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Jeffrey R. Wilson
Essays on hamlet.
Written as the author taught Hamlet every semester for a decade, these lightning essays ask big conceptual questions about the play with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover, and answer them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. In doing so, Hamlet becomes a lens for life today, generating insights on everything from xenophobia, American fraternities, and religious fundamentalism to structural misogyny, suicide contagion, and toxic love.
Prioritizing close reading over historical context, these explorations are highly textual and highly theoretical, often philosophical, ethical, social, and political. Readers see King Hamlet as a pre-modern villain, King Claudius as a modern villain, and Prince Hamlet as a post-modern villain. Hamlet’s feigned madness becomes a window into failed insanity defenses in legal trials. He knows he’s being watched in “To be or not to be”: the soliloquy is a satire of philosophy. Horatio emerges as Shakespeare’s authorial avatar for meta-theatrical commentary, Fortinbras as the hero of the play. Fate becomes a viable concept for modern life, and honor a source of tragedy. The metaphor of music in the play makes Ophelia Hamlet’s instrument. Shakespeare, like the modern corporation, stands against sexism, yet perpetuates it unknowingly. We hear his thoughts on single parenting, sending children off to college, and the working class, plus his advice on acting and writing, and his claims to be the next Homer or Virgil. In the context of four centuries of Hamlet hate, we hear how the text draws audiences in, how it became so famous, and why it continues to captivate audiences.
At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, these essays are concrete examples of the mind-altering power of literature and literary studies, unravelling the ongoing implications of the English language’s most significant artistic object of the past millennium.
Why is Hamlet the most famous English artwork of the past millennium? Is it a sexist text? Why does Hamlet speak in prose? Why must he die? Does Hamlet depict revenge, or justice? How did the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, transform into a story about a son dealing with the death of a father? Did Shakespeare know Aristotle’s theory of tragedy? How did our literary icon, Shakespeare, see his literary icons, Homer and Virgil? Why is there so much comedy in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy? Why is love a force of evil in the play? Did Shakespeare believe there’s a divinity that shapes our ends? How did he define virtue? What did he think about psychology? politics? philosophy? What was Shakespeare’s image of himself as an author? What can he, arguably the greatest writer of all time, teach us about our own writing? What was his theory of literature? Why do people like Hamlet ? How do the Hamlet haters of today compare to those of yesteryears? Is it dangerous for our children to read a play that’s all about suicide?
These are some of the questions asked in this book, a collection of essays on Shakespeare’s Hamlet stemming from my time teaching the play every semester in my Why Shakespeare? course at Harvard University. During this time, I saw a series of bright young minds from wildly diverse backgrounds find their footing in Hamlet, and it taught me a lot about how Shakespeare’s tragedy works, and why it remains with us in the modern world. Beyond ghosts, revenge, and tragedy, Hamlet is a play about being in college, being in love, gender, misogyny, friendship, theater, philosophy, theology, injustice, loss, comedy, depression, death, self-doubt, mental illness, white privilege, overbearing parents, existential angst, international politics, the classics, the afterlife, and the meaning of it all.
These essays grow from the central paradox of the play: it helps us understand the world we live in, yet we don't really understand the text itself very well. For all the attention given to Hamlet , there’s no consensus on the big questions—how it works, why it grips people so fiercely, what it’s about. These essays pose first-order questions about what happens in Hamlet and why, mobilizing answers for reflections on life, making the essays both highly textual and highly theoretical.
Each semester that I taught the play, I would write a new essay about Hamlet . They were meant to be models for students, the sort of essay that undergrads read and write – more rigorous than the puff pieces in the popular press, but riskier than the scholarship in most academic journals. While I later added scholarly outerwear, these pieces all began just like the essays I was assigning to students – as short close readings with a reader and a text and a desire to determine meaning when faced with a puzzling question or problem.
