Since Hamlet first captured our cultural imagination centuries ago, audiences have been reflecting on the hero’s central question: “To be or not to be.” Hamlet’s personal dilemma gave voice to more universal quests to understand the purpose of existence – how and why our lives matter, and what lies beyond the waking world we know. These are, of course, questions too intense for children to contemplate; yet even so, young actors in Shakespeare For Our Children classes always wanted to speak those famous words. So there emerged still another dilemma for our SFOC teachers: to perform the soliloquy, or not to perform it?
One way we approached this was to explore a different meaning behind the words – one more understandable for a young person’s perspective. Taking the speech out of its original context (as indeed popular culture has already done countless times) we read an edited version in class as an affirmation of existence. For example, take the lines “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/ or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ and by opposing, end them.” We found the children wanted to talk about the ways that they could fight against that “sea of troubles” – in whatever guise it takes – and quite simply make the world a better place.
But what did we do with the haunting refrain “To die, to sleep”? Death is impossible to escape in this soliloquy. For our reading, though, death stood for apathy, a numbness to life’s experience in all its joys and sorrows. Even if the children might not have understood the entire complexity of Hamlet’s existential crisis, they did know that they wanted to be: brave, noble, and alive with a purpose.