Writing Our Way In: Exploring Drama Through A Soliloquy Study– Part One

On any day last week, a quick sweep of my three senior classes offered the same scene: gaunt, gray faces; foreheads on tables; backpacks exploding with papers; hair teased and tangled by frustrated fingers. It’s the October crunch, and my seniors are feeling the pressure of first quarter assessments, college applications, and fall SAT testing. They are anxious about the future, wondering about their choices, and worried that they won’t meet their own expectations. Hamlet is either the best or worst play for them to start reading right now.

Hamlet comes with enough historical and cultural baggage to make it seem pretty intimidating, so how can I strip all of that away and help students recognize that Hamlet is just another young person trying to make some big decisions? The answer arrived with the start of this new blog beat: we will write our way into Hamlet through a soliloquy study.

What is a soliloquy study? (Or what does it look like in my classroom?) Well, that answer is a work in progress because this study is a work in progress. I just decided that we would try it, and I’m developing the pieces as the unit continues (hence the “Part One” in today’s title). I recognize that focusing on Hamlet’s soliloquies is not a new idea, but I’ve avoided looking at other lessons and ideas that might be available online in an effort to keep the material fresh for myself and prompt some of my own discoveries.

The external oral assessment for our Hamlet study expects students to speak knowledgeably about dramatic conventions and the effects of Shakespeare’s language. My hope is that writing soliloquies with Hamlet’s speeches as our mentor texts will be both educational and cathartic: students will deepen their understanding and appreciation of the playwright’s craft while ridding themselves of the worries and fears that are plaguing them this fall. Here’s what I’ve planned so far.

Step One: Break It Down

To prepare for this study, I had to look at the soliloquies in a new way: as a genre. I lined up Hamlet’s soliloquies, monologues from Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, and great speeches from more contemporary plays like August Wilson’s King Headley and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat to determine the components of a soliloquy or monologue. When I looked at the speeches I noticed that each contains:

  1. A “where I’m at” summary
  2. Questions that bother the character
  3. An expansion of at least one question or situation
  4. A resolution

Within those structural “pillars” are smaller “building blocks” and flourishes–mythological allusions, vivid figurative language, exemplars or “case studies” that illustrate the character’s argument or problem. The four pillars and their building blocks will be the focus of our mentor text study. There’s a good chance I will ask students to develop their own list of pillars and building blocks BEFORE I share mine, but I wanted to have a list on hand so I can anticipate some mini-lessons.

Step Two: Plant Some Seeds with Notebook Time

I’d like the soliloquies to be culminating assignments that students workshop over the course of our unit, so I’m going to introduce the project gradually, beginning with some brainstorming notebook entries that will help students develop the pillars of their own speech:  

  1. What questions are haunting you (or are at least on your mind)? (About life? The future? Relationships? Society? The human condition?)
  2. How have you tried to answer your questions or what’s preventing them from being answered?
  3. What led you to ask these questions?
  4. Who seems to know the answers to your questions? How does having these questions make you feel?
  5. What will you do to try to find the answers to your questions?

Thus far, we’ve answered the first prompt. I’ll introduce the rest over the next two or three weeks, each time looping back to our previous answers.

Step Three: Mentor Text Study

As we read the play together, students and I will study the soliloquies and other speeches from other plays. We’ll identify the “building blocks” and analyze how the pillars are organized in each speech. We’ll look at the flourishes that make the soliloquy “stick” (think: rhetorical devices and favorite figurative expressions like “the undiscovered country”), and we will select some golden lines to use as mentors for our own writing. One of our first steps into the mentor text study will be choral reading, a strategy that splits soliloquies into conversations between two speakers (or two halves of the classroom). We read the soliloquy out loud, back and forth, several times, alternating between loud and quiet, near and far, louder and louder, softer and softer, confused and angry. The repetition draws students’ attention to the language and how tone and volume shape our interpretations of lines. 

On the Horizon

Once we’ve studied a few speeches, I expect that our next steps will be drafting, checking in to see what we still need to learn and practice, and then drafting again. I’ll keep you updated on our progress and let you know how this new experiment goes!

In the meantime…

Where have you struggled to bring writing into a literature study? What questions do you have about blending writing workshop with a literature-focused course? How could you adapt this soliloquy study to fit your students’ needs? Connect with me through the survey below or on Twitter @msjochman.

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