The turn from text to context in recent scholarly books about Hamlet is quizzical since we still don’t have a strong sense of, to quote the title of John Dover Wilson’s 1935 book, What Happens in Hamlet. Is the ghost real? Is Hamlet mad, or just faking? Why does he delay? These are the kinds of questions students love to ask, but they haven’t been – can’t be – answered by reading the play in the context of its sources (recently addressed in Laurie Johnson’s The Tain of Hamlet ), its multiple texts (analyzed by Paul Menzer in The Hamlets  and Zachary Lesser in Hamlet after Q1 ), the Protestant reformation (the focus of Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory  and John E. Curran, Jr.’s Hamlet, Protestantism, and the Mourning of Contingency ), Renaissance humanism (see Rhodri Lewis, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness ), Elizabethan political theory (see Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet ), the play’s reception history (see David Bevington, Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages ), its appropriation by modern philosophers (covered in Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine  and Andrew Cutrofello’s All for Nothing: Hamlet’s Negativity ), or its recent global travels (addressed, for example, in Margaret Latvian’s Hamlet’s Arab Journey  and Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet Globe to Globe ).
Considering the context and afterlives of Hamlet is a worthy pursuit. I certainly consulted the above books for my essays, yet the confidence that comes from introducing context obscures the sharp panic we feel when confronting Shakespeare’s text itself. Even as the excellent recent book from Sonya Freeman Loftis, Allison Kellar, and Lisa Ulevich announces Hamlet has entered “an age of textual exhaustion,” there’s an odd tendency to avoid the text of Hamlet —to grasp for something more firm—when writing about it. There is a need to return to the text in a more immediate way to understand how Hamlet operates as a literary work, and how it can help us understand the world in which we live.
That latter goal, yes, clings nostalgically to the notion that literature can help us understand life. Questions about life send us to literature in search of answers. Those of us who love literature learn to ask and answer questions about it as we become professional literary scholars. But often our answers to the questions scholars ask of literature do not connect back up with the questions about life that sent us to literature in the first place—which are often philosophical, ethical, social, and political. Those first-order questions are diluted and avoided in the minutia of much scholarship, left unanswered. Thus, my goal was to pose questions about Hamlet with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover and to answer them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar.
In doing so, these essays challenge the conventional relationship between literature and theory. They pursue a kind of criticism where literature is not merely the recipient of philosophical ideas in the service of exegesis. Instead, the creative risks of literature provide exemplars to be theorized outward to help us understand on-going issues in life today. Beyond an occasion for the demonstration of existing theory, literature is a source for the creation of new theory.
Chapter One How Hamlet Works
Whether you love or hate Hamlet , you can acknowledge its massive popularity. So how does Hamlet work? How does it create audience enjoyment? Why is it so appealing, and to whom? Of all the available options, why Hamlet ? This chapter entertains three possible explanations for why the play is so popular in the modern world: the literary answer (as the English language’s best artwork about death—one of the very few universal human experiences in a modern world increasingly marked by cultural differences— Hamlet is timeless); the theatrical answer (with its mixture of tragedy and comedy, the role of Hamlet requires the best actor of each age, and the play’s popularity derives from the celebrity of its stars); and the philosophical answer (the play invites, encourages, facilitates, and sustains philosophical introspection and conversation from people who do not usually do such things, who find themselves doing those things with Hamlet , who sometimes feel embarrassed about doing those things, but who ultimately find the experience of having done them rewarding).
Chapter Two “It Started Like a Guilty Thing”: The Beginning of Hamlet and the Beginning of Modern Politics
King Hamlet is a tyrant and King Claudius a traitor but, because Shakespeare asked us to experience the events in Hamlet from the perspective of the young Prince Hamlet, we are much more inclined to detect and detest King Claudius’s political failings than King Hamlet’s. If so, then Shakespeare’s play Hamlet , so often seen as the birth of modern psychology, might also tell us a little bit about the beginnings of modern politics as well.
Chapter Three Horatio as Author: Storytelling and Stoic Tragedy
This chapter addresses Horatio’s emotionlessness in light of his role as a narrator, using this discussion to think about Shakespeare’s motives for writing tragedy in the wake of his son’s death. By rationalizing pain and suffering as tragedy, both Horatio and Shakespeare were able to avoid the self-destruction entailed in Hamlet’s emotional response to life’s hardships and injustices. Thus, the stoic Horatio, rather than the passionate Hamlet who repeatedly interrupts ‘The Mousetrap’, is the best authorial avatar for a Shakespeare who strategically wrote himself and his own voice out of his works. This argument then expands into a theory of ‘authorial catharsis’ and the suggestion that we can conceive of Shakespeare as a ‘poet of reason’ in contrast to a ‘poet of emotion’.
