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Interdisciplinary Shakespeare Art Curriculum

Module by: Erik Wells. E-mail the author

Summary: A series of lesson plans is presented which bridges English and Art Education disciplines with focus on Shakespeare's Hamlet; Student will learn how to engage Shakespeare meaningfully and creatively through art. Extensive examples are provided.

Hamlet Research Lesson Plan Overview

Learning Outcomes

To have students read Hamlet and process the text by responding creatively to Hamlet by:

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1. Creating a summarizing work for various themes from the play (we have included 5 themes, see heading of each theme for examples)

2. Creating a final summarizing work for the whole play, after making sketches of each act as their reading of the play progresses.

See this original composition as an example:

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3. Compile the works of the entire class and present it in a local or school art gallery for the viewing of others. Here are some sketches:

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  • Hamlet: The play
  • Artistic mediums of any kind
  • Film Productions of Hamlet

Procedures: Introduction

There are about 32,065 words in the masterpiece Hamlet. The play itself is meant to be seen visually, usually as a play production, it was not meant to be just read. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words and so students will represent the words of the play Hamlet, visually as it was meant to be presented. However their visual representation will not be a moving living play, but a snapshot of time, or summarizing picture that truly captures a thousand words of the theme and content found in this wonderfully written play.

Procedures: Background

Hamlet is a tragedy. What is a tragedy?

  • Dramatic composition, usually in verse and dealing with a somber theme, typically of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, to downfall or destruction.

Hamlet is more than just a tragedy, it is a revenge tragedy which usually had some elements that went along with it in Elizabethan times; Melancholy hero / avenger, a villain, complex plot, murder, play within a play, madness (real or fake).

There are many themes of death and revenge in Hamlet. We here, below, use 5:

  1. Acting
  2. Control
  3. Death
  4. Insanity
  5. Decisions

When and where does the play take place?

  • In Denmark on the verge of a war about 1200 A.D. although the characters do reference things from Shakespeare’s day.

Procedures: Reading the Play

  • Have the students read the play act by act. As they do so discuss themes with them that they discover through the reading process. Help them in their discussions to see the themes found in the five lesson plans and sketch out their responses to them—what they feel, how they interpret it, etc.
  • As you use the five thematic lessons plans that follow to cover the material of the play and specific themes take a few moments in each class to talk about the themes students discover through the reading process. Students will create 1 major piece for each theme.
  • Encourage critical thinking and discussion between students about the play and also how they can represent discovered themes or motifs that stand out in a visual form.
  • If there is time in class have the students separate after their discussions and work on the ideas they have been developing one with another
  • At the end of the semester, create one overarching piece covering all of the text, or one reaction holistically.


Students will be graded on their understanding of the play by their ability to support the themes they found, along with the support and connections they can draw from their created works of art.

Theme Example 1: Acting

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Figure 6 (Picture 1.png)

(An original example of a response to this assignment)

Explore the theme of acting through art.

Learning Outcomes

 The students will explore the levels of acting within Hamlet through creating a piece of art that encompasses this theme.Materials- paper- colored pencils, markers, erasers, pencils, and pens- paints and brushesLesson Guideline   Cover the different levels of acting throughout this play, including:      - the play within the play (the actual stage actors)      - Hamlet's play of madness      - Claudius' acting sincere      - Polonius' way of spying on Laertes      - Ophelia's possible act of madnessDiscussion Questions      - How many characters in Hamlet are not trying to specifically act and appear a certain way?      - Do you sometimes find yourself feeling like you should act a specific way to achieve specific            goals?      - What sort of customs do we have in society today that would make you feel obligated to act as certain way?      - How do you think Hamlet would have acted had he not feared acting against societal norms?      - Do you think Hamlet was using madness as an excuse to act however he wanted?Refer to the following quotes to help develop discussion:

Hamlet: "I'll have these Players

Play something like the murther of my father

Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks;

I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,

I know my course... The play's the thing

Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

Claudius (talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

about Hamlet's madness): "I entreat you both

That, being of so young days brought up with him,

And since so neighbor'd to his youth and havior,

That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court

Some little time; so by your companies

To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather

So much as from occasion you may glean,

Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus

That, open'd, lies within our remedy."

Claudius (in the act of praying):

"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go."

