Introductory Lecture and Objectives

Hamlet eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

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. 

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

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 lists...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

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.)

Act One, Scene One


assail: to assault

avouch: archaic to affirm, to offer proof

emulate: archaic adjective competitive, ambitious

eruption: a volatility

forfeit: to sacrifice

heraldry: an armory

jump: archaic precisely

moiety: archaic a half; a part or portion

palmy: archaic prosperous

parle: a conversation

portentous: ominous

precurse: archaic a prologue

rummage: a commotion

smote: attacked

unfold: archaic to identify

uphoarded: hoarded

usurp’st: archaic disturbs


(The entire section is 486 words.)

Act One, Scene Two


beteem: to permit

canon: the law

countenance: noun the face

dole: archaic sorrow

impious: profane

obsequious: excessively servile in self-promotion

obstinate: stubborn

perchance: archaic perhaps

retrograde: backward

sable: black

supposal: archaic an assumption

suspiration: a sigh

tenable: defensible

truant: lazy

writ: archaic prescribed

Study Questions

1. “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death / The memory be green . . . .” Who says this, and what does he mean?


(The entire section is 839 words.)

Act One, Scene Three


beguile: to woo, to seduce

behooves: requires (in the sense of being necessary or worthwhile)

besmirch: to tarnish

blastments: archaic sudden strikes

bounteous: generous

calumnious: malicious, false

chariest: archaic most cautious

circumscribed: restricted

credent: naïve

dalliance: a flirtation

importunity: an insistent demand

libertine: someone lacking moral principles

perilous: dangerous

precepts: rules

prodigal: wasteful, extravagant

scanter: scarcer

sect: a rank

slander: to disgrace

tether: a restraint, often in the form of a rope...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Act One, Scene Four


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

ponderous: weighty

rouse: to wake

traduced: archaic exposed someone falsely to shame or blame

upspring reels: archaic lively dancing, spinning

wassail: riotous drinking, revelry

Study Questions

1. What does Hamlet think of Claudius’s drinking? Why?


(The entire section is 262 words.)

Act One, Scene Five


abused: archaic deceived

adulterate: relating to an extra-marital affair as an act of adultery

ambiguous: unclear

antic: crazy

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

lewdness: crudeness

o’ermaster’t: to...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Act Two, Scene One


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

Study Questions

1. What does Polonius ask of Reynaldo? How does he propose that Reynaldo go about this...

(The entire section is 360 words.)

Act Two, Scene Two


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

levies: taxes

liege: archaic a sovereign

o’erhasty: archaic overly quick, rash

paragon: a model,...

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Act Three, Scene One


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

sounded: questioned


(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Act Three, Scene Two


beget: archaic to bring on

choler: anger

confederate: allied

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

purgation: purification

robustious: boisterous, unruly

shent: archaic rebuked

stithy: archaic an anvil


(The entire section is 867 words.)

Act Three, Scene Three


assay: archaic an effort

engaged: archaic involved

estate: archaic reign

mortised: connected

noyance: archaic harm

vantage: archaic an advantageous perspective

weal: archaic welfare

Study Questions

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 this to anyone....

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Act Three, Scene Four


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

panders: indulges

ravel: to tangle

reechy: dirty

rhapsody: a highly emotional expression of feelings

rood: a crucifix

scourge: a whip used for punishment

tristful: sad

unction: a salve

Study Questions

1. At the beginning of the scene, Gertrude says to Hamlet, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” Hamlet replies...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

Act Four, Scenes One, Two, Three, Four, and Five


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

heaves: sighs

hectic: archaic noun a fever

hedge: to protect, to surround

hugger-mugger: clandestine

importunate: archaic unfortunate, unendurable

imposthume: archaic an abscess

incensed: angered


(The entire section is 1001 words.)

Act Four, Scenes Six and Seven


abuse: archaic a deception

bore: archaic scope, size

grapple: to wrestle, to struggle

gyves: shackles

incorpsed: archaic absorbed

overlooked: archaic read

unsinewed: archaic cowardly

Study Questions

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.)

Act Five, Scene One


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

pocky: diseased

quiddits: archaic...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Act Five, Scene Two


benetted: archaic surrounded

canker: disease, destructive force

carouses: toasts

concernancy: archaic relevance

conjuration: a magic spell

cozenage: archaic a scam, a trick

dearth: a lack

extolment: praise

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

ordnance: artillery


(The entire section is 752 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

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 Claudius.


(The entire section is 1989 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

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.”

While holding...

(The entire section is 2948 words.)