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

Last month, I shared my plans for using a soliloquy study to help my seniors write their way in to Hamlet. Today, I’m almost done reading the seniors’ soliloquies, and I’m excited to share the results, the lingering questions, and my plans for the future of this unit with you!

Previously, on Moving Writers…

The process I planned to use to set up this soliloquy study was pretty simple:

  1. I would perform a personal study of some soliloquies to develop an anticipated framework for the piece
  2. We would use notebook time to help students gather ideas for their soliloquies
  3. We would study Hamlet’s soliloquies as our mentor texts, make a list of noticings, and get to work!

And then…

We followed the process for preparing our soliloquies almost exactly as I describe it above. Every few days or every week, I posed a new question during notebook time at the start of class, and students kept adding to their responses in the same space. Though I had a framework for soliloquies (my “pillars” and “building blocks”) at the ready, when students worked in small groups to study Hamlet’s first four soliloquies, they saw all on their own how the speeches used questions, developed arguments, demonstrated changes in character, used allusions and figurative language, and moved from confusion to resolution.

Each small group added their noticings to a class Google doc, and then I attached that doc to the soliloquy assignment in Google classroom. For their final assignments, students could write a soliloquy for themselves, grounded in their responses to our notebook time questions, or, if what they had written in their notebooks felt too personal to be polished and shared, they could compose a soliloquy for a character in Hamlet who didn’t already have one.

In addition to writing the soliloquy, I asked students to

  • Add stage directions that would show an actor how to perform the speech
  • Use comments on the doc to mark the moves of their mentor texts (particularly some of the poetic and dramatic conventions we’d studied) and explain some of their writing choices

The results

Only my students could tell you for certain whether this writing process was cathartic; reading them certainly presented me with a wave of emotions. The assignment was due during election week, and the country’s future was definitely on their minds:

To speak the mind, there’s the point

To take arms against a world of problems

Tis nobler to oppose the evil than to hide away  

You must help change our world

And sometimes they felt the weight of pressures present and past:

All of these choices…

I remember career day in elementary school. A 20-something year old man sat in the

middle of our carpet circle, looked down at us, and spoke matter-of-factly in

what seemed like a foreign code.

GPA, SAT, ACT, CBG… I went home to my mother and cried. Oh, I wailed!

Everything starts somewhere.

But does getting into college start when you’re 11?

Or just agonized over daily distractions:

The leaf blower,

and the lawnmowers,

and the jackhammers ,

and the saws reaching their noise out of every corner of my neighbor’s shed!


They used allusions that spoke to them, like this speech that quoted Dear Evan Hansen:

My own dread always snatches my tongue

and now “I’ve learned to slam on the brakes,

before I turn even turn the key.”

Oh, God! Perhaps I am a coward

Or put their classical knowledge to use:

I now know well the plight of Hyacinth,

Another casualty of savage love.

And, sometimes, they took my breath away with their honesty and force:

307 mass shootings this year.                                                                                                     

Why isn’t 307 enough for them?                                                                          

They make their Facebook posts saying that they will pray for the victimized families,       

As if their God wouldn’t be repulsed by the way                                                      

They themselves lick the barrels of their sweet guns,    

And keep them strapped to their thighs in the grocery store

To intimidate anyone who glances at them the wrong way.     


And I ask myself: what’s my role in this?                                                                  

Is there anything that I can do besides trust that those I check on my ballot

Will do what needs to be done? Will actively seek to protect me […]

Is there any more that I can do besides ask for a change?

I tweet and retweet all day long as if it means something,

Because it has to mean something

Or I mean nothing.  

                    Maybe I mean nothing.             

As the writer of the last soliloquy noted, Hamlet’s discussion of the king and queen’s “incestuous sheets” in his first soliloquy is gross and unnerving; she matched its effect with her line about how “they […] lick the barrels of their sweet guns.” The language-focused work students did for this assignment has prepared them for our next task, a “follow-a-word” essay that analyzes dialogue in the play from a variety of perspectives.                                                                                                                                                                   Until next time…

Soliloquies like the ones excerpted demonstrate just how well the writers understood the conventions, structure, and effects of a soliloquy. They played with antithesis and puns, allusions and metaphor in ways that a traditional literary analysis may not have allowed.

Furthermore, the small group work that created our list of mentor text noticings put all of the pieces of the play together. Lining up the soliloquies side by side made Hamlet’s character progression (or regression) so much clearer.

These writers excerpted above really knew what they were doing…others struggled. Some needed to experiment more with figurative language, others barely explained their choices in the comments, and some had an odd tendency to refer to the speaker of the soliloquies based on their notebook reflections in the third person. The rough spots showed me that next year’s study needs to include more active exploration of poetic conventions (this time, students simply received a list with examples, and we occasionally explored them as we encountered them), more discussion of syntax,  and more time for play and drafting than this year’s calendar allowed. I also need to work harder to create a space where students feel safe enough to be vulnerable and pour out their thoughts on paper.

I am still struggling to make time for multiple drafts and conferences in the midst of this rigorous literature course. Any advice I can offer for how to blend a writing workshop with an IB English class might arrive next month, when I answer a few reader questions about that very topic! 

Have you tried a soliloquy assignment in your classes? Have any questions about our soliloquy noticings or how this project came together? Please leave a comment below or reach out on Twitter @msjochman. I look forward to chatting with you and wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving! This year and every year, I’m really grateful for colleagues who encourage and challenge, cajole and support as we work and brainstorm together to make our classrooms better. 

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