Polonius (speaking of how he is going to spy on his son):

"See you now-

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth;

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,

With windlasses and with assays of bias,

By indirections find directions out."


      - Dandy. n.

            1. A man who affects extreme elegance in clothes and manners; a fop.

            2. Something very good or agreeable.

      - Illusion. n.

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            1. A false idea or belief.

            2. A deceptive appearance or impression.

Historical Background

      - Dandies were men who placed particular importance on physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with an appearance of nonchalance. in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, a dandy often strove to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle despite coming from a middle-class background. Explain how dandies were trying to become something they were not by altering their appearance and lifestyle into a mode of imitating others who seemingly had a better lifestyle.

Illusionist Artists:

      - Explain how illusionist artists tried to capture the idea of something appearing different from what it was. Show the painting for a brief moment and have the students write down what they first see, and then show it a second time and have them write down what they saw the second time around.

Jos de Mey

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Figure 8 (Picture 1.jpg)

Rene Magritte

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Theme 2: Control

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Figure 13 (Picture 1.png)

(An original example of a response to this assignment, using progressively less vision)

Lesson Theme: ControlLearning Outcomes/Objectives

  • Learn how Shakespeare demonstrates the theme of control in the tragedy Hamlet.
  • Apply what they learn about control beginning with creating artwork.


  • Colored Pencils
  • Markers
  • Crayons
  • Pencils
  • Paper


  • Discuss that there are two different types of control that Shakespeare demonstrate the theme through: Physical and Mental.
  • Who has physical control in the play? The monarchy: Hamlet is a prince, Claudius is a king; Hamlet tells the acting troupe what to play; People kill each other with poison, drowning, and swords.
  • How is mental control showed? Who has mental control? Hamlet going crazy, Hamlet not acting upon his thoughts of revenge, Ophelia after her father dies, Gertrude and her lust, Hamlet telling Guildenstern that though he's been trying to control him he can't.Processes


  • Creating Artwork: Create three images observing one object three different times using contour line. Allow the students control over the object being drawn (must be from life) and the medium being drawn with. Suggest that the student choose an object that demonstrates their understanding of Hamlet.
  1. Complete Control: The student observes the object and draws it how they like.
  2. Partial Blind Contour: The student is only allowed to look at their drawing occasionally, but during most of their drawing they are looking at the object.
  3. Blind Contour: Don't look at your paper after placing your drawing utensil until the drawing is done.


  • Contour - a line that traces the outer limits of an object or surface
  • Blind Contour - A blind contour drawing is a line drawing that is created without the use of constantly looking at the paper. Instead, one concentrates intensely on the item that he/she is drawing. These types of drawings enhance one’s eye-hand coordination and create a better awareness of changes of form and space.
  • Control - a: to exercise restraining or directing influence over : regulate. b: to have power over : rule
  • Theme - a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation

Discussion Questions

  • What can we control in our lives? What things do we have no control over? (We always can control our actions; we have no control over others actions or the consequences to our choices but we can control our reactions to these things.)
  • Who is really in control? Does anyone have control or is the world in the hands of fate?

AssessmentStudents will be graded on their drawings based on if they followed the rules while creating them. They may be graded on answers to discussion questions.

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Figure 14 (Picture 5.jpg)

Theme 3: Death

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(An original example of a response to this assignment)

Lesson ThemeDeath

Lesson PurposeInspired by studying death in the play Hamlet students will react creatively by making a work of art of the themes of death brought up in the play. 1. Create a work of art about death2. Support their creative reasoning behind their art, how it portrays themes of death in HamletVocabularySymbolism in art history

Lesson Theme

  • Explain that death is a major theme throughout Hamlet. It is constantly on Hamlets mind and also seems to be the end result of most of the characters. Shakespeare seems to be asking us to address the concerns and questions about death and mortality.

