The Power of a Prequel

guest written by Wim Coleman of Chiron Books.

In my last two posts, I hinted at how storytelling—especially improvisations and scripted scenes—can be used to teach almost any subject. Here I’m going to make some specific suggestions about a widely-taught work of literature.

Say you’re teaching Hamlet to your English class. Your students, of course, approach the play with dread. After all, “Shakespeare is so hard!” Well, I’ve edited and contributed to 11 educational editions of Shakespeare’s plays, and I don’t see any reason why this should be true. The problem is often a simple lack of pre-reading work. Students aren’t prepared to approach Hamlet’s daunting opening scene with its shivering guards spouting lots of exposition while the old king’s ghost silently comes and goes. They know nothing of the world they’re about to be plunged into.

This is where it helps to have your students write or act out prequels. First, give them enough information to understand the circumstances that precede the beginning of the play:

  • Claudius has murdered his brother, Denmark’s old King Hamlet, by pouring poison into his ear while he was sleeping in his orchard.
  • Claudius has hastily married Queen Gertrude, the late king’s wife.
  • Claudius has been crowned the new king.
  • Young Hamlet, the old king’s son, has returned from school in Wittenberg to attend both the funeral and the wedding.

This background could serve to write a whole new play. But let’s focus on just one scene: King Claudius proposing marriage to Queen Gertrude. Divide your students into groups of three or four. Each group will write a short script or prepare an outline for improvisation; two members of the group will act out their scene, playing Claudius and Gertrude. Assign each of the groups one of these variations:

  1. Claudius and Gertrude have been having an affair since before King Hamlet’s death, but Gertrude knows nothing about the murder.
  2. Claudius and Gertrude have been having an affair, and Gertrude is aware of the murder.
  3. Claudius and Gertrude have never had an affair, and Gertrude knows nothing about the murder.

Each of these scenarios is possible; indeed, critics, directors, and actors have been trying to choose among them for centuries. And obviously, these variations open up widely different interpretations of the play itself—the motives behind its characters and what they do. As your groups get to work, wander among them and drop all kinds of hints and suggestions, taking care to pose them as questions:

  • Did Gertrude and Claudius marry out of love or purely for political reasons?
  • How much did Gertrude love King Hamlet, if at all?
  • Does Gertrude love Claudius, or does she fear him?
  • If Gertrude doesn’t know about the murder, is it because Claudius has cunningly deceived her, or because she is in a semi-willful state of denial?
  • If Gertrude does know about the murder, was she Claudius’s accomplice, or did she find out about it after the fact?

And so on; the possibilities are just about endless. The idea is to provoke as rich a variety of possible scenes as you and your students can think up.

Some resulting scenes might be disappointing. Perhaps one group won’t get much further than to have Claudius ask, “Gertrude, will you marry me?” and have Gertrude reply, “I will, Claudius.” Don’t be too hard on groups that fall short like this. With some luck, you’ll get one or two scenes that are striking, even disturbing. I can imagine some fairly inventive students arriving at the following variation:

Claudius proposes to Gertrude on bended knee. But Gertrude has been suspicious of him since her husband’s mysterious death. She questions him cautiously, trying to find out if he was Hamlet’s murderer. Claudius won’t confess the deed, but turns menacing. He tells Gertrude that she must marry him and make him Denmark’s king—or she might face her husband’s fate. She marries him out of sheer terror and dares not question him further.

Of course, other scenes might paint very different pictures—for example, Gertrude utterly free of suspicion, a grieving widow innocently comforted by Claudius’s proposal of marriage.

After performing their prequels, students will be better prepared to read a play that is celebrated for its layers of ambiguity, its depth and mystery. They can review their scenes while reading the play. They may want to change their assumptions about what happened between Claudius and Gertrude during that fateful proposal, based on evidence that Shakespeare supplies (or doesn’t supply) in the text. A key moment is young Hamlet’s ruthless verbal assault on his mother in Act 3, scene 4, which is loaded with suspicions about what Gertrude knew and when she knew it.

A prequel is only one option for enriching your students’ experience with this play. There are also possible sequels (How does Fortinbras fare as Denmark’s new ruler?) and even “midquels” (Just what happens during Hamlet’s offstage adventure with the pirates in Act 4?).

I hope it’s obvious that my suggestions about Hamlet can be applied to just about any dramatic or fictional work. Right now, my daughter is reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in her English class. I’ve got my own ideas about how classroom storytelling could explore Golding’s theme of humanity’s innate savagery. Do students agree that marooned boys would inevitably lapse into brutality? They might select key moments from the novel and act them out so that they turn out differently, testing whether their own narratives are more or less plausible than Golding’s. Certainly, a sequel about the rehabilitation of the surviving boys would be interesting and informative.

In my last post, I mentioned using stories in History classes. I’ll write about that in my next post, after the holidays.


About the author: Wim Coleman is a playwright whose works have won national awards and have been presented in New York and Los Angeles, and he is an award-winning poet. He has also been a teacher, and has degrees in Theater, Literature, and Education. He usually writes in collaboration with his wife, Pat Perrin. Together, they have well over 100 publications. They publish independently for young people through ChironBooks. Wim and Pat lived in various parts of the United States before spending thirteen years in San Miguel de Allende, where they created and administered the San Miguel PEN Scholarship Program for at-risk students. They also adopted their daughter, Monse, there. All three of them now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  You can learn more about Wim and his work at his website.

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