One of the best-known plays ever written and undoubtedly William Shakespeare’s most popular, Hamlet was first performed in 1601 or 1602. Although it appears Shakespeare took the basic premise from another play written decades earlier, his drama is a very significant literary departure from the original—and from revenge plays of the era: It is a psychological drama developed through the protagonist’s intense introspection. Furthermore, Hamlet is the first truly introspective character in English literature. By focusing on Hamlet’s inner conflict rather than plot action, Shakespeare created a character that has endured through the ages.
Hamlet is an emotionally complex young prince, educated in philosophy and theology. Upon his father’s death, he returns home where he finds reason to believe his father, the King of Denmark, was murdered by his brother Claudius, who has assumed the throne. The responsibility of avenging his father’s death by killing his uncle falls to Hamlet; complicating his charge is that Hamlet’s mother has married Claudius. Although Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s murder, he delays. Much of the play centers on Hamlet’s prolonged inaction and, most importantly, on the psychological torment of his emotional quandary. He wants to act, but for reasons even he does not fully understand, he does not. Plagued by uncertainty, Hamlet grows increasingly volatile and troubled; he is ultimately killed, his death the result of a devious scheme orchestrated by the illegitimate king he was to have murdered in revenge. Although Hamlet eventually kills Claudius, his action proves to be irrelevant by the time it occurs. Hamlet dies as the result of his own inner turmoil, and there is no sense of redemption in the play’s conclusion.
Although modern readers may not relate to Hamlet’s life as a prince or to the precise dilemma he faces, his essential conflicts are universal: the challenge of doing the right thing, especially when the right thing is not clearly defined; the inner conflict between passion and reason; the emotional turmoil of family drama; the trauma of betrayal; and the complex issues of deception, trust, loyalty, and honor. Although few readers would opt to feign madness, as Hamlet does, adopting a certain persona or emotional disguise when faced with a difficult new situation is not unusual human behavior in any age. Hamlet has been adapted to the screen more than twenty-five times, proving that these themes still resonate with readers today.
Hamlet is rife with uncertainty. Shakespeare does not answer the questions raised by his characters and their actions; readers will have their own interpretations of what the playwright intended. There is much room for doubt about different characters’ motivations and Hamlet’s true emotional and mental state. Some readers will sympathize with Hamlet’s desire to do the right thing, while others will regard his increasingly volatile behavior with ambivalence, at best. Hamlet’s complexity and unpredictability are precisely what give Shakespeare’s play its depth and humanity. At times honorable, rash, deceptive, moralizing, cruel, mocking, insightful, and kind, Hamlet is endlessly fascinating. He may be a Danish prince from a distant century, but in his struggles to find his place in the world and behave honorably, Hamlet endures as an intriguing figure in world literature, as relevant to readers today as he was to Shakespeare’s audience.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Define and describe Hamlet’s moral quandary.
2. Identify the primary themes in Hamlet.
3. Determine what makes Hamlet such a timeless and popular work.
4. Explain Hamlet’s feelings about passion vs. reason.
5. Identify examples of deception in the text and explain their significance.
6. Discuss ambiguity and uncertainty in the play and Shakespeare’s possible intentions regarding them.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary...
(The entire section is 598 words.)
1. In Act One, Scene Three, Polonius advises Laertes: “To thine own self be true.” Given all of Hamlet’s attempts at deception, how do you think Hamlet would feel about this advice? Although Hamlet is not honest with everyone around him, do you think he is honest with himself? Can you justify and reconcile Hamlet’s notions of honor with his acts of deception?
2. Hamlet struggles with the dueling forces of passion and reason, behaving impulsively at some moments and restrained by his thoughts at others. What are some examples of his behavior in which passion is the driving force? When does he appear to be driven by reason? What are the dangers of each, according to Hamlet? Do you agree?
(The entire section is 406 words.)
beteem: to permit
canon: the law
countenance: noun the face
dole: archaic sorrow
obsequious: excessively servile in self-promotion
perchance: archaic perhaps
supposal: archaic an assumption
suspiration: a sigh
writ: archaic prescribed
1. “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death / The memory be green . . . .” Who says this, and what does he...
(The entire section is 839 words.)
beguile: to woo, to seduce
behooves: requires (in the sense of being necessary or worthwhile)
besmirch: to tarnish
blastments: archaic sudden strikes
calumnious: malicious, false
chariest: archaic most cautious
dalliance: a flirtation
importunity: an insistent demand
libertine: someone lacking moral principles
prodigal: wasteful, extravagant
sect: a rank
slander: to disgrace
tether: a restraint, often in the...
(The entire section is 573 words.)
beetles: archaic overhangs
canonized: saintly, above reproach
cerements: shrouds, cloths for wrapping corpses
clepe: archaic to name, to call
impartment: archaic a communication
issue: archaic an end
plausive: expressing praise or approval
rouse: to wake
traduced: archaic exposed someone falsely to shame or blame
upspring reels: archaic lively dancing, spinning
wassail: riotous drinking, revelry
1. What does Hamlet think of Claudius’s drinking?...
(The entire section is 262 words.)
abused: archaic deceived
adulterate: relating to an extra-marital affair as an act of adultery
arrant: archaic extreme, without moderation
blazon: a coat of arms
cellarage: a part of a cellar
disposition: character, nature
forged: false or deceptive (a forged document)
incestuous: relating to incest, an intimate relationship between a brother and sister or between other close relatives
lazar-like: like Lazarus, a famous leper
leprous: suffering from leprosy, an infectious disease that causes deformities
(The entire section is 689 words.)
