Hamlet Study Guide

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Hamlet is a tragedy.  What is a tragedy?  Click here to find more information.

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Principal Hamlet Soliloquies and Key Scenes--A Handy Checklist
by Dr. Debora B. Schwartz of Cal Poly
 

  • Soliloquy 1:  I.ii.129-59 "O that this too too sullied flesh. . ."
  • Soliloquy 2:  I.v.92-112  "O all you host of heaven!. . ."
  • Soliloquy 4:  III.i.56-88  "To be, or not to be. . ."
  • Soliloquy 5:  III.ii.396-407 "'Tis now the very witching time..."
  • Soliloquy 6:  III.iii.73-96 "Now might I do it pat. . ."
  • Soliloquy 7:  IV.iv.32-66 "How all occasions do inform against me. . ."
  • Council scene:  I.ii.1-128
  • Fishmonger scene: II.ii.171-224
  • Schoolfellow scene: II.ii.225-388
  • Nunnery scene:  III.i.88-164
  • The Mousetrap play scene:  III.ii.94-276
  • Prayer scene:  III.iii.36-98
  • Closet scene/Portrait scene:  III.iv.1-53; III.iv.54-218
  • Ophelia's madness scenes:  IV.v.21-73; IV.v.154-198
  • Graveyard scene:  V.i.1-294

Hamlet: Discussion Questions 

1) To what extent does Hamlet correspond to classical or medieval notions of tragedy?  What (if anything) is Hamlet's fatal flaw?  Why does he hesitate to act after promising his father's ghost that he will avenge his murder?  Compare/contrast the protagonist's decisiveness and will to act in Macbeth

2) Note the various familial relationships in Hamlet.  Compare and contrast the family unit of Polonius / Laertes / Ophelia with Hamlet's relationships to the Ghost of Hamlet Sr., to Gertrude and to Claudius.  Like Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras are sons confronted with a father's death.  To what extent do they function as foils to Hamlet?  What do they have in common?  How do they differ? 

3)  Why does Hamlet wait so long to kill Claudius?  What are the reasons for his hesitation?  How valid are they?  How many times does he have the opportunity to attack Claudius?  What are his reasons for not doing so? 

4) Hamlet is a play in which nothing can be taken at face value:  appearances are frequently deceptive, and many characters engage in play-acting, spying and pretense.  What deliberate attempts are made at deception?  Are the intended audiences deceived?  While some deceptions are perpetrated in order to conceal secrets, others aim to uncover hidden truths.  Which are which?  To what extent are they successful?  Note references to appearances, disguises, pretense, seeming, masks, acting, etc. 

5) Pay attention to the treatment of the women characters Gertrude and Ophelia.  Is there any basis for the Freudian interpretation of an Oedipal attraction between Hamlet and his mother?  Hamlet does seem obsessed with his mother's sexuality.  How old is Hamlet?  How old do you think Gertrude is?  Is Hamlet's disgust at Gertrude's sexuality justified?  To what extent is Gertrude guilty?  Was she "in on" her husband's murder?  Has Claudius confided in her since the murder?  How does Hamlet's perception of his mother affect his behavior or attitude toward Ophelia?  Why does he tell Ophelia to go to a nunnery?  Does Hamlet really love Ophelia?  If so, why is he cruel to her? 

6) Hamlet claims that his madness is feigned, an "antic disposition" which he puts on for his own purposes (I.v.172).  Why would Hamlet want to feign madness?  How can an appearance of insanity help him achieve his ends?  (Compare the role of Touchstone, the "fool" in AYLI.)  Is he really sane throughout the play, or does he ever cross the line into madness?  What about Ophelia's mad scene?  Is it real or feigned?  Is there "method in her madness" as well, or is she entirely irrational?  Why has she gone mad?  (What two reasons do her songs suggest?) 

7) Hamlet famously declares that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark."  What other natural imagery is used to describe the corruption of the Danish court?  What "unnatural" events or behaviors preceded the events recounted in the play?  What "unnatural" events or behaviors occur during the play?  Compare/contrast with AYLI, HV and MAC

8)  Moral ambiguity?  Hamlet and Macbeth recount similar stories (the usurping of a throne) from differing perspectives -- those of perpetrator and avenger.  Just as Macbeth was not ALL bad, Hamlet is not ALL good.  What are some of his faults or short-comings?  Do these constitute a "fatal flaw" (to use the concept and terminology of Aristotle or Bradley)? Why might Shakespeare have chosen to remain in the "grey area" rather than a more "black and white" depiction of Good and Evil?  Compare with Shakespeare's depiction of the protagonists in Henry V and in Macbeth.

Hamlet: The Newest Play Written
by Dr. Robert Walton, UCLA

Hamlet is the newest play on earth. It always has been.

Kenneth Branagh's film is the latest important version-and, since it combines all the early editions of the play, also the most complete version. Most modern Hamlets are obsessed with mothers. Branagh gives us the other half: a Hamlet who knows that being his terrifying father's son means following him into death.

And this is a movie that worships its ghosts. Several shots recall the previous great "Hamlet" film, whose star and director, Sir Laurence Olivier, had recently died; and Branagh even casts the sublime Derek Jacobi, who was the previous great video Hamlet (for the BBC), as Hamlet's step-father Claudius. A whole meat-locker of famous hams from Charlton Heston to Robin Williams appear in bit roles, and there are visual echoes of past movies in genres ranging from horror (the Ghost as Frankenstein) to the musical (we get to the Intermission via "The Sound of Music") to swashbuckling swordfights (with Hamlet as Errol Flynn).

No wonder Branagh strews so many mirrors around the set, and offers so many oddly mixed signals about its historical period. When the legendary Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet, she was convinced that Hamlet was a woman; German romantics thought he was a German romantic. In fact, every generation in every nation becomes convinced that "Hamlet" is really about their own special problems.

And bright but alienated teen-agers always know that they are Hamlet, whispering cynical wisecracks while the pompous authority-figure holds forth from the big chair. They know that their friends (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and even lovers (like Ophelia), may become false as they try to please parents and employers; that the heroic parents they had as children have somehow been replaced by dishonest and disturbingly erotic people; and, on the largest scale, that they are growing up in a world where the ghosts of their fathers in armor may tell them to fight and die on behalf of inherited grudges. Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras-despite their mutual admiration-put their lives on the line avenging their fathers against each other.

But all the skulls in the graveyard end up looking the same. As races and societies, we live out the same kind of script. We're born into a cursed spite: ghosts of our fathers in armor tell us to die fighting out quarrels we inherit as Americans or Russians, Israelis or Palestinians, Latinos or Anglos, Shi'ites or Sunis, Serbs or Kosovars. We're born to the burdens of our chaotic world, our bitter weather and our mortal bodies, because (according to the Bible, which was the one book everybody in Shakespeare's world knew) our first parents, Adam and Eve, yielded to temptation in the garden, just as Hamlet and his compatriots die playing out the consequences of Claudius' primal crime in the orchard.

That's my "Hamlet"-but everybody has one, and it teaches us about ourselves as much as about Shakespeare. Beyond its aura of high cultural authority, it also holds a secret message for lonely hearts and doubting minds, a message from a kindred spirit transmitted from a stage somewhere in the world every day. Let's let our students hear it. Teachers don't need to spoon Shakespeare out like bitter medicine: it's all here, looking like real life, and working as great old, brand new art.

Robert N. Watson, Professor of English at UCLA, has written several books on English Renaissance drama, and serves as head scholar for several programs to improve the teaching of Shakespeare in high schools. He, too, believes he is Hamlet.

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