Chapter Four “To thine own self be true”: What Shakespeare Says about Sending Our Children Off to College
What does “To thine own self be true” actually mean? Be yourself? Don’t change who you are? Follow your own convictions? Don’t lie to yourself? This chapter argues that, if we understand meaning as intent, then “To thine own self be true” means, paradoxically, that “the self” does not exist. Or, more accurately, Shakespeare’s Hamlet implies that “the self” exists only as a rhetorical, philosophical, and psychological construct that we use to make sense of our experiences and actions in the world, not as anything real. If this is so, then this passage may offer us a way of thinking about Shakespeare as not just a playwright but also a moral philosopher, one who did his ethics in drama.
Chapter Five In Defense of Polonius
Your wife dies. You raise two children by yourself. You build a great career to provide for your family. You send your son off to college in another country, though you know he’s not ready. Now the prince wants to marry your daughter—that’s not easy to navigate. Then—get this—while you’re trying to save the queen’s life, the prince murders you. Your death destroys your kids. They die tragically. And what do you get for your efforts? Centuries of Shakespeare scholars dumping on you. If we see Polonius not through the eyes of his enemy, Prince Hamlet—the point of view Shakespeare’s play asks audiences to adopt—but in analogy to the common challenges of twenty-first-century parenting, Polonius is a single father struggling with work-life balance who sadly choses his career over his daughter’s well-being.
Chapter Six Sigma Alpha Elsinore: The Culture of Drunkenness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Claudius likes to party—a bit too much. He frequently binge drinks, is arguably an alcoholic, but not an aberration. Hamlet says Denmark is internationally known for heavy drinking. That’s what Shakespeare would have heard in the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth, English writers feared Denmark had taught their nation its drinking habits. Synthesizing criticism on alcoholism as an individual problem in Shakespeare’s texts and times with scholarship on national drinking habits in the early-modern age, this essay asks what the tragedy of alcoholism looks like when located not on the level of the individual, but on the level of a culture, as Shakespeare depicted in Hamlet. One window into these early-modern cultures of drunkenness is sociological studies of American college fraternities, especially the social-learning theories that explain how one person—one culture—teaches another its habits. For Claudius’s alcoholism is both culturally learned and culturally significant. And, as in fraternities, alcoholism in Hamlet is bound up with wealth, privilege, toxic masculinity, and tragedy. Thus, alcohol imagistically reappears in the vial of “cursed hebona,” Ophelia’s liquid death, and the poisoned cup in the final scene—moments that stand out in recent performances and adaptations with alcoholic Claudiuses and Gertrudes.
Chapter Seven Tragic Foundationalism
This chapter puts the modern philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory of foundationalism into dialogue with the early-modern playwright William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet . Doing so allows us to identify a new candidate for Hamlet’s traditionally hard-to-define hamartia – i.e., his “tragic mistake” – but it also allows us to consider the possibility of foundationalism as hamartia. Tragic foundationalism is the notion that fidelity to a single and substantive truth at the expense of an openness to evidence, reason, and change is an acute mistake which can lead to miscalculations of fact and virtue that create conflict and can end up in catastrophic destruction and the downfall of otherwise strong and noble people.
Chapter Eight “As a stranger give it welcome”: Shakespeare’s Advice for First-Year College Students
Encountering a new idea can be like meeting a strange person for the first time. Similarly, we dismiss new ideas before we get to know them. There is an answer to the problem of the human antipathy to strangeness in a somewhat strange place: a single line usually overlooked in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet . If the ghost is “wondrous strange,” Hamlet says, invoking the ancient ethics of hospitality, “Therefore as a stranger give it welcome.” In this word, strange, and the social conventions attached to it, is both the instinctual, animalistic fear and aggression toward what is new and different (the problem) and a cultivated, humane response in hospitality and curiosity (the solution). Intellectual xenia is the answer to intellectual xenophobia.
