Hamlet Essay - Critical Essays

Sample Essay Outlines

The following paper topics are based on the entire play. Following each topic is a thesis and sample outline. Use these as a starting point for your paper.

  • Topic #1
    A pivotal scene in Hamlet is the “play within a play,” designed to entrap Claudius. But many of the characters are “play-acting,” and many other scenes echo the dominant theme of illusion and deceit. Trace the motif of acting, seeming, illusion, and deceit as opposed to sincerity, being, reality, and honesty, as these qualities are evidenced throughout the play.

    Outline
    I. Thesis Statement: Many of the characters in Hamlet are involved in duplicity designed to deceive, betray, or destroy others. The recurring motif of acting, seeming, illusion, and deceit as opposed to sincerity, being, reality, and honesty illustrates this underlying duplicity throughout the play.

    II. Act I
    A. The sentinels debate whether the Ghost is real or “but our fantasy.”
    B. Hamlet tells Gertrude his grief is genuine: “I know not ‘seems.’”
    C. Laertes and Polonius both warn Ophelia that Hamlet’s words and “tenders of love” toward her may be false.
    D. The Ghost refers to Gertrude as “my most seeming-virtuous queen.”

    III. Act II
    A. Polonius instructs Reynaldo to use indirection to learn how Laertes is comporting himself in Paris.
    B. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Polonius and Claud¬ius are all trying to find out through devious means what is bothering Hamlet.
    C. Hamlet notes the fickle nature of the populace, who once ridiculed Claudius, but who now pay dearly for his “picture in little.”
    D. Hamlet laments that he, who has cause, cannot avenge his father, while the actor is able to convincingly portray the emotions over imaginary characters and actions.

    IV. Act III
    A. Claudius and Polonius set Ophelia as bait to Hamlet, to try to learn the cause of his madness.
    B. Claudius refers to the discrepancy between his deed and “[his] most painted word.”
    C. Hamlet instructs the Players to “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”
    D. Hamlet is totally honest with Horatio about the Mousetrap plot because Horatio is beyond flattering, or being beguiled by falseness.
    E. “The Mousetrap” and dumb show are “acting” or “seeming,” and Hamlet’s motive in having it performed is ulterior.
    F. Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they are “playing” him like a flute, and are not being honest with him.
    G. Hamlet says his “tongue and soul in this be hypocrites” as he goes to speak with Gertrude, with whom he is very distraught.
    H. Claudius discovers that his true thoughts cannot give way to his desired action of praying; yet Hamlet is fooled by the appearance of Claudius at prayer and does not murder him.
    I. Hamlet tells Gertrude that her deeds have belied her vows; he urges her to “assume a virtue” if she does not actually have it.

    V. Act IV
    A. Claudius tells Gertrude of the necessity of making themselves appear blameless in Polonius’ death.
    B. Hamlet continues the pretense of madness as he teases Claudius about Polonius’ corpse and his own departure for England.
    C. Claudius reveals the fencing plot to Laertes, and says even Hamlet’s mother will be convinced his death is an accident.
    D. Claudius asks Laertes if he loved Polonius, “Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart what would you undertake / To show yourself in deed your father’s son More than in words?”
    E. Claudius says they would be better off not to attempt the plot against Hamlet, since if it fails “And . . . our drift look through our bad performance.”

    VI. Act V
    A. Hamlet and Horatio, discussing the similarity of all skulls despite the owner’s station in life, says not even makeup can keep a lady from looking just like Yorick’s skull.
    B. Hamlet criticizes Laertes’ show of grief as inferior to his own grief and love for Ophelia, and leaps into the grave also, so that his actions match his feelings.
    C. Hamlet’s use of his father’s signet made the letters appear to be legitimate.
    D. The sword fight appears to be legitimate, but is rigged against Hamlet’s success.

  • Topic #2
    Characters who parallel yet contrast one another are said to be foils. Authors often use foils to clarify character traits as well as issues in stories and plays. Discuss Shakespeare’s use of foils, focusing on the parallels and contrasts of any one of these pairs of characters: Hamlet and Laertes; Hamlet and Horatio; Hamlet and Fortinbras; Laertes and Horatio; Claudius and Hamlet’s father; Gertrude and Ophelia; Polonius and Claudius; Polonius and Hamlet.

    Outline
    I. Thesis Statement: Shakespeare clarifies character traits as well as central issues in Hamlet by the use of foils, characters who parallel yet contrast one another. One such pair is ________.

    II. Hamlet and Laertes
    A. Both men seek to avenge a father’s death.
    B. Both love Ophelia and mourn her death.
    C. Laertes moves to seek immediate redress, while Hamlet hesitates.
    D. Laertes is fooled by Claudius’ duplicity, and endures Polonius’ pomposity; Hamlet sees Claudius’ treachery, and mocks Polonius.

    III. Hamlet and Horatio
    A. Hamlet praises Horatio as a just and temperate man, who “is not passion’s slave,” who suffers life’s ups and downs with equanimity.
    B. Hamlet is tormented, confused, and appears insane to nearly everyone who witnesses his behavior or hears him speak.
    C. Although Horatio does not have the elements to contend with that Hamlet does, the suggestion is that Horatio would have responded very differently and more effectively, had he faced them.

    IV. Hamlet and Fortinbras
    A. Like Laertes, Fortinbras seeks immediate redress for his father’s death, and is curbed only by the intervention of his uncle, King of Norway.
    B. Hamlet must be prompted and later reminded by his father’s Ghost to get on with the task of avenging the murder.
    C. Hamlet’s endorsement of Fortinbras as the new king of Denmark indicates Hamlet’s approval of Fortinbras’ character and demeanor.

    V. Laertes and Horatio
    A. Laertes is a lesser version of Horatio, made so because of Laertes’ gullibility in the face of Claudius’ manipulative flattery.
    B. Hamlet notes that Horatio is above flattery, and thus unable...

(The entire section is 2820 words.)

Michael Foster, Ed. Scott Locklear