speech that is briefly shown within the recreated novel is the famous, To
be or not to be soliloquy. As stated above in my analysis, this soliloquy features Hamlet
contemplating his own death and the death of his uncle, or maybe more precisely, if he will be
able to live with the state of Denmark the way that it is, or if something needs to change. This
speech is mirrored in a modern twist within Something Rotten. Hamilton begins to tell Horatio in
confidence that he has contemplated suicide:
Thats the idea. Either that or kill myself, he added. He suddenly got serious. Ive thought
about it, you know. Killing myself (Gratz 102).

It is arguable that this is not mirroring Hamlets famous soliloquy, but Gratz ties it in further with
this line:
Im serious, Hamilton said, staring up into the sky. I mean, why not? At least then you get to
sleep forever (Gratz 102).
That line by Hamilton, directly correlates with line 65 and 66 of Hamlets soliloquy, To die, to
sleep; to sleep perchance to dream (3.1.65-66). In mentioning sleeping forever, Hamilton ties
himself to Hamlet, as they both contemplate the state of their lives in regards to their similar

Using the Paired Novel to Decode Subtle Themes

One of the most discussed and perhaps subtlest themes within Hamlet is the treatment and
diagnosis of psychological disorders; madness. Hamlet is thought to be mad by almost every
character in the play except his friend Horatio who is the wallflower of the play, in that he sees
and hears everything allowing him to be the all-knowing character. Audiences are even tricked
into thinking Hamlet has gone mad, despite denying it in some passages, because he puts on such
a good show; it isnt often considered that Hamlets behavior is a normal reaction to the things
around him. Because the play is all dialogue it gets confusing and daunting to try and find proof
that Hamlet is feigning madness, so in some cases it is easier to say that he is mad, and his
actions prove such. Using a novel such as Something Rotten can help to decode these subtle
themes. In Something Rotten the main character Hamilton uses alcohol to deal with what is
happening around him. When his uncle, Claude, brings in two of his friends Roscoe and Gilbert,
Hamilton knows that something is up, so he feigns being drunk around them, so that they believe
what his uncle believes, providing Hamilton the ability to act out as much as he pleases. This
theme is mirrored by Hamlet in that Claudius calls upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in order
to cure Hamlets madness, which he has been faking the entire time, in order to prove his uncle
killed his father. In order to enforce this theme in the classroom it would be good to consider
having students compare the diagnosis within both pieces of literature (figure 1.2).

Figure 1.2
Feigning Illness
Have students begin to pick out passages from Hamlet that are spoken by either the character
Hamlet that they believe are instances of Hamlet feigning madness, or passages spoken by
other characters that they think prove Hamlet is actually mad. It may be important to mention
that when Hamlet is supposed to be mad he will use phrases that dont make much sense in
context to the play, or to the characters he is speaking towards.
Once these passages have been identified have students do a close reading of the passage in
order to explicate how Hamlet is feigning for his own benefit, or proving his insanity. The
passage below can be shown as an example:
How say you by that? Still harping
On my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first; a said
I was a fishmonger. A is far gone. And truly in my
Youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near
This. Ill speak to him again. A
-Polonius (2.2 187-191).
*Highlight: A specific example of madness
*Underline: How the character processes this example of madness
*Bold Letter: A, S, or C (Aside, Soliloquy, or Conversation)

Themes of the classic play Hamlet: Prince of Denmark can become lost within the
language of the play. The response of Hamlet also becomes lost in trying to decipher soliloquys
and asides, and the feigned or real madness of the character. In connecting the play to another
more current piece of literature, audiences are able to see the play from the eyes of two different
characters and able to process the themes with ease, as the language is less archaic.
Characterization and analysis of themes continue, when a novel is paired with the play,
such as Something Rotten, which follows a similar story line, with similar characterization of the
two main characters Hamilton and Horatio. This pairing allows viewers to analyze the language
of a contemporary adaptation of Hamlet as well as see how a response, such a Hamlets, would
translate to novelization. This pairing will also show students that literature does not have to be

daunting, and can be relatable, and in pairing a novel with a play, it can enhance readers
enjoyment and education on both forms of literature.
Pairing a YA piece of literature can help to decode themes that seem archaic to students,
and they may believe very strongly that the classic piece does not apply to them. Contemporary
young adult novelizations become, as Barber states, ... A way to prevent some of that
disappointment [with Shakespeare] by reducing students linguistic anxiety and giving them new
points of access from which to identify with and critique the plays (Barber 6). In beginning to
translate what the characters are saying, and comparing them to a contemporary counterpart,
students will then be able to relate to both characters on new levels. Shakespeare and his plays
are not going anywhere any time soon, and it is important for students to understand the play in
its original form, as well as be able to recognize themes and characterization outside of the play
in contemporary media. Shakespeare may be the highest level of English learning and we cannot
allow students to ignore this literature. Pairing and discussing proves to be the most helpful in
keeping heads up, and eyes on the text, as well as giving students more confidence in their ability
to interpret difficult texts lending students the ability to conquer the literary world.


Works Cited
Barber, Sarah, and Hayley Esther. Supplementing Shakespeare: Why Young Adult
Novelizations Belong in the Classroom. The Alan Review. 38.3 (2011): 1-8. Web.
Bevington, David. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Seventh Edition.
2014. Print.
Gratz, Alan M. Something Rotten. New York: Dial. 2007. Print
Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Longman. 2012. Print.
Kaywell, Joan F. Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the Classics Vol 3. Norwood:
Christopher-Gordon Publishers. 1997. Print.
Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. New York: Grove Press. 1967. Print.