Introduction

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So you’re going to teach William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Hamlet has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenges —complex language, myriad themes, suicide and death—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying Hamlet will give them unique insight into humanism as a literary movement and the English Renaissance as a literary period, as well as important themes surrounding mortality, revenge, and the subjective nature of human experience. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects to keep in mind before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 1603 
  • Recommended Grade Levels: 11th, 12th, undergrad 
  • Approximate Word Count: 30,600 
  • Author: William Shakespeare 
  • Country of Origin: England 
  • Genre: Play (Tragedy) 
  • Literary Period: English Renaissance, Elizabethan 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Self 
  • Setting: Elsinore, Denmark, 14th or 15th century CE 
  • Structure: Five-Act Stage Drama 
  • Mood: Dark, Contemplative, Anxious

Texts That Go Well With Hamlet

Beowulf is an Old English epic detailing the heroic exploits of Beowulf, a Geatish hero. Beowulf’s story deals with familiar themes, such as honor and what it means to be heroic. It takes a very different approach from Hamlet, which can be attributed to the different cultural contexts in which the two pieces were composed. Whereas Hamlet is a deeply introspective character, tempered by his own doubts, Beowulf is all steely exterior, a man of action and a seeker of glory. 

“Gertrude Talks Back” is a 1993 short story by Margaret Atwood that reimagines the “closet scene” from act 3, scene 4, from Gertrude’s perspective. As Gertrude responds to her son’s accusations, she asserts her independence, laying out her own reasons for remarrying. She also states that it was not Claudius who killed King Hamlet, but her. “Gertrude Talks Back” imbues Gertrude with a narrative voice and agency that she lacks in Hamlet, offering a modern, feminist re-envisioning of the character. 

Great Expectations is an 1861 novel by Charles Dickens that follows the life of Pip, an orphaned boy living with his abusive sister and her kind husband. Throughout his life, Pip struggles through feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and a desire to find a place in the world. Pip’s inner sense of morality is placed at odds with his desire for advancement in the world, echoing Hamlet’s agonized deliberations over whether or not he should kill Claudius. 

“The Lady of Shalott” is an 1842 poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that tells the story of a woman locked in a tower who is forbidden from looking out at nearby Camelot lest a curse befall her. One day, Sir Lancelot rides by her tower and the lady makes the fateful decision to look out at him, triggering the curse. She dies while floating down the river in a boat, a strikingly similar image to Ophelia’s death by drowning. The Lady of Shalott’s isolated tower also mirrors Ophelia’s cloistered life, blindly obedient as she is to her family’s wishes. 

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a 1915 poem by T. S. Elliot that explores ideas of social isolation, disillusionment, and mortality through the stream-of-conscious musings of the aging J. Alfred Prufrock. Though Prufrock claims he was never “meant to be” like Prince Hamlet, his introspective struggle to ask the “overwhelming question” recalls Hamlet’s existential soliloquizing. Prufrock is steeped in Elliot’s disillusionment with the superficiality of modernity, offering a contrast to the philosophical depths plumbed in...

(This entire section contains 761 words.)

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Shakespeare’s age. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a 1966 absurdist play by Tom Stoppard that retells the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It builds on several themes from Hamlet by reinforcing the figure of life as a performance and emphasizing the difficulty of differentiating between reality and illusion. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to understand their surroundings, ultimately resigning themselves to their inevitable deaths. 

The Spanish Tragedy is a 16th-century play by Thomas Kyd that is often credited with popularizing the revenge tragedy genre. It follows the story of Hieronimo, who hopes to avenge the murder of his son, Horatio. It shares many structural elements with Hamlet, including a play within a play and a ghost in search of revenge. They are also thematically similar, focusing on ideas of revenge, justice, and family. 

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Key Plot Points