Analyzing Character in Hamlet through Epitaphs
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Students compose epitaphs for deceased characters in the play Hamlet, paying particular attention to how their words appeal to the senses, create imagery, suggest mood, and set tone. Using three-paneled poster board, students design gravestones to display their epitaphs. Students must capture the essence of their characters in their epitaphs, and their poster boards must reflect the themes that support their character's personality and station in life. The resulting projects make compelling hallway displays and provide students with an audience for their writing.
This activity can be easily adapted to another tragedy by changing the characters students write epitaphs about. For instance, students can write epitaphs for Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet or write epitaphs for Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Duncan, and Banquo in Macbeth.
ReadWriteThink Drama Map: Students analyzing a play can map out the key elements of character, setting, conflict, and resolution for a variety purposes.
From Theory to Practice
In her article on teaching short stories, Diana Mitchell explains the importance of involving students in investigating and exploring texts:
"When we teach something, we learn more than the students. We have to think deeply about the material, extract important ideas and concepts, and figure out how to involve students. We look for points of connection, figure how it's related to other things in class, and how we can have students respond through writing and talking. Instead of remaining the chief learner in the classroom, why not let the student be part of this kind of critical thinking and learning?" (73)
In order to create meaningful epitaphs for this classroom activity, students tap such critical thinking and learning as they explore their characters deeply. This opportunity for deep thinking provides students with a summative assessment activity that goes beyond repeating facts and details to deeper engagement with the literary texts that they read.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
General arts and crafts supplies
- Epitaph Assignment
- "The Epitaph," (lines 117-128) from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray
- Epitaph Peer Review Form
- Student Epitaph Examples
- Epitaph Rubric
- Students should finish reading and discussing Hamlet before this activity takes place. They should be familiar with the plot and the major themes of the play.
- Make copies or overhead transparencies of the Epitaph Assignment, "The Epitaph" by Thomas Gray or another epitaph if you prefer, Student Epitaph Examples, Peer Review Form, and Epitaph Rubric.
- Ask students to obtain three-panel poster board or other materials suitable for the final display of their epitaphs. The presentation of students' epitaphs can be adjusted to fit classroom resources and space by using single sheets of poster paper, 11" by 17" paper, legal-size paper, construction paper, and so forth.
- Test the ReadWriteThink Drama Map on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- identify the main ideas in a text and use them as the basis of interpretation.
- identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of theme, structure, and literary genre.
- analyze the ways language appeals to the senses, creates imagery, suggests mood, and sets tone.
- use written language to accomplish their purposes.
- complete process-based writing, with attention to organization, content, detail, and standard English conventions.
- Ask students to return to this passage from Act II, Scene ii of Hamlet, which takes place as the group of players encounter Hamlet and Polonius. Discuss the idea behind the passage in the context of the scene:
Let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live. (II, ii, 457-458)Note: If you are adapting this lesson for another tragedy, skip this first step.
- Discuss the definition of the word epitaph, and if relevant, connect to the passage from Hamlet.
- Pass out copies of the Epitaph Assignment and Rubric, or display the assignment using an overhead projector.
- Explain and discuss the assignment and the expectations for student work.
- Ask student to brainstorm the major deceased characters of Hamlet (Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius). Record their responses on the board or chart paper.
- Have students brainstorm some personality traits of each character. For example, for Hamlet, students might offer these traits: loyal, devoted, vengeful, and angry. Ophelia could be described as beautiful, innocent, pure, naive, and misunderstood.
- Pass out or display "The Epitaph," lines 117-128 from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray.
- Read the poem to the class, and ask students to note descriptive words, phrases, and figurative language that capture the essence of the character in their notebooks as you read.
- Once the reading is complete, have students share the words and phrases that they noted. Record the details on the board or chart paper, or highlight the items on the overhead.
- Ask students to explain key phrases and figurative language in more detail. Questions such as the following are useful in encouraging deeper reading: What effect does the use of personification in the line "Melancholy mark'd him for her own" have in helping readers understand the subject of Gray's epitaph?
- Ask students to identify the tone of Gray's epitaph. Ask students to consider whether the subject is praised, pitied, celebrated, or derided? Encourage students to point to evidence from the poem that supports their interpretations. Ask questions such as the following to guide this discussion: What words in the poem support the fact that this is a particularly sad epitaph?
- Have students identify specific language in the poem that appeals to the senses. Ask questions such as the following to encourage students to identify this imagery: What image does the line from Gray's epitaph "Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth" convey to the reader?
- Make any concluding comments or observations about Gray's epitaph.