Chapter Nine Parallels in Hamlet
Hamlet is more parallely than other texts. Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes have their fathers murdered, then seek revenge. Brothers King Hamlet and King Claudius mirror brothers Old Norway and Old Fortinbras. Hamlet and Ophelia both lose their fathers, go mad, but there’s a method in their madness, and become suicidal. King Hamlet and Polonius are both domineering fathers. Hamlet and Polonius are both scholars, actors, verbose, pedantic, detectives using indirection, spying upon others, “by indirections find directions out." King Hamlet and King Claudius are both kings who are killed. Claudius using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet mirrors Polonius using Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Reynaldo and Hamlet both pretend to be something other than what they are in order to spy on and detect foes. Young Fortinbras and Prince Hamlet both have their forward momentum “arrest[ed].” Pyrrhus and Hamlet are son seeking revenge but paused a “neutral to his will.” The main plot of Hamlet reappears in the play-within-the-play. The Act I duel between King Hamlet and Old Fortinbras echoes in the Act V duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Claudius and Hamlet are both king killers. Sheesh—why are there so many dang parallels in Hamlet ? Is there some detectable reason why the story of Hamlet would call for the literary device of parallelism?
Chapter Ten Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Why Hamlet Has Two Childhood Friends, Not Just One
Why have two of Hamlet’s childhood friends rather than just one? Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have individuated personalities? First of all, by increasing the number of friends who visit Hamlet, Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of being outnumbered, of multiple enemies encroaching upon Hamlet, of Hamlet feeling that the world is against him. Second, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not interchangeable, as commonly thought. Shakespeare gave each an individuated personality. Guildenstern is friendlier with Hamlet, and their friendship collapses, while Rosencrantz is more distant and devious—a frenemy.
Chapter Eleven Shakespeare on the Classics, Shakespeare as a Classic: A Reading of Aeneas’s Tale to Dido
Of all the stories Shakespeare might have chosen, why have Hamlet ask the players to recite Aeneas’ tale to Dido of Pyrrhus’s slaughter of Priam? In this story, which comes not from Homer’s Iliad but from Virgil’s Aeneid and had already been adapted for the Elizabethan stage in Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Dido, Pyrrhus – more commonly known as Neoptolemus, the son of the famous Greek warrior Achilles – savagely slays Priam, the king of the Trojans and the father of Paris, who killed Pyrrhus’s father, Achilles, who killed Paris’s brother, Hector, who killed Achilles’s comrade, Patroclus. Clearly, the theme of revenge at work in this story would have appealed to Shakespeare as he was writing what would become the greatest revenge tragedy of all time. Moreover, Aeneas’s tale to Dido supplied Shakespeare with all of the connections he sought to make at this crucial point in his play and his career – connections between himself and Marlowe, between the start of Hamlet and the end, between Prince Hamlet and King Claudius, between epic poetry and tragic drama, and between the classical literature Shakespeare was still reading hundreds of years later and his own potential as a classic who might (and would) be read hundreds of years into the future.
Chapter Twelve How Theater Works, according to Hamlet
According to Hamlet, people who are guilty of a crime will, when seeing that crime represented on stage, “proclaim [their] malefactions”—but that simply isn’t how theater works. Guilty people sit though shows that depict their crimes all the time without being prompted to public confession. Why did Shakespeare—a remarkably observant student of theater—write this demonstrably false theory of drama into his protagonist? And why did Shakespeare then write the plot of the play to affirm that obviously inaccurate vision of theater? For Claudius is indeed stirred to confession by the play-within-the-play. Perhaps Hamlet’s theory of people proclaiming malefactions upon seeing their crimes represented onstage is not as outlandish as it first appears. Perhaps four centuries of obsession with Hamlet is the English-speaking world proclaiming its malefactions upon seeing them represented dramatically.
Chapter Thirteen “To be, or not to be”: Shakespeare Against Philosophy
This chapter hazards a new reading of the most famous passage in Western literature: “To be, or not to be” from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . With this line, Hamlet poses his personal struggle, a question of life and death, as a metaphysical problem, as a question of existence and nothingness. However, “To be, or not to be” is not what it seems to be. It seems to be a representation of tragic angst, yet a consideration of the context of the speech reveals that “To be, or not to be” is actually a satire of philosophy and Shakespeare’s representation of the theatricality of everyday life. In this chapter, a close reading of the context and meaning of this passage leads into an attempt to formulate a Shakespearean image of philosophy.
Chapter Fourteen Contagious Suicide in and Around Hamlet
As in society today, suicide is contagious in Hamlet , at least in the example of Ophelia, the only death by suicide in the play, because she only becomes suicidal after hearing Hamlet talk about his own suicidal thoughts in “To be, or not to be.” Just as there are media guidelines for reporting on suicide, there are better and worse ways of handling Hamlet . Careful suicide coverage can change public misperceptions and reduce suicide contagion. Is the same true for careful literary criticism and classroom discussion of suicide texts? How can teachers and literary critics reduce suicide contagion and increase help-seeking behavior?
