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Wednesday, March 3, 2004
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Disengaging Shakespeare

By Susan Green

"Get thee to a nunnery." "Get thee to a nunnery!" "Get thee to a NUNNERY!"

One scene. One phrase. Three interpretations.

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The stage is Loreen Giese's class. The scene is from the third act of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," and is considered one of his most enigmatic.

It's the only scene where Hamlet and Ophelia are alone together, leaving their puzzling relationship open to interpretation, says Giese, professor of English and a Presidential Teacher.

Studying Shakespeare is normally a passive activity, but not in Giese's class. Pairs of students perform a scene and then talk about how they arrived at their interpretation. They bring very different readings to the performances. But they all work.

"This is a way to get students directly involved with the text, with drama and to experience collaborative learning," Giese says, "but also to engage through disengagement."


Giese explains disengagement as a suspension of preconceived notions. It challenges and breaks expectations. And encourages students to think critically.

It's looking at a scene inside out and making choices about performance.

Loreen Giese"As each group prepares the scene, they must think through the text, not just read it," she says. "We don't know exactly what was going on in theatre in the 16th century, so we have to think it through. It's impossible to be passive."

Once students get into the scene, they realize practical decisions need to be made in terms of blocking and the tokens Ophelia returns to Hamlet.

"It makes them not only realize how the practical considerations of theater influence meaning," Giese says, "but also how the ambiguities of the text have consequences. And they're meaningful consequences."

The ambiguities in the scene are precisely why Giese uses it.

"Ophelia is handing tokens to Hamlet and he says, 'I never gave you these,' but we don't know what they are," Giese says. "What they are, of course, determines what their relationship is. And we have to decide what they are based on the text.

"There are no definitive answers in regard to interpretation. So we are all students in this process."

Giese says she gets as much out of her class as the students. Even though she's taught and written extensively about the play, there's always a student who asks her something she hadn't thought about.

Loreen Giese's students performing Hamlet"I have a student who stopped me cold," she says. "He asked me why a particular thing was happening. I had an answer, but I needed to rethink how I arrived at it."

The collaborative process Giese fosters in her classes gives students more self-confidence and increases their ability to think on their feet. It may be a small event in the scheme of their education, but she says it makes them aware of the importance of language and learning that the decisions they make have interpretative meaning.

"The students here are wonderful," Giese says. "They work hard and they're interested. I love it."

Details about the upcoming Spotlight on Learning conference, March 4-5 at Baker University Center, can be found at www.ohiou.edu/learningfair/. To register for this event please visit, http://teach.citl.ohiou.edu/provost-calendar/index.cfm.  

Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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