Lesson Plans

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"To be or not to be" and the VT

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help students interpret and adapt Hamlet's "to be or not to be" monologue?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

Although Hamlet's "to be or not to be" question is probably the most recognizable in the English language, few students understand its full meaning in the context of Hamlet's situation. In this lesson, students are asked to recite, analyze and then adapt this famous monologue with the aid of the Visual Thesaurus.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • recite a Shakespearean monologue
  • "translate" the monologue into contemporary English with the aid of the VT
  • write and present original adaptations of the monologue


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • "'To be or not to be' Monologue" chart [click here to download]

Warm Up:

Writing and sharing journal entries:
  • Write the quotation "To be or not to be -- that is the question" on the board and have students write a brief response to the following prompt in their journals: Everyone has probably heard of this "to be or not to be" quotation, but what does it mean to you? How would you interpret this choice?
  • Have a few students briefly share their personal interpretations of the quote and then display the Visual Thesaurus word web for the word "be" on the white board.
  • Ask students to identify the synonym in the word web that best captures the meaning of "be" in the famous quotation "to be or not to be..." (Students will most likely point to the word "exist" as the best "fit" for the quote.)
  • Point out to students that although most English speakers in the world are familiar with this famous quotation, few people understand the full meaning of the "to be or not to be" monologue -- uttered by Shakespeare's character Hamlet at the height of his frustrations.


Providing context for the monologue:
  • Explain that the choice between "being" and "not being" has a particular meaning to Hamlet -- a young prince who is delaying vengeance against an uncle who has murdered his father, married the queen (Hamlet's mother), and then taken over the throne of Denmark. In the rest of this famous monologue, Hamlet rephrases the "to be or not to be" question and then goes on to explore in depth the implications of choosing "to be" or "not to be."
  • Organize the class into small groups of three students each and inform groups that today they will be reciting Hamlet's famous monologue, analyzing its content, and then modernizing its content for a contemporary audience.
Preparing for reading roles:
  • Distribute the "'To be or not to be' Monologue" chart to each group [click here to download] and have each student choose an initial reading role for his or her group (A, B, or C).
  • Have each student first prepare for his or her reading role by looking up any unfamiliar words on the VT, listening to these words' pronunciations, and choosing the definitions that will best fit the context of his or her assigned lines. For example: students will probably need to hear "contumely" to know how to pronounce it, and they may need to look at multiple definitions for some common words like "fortune," "rub," and "pitch" to figure out how Shakespeare used these words in the context of Hamlet's monologue.
  • Explain to students that the best way to interpret Shakespeare is not "line-by-line" but rather by complete thoughts; therefore, students should let punctuation be their guide instead of capitalization or length of line. (Note: The monologue was divided in such a way to facilitate this type of interpretation.)
  • Once students have a sense of their assigned lines' meaning, have them paraphrase or translate Shakespeare's language into modern English in the spaces provided in the right-hand column of the "'To be or not to be' Monologue" chart.
Reciting the monologue in rounds:
  • Direct groups to read the monologue aloud with each group member reading his or her assigned role. After the first reading, have groups rotate their reading roles so that each reader takes on a new set of lines to read (i.e., Reader A becomes Reader B, and so on). Repeat this process one more time so by the end of the readings each group will have read aloud the monologue three times and each group member will have had a chance to recite each of the three roles.
  • After the oral readings, direct group members to share their line interpretations with one another. As each student shares, other group members should take notes into their "'To be or not to be' Monologue" charts and also offer suggestions if they disagree with their classmate's interpretations.
Modernizing the "To be or not to be" monologue:
  • Hold a brief large group discussion where representatives from each group share their line interpretations and establish that Hamlet's monologue really boils down to a choice between continuing to suffer the consequences of his uncle's traitorous actions internally ("being") or taking action against his "sea of troubles" (i.e., his uncle) and thereby setting himself up for death ("not being"). And although Hamlet feels compelled to take action, he is paralyzed by his fears of the after-life and by his excessive plotting and "thinking."
  • Instruct each group to write an adaptation of the "to be or not to be" monologue by changing the context of the speech to apply to a more modern setting. With the help of the VT, students could elect to simply substitute modern slang terms for archaic ones (e.g., "wimps" could replace "cowards"). Or, as a more challenging adaptation, students could write a satire based on the "to be or not to be" monologue in order to criticize something in modern society that bothers them. Students could begin such a satire by switching the essential verb "be" to another verb and then continue from there [e.g., a satirical monologue could begin "to learn or not to learn-that is the question" and then use the rest of the monologue to comment on their school environment (e.g., "slings and arrows" could become spitballs or pop quizzes); or, students could shift the focus to present-day politics by pondering "to vote" or "not to vote" and then list all their complaints about contemporary politics in the fourth section of the monologue that begins "For who could bear..."].


