High Culture and Pop Culture
Hamlet comes with so much cultural baggage. On the one hand, Shakespeare’s most famous play has become a symbol of “high” culture and literary elitism, which (understandably) can be off-putting and intimidating for some students. On the other hand, Hamlet has also become a pop culture icon—he’s the ultimate moody, indecisive, and overeducated teenager with a penchant for black clothing and long, philosophical speeches. In other words, he’s the character that’s become so familiar that it’s easy for some students to dismiss Hamlet as yet another cultural cliché. The trick in the classroom is to find a balance between bard worship and total irreverence.
Once students get past all the cultural baggage, they find a teenage boy that just about everyone can relate to—Hamlet’s soliloquies give us VIP access to one of the first and most psychologically complex characters of all time, which is part of what makes Hamlet a favorite among teens. Hamlet comes to terms with the death of his beloved dad and his mom's “hasty” remarriage to his uncle, he’s betrayed by his childhood friends and his girlfriend, he confronts his own mortality, and he agonizes over seeking revenge against the man who killed his father. Students from all walks of life relate to Hamlet in unexpected ways. It’s no wonder Hamlet has been staged by high school drama clubs, world renowned acting companies, and maximum-security prison inmates alike.