Chapter Fifteen Is Hamlet a Sexist Text? Overt Misogyny vs. Unconscious Bias
Students and fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet persistently ask a question scholars and critics of the play have not yet definitively answered: is it a sexist text? The author of this text has been described as everything from a male chauvinist pig to a trailblazing proto-feminist, but recent work on the science behind discrimination and prejudice offers a new, better vocabulary in the notion of unconscious bias. More pervasive and slippery than explicit bigotry, unconscious bias involves the subtle, often unintentional words and actions which indicate the presence of biases we may not be aware of, ones we may even fight against. The Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet exhibited an unconscious bias against women, I argue, even as he sought to critique the mistreatment of women in a patriarchal society. The evidence for this unconscious bias is not to be found in the misogynistic statements made by the characters in the play. It exists, instead, in the demonstrable preference Shakespeare showed for men over women when deciding where to deploy his literary talents. Thus, Shakespeare's Hamlet is a powerful literary example – one which speaks to, say, the modern corporation – showing that deliberate efforts for egalitarianism do not insulate one from the effects of structural inequalities that both stem from and create unconscious bias.
Chapter Sixteen Style and Purpose in Acting and Writing
Purpose and style are connected in academic writing. To answer the question of style ( How should we write academic papers? ) we must first answer the question of purpose ( Why do we write academic papers? ). We can answer these questions, I suggest, by turning to an unexpected style guide that’s more than 400 years old: the famous passage on “the purpose of playing” in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . In both acting and writing, a high style often accompanies an expressive purpose attempting to impress an elite audience yet actually alienating intellectual people, while a low style and mimetic purpose effectively engage an intellectual audience.
Chapter Seventeen 13 Ways of Looking at a Ghost
Why doesn’t Gertrude see the Ghost of King Hamlet in Act III, even though Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, Marcellus, and Prince Hamlet all saw it in Act I? It’s a bit embarrassing that Shakespeare scholars don’t have a widely agreed-upon consensus that explains this really basic question that puzzles a lot of people who read or see Hamlet .
Chapter Eighteen The Tragedy of Love in Hamlet
The word “love” appears 84 times in Shakespeare’s Hamlet . “Father” only appears 73 times, “play” 60, “think” 55, “mother” 46, “mad” 44, “soul” 40, “God" 39, “death” 38, “life” 34, “nothing” 28, “son” 26, “honor” 21, “spirit” 19, “kill” 18, “revenge” 14, and “action” 12. Love isn’t the first theme that comes to mind when we think of Hamlet , but is surprisingly prominent. But love is tragic in Hamlet . The bloody catastrophe at the end of that play is principally driven not by hatred or a longing for revenge, but by love.
Chapter Nineteen Ophelia’s Songs: Moral Agency, Manipulation, and the Metaphor of Music in Hamlet
This chapter reads Ophelia’s songs in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the context of the meaning of music established elsewhere in the play. While the songs are usually seen as a marker of Ophelia’s madness (as a result of the death of her father) or freedom (from the constraints of patriarchy), they come – when read in light of the metaphor of music as manipulation – to symbolize her role as a pawn in Hamlet’s efforts to deceive his family. Thus, music was Shakespeare’s platform for connecting Ophelia’s story to one of the central questions in Hamlet : Do we have control over our own actions (like the musician), or are we controlled by others (like the instrument)?
Chapter Twenty A Quantitative Study of Prose and Verse in Hamlet
Why does Hamlet have so much prose? Did Shakespeare deliberately shift from verse to prose to signal something to his audiences? How would actors have handled the shifts from verse to prose? Would audiences have detected shifts from verse to prose? Is there an overarching principle that governs Shakespeare’s decision to use prose—a coherent principle that says, “If X, then use prose?”
Chapter Twenty-One The Fortunes of Fate in Hamlet : Divine Providence and Social Determinism
In Hamlet , fate is attacked from both sides: “fortune” presents a world of random happenstance, “will” a theory of efficacious human action. On this backdrop, this essay considers—irrespective of what the characters say and believe—what the structure and imagery Shakespeare wrote into Hamlet say about the possibility that some version of fate is at work in the play. I contend the world of Hamlet is governed by neither fate nor fortune, nor even the Christianized version of fate called “providence.” Yet there is a modern, secular, disenchanted form of fate at work in Hamlet—what is sometimes called “social determinism”—which calls into question the freedom of the individual will. As such, Shakespeare’s Hamlet both commented on the transformation of pagan fate into Christian providence that happened in the centuries leading up to the play, and anticipated the further transformation of fate from a theological to a sociological idea, which occurred in the centuries following Hamlet .