Killing and Characters

  • Point out that most characters die. Ask who died? How did they die? Answers may be:
    • Hamlet Sr.-poisoned in his ear
    • Hamlet Jr. -poisoned sword
    • Polonius- stabbed
    • Claudius- poisoned sword/drink
    • Gertrude- poisoned drink
    • Laertes- poisoned sword
    • Ophelia- suicide
    • Yoric- has been dead
  • In discussing these deaths you may want to ask students what they think of them. Were these deaths or killing good answers to problems or situations? Important deaths and the effects they have that you may wish to bring up are:
    • What effect does Hamlet Sr.’s murder have?
      • Starts the whole play off
    • What effect does Polonius’ murder have?
      • Point of no return. Hamlet is sent away. Ophelia goes crazy. Laertes is angry.
    • What effect does Ophelia’s death have on everyone left?
      • Speak about the funeral scene pointing out the reactions of Hamlet and Laertes. Possibly point out the reactions of the lay people to Ophelia and her death.
  • While most people seem to see death as the answer in the play isn’t it interesting how Hamlet stops Horatios suicide at the end? Why? HORATIO (Speaking of drinking the rest of the poison)Never believe it: I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:Here's yet some liquor left.HAMLETAs thou'rt a man, Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I'll have't.O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?

To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause:           -Hamlet

         This is a question that many people think about. What lies after death. Richard Matheson is an author (Wrote books like I am Legend, Bid Time Return( also known as Somewhere in Time)  who was inspired by this line to write a book, What Dreams May Come, where he takes a fictional character through the after life? Ask the students what they think lies beyond death?

         At the end of the play who finds peace in death?

  • Nobody.

         Can one find peace in death? How?

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Inspiration For ArtExplain to the students the Symbolist Art Movement and how death was a major theme studied and depicted. Use examples of their works and help the students take their ideas and reflections on death and turn those into a visual representation too.Symbolist artistsSymbolism was an art movement that began in 1885 and reigned through to 1910. The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works. Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect. The Symbolist period contributed much to the development of the abstract arts of the 20th century, and is a crucial step in understanding consecutive periods. Famous Symbolist artists include Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon and Gustav Klimt.

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Gustave Morea Death offers the crown to the tournament victor



The Apparition

by Gustave Moreau 

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Figure 20 (Picture 4.jpg)

Death’s Head

by Odilon Redon

This isn’t done by a symbolist artist, it is a painting of Ophelia done by British painter John Everett Millais. Explain that Hamlet and Shakespeare have influenced the art world.

Theme 4: Insanity

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(Original examples of a response to this assignment)

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Target AudienceHigh School student art classes, years Freshman to SeniorLesson Purpose and OutcomesStudents will engage Shakespeare critically and creatively; by analyzing and interpreting a series of Hamlet's soliloquies they will gain fluency and fluidity with Shakespearian ideas and themes (madness, in particular), after which they will be prepared to express their reactions to the same themes through projects involving mixed media. In particular, they will:

1.      Gain familiarity with 3 soliloquies

2.      Develop team communicative skills as they discuss their ideas

3.      Learn principles of abstract art

4.      Expand their vision of art to the usage of many materials

MaterialsTeachers will have to ask students to bring in their own materials from home; once the principles of abstract art have been taught, encouragement can be given to think creatively in terms of the types of materials that they bring from home.

a.       Glue

b.      Tape

c.       Paint

d.      Paper

e.       Scrap materials of any kind

f. Chalk

VocabularyAbstract ArtArtistsShakespeareKenneth Braugh (Hamlet’s Soliloquies cinematic versions)Theo van DoesburgPiet MondrianFernand LégerProceduresPart 1(1 to 2 class periods)

1.      Divide the classroom into groups. Tell the students that they will be placed in these groups that they might be able to be free in expressing their creative views in our class discussions.

2.      Give an introduction to the theme of madness we will be following in Shakespeare: Being sensitive to individuals’ opinions and backgrounds, begin the first discussion about what we consider to be sane and what we consider to be irrational or crazy, and why. Using the discussion questions found below, guide the students in continuing their own conversations.

Discussion Questions

“How do people react when they encounter a person that has a physical or mental handicap?”“Can we as individuals adequately fit into the shoes of others who have some mental disability?”

“Are the mentally infirm aware of the fact that they are crazy?”

“What might we do to show that we are sensitive to their concerns?

