ENGL 339: Shakespeare
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Hamlet: Study Guide 


1) Review "Problems With Shakespeare's Texts"; then read "Establishing a Text:  The Example of Hamlet." Be sure that you understand the editorial choices that go into any printed edition of Hamlet, as well as the directorial decisions concerning the script that underlie any performance of the play.  (You will want to keep these notions in mind as we screen and critique Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.) 

2) Definition: a SOLILOQUY is an introspective speech, usually in blank verse, delivered when the speaker is alone on the stage.  It is used by the playwright to reveal a character's innermost thoughts.  (For example, Henry V's "Ceremony" soliloquy reveals Henry's thoughts about the burden of kingship.)

Principal Hamlet Soliloquies and Key Scenes--A Handy Checklist

  • Soliloquy 1:  I.ii.129-59 "O that this too too sullied flesh. . ."
  • Soliloquy 2:  I.v.92-112  "O all you host of heaven!. . ."
  • Soliloquy 4:  III.i.56-88  "To be, or not to be. . ."
  • Soliloquy 5:  III.ii.396-407 "'Tis now the very witching time..."
  • Soliloquy 6:  III.iii.73-96 "Now might I do it pat. . ."
  • Soliloquy 7:  IV.iv.32-66 "How all occasions do inform against me. . ."
  • Council scene:  I.ii.1-128
  • Fishmonger scene: II.ii.171-224
  • Schoolfellow scene: II.ii.225-388
  • Nunnery scene:  III.i.88-164
  • The Mousetrap play scene:  III.ii.94-276
  • Prayer scene:  III.iii.36-98
  • Closet scene/Portrait scene:  III.iv.1-53; III.iv.54-218
  • Ophelia's madness scenes:  IV.v.21-73; IV.v.154-198
  • Graveyard scene:  V.i.1-294


Hamlet: Study Questions 

1) To what extent does Hamlet correspond to classical or medieval notions of tragedy?  What (if anything) is Hamlet's fatal flaw?  Why does he hesitate to act after promising his father's ghost that he will avenge his murder?  Compare/contrast the protagonist's decisiveness and will to act in Macbeth

2) Note the various familial relationships in Hamlet.  Compare and contrast the family unit of Polonius / Laertes / Ophelia with Hamlet's relationships to the Ghost of Hamlet Sr., to Gertrude and to Claudius.  Like Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras are sons confronted with a father's death.  To what extent do they function as foils to Hamlet?  What do they have in common?  How do they differ? 

3)  Why does Hamlet wait so long to kill Claudius?  What are the reasons for his hesitation?  How valid are they?  How many times does he have the opportunity to attack Claudius?  What are his reasons for not doing so? 

4) Hamlet is a play in which nothing can be taken at face value:  appearances are frequently deceptive, and many characters engage in play-acting, spying and pretense.  What deliberate attempts are made at deception?  Are the intended audiences deceived?  While some deceptions are perpetrated in order to conceal secrets, others aim to uncover hidden truths.  Which are which?  To what extent are they successful?  Note references to appearances, disguises, pretense, seeming, masks, acting, etc. 

5) Pay attention to the treatment of the women characters Gertrude and Ophelia.  Is there any basis for the Freudian interpretation of an Oedipal attraction between Hamlet and his mother?  Hamlet does seem obsessed with his mother's sexuality.  How old is Hamlet?  How old do you think Gertrude is?  Is Hamlet's disgust at Gertrude's sexuality justified?  To what extent is Gertrude guilty?  Was she "in on" her husband's murder?  Has Claudius confided in her since the murder?  How does Hamlet's perception of his mother affect his behavior or attitude toward Ophelia?  Why does he tell Ophelia to go to a nunnery?  Does Hamlet really love Ophelia?  If so, why is he cruel to her? 

6) Hamlet claims that his madness is feigned, an "antic disposition" which he puts on for his own purposes (I.v.172).  Why would Hamlet want to feign madness?  How can an appearance of insanity help him achieve his ends?  (Compare the role of Touchstone, the "fool" in AYLI.)  Is he really sane throughout the play, or does he ever cross the line into madness?  What about Ophelia's mad scene?  Is it real or feigned?  Is there "method in her madness" as well, or is she entirely irrational?  Why has she gone mad?  (What two reasons do her songs suggest?) 

7) Hamlet famously declares that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark."  What other natural imagery is used to describe the corruption of the Danish court?  What "unnatural" events or behaviors preceded the events recounted in the play?  What "unnatural" events or behaviors occur during the play?  Compare/contrast with AYLI, HV and MAC

8)  Moral ambiguityHamlet and Macbeth recount similar stories (the usurping of a throne) from differing perspectives -- those of perpetrator and avenger.  Just as Macbeth was not ALL bad, Hamlet is not ALL good.  What are some of his faults or short-comings?  Do these constitute a "fatal flaw" (to use the concept and terminology of Aristotle or Bradley)? Why might Shakespeare have chosen to remain in the "grey area" rather than a more "black and white" depiction of Good and Evil?  Compare with Shakespeare's depiction of the protagonists in Henry V and in Macbeth.

Click here for Hamlet Video Questions

Click here for information on Establishing the Text of Hamlet

Click here for information on Revenge Tragedy

Click here for information about Tragedy

Click here for Macbeth Study Guide

Contents of this and all linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1996-2002 

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