Chapter Twenty-Two The Working Class in Hamlet
There’s a lot for working-class folks to hate about Hamlet —not just because it’s old, dusty, difficult to understand, crammed down our throats in school, and filled with frills, tights, and those weird lace neck thingies that are just socially awkward to think about. Peak Renaissance weirdness. Claustrophobicly cloistered inside the castle of Elsinore, quaintly angsty over royal family problems, Hamlet feels like the literary epitome of elitism. “Lawless resolutes” is how the Wittenberg scholar Horatio describes the soldiers who join Fortinbras’s army in exchange “for food.” The Prince Hamlet who has never worked a day in his life denigrates Polonius as a “fishmonger”: quite the insult for a royal advisor to be called a working man. And King Claudius complains of the simplicity of "the distracted multitude.” But, in Hamlet , Shakespeare juxtaposed the nobles’ denigrations of the working class as readily available metaphors for all-things-awful with the rather valuable behavior of working-class characters themselves. When allowed to represent themselves, the working class in Hamlet are characterized as makers of things—of material goods and services like ships, graves, and plays, but also of ethical and political virtues like security, education, justice, and democracy. Meanwhile, Elsinore has a bad case of affluenza, the make-believe disease invented by an American lawyer who argued that his client's social privilege was so great that it created an obliviousness to law. While social elites rot society through the twin corrosives of political corruption and scholarly detachment, the working class keeps the machine running. They build the ships, plays, and graves society needs to function, and monitor the nuts-and-bolts of the ideals—like education and justice—that we aspire to uphold.
Chapter Twenty-Three The Honor Code at Harvard and in Hamlet
Students at Harvard College are asked, when they first join the school and several times during their years there, to affirm their awareness of and commitment to the school’s honor code. But instead of “the foundation of our community” that it is at Harvard, honor is tragic in Hamlet —a source of anxiety, blunder, and catastrophe. As this chapter shows, looking at Hamlet from our place at Harvard can bring us to see what a tangled knot honor can be, and we can start to theorize the difference between heroic and tragic honor.
Chapter Twenty-Four The Meaning of Death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
By connecting the ways characters live their lives in Hamlet to the ways they die – on-stage or off, poisoned or stabbed, etc. – Shakespeare symbolized hamartia in catastrophe. In advancing this argument, this chapter develops two supporting ideas. First, the dissemination of tragic necessity: Shakespeare distributed the Aristotelian notion of tragic necessity – a causal relationship between a character’s hamartia (fault or error) and the catastrophe at the end of the play – from the protagonist to the other characters, such that, in Hamlet , those who are guilty must die, and those who die are guilty. Second, the spectacularity of death: there exists in Hamlet a positive correlation between the severity of a character’s hamartia (error or flaw) and the “spectacularity” of his or her death – that is, the extent to which it is presented as a visible and visceral spectacle on-stage.
Chapter Twenty-Five Tragic Excess in Hamlet
In Hamlet , Shakespeare paralleled the situations of Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras (the father of each is killed, and each then seeks revenge) to promote the virtue of moderation: Hamlet moves too slowly, Laertes too swiftly – and they both die at the end of the play – but Fortinbras represents a golden mean which marries the slowness of Hamlet with the swiftness of Laertes. As argued in this essay, Shakespeare endorsed the virtue of balance by allowing Fortinbras to be one of the very few survivors of the play. In other words, excess is tragic in Hamlet .
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Keener, Joe. “Evolving Hamlet: Brains, Behavior, and the Bard.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 14.2 (2012): 150-163
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Lake, Peter. Hamlet’s Choice: Religion and Resistance in Shakespeare's Revenge Tragedies . New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.
Lerer, Seth. “Hamlet’s Boyhood.” Childhood, Education and the Stage in Early Modern England , ed. Richard Preiss and Deanne Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017):17-36.
Levy, Eric P. Hamlet and the Rethinking of Man . Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008.
