Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights
As you read Hamlet, be aware of the following themes and concepts:
Death: Trace Hamlet's understanding of death from his first encounter with his father to Act V, scene ii, when he quotes the Book of Matthew. Does he come to an understanding of death, or does he protest against it?
Symbols of death to look out for: skulls, maggots, worms, rot, dust, ghosts
Sickness, imbalance: Writers of Shakespeare's day used the word “complexion” to mean not only “appearance of the face,” but “mood or character.” One's complexion was the result of four fluids called humors (see page 132). If these were out of balance, a person could, become ill, develop mood disorders or even go insane.
In Hamlet, not only the characters, but the whole state of Denmark, with King Claudius at the head, is out of balance. What kind of medicine will it take to heal the kingdom?
Take special note of the melancholy humor, associated with depression and anger, the color black, and earth, cold, and dryness. Which character best fits this humor? Trace the appearance of these qualities in the play.
Madness: It is sometimes difficult to say who is sane and who is insane in this play. Hamlet believes that he, and perhaps Horatio, are the only sane observers in the court; other characters, especially Gertrude, fear that Hamlet is ill (see above).
As Hamlet points out, the whole court is full of spies and corruption; if he refuses to go along with his uncle, whom he considers evil, is he really insane?
Do any of Hamlet's actions convince you, in spite of what he says, that he really has lost his mind?
What characters besides Hamlet exhibit signs of madness? What causes their behavior?
Acting and plays: Look for references to acting, pretending, and lying. Where does one stop and the next begin?
Hamlet declares to Horatio that he will “put on” an “antic disposition.” “Antic” means “foolish and silly,” but also “grotesque”; Hamlet will become an actor portraying a madman.
In Act II, a troupe of traveling players arrives at the castle. Hamlet knows them all, and shows himself to be a big fan of the theater. Shakespeare makes some references to his own actors at this point.
In Act III, Hamlet inserts lines into the speech of one of the traveling players in order to “catch the conscience” of King Claudius.
Children and parents:
How is Hamlet's relationship to his father different from that of Ophelia and Laertes to Polonius?
What does Gertrude think of Hamlet? Does her attitude toward him change during the play?
Sleep and dreams: In the most famous speech in English literature, Hamlet discusses suicide, and wonders why people choose to live rather than to die. “But in that sleep of death/ What dreams may come,” he says, “must give us pause.” He compares the boundary between life and death to that between sleep and waking, between the dream world and reality. This whole play takes place right on that line.