Presenting "to be or not to be" adaptations:
  • Have each group present its original adaptation of the "to be or not to be" monologue. Groups could choose to alternate readers in their presentations (as they did with the original monologue) or they could elect a group representative to read aloud its monologue.
  • After the group presentations, briefly discuss how modernized versions of "to be or not to be" stack up to the original. What was lost in the adaptation process? What was gained?
Extending the Lesson:


  • Groups' analyses of the original "to be or not to be" monologue can be assessed based upon overall comprehension and by their use of the VT to find appropriate synonyms or definitions for archaic or unfamiliar words.
  • Groups' original monologues can be assessed on creativity and their demonstration of varying the language in the original monologue to achieve particular effects.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas (e.g., establishes tone and mood, uses figurative language, uses sensory images and comparisons, uses a thesaurus to choose effective wording)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses precise and descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas and supports different purposes (e.g., to stimulate the imagination of the reader, to translate concepts into simpler or more easily understood terms, to achieve a specific tone, to explain concepts in literature)

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Plays a variety of roles in group discussions (e.g., active listener, discussion leader, facilitator)

2. Asks questions to seek elaboration and clarification of ideas

3. Uses strategies to enhance listening comprehension (e.g., takes notes; organizes, summarizes, and paraphrases spoken ideas and details)

5. Uses level-appropriate vocabulary in speech (e.g., metaphorical language, specialized language, sensory details)

6. Makes oral presentations to the class (e.g., uses notes and outlines; uses organizational pattern that includes preview, introduction, body, transitions, conclusion; uses a clear point of view; uses evidence and arguments to support opinions; uses visual media)

7. Uses appropriate verbal and nonverbal techniques for oral presentations (e.g., inflection/modulation of voice, tempo, word choice, grammar, feeling, expression, tone, volume, enunciation, physical gestures, body movement, eye contact, posture)

9. Understands the ways in which language differs across a variety of social situations (e.g., formal and informal speech in different social situations, use of jargon by sports commentators to make listeners feel like insiders)

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

4. Adjusts message wording and delivery to particular audiences and for particular purposes (e.g., to defend a position, to entertain, to inform, to persuade)

5. Makes formal presentations to the class (e.g., includes definitions for clarity; supports main ideas using anecdotes, examples, statistics, analogies, and other evidence; uses visual aids or technology, such as transparencies, slides, electronic media; cites information sources)

7. Uses a variety of verbal and nonverbal techniques for presentations (e.g., modulation of voice; varied inflection; tempo; enunciation; physical gestures; rhetorical questions; word choice, including figurative language, standard English, informal usage, technical language) and demonstrates poise and self-control while presenting

9. Understands influences on language use (e.g., political beliefs, positions of social power, culture)

10. Understands how style and content of spoken language varies in different contexts (e.g., style of different radio news programs, everyday language compared to language in television soap operas, tones of news bulletins on "serious" and youth-oriented stations) and how this influences interpretation of these texts

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