beshrew: archaic to curse, to blame
coted: archaic treated
drabbing: associating with prostitutes
encompassment: an encirclement
fordoes: archaic destroys
incontinency: a lack of restraint
perusal: a study, an observation
prenominate: archaic aforementioned
purport: significance, meaning
wanton: extravagant, somewhat immoral
wherefore: archaic why
windlasses: devices for raising or lowering, typically on a ship
1. What does Polonius ask of Reynaldo? How does he propose that Reynaldo go...
(The entire section is 360 words.)
abridgement: an interruption
appurtenance: archaic an accessory
arras: archaic a tapestry
bawdry: archaic coarse, obscene
declension: a descent
distemper: a bad humor, an ill temper
escoted: archaic provided for
expostulate: to speak
fain: archaic gladly
fretted: archaic divided
gentry: archaic courtesy
impasted: archaic encrusted
indict: to accuse
liege: archaic a sovereign
o’erhasty: archaic overly quick, rash...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
affliction: a sickness
affront: to offend
assay: archaic to tempt
beck: archaic command
bestow: archaic to hide
bodkin: archaic a dagger
bourn: archaic borders
calumny: a false, slanderous statement
contumely: archaic insulting language
discourse: a conversation
disprized: archaic lacking value
espials: archaic spies
inoculate: to protect, to render immune
niggard: archaic reluctant, difficult
orisons: archaic prayers
(The entire section is 1002 words.)
beget: archaic to bring on
enactures: archaic actions
groundlings: the people who stood on the ground instead of being seated at the theater, usually the poorest and least well-educated in the audience
judicious: discerning through sound judgment
keen: archaic piercing
lief: archaic prefer
naught: archaic naughty, vile
occulted: archaic hidden
robustious: boisterous, unruly
shent: archaic rebuked
stithy: archaic an...
(The entire section is 867 words.)
assay: archaic an effort
engaged: archaic involved
estate: archaic reign
noyance: archaic harm
vantage: archaic an advantageous perspective
weal: archaic welfare
1. How does Claudius justify sending Hamlet away with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Is this the real reason?
Claudius claims that Hamlet’s madness is a danger to him and to the kingdom. The real reason is that Claudius is aware that Hamlet intends to punish him for his crime, but he cannot reveal...
(The entire section is 610 words.)
batten: archaic to fatten, to glut
bulwark: a defensive wall
counterfeit: a fake
cutpurse: archaic a pickpocket
enseamed: archaic greasy
gambol: to run playfully
incorporal: lacking form, immaterial
ravel: to tangle
rhapsody: a highly emotional expression of feelings
rood: a crucifix
scourge: a whip used for punishment
unction: a salve
1. At the beginning of the scene, Gertrude says to Hamlet, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”...
(The entire section is 859 words.)
appliance: archaic a remedy
arraign: to accuse
cicatrice: archaic a scar
collateral: an accessory
countenance: archaic verb to support, to favor
counter: archaic treason, rebellion
cuckold: the spouse of an adulterer/adulteress
hectic: archaic noun a fever
hedge: to protect, to surround
importunate: archaic unfortunate, unendurable
imposthume: archaic an abscess
(The entire section is 1001 words.)
abuse: archaic a deception
bore: archaic scope, size
grapple: to wrestle, to struggle
incorpsed: archaic absorbed
overlooked: archaic read
unsinewed: archaic cowardly
1. How does Hamlet explain his return to Denmark?
In a letter to Horatio, Hamlet explains that his ship was chased by pirates. He alone became their prisoner, and they returned him to Denmark.
2. Laertes asks why Claudius did not kill Hamlet when he had the chance. What two reasons does Claudius give?...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
abhorred: archaic adjective horrifying, repulsive
betoken: archaic to signify
bunghole: the hole in a cask by which it is filled and emptied
churlish: taciturn, rude
crowner: archaic a coroner
cudgel: to beat
equivocation: an ambiguity, a falsehood
forbear: to be patient
gibes: sneers, mockery
indentures: property liens
kibe: an inflamed heel
loggats: an old English game
maimed: archaic shortened
mazzard: archaic a head
obsequies: archaic funeral rites
(The entire section is 597 words.)
benetted: archaic surrounded
canker: disease, destructive force
concernancy: archaic relevance
conjuration: a magic spell
cozenage: archaic a scam, a trick
dearth: a lack
imponed: archaic staked
importing: archaic regarding
imputation: a statement attributing guilt
insinuation: an unpleasant hint or suggestion
kettle: a drum
meed: archaic a fitting reward
o’ercrows: archaic conquers
ordinant: an order, a decree
(The entire section is 752 words.)
1. The ghost in the first scene is the spirit of
A. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius.
B. Hamlet’s older brother, who was meant to become King of Denmark.
C. Hamlet’s father, former King of Denmark.
D. the King of Norway, who has come to warn Hamlet of impending war.
E. Horatio, Hamlet’s former tutor, who has come to warn him of corruption within the kingdom.
2. The ghost reveals to Hamlet that
A. England plans to attack Denmark.
B. Claudius killed Hamlet’s brother, heir to the throne.
C. Hamlet’s mother killed his father to marry...
(The entire section is 1989 words.)
1. Hamlet is preoccupied with death throughout the play. Why is Hamlet so consumed by death? Explain how each of the following quotations addresses a different aspect of death and Hamlet’s thoughts on the subject. Also, discuss what each statement reveals about Hamlet’s character.
“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,/Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!”
“To be or not to be–That is the question. / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of trouble, / And by opposing end them.”
(The entire section is 2948 words.)