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Luke, Jillian. “What If the Play Were Called Ophelia ? Gender and Genre in Hamlet .” Cambridge Quarterly 49.1 (2020): 1-18.
Gates, Sarah. “Assembling the Ophelia Fragments: Gender, Genre, and Revenge in Hamlet.” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 34.2 (2008): 229-47.
Gottschalk, Paul. The Meanings of Hamlet: Modes of Literary Interpretation Since Bradley . Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory . Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Hunt, Marvin W. Looking for Hamlet . New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
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Iyengar, Sujata; Feracho, Lesley. “Hamlet (RSC, 2016) and Representations of Diasporic Blackness,” Cahiers Élisabéthains 99, no. 1 (2019): 147-60.
Johnson, Laurie. The Tain of Hamlet . Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013.
Jolly, Margrethe. The First Two Quartos of Hamlet: A New View of the Origins and Relationship of the Texts . Jefferson: McFarland, 2014.
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Langis, Unhae. “Virtue, Justice and Moral Action in Shakespeare’s Hamlet .” Literature and Ethics: From the Green Knight to the Dark Knight , ed. Steve Brie and William T. Rossiter (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010): 53-74.
Lawrence, Sean. "'As a stranger, bid it welcome': Alterity and Ethics in Hamlet and the New Historicism," European Journal of English Studies 4 (2000): 155-69.
Lesser, Zachary. Hamlet after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
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Litvin, Margaret. Hamlet's Arab Journey: Shakespeare's Prince and Nasser's Ghost . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Loftis, Sonya Freeman, and Lisa Ulevich. “Obsession/Rationality/Agency: Autistic Shakespeare.” Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body , edited by Sujata Iyengar. Routledge, 2015, pp. 58-75.
Marino, James J. “Ophelia’s Desire.” ELH 84.4 (2017): 817-39.
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Weiss, Larry. “The Branches of an Act: Shakespeare's Hamlet Explains his Inaction.” Shakespeare 16.2 (2020): 117-27.
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Williams, Deanne. “Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute.” Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014): 73-91
Williamson, Claude C.H., ed. Readings on the Character of Hamlet: Compiled from Over Three Hundred Sources .
White, R.S. Avant-Garde Hamlet: Text, Stage, Screen . Lanham: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015.
Wiles, David. “Hamlet’s Advice to the Players.” The Players’ Advice to Hamlet: The Rhetorical Acting Method from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020): 10-38
Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in Hamlet . 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1951.
Zamir, Tzachi, ed. Shakespeare's Hamlet: Philosophical Perspectives . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
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Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays Paperback – January 1, 2013
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The single greatest contribution to Shakespeare scholarship in recent memory.
Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays:
- Presents the most compelling and original reading of Hamlet since A.C. Bradley;
- Dispenses once and for all with the psychoanalytic interpretation of the play;
- Explains the actual meaning of the Oedipus myth;
- Provides the "smoking gun" which establishes Shakespeare's true identity;
- Explodes the fable of Shakespeare's appearance; and
- In the process of correcting misreadings of Shakespeare's poetry and drama, Hamlet Made Simple offers vital insights and indispensable guidance on how this challenging writer can be fairly and productively approached today.
Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays is the definitive exposition of Shakespeare in our time. Nothing else compares.
This book, that combines wit with learning, will delight all who love Shakespeare and commentary on Shakespeare. — Theodore Dalrymple, author of Life at the Bottom and Farewell Fear
Professor Gontar has provided us with a fresh, energetic, searching and sometimes acerbic look at Shakespeare, and, especially, some of his modern critics. Equally adept at expositing the texts and engaging the most distinguished readers, Gontar always encourages us to re-examine our own preconceptions as a way of discovering and reappropriating Shakespeare's genius in our day. — Dr. William R. Long, author of Wisdom Seeking: Thirty Days with the Book of Proverbs
As a contemporary of the future, Shakespeare is forever. Prof. Gontar offers original and penetrating insights into the fabric of Shakespeare’s plays and into the souls of their unforgettable characters. — Jimmie Moglia, author of Your Daily Shakespeare
About the Author
David P. Gontar, Ph.D., J.D., served as Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Southern University from 1975 to 1982. Thereafter he was engaged in the practice of law in New Orleans, Louisiana and southern California. He is currently Adjunct Professor of English and Philosophy at Inner Mongolia University in China. In 2010, he was the English editor of China's application to UNESCO for World Heritage Status of the Xanadu site in Inner Mongolia, granted by UNESCO in June of 2012. David's writings have appeared in Southwestern Journal of Philosophy , Tulane Studies in Philosophy , Plantation Society in the Americas , Loyola Law Review , and New English Review .
