One of the rich joys of teaching, is the opportunity to talk with young people about some of the Big Questions humanity faces. I find it enlightening and hopeful to listen to them consider the questions that come with being human, especially when those questions are sparked by literature. This past semester, one of my classes, a senior English course, closed the semester with a study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We read, discussed, laughed, watched, and acted out the main scenes from the play. Our props included light sabers, Yorick’s skull, even a tiny cappuccino cut from which Gertrude took her fatal sips of wine. The last two days of our study, were given over to acting out two of — what I think are — the most powerful scenes in this play: the graveyard scene and the final duel scene.
On the second to last day, a number of the students prepared the graveyard scene. When they came into the room the desks created a stage in the center and “poor Yorick’s” skull rested on the ground in the middle of the “stage.” After lowering the shades so our Kohlmann Hall classroom was a little dim, they went to it. The gravediggers made their word play humor and then Hamlet appeared, entering the conversation. He held Yorick’s skull, recalling the court jester who so often play with him when we was a little boy. He recalled climbing on Yorick’s back. He fondly remembered being kissed by Yorick, whose skull he holds. As Shakespeare does so powerfully, this conversation sends Hamlet, and us, on a journey of questions about the brevity of life and the precious quality of each day. Soon, Ophelia’s mourners would arrive, creating a dramatic scene of grief for Laertes, who at this point in the play, has lost both his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Once again, we embark on the journey of questions about the passing nature of our lives.
We tried to finish each day asking ourselves questions like: What would Shakespeare’s audience have left the theatre discussing? What do we leave thinking about? I know many students leave merely thinking about their next class. But I know too that at the beginning of our next class, students would often tell the class that they kept thinking about these themes, the Big Questions, prompted by the language and characters from Hamlet. Seventeen and eighteen year-olds can’t consider these questions like fifty year-olds, but they can bring their youth and a fresh optimism to these questions. They showed me their eagerness to explore these Big Questions. Some of that eagerness comes because this might be the first time they are really engaging the questions. For some, it’s the first time they engage these Big Questions in the safe laboratory of the classroom, where questions can be considered with a bit of the essential distance that allows a deeper journey into the parts of these Big Questions we often don’t like.
When I was English Department chairperson, I used to tell the teachers the most important goal after reading a Shakespeare play in high school was that the students wanted to read the next Shakespeare play. That desire would only come if the teacher made sure the students didn’t get stuck unraveling every line of the play– they can do that if they become English majors! But the best guarantee that students will want to read more Shakespeare– or more of any author– is to make sure they get adequate time to explore the Big Questions the literature poses. As a teacher it’s a privilege to be part of these conversations. We will always either avoid or face the Big Questions of our lives. Clearly it’s better to face them, and to face them with others, in thoughtful conversations, is part of a rich and good life.