There is general agreement about the sources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. About 400 years prior to the Elizabethan version, Saxo Grammaticus told a similar tale in his Historia Danica (c. 1200). About 15 years before Shakespeare’s version, François de Belleforest adopted the essential story in his Histoires Tragiques (1576), a popular collection of tales in French. Both of these sources survive as literary manuscripts.
However, most critics believe that another source, the so-called Ur-Hamlet, is the version most directly responsible for many of the elements which Shakespeare incorporated into his play. Although no written version of this precursor exists, and historians can only work backwards from documents which mention the Ur-Hamlet, it is believed that this play, probably written by Thomas Kyd, was acted in 1594 by the Lord Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the latter of which company Shakespeare belonged to.
While the earlier versions included similar elements to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the hero’s love interest, fratricide, feigned madness, adultery, spies, and revenge), only Kyd’s version includes the Ghost who seeks revenge. In fact, Kyd’s famous play, The Spanish Tragedy, includes other elements which Shakespeare seems to have incorporated into Hamlet: “a procrastinating protagonist who berates himself for talking instead of acting and...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Elsinore Castle. Thirteenth century Danish castle that is the site of the main action of the play. Elsinore is a real city in modern Denmark, where it is known as Helsingor in Danish. The official modern name of the castle is Kronborg. However, William Shakespeare was not interested in creating the historical Elsinore (a place he almost certainly never visited) but in creating a castle suitable for a play with themes dealing with treachery and revenge, a play in which it seems almost impossible for the revenging hero to know exactly what is true and what is not.
Significantly, all but two scenes of the play are set within the castle or on its battlements, and all the characters seem to live in the castle, at least temporarily. These include King Claudius and his wife, Hamlet’s mother, as well as the aged courtier Polonius and his daughter Ophelia. Prince Hamlet, like his counterpart, Laertes, was evidently away, living at his university town, until called home for his father’s funeral. Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s school friends, seem to be long-term guests at the castle. Even the acting company that stages The Mousetrap is lodged there. The exception is the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras, who lives in his own country except when he is waging war on his neighbors.
From its opening, the play’s action involves spying, an activity well suited to the labyrinthine layout of an...
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Act I Questions and Answers
1. Why does the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appear but not speak to the officers on sentinel duty?
2. What do Ghostly apparitions usually portend, according to these witnesses?
3. What is the content of the dispatches Claudius has sent with Voltemand and Cornelius to the King of Norway?
4. In his soliloquy, what are Hamlet’s reasons for objecting to his mother’s remarriage?
5. What advice does Laertes give to Ophelia as he says farewell to her prior to his departure for Paris?
6. What advice does she give Laertes in return?
7. What is the thrust of the advice Polonius gives Laertes as his son prepares to leave?
8. What does Polonius instruct Ophelia to do regarding Hamlet?
9. What does the apparition tell Hamlet?
10. What two-part oath does Hamlet extract from his companions following the encounter with the Ghost?
1. Horatio believes he has offended it by demanding that it speak, and Marcellus believes his threat of violence was ill-conceived on a spirit, which is “as the air, invulnerable.” Horatio and Marcellus also recall the folk wisdom that the cock’s crowing sends spirits to their “confine.” Additionally, in the season just before Christmas, the cock crows all night, and “no spirit dare stir abroad . . . So hallowed and so gracious is that time.”
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Act II Questions and Answers
1. What task does Polonius assign Reynaldo in Paris?
2. Why is Ophelia so upset when she speaks with her father?
3. In what respect does Polonius change his mind about Hamlet and the prince’s relationship to Ophelia?
4. What task does Claudius assign to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
5. What news do Voltemand and Cornelius bring back from Norway?
6. What do Claudius and Gertrude conclude after hearing Polonius read the letter from Hamlet to Ophelia?
7. What does Polonius mean in an aside, as he speaks with Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”?
8. What does Hamlet make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confess?
9. Why have Hamlet’s two friends arranged for the theatrical troupe to perform at the palace?
10. What is the significance of the speech which Hamlet requests from the actor, taken from the story of the Trojan War?
1. Polonius gives Reynaldo “money and . . . notes” to give to Laertes; and instructs him “to make [indirect] inquire / Of his behavior.” Polonius wants to know what Laertes is doing in Paris, and intends “By indirections [to] find directions out.”
