Teaching Approaches

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The Conflict Between Appearance and Reality: Between Claudius’s “smiling villainy,” Hamlet’s alleged madness, and the ghost’s cryptic nature, Hamlet is full of ambiguity. By the end of the play, every character except for Horatio believes that Hamlet has truly gone mad. Hamlet’s madness begins as an act, but the question of whether his madness might be real has plagued readers since the play’s debut. The difficulty in discerning appearance from reality can be further explored through the nature of the ghost. A major part of Hamlet’s inability to take revenge against Claudius rests in his own uncertainty regarding the ghost’s claims. The untrustworthiness of appearances and the unknowability of reality limit Hamlet’s ability to act. 

  • For discussion: Do you think that Hamlet’s madness is real or feigned? How does Hamlet’s mental state inform how you read the play? 
  • For discussion: In what ways does Hamlet doubt the ghost’s reality? The ghost’s identity? How do Hamlet’s doubts about the ghost impact the way he approaches his revenge? How does the play’s stance on revenge change when the ghost is considered from different perspectives? 
  • For discussion: How do different characters confront the conflict between appearances and reality? Is Hamlet’s judgment objective or subjective? What factors influence his understanding of the characters around him? 

Revenge as Theme: Revenge is the catalyst for the plot of Hamlet, and it is modeled in three different ways by Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. All three characters have lost a beloved father and are called upon to avenge them. Laertes and Fortinbras are quick to action, whereas Hamlet is not totally convinced of the ghost’s claims and instead decides to obtain more tangible proof. The morality of murder and revenge is a frequent source of angst for Hamlet, who has difficulty reconciling his own values with the gruesome task the ghost has given him. 

  • For discussion: Does the play advocate for or against revenge? Is Hamlet’s revenge successful? What does the play suggest makes someone a successful avenger? 
  • For discussion: What evidence in the text suggests that revenge is cyclical? Do you think that the cycle will end with Hamlet? Why or why not? 

Hamlet as a Religiously Conflicted Character: Hamlet’s character and the conflicts he faces are deeply rooted in Christian beliefs. Furthermore, the play situates his uncertainty about the ghost in the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, which Shakespeare’s contemporaries experienced firsthand. Traditional Catholic doctrine affirmed the existence of purgatorial ghosts, which is what the ghost in Hamlet claims to be. Purgatorial ghosts were spirits of the dead who could ask their families to give offerings or pray for them in order to reduce their time in purgatory, an intermediate state between heaven and hell. However, Protestants rejected the doctrine of purgatory and believed that ghosts were mere manifestations of evil. Furthermore, Protestants considered revenge itself to be at odds with Christian beliefs. 

  • For discussion: How is Hamlet’s sense of filial obedience at odds with his religious beliefs? How do religious values obstruct Hamlet’s pursuit of revenge? To what extent can Hamlet be read as a play about resisting the temptations of sin? 
  • For discussion: How does Hamlet’s religious conflict echo the cultural landscape of Elizabethan England? How does this knowledge affect your reading of the play? 
  • For discussion: How do other characters in Hamlet experience religious conflict? Consider Claudius as a Cain-like figure and Ophelia’s alleged suicide. 

Isolation as Theme: Hamlet begins as an emotionally isolated figure. He continues to mourn his father in the midst of a court that has moved on to celebrating a wedding. His knowledge of his father’s murder serves to deepen this isolation, driving him to mistrust everyone except Horatio. Ophelia’s abandonment, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s spying, and his mother’s marriage to Claudius leave Hamlet almost completely alone. Other characters also experience their own forms of isolation, most notably Ophelia’s physically isolation as a result of her family’s insistence that she avoid Hamlet. Even Claudius is mentally isolated by his knowledge of his “foul and most unnatural murder,” forced as he is to stew in private guilt. 

  • For discussion: What mental and physical factors contribute to Hamlet’s isolation? How might the story have gone differently if Hamlet had sought out allies rather than isolating himself? 
  • For discussion: What factors contribute to Ophelia’s isolation? How is Ophelia’s story representative of the status of women in Elizabethan England? 
  • For discussion: Do you think there is a relationship between isolation and madness in the cases of Hamlet and Ophelia? Why or why not? 

The Uncertainty of Death as Theme: Death pervades Hamlet, which begins with the murder of King Hamlet and ends with the deaths of all its principal characters. Hamlet spends much of the play soliloquizing about suicide, held back by his uncertainty with regards to what lays beyond the “mortal coil.” Symbols such as Yorick’s skull stand as a testament to Hamlet’s questions about death. In particular, Hamlet grapples with the meaning of life’s fleeting attainments in the face of death’s mystery. 

  • For discussion: How do Hamlet’s views on death evolve throughout the play? To what extent has Hamlet accepted his own death by the end of the play? 
  • For discussion: How does religion influence the play’s portrayal of death? 
  • For discussion: What does Hamlet’s conversation with the First Clown in the Graveyard reveal about how different characters view death? What does Yorick’s skull symbolize? 

