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Hamlet and #MeToo An English teacher reflects on conversations in his all-male classroom

I’ve been teaching “Hamlet” recently — Shakespeare’s well-known play about the murder of the title character’s father by his brother and the fallout as Hamlet is rendered maddened both by the truth and his task to “revenge [this] foul and most unnatural murder.” Perhaps the most unfortunate victim of the play is Ophelia, who is used by her father, battered by her boyfriend (Hamlet) and drowned in a stream in what is presumably a suicide.

The conversations that emerge from my students — all high school-age boys — because of this text are powerful, transformative and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable. Does Ophelia deserve her fate? Every year, a student feeling particularly cozy, confident and comfortable will explain why Ophelia absolutely deserves her doom. Then everyone pauses, though not very long. Most of the students shrink, glancing at neighbors and predicting the coming argument. Some settle in and perk up, ready to mix it up (or maybe just deflect their lack of preparation). Talk about a teachable moment. The challenging conversation that ensues is frustratingly essential for a better world.

Raising two young daughters, I feel incredibly fortunate to be parenting in our present world rather than in times past. Finally, our American society seems ready to confront the pain that has been the historic female sexual experience. The #MeToo movement has provided a platform for voices long silenced, scared and shamed — Philomel has found her tongue. And although the revelation of these painful truths is tough, the promise of the future is invigorating. We should strive for a world where vulnerable people do not have to fear sexual assault; I refuse to believe this goal to be unrealistic. Through this context, it is incumbent upon me to seize any opportunity to address misconceptions, misogyny or inequality within my all-male classroom — if for no other reason than to cultivate a safer world for my daughters.

My students recognize that my classroom is a sacred place where we suspend judgement, operate under the presumption of goodwill, and communally search for deeper truths about both ourselves and the world we inhabit through the written word. This can be glorious; it can also be disastrous. It can gratify, and it can hurt. But from day one, we agree to put in the work. All of us. The educator who believes he has mastered his craft has lost his vocation. We must always be open to new perspective, approaches and ideas, or we risk reaffirming archaic ways of viewing the world.

Many teachers enjoy the luxury of avoiding or ignoring the world outside the schoolhouse because their academic subject doesn’t interface much with current events. This is not so in a high school literature class where we spend our time reading other peoples’ stories and reflecting on the implications of them. Is Victor Frankenstein an admirable scientist? How are we all like Dr. Jeckyl? Does King Arthur represent an ideal or weak leader? Is Hamlet an abuser who pushes his girlfriend toward suicide?

Within the British literary canon, “Hamlet” is absolutely essential, and I’ve taught it for years, yet in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, I’ve been struggling through it. Everywhere you look in this play, women are repressed, manipulated, abused and victimized. Does the literary canon justify its exposure of destructive gendered relationships to impressionable, malleable young minds? That might be an unfair question. Maybe the more important question is: How can I help the young men I teach avoid Hamlet’s missteps?

Undoubtedly, these days my students find themselves in a much more complex world than Hamlet’s — where consent wasn’t really much of a question and where “with a larger tether he may walk” — or even their parents’ world. For so long we’ve acquiesced to the reality of female subordination that it has been ingrained in our Western experience of the world, from Ephesians, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” to Hamlet’s proclamation, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” to our present fight over women’s reproductive rights and remarks from politicians such as Missouri Congressman Todd Aiken, who said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

For too long, we’ve espoused the notion that “boys will be boys” to excuse, if not legitimize, the damage young men leave in their wake as merely a function of the growing process rather than a cultural or ideological misalignment.

Thankfully, this old order is crumbling, but we must help our young boys navigate this new world for which the map is still being made. Some of my most thoughtful students come to me expressing deep romantic anxiety, not about saying the right thing but about knowing how to obtain authentic consent and avoiding the physical/psychological damage that was previously unacknowledged. What a heavy burden for a developing adolescent mind!

The 21st-century educator is no longer the possessor of critical knowledge (thanks, internet.). She has become the coach who guides students through their experience of the world, helping them to think critically and reflect on their assumptions. In this way, teaching and raising boys in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement is a process toward thoughtfulness through conversation. We must provide boys with safe space to express their thoughts and the composure to guide them accordingly.

Joe La Bella is an English teacher at Loyola Blakefield in Towson.

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