2. “Affrighted,” she reports that Hamlet came to her private room, his clothing undone and dirty, and his expression looking “As if he had been loosed out of hell /...
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Act III Questions and Answers
1. What do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Claudius regarding their conversation with Hamlet?
2. What do the pair fail to reveal to Claudius?
3. What favor does Hamlet ask of Horatio?
4. What is the plot of the Dumb Show the Players present?
5. What is the significance of the play’s title, “The Mousetrap”?
6. What does Hamlet mean, as he prepares to visit his mother, when he says, “O heart, lose not thy nature”?
7. What rationale do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern give for accepting Claudius’ commission to take Hamlet to England forthwith?
8. What is ironic about Hamlet’s failure to kill Claudius while the King is kneeling in prayer?
9. What is Hamlet’s reaction when he realizes he has killed Polonius rather than Claudius, whom he had presumed to be the one hiding behind the curtain?
10. What is the apparent purpose of the Ghost’s appearance in the Queen’s bedroom while Hamlet speaks with his mother?
1. They say Hamlet was polite but not very inclined to talk about what was bothering him. They report that Hamlet seemed pleased that the Players had been engaged for a performance.
2. They do not disclose that Hamlet made them admit that they had been sent by Claudius, nor that Hamlet revealed that Claudius and Gertrude are deceived about his...
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Act IV Questions and Answers
1. What is Claudius’ response when Gertrude tells him that Hamlet has murdered Polonius?
2. What does Claudius direct Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do?
3. Why does Hamlet hide Polonius’ corpse and then dash away when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question him about it?
4. Why does Hamlet call Claudius “dear Mother”?
5. Why does Fortinbras send word to the Danish king (Claud¬ius)?
6. How does Hamlet contrast himself (all men) to beasts?
7. How does Claudius propose to satisfy Laertes’ suspicions?
8. What reasons does Claudius give Laertes for not taking action against Hamlet, who, Claudius says, “Pursued [his] life”?
9. Why does Claudius plan to poison the drink, in addition to poisoning the rapier tip which Laertes will wield?
10. How does Ophelia drown?
1. He says he himself would have been killed, had he been behind the curtain; that Hamlet’s continued freedom threatens him, the Queen herself, and everyone. He fears he will be blamed for not keeping Hamlet restrained, but that love often prevents us from seeing the best course. Claudius tells her that Hamlet must be sent away (by ship), and that they must make people understand and approve their actions.
2. He directs them to get help and find Hamlet, “speak fair” to him, and bring Polonius’ body into the...
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Act V Questions and Answers
1. Why is there debate surrounding the nature of Ophelia’s funeral?
2. How long has the gravedigger been sexton, and when did he first become employed?
3. What joking insult to the English does Shakespeare put into the gravedigger’s dialogue, regarding Hamlet’s madness?
4. What cause does Laertes ascribe to Ophelia’s madness, which led to her death?
5. What prompts Hamlet’s outburst at Ophelia’s graveside?
6. What order did Claudius’ letter, carried by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, convey to the English regarding Hamlet’s fate?
7. How does Hamlet justify his counterfeit command that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be murdered by the English?
8. In his apology to Laertes, what does Hamlet mean when he says, “I have shot my arrow o’er the house and hurt my brother”?
9. Why does Hamlet forbid Horatio to drink the rest of the poisoned cup?
10. Who will ascend to power as the new King of Denmark?
1. The issue is whether her drowning was accidental, in which case she may have a Christian burial—which the coroner has ruled, the gravedigger says; or whether it was intentional, in which case she may not have a Christian burial. Later, the Doctor of Divinity confirms that though “Her death was doubtful,” the King has ruled that her burial be Christian. Thus,...
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Written at the outset of the seventeenth century and based on accounts of several centuries earlier, Hamlet is often regarded as remarkably modern in its treatment of themes concerning mental health, political health, and spiritual health.
Hamlet describes himself as afflicted with a melancholy, which he does not completely understand. English Renaissance audiences of Hamlet based their ideas about psychological disturbances such as melancholy and madness on medieval theories of body humours, or fluids. The humours correlated with the four basic elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The humours consisted of black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. A predominance of one of these humours resulted in a personality type. The person with an excess of blood was called sanguine, or cheerful. The excess of phlegm resulted in a phlegmatic, or passive, inert sort of person. An excess of black bile resulted in melancholy, or sadness. An excess of yellow bile resulted in choler, or anger. Treatments for melancholy ranged from advice about types of clothing and colors to wear or avoid to settings for one’s house to types of food to eat or avoid. The early seventeenth-century work The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, contains a special section dealing with two difficult-to-treat types of melancholy, love melancholy and religious melancholy. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet suffers from love melancholy. Although Hamlet says he has...