3.      As a means to transition the current conversation over to an application inside a Shakespearian context, engage the following passages of Hamlet, his soliloquies (via text, or via youtube):

 a.  “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” (Act I, Scene II)

b.   “To be, or not to be, that is the question”  (Act III, scene I)

c.  “Oh what a rogue and a peasant slave am I” (Act II, scene 

 4. Engage in a teacher-led discussion about what contributes to Hamlet’s progressive madness.

         Part II (3-5 class periods)         1. Organize materials—any wide variety of things in the art classroom or materials the students themselves can bring         2. Give a brief introduction to abstract artists and their styles         3. Give instruction for abstract art and creating principles—by personal preference (refer to the artists above for some specific examples of abstract art)         4. Allow students to respond to previous class(es) on madness by creating their own interpretations with abstract art, based on their own imagination

* Help students understand that they are to take as much creative license as they can; there are to be few if any restrictions on the media that are used, allowing them to respond to the text’s theme of insanity as they please. See image below for example

         5. Circulate and discuss with each student the feelings they put into their respective works


Allow the class the opportunity to present their respective abstract works with explanations to their classmatesExtensions

The above lesson could be applied to any theme of Shakespeare or literature


Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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Theme 5: Decisions.

Figure 24
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Exploring the theme of indecision through art

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Figure 26
Figure 26 (Picture 1.png)

(Original examples of a response to this assignment)

Learning Outcomes: Students will…

  1. Recognize how indecision can affect the outcome of a situation.
  2. Apply the ideas of indecisions to life, starting with art.


  • Paper
  • Pencils, Erasers, Pen and Ink, Crayons
  • Paint (acrylic, watercolor)
  • Materials for Collage


  1. Motivation: Students will watch a preview for The Story Trek and write down their thoughts.
  2. Discussion: The class will discuss the theme of indecision in Hamlet, especially using certain quotes.
  3. Think-Pair-Share: Students will brainstorm examples or ways that indecision can have positive or negative effects. The class will also discuss the ideas presented in The Story Trek. (Examples: Custer’s Last Stand, BYUtv’s The Story Trek, etc.)
  4. Art History: the class will look at the works of Surrealists, especially the work of Jean Arp, and discuss the affects of indecision in these works.
  5. Production: Students will start with a piece of paper. Using a system to choose random numbers, the students will create their artwork not based on decision, but chance and a set list of tasks. Each task must be completed in fifteen minutes.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where can you see the theme of indecision in Hamlet?
  2. What does Hamlet say about indecision in his soliloquy from Act 2 Scene 2?
  3. What do you think of Hamlet’s words, “May my thoughts be bloody?”
  4. Figure 27
    Figure 27 (graphics15.png)
    When can indecision have a positive and/or negative effect?


Frottage: a technique in the visual arts of obtaining textural effects or images by rubbing lead, chalk, charcoal, etc., over paper laid on a granular or relief like surface.

Collage: a technique of composing a work of art by pasting on a single surface various materials not normally associated with one another,


Formative 1.Students will turn in their Brainstorming sheet for their Think-Pair-Share Activity

Summative 2. The students will turn in their artwork with a rubric that both student and teacher will complete for a grade.


→ The number of tasks could be narrowed or expanded depending on the time frame of the activity.

→Other tasks could also be used that would suit the needs of the classroom.

Figure 28
Figure 28 (graphics16.png)

Why not have a group or combined class activity?

The students could combine their ideas and skills into a group or class project


An episode clip of The Story Trek in which the interviewer, Todd, finds people to interview as randomly as possible.

Describing the events of the Battle of Little Big Horn and the effects of General Custer’s indecision.

Article about Jean Arp and his works, especially his “Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Random Chance.”

Information about Jean Arp through the Guggeheim Museum.


  1. Cover your paper with one color
  2. Draw a doodle
  3. Draw with a pencil
  4. Step on your artwork to make marks
  5. Use another part of your body to make marks
  6. Paint with acrylic
  7. Use a stick to make marks
  8. Incorporate collage
  9. Use pen and ink
  10. Paint without a paint brush
  11. Draw negative shapes that you see
  12. Sand back some of your work
  13. Use numbers or stencils
  14. Use a material that you have never used before for art
  15. Use water to make marks
  16. Incorporate frottage
  17. Draw with crayons
  18. Incorporate shading
  19. Repeat a shape
  20. Cut into or crop your work

their own interpretations with abstract art, based on their own imagination         5. Circulate and discuss with each student the feelings they put into their respective works


Allow the class the opportunity to present their respective abstract works with explanations to their classmates


The above lesson could be applied to any theme of Shakespeare or literature


Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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