- For homework, ask students to choose the character from the play that they will memorialize. In their notebooks, ask students to brainstorm examples of imagery and vivid, descriptive words that fit the characters they have chosen. If students need to review details on their characters, ask them to complete the Character Map from the ReadWriteThink Drama Map as well.
- Arrange students into small groups, based on the characters that they have chosen. If necessary, create more than one group for a character to ensure workable group size.
- In these groups, ask students to compare the lists that they created for homework and compile a group list of the best ten to fifteen descriptive words or phrases. Have students record their lists on chart paper or the board so that the entire class can see the lists.
- Circulate among groups as they compile their lists, providing feedback and support.
- Once all the lists are complete, have groups review their lists for the rest of the class. Encourage students to explain their decision-making process and highlight especially appropriate choices.
- Using their lists as a starting point, ask students to return to the play and find quotations and/or plot events that support the items on their lists. They should aim to have at least one item for each word or phrase on their lists, but more are certainly acceptable and will help as they begin composing their epitaphs.
- As they annotate their lists, have all students record the information in their notebooks for reference later as they compose their epitaphs.
- Check with groups as they work and once their lists are complete to review their final choices. Provide feedback and support.
- When a group finishes compiling their supporting references to the play, ask them to begin the process of creating a first draft of their epitaphs. Repeat this process with each group as its members finish their search for textual support.
- For homework, ask students to complete a rough draft of their epitaphs to share and revise during the next session.
- Review the Epitaph Assignment and the requirements for the activity using the Rubric.
- To practice and demonstrate the peer review process, pass out copies of the Epitaph Peer Review Form and the Student Epitaph Examples.
- Read Jessica Borgonzi's Epitaph for Hamlet (from the Student Epitaph Examples) aloud to the class.
- As a class, work through the questions on the Epitaph Peer Review Form, encouraging discussion of the example and connections to the Rubric for the final product.
- If students need additional practice in the peer review process, assign one of the three remaining epitaphs from the Student Epitaph Examples, and ask small groups to use the Epitaph Peer Review Form to review the example and discuss ways to improve the work.
- Ask students to return to their groups from the previous session.
- In their groups, have students read their epitaphs to one another.
- After each reading, ask the group to answer the questions on the Epitaph Peer Review Form for the piece. Authors should pay attention and take notes on the discussion for reference later when revising the epitaph.
- Instruct students to compare the draft to the requirements on the Rubric and to make suggestions for improvement.
- If time remains during the session, students can begin the work of revising and planning the visual and oral presentation of their epitaphs.
Independent Work Sessions
Either at home or during additional class time, students design and complete their visual presentations and practice the oral presentation of the work. If students will work during class time, classroom supplies should be available for students to use. Useful resources include markers, construction paper and/or colored paper, rulers, stencils, calligraphy markers, scissors, glue, and tape. If computer resources are available, students might find or create materials for their presentations online or using available software on the workstations. Be sure to discuss fair use and copyright issues before students look for artwork online.
- Allow students several minutes to make any last-minute changes or preparations for their presentations.
- Provide any instructions for where students should set up their gravestones.
- Allow five to ten minutes for students to browse one another's gravestones.
- Gather the class and have students individually present their epitaphs to the class.
- If desired, allow the gravestones to remain on display for students to return to later or as a display for the school as a whole.
- Review the connections between the cultural background for Hamlet and other Renaissance works with the ReadWriteThink lesson Renaissance Humanism in Hamlet and The Birth of Venus.
- Extend your exploration of tragedy with the EDSITEment lesson plan Hamlet Meets Chushingura: Traditions of the Revenge Tragedy, which invites students to compare Shakespearean tragedy to tragedy of Bunraku/Kabuki dramas.
- Examine how classic works of literature often reflect attitudes of a particular time that conflict with modern attitudes with the ReadWriteThink lesson plan In Literature, Interpretation Is the Thing.
- Have students explore Cable in the Classroom's Shakespeare: Subject to Change, which examines how the transition from Shakespeare's writings to printed versions altered his work. The "Play to Screen" section includes different interpretations of Hamlet.
- Hamlet on the Ramparts is an evolving collection of texts, images, and film relevant to Hamlet's first encounter with the Ghost. Part of the Shakespeare Electronic Archive of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this site includes lesson plans and activities that can be used to extend any study of Hamlet.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Monitor student interaction and progress during group work to assess social skills and content understanding, and assist any students having problems with the project.
- Use the Epitaph Rubric to assess individual work. Ask students to share notes, working drafts, and their peer review feedback to gain a more complete understanding of their work on the project.
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