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- Hamlet. Universal, J. Arthur Rank, 1948. Film adaptation of Hamlet by Laurence Olivier, who directed and starred in the production. The motion picture also features Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney, Jean Simmons, and Anthony Quayle. Distributed by RCA VideoDiscs. 155 minutes.
- Hamlet. Neil Hartley and Martin Rashonoff, 1969. Motion picture version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, featuring Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins, and Marianne Faithful. Directed by Tony Richardson. Distributed by RCA/Columbia Home Video. 114 minutes.
- Hamlet. BBC, Time Life Television, 1979. Television adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy and part of the series ‘‘The Shakespeare Plays.’’ Features Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. Distributed by Time-Life Video. 150 minutes.
- Hamlet. Warner Brothers, 1990. Film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Paul Scofield. Distributed by Warner Brothers Home Video, Inc. 135 minutes.
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Hamlet (Myths and Legends of the World)
Prince Hamlet of Denmark, the main character in Shakespeare's famous play Hamlet, is one of the most complex figures in Western literature. Faced with avenging the murder of his father by killing his uncle, Hamlet struggles with the conflict between good and evil, weakness and strength, and his own indecision.
Hamlet is based on a legendary character found in Danish and Icelandic myths and folktales. An early version appears in an Icelandic sagastory recounting the adventures of historical and legendary heroes; usually associated with Icelandic or Norse tales of the Middle Ages of the A.D. 800S. Later the Prose Edda, a book of Norsereferring to the people and culture of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland mythology from the 1220s, mentions a man named Amloi or Amlothi, whose story is similar to that of Hamlet.
Another source for the legend is Historiae Danicae (Danish Histories), written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 1100s. The work contains a story about a figure named Amleth who, like Hamlet, slays the uncle who has murdered his father. Modern scholars have found characters in early Celticreferring to the Celts, early inhabitants of Britain whose culture survived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany mythology...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barnet, Sylvan. ‘‘Shakespeare: Prefatory Remarks,’’ in William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, edited by Edward Hubler. New York: Signet Classic, 1963 (viixx).
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z, New York: Roundtable Press, 1990. ‘‘Hamlet,’’ (231–234); ‘‘Hamlet,’’ (234–241); ‘‘Quiney, Thomas,’’ (529); ‘‘Shakespeare, William,’’ (586–591).
Chute, Marchette. ‘‘Shakespeare, William,’’ in the New Book of Knowledge, vol. 5 (17). Grolier, Inc., 1980. (130b-134).
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, edited by Edward Hubler. New York: Signet Classic, 1963.
Bonjour, Adrien. ‘‘The Question of Hamlet’s Grief,’’ in English Studies: A Journal of English Letters and Philology 43 (1962): 336-43. Refutes the notion that Hamlet suffers from excessive grief over his father’s death by studying the critical perspective which treats him as a ‘‘slave of passion.’’
Brown, John Russell, and Bernard Harris, eds. Hamlet (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 5). London: Edward Arnold (Publishers), 1963. Contains ten essays discussing a wide range of topics in Hamlet by such noted scholars as G. K. Hunter, R. A. Foakes, John Russell Brown, and Stanley Wells.
Burge, Barbara. ‘‘‘Hamlet’: The Search...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bowers, Fredson Thayer. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. A full discussion of revenge tragedy and its connections to the central action of Hamlet. Bowers’ historical account of the conventions of revenge tragedy provides an illuminating context for the play.
Grene, Nicholas. Shakespeare’s Tragic Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The chapter on Hamlet attempts to revise and question some of the Christian interpretations of the play. Also of value is Grene’s connecting Hamlet to the play that preceded it in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600).
Hunt, Marvin W. Looking for Hamlet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. This guide to Hamlet provides an introduction to the play along with extensive literary criticism. Some issues discussed are Shakespeare’s influences, the different versions of the play that exist today, and various interpretations and criticisms. Includes black and white photos of actors playing Hamlet and a bibliography of resources for further research.
Prosser, Eleanor. “Hamlet” and Revenge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. Prosser uses an historical approach to try to answer such central questions as the...
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