Tricky Issues to Approach While Teaching 

Shakespeare’s Diction and Syntax Are Unfamiliar: Shakespearean texts may present a challenge for students because of their unfamiliar vocabulary and verse structure. However, it is important to remind students that Hamlet is written in Early Modern English and is intelligible to modern readers with a bit of practice. 

  • What to do: Provide students with a vocabulary sheet of unfamiliar words prior to each assigned section of reading. Consider going over the plot of the play in advance so that students have more context for unfamiliar words and phrases. 
  • What to do: Consider reading the first few sections of the text in class so that students aren’t overwhelmed when trying to read independently. Provide ample opportunities for collaborative reading and discussion so that students can ask questions of and help educate their peers. 
  • What to do: Consider giving students the opportunity in class to read the text aloud or to hear the text read aloud to gain a better understanding of how Shakespeare’s meter and diction sound. 
  • What to do: Encourage students to keep track of difficult words, phrases, or concepts as they read. Consider addressing common points of confusion as a class. 

Hamlet Is Full of Ambiguity: Though the ambiguities in Hamlet have contributed to its continued relevance in both academia and popular culture, they can also provide a source of confusion and frustration for students seeking definitive answers. Topics such as Hamlet’s madness have the potential to be divisive during classroom discussions. 

  • What to do: Screen scenes from different film or stage versions of the play, or split students into small groups and have each group perform their interpretation of an assigned scene. Remind students that Hamlet was written for the stage and that readers, audiences, and actors alike must interpret the text. 
  • What to do: Host mock-debates and assign different students or groups of students perspectives that they must adopt. 
  • What to do: Have students read supplemental texts such as Margaret Atwood’s “Gertrude Talks Back” so as to gain a better understanding of textual ambiguity. Consider assigning students a creative project where they must select and respond to one of the ambiguities in Hamlet

Hamlet Is Rife With Misogynistic Rhetoric: Though Prince Hamlet is the protagonist of the story and readers are asked to sympathize with him, his views on women are narrow-minded and demeaning. Furthermore, the emphasis on Ophelia’s virginity and the policing of Gertrude’s sexuality have the potential to alienate contemporary readers. 

  • What to do: Encourage students to engage critically with Hamlet’s misogynistic rhetoric. Where is it coming from? Do Hamlet’s views on women evolve throughout the play? How so? 
  • What to do: Use the text as a jumping off point to discuss contemporary issues. Discuss the historical context in which Hamlet is set and ask students to draw connections or distinctions between Hamlet’s world and the modern day. 

Hamlet Depicts Suicidal Ideation and Almost All of the Principal Characters Die: Many contemporary psychologists and literary critics view Hamlet as suffering from mental illness, specifically depression. Hamlet’s soliloquies feature intense self-loathing and suicidal ideation, which can be distressing for students. Additionally, Ophelia’s apparent suicide can be a sensitive topic, and the play ends violently in a combination of murder and treachery. 

  • What to do: Encourage students to consider Hamlet from both a clinical perspective and a literary perspective. Though the language is archaic, much of Hamlet’s enduring popularity is rooted in its psychologically compelling characters. Have students consider the choices made by the characters and discuss how the characters may have been influenced by mental illness. 
  • What to do: Discuss the ending in terms of plot structure and themes. Encourage students to consider why Shakespeare chose to have all of the central characters die. What message does the ending send about the merits of revenge? Is the message convincing? Explain your reasoning. 
  • What to do: Consider assigning students a creative project wherein they must write from Horatio’s perspective after the events of act 5, scene 2. For example, consider having students write eulogies for the characters or a speech to the people of Denmark explaining the events of the play. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Hamlet

While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching Hamlet, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play. 

Focus on the perspectives of different characters within Hamlet. Hamlet is a compelling protagonist, but focusing on the experiences of other characters can help enrich the play. How might Ophelia feel after Hamlet tells her to go to a nunnery? How might Gertrude feel about her son’s apparent madness? What may have motivated Claudius to kill his brother? 

Focus on Hamlet as a Renaissance humanist text. Hamlet is deeply introspective and conflicted—uncommon traits among revenge tragedy protagonists. To what extent is Hamlet a product of the English Renaissance? What might be different had the play been written during a different literary period? What role do the allusions to classical antiquity play in shaping Hamlet as a character and Hamlet as a text? 

Focus on the motif of war and violence. In act 1, scene 1, the castle guards mention that Elsinore seems to be preparing for war. Fortinbras’s father was killed in battle by King Hamlet, and now Norway is waging war with surrounding nations to regain power. There is also an internal war happening within the castle between Hamlet and Claudius, and in act 4, scene 5, Laertes gathers followers with the intent of overthrowing Claudius. To what extent is violence a natural part of the world of the play? How might violence be cyclical? Do you think the end of the play will stop the cycle of violence or perpetuate it? Explain your reasoning. 

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