- Print length 428 pages
- Language English
- Publisher New English Review Press
- Publication date January 1, 2013
- Dimensions 6 x 0.96 x 9 inches
- ISBN-10 0985439491
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- Publisher : New English Review Press; First Edition (January 1, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 428 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0985439491
- ISBN-13 : 978-0985439491
- Item Weight : 1.38 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.96 x 9 inches
- #2,535 in Shakespeare Literary Criticism
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If you have a question about either Hamlet Made Simple (Vol.1) or Unreading Shakespeare (Vol. 2), or about Shakespeare, you may email the author at [email protected] All sincere questions will be answered. 3/18/16: Recently negative and hostile comments were left by someone who boasts he doesn't read the books he "reviews." I apologize to those who may have been offended by this person's unprofessional behavior. Many people have written me and the ensuing dialogues are deeply rewarding.
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Essays About Hamlet: Top 5 Examples and 10 Prompts
To write or not to write? To discover interesting topic ideas for your next essay, see below our round-up of helpful essays about Hamlet and writing topic prompts.
The tragedy of Hamlet , Prince of Denmark, is arguably the most famous work of William Shakespeare – or perhaps in the world of literature. A play revolving around love, betrayal, madness, and revenge, Hamlet is a masterpiece that opens with the murder of the King of Denmark. The ghost of the king will go on to appear before his son Hamlet throughout the play, seeking his help for vengeance by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle.
Written from 1600 to 1601 with five acts and published in a quarto edition, Hamlet has since been a beloved on the theatrical stages and modern film adaptations, becoming Shakespeare’s longest play and one of the most quoted in many art forms with its “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
Read on to see our essays and prompts about Hamlet.
Top 5 Essay Examples
1. ”review: in a powerful ‘hamlet,’ a fragile prince faces his foes” by maya phillips, 2. “the concept of madness in hamlet by shakespeare” by cansu yağsız, 3. “analyzing the theme of religion in william shakespeare’s ‘hamlet’” by journey holm, 4. “ophelia, gender and madness” by ellaine showalter, 5. “the hamlet effect” by holly crocker, 1. the beginnings of hamlet, 2. was hamlet mad or not, 3. physicians’ diagnosis of hamlet, 4. feminism in the eyes of ophelia, 5. religion in hamlet, 6. oedipal complex in hamlet, 7. imageries in hamlet, 8. shakespeare’s language in hamlet, 9. an analysis of “to be or not to be” , 10. hamlet as a philosophical work.
“Hamlet” is one of the Shakespeare plays that most suffers from diminishing returns — adaptations that try too hard to innovate, to render a classic modern and hip.”
With the many theatrical adaptations of Hamlet, it may be a tall order for production companies to add new flairs to the play while being faithful to Shakespeare’s masterpiece. But Robert Icke, a theater director, stuns an audience with his production’s creative and technical genius, while Alex Lawther, his actor, offers a refreshing, charismatic portrayal of Hamlet.
“The cause of these three characters’ madness are trauma and unrequited love. They also have a spot in common: a devastating loss of someone significant in their lives… In my view, Shakespeare wrote about these characters’ madness almost like a professional about psychology, making the causes and consequences of their madness reasonable.”
Madness is the most apparent theme in Hamlet, affecting the main character, Hamlet, his love interest, Ophelia, and her brother, Laertes. The novel is most reflective of Shakespeare’s attraction to the concept of madness, as he was said to have personally studied its causes, including unrequited love, trauma from losses, and burnout.
“…I will argue that Hamlet’s hesitance to avenge his father’s death comes from something deeper than a meditation on another man’s life, a sort of faith. I will use three scenes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to establish that the reason for Hamlet’s hesitance is religion and the fear of his own eternal damnation in hellfire.”
The essay builds on a pool of evidence to prove the religiousness of Hamlet. But, mainly, the author underscores that it is Hamlet’s religious reflections, not his alleged mental incapacity, that stifle him from performing his duty to his father and killing his murderer.
“Shakespeare gives us very little information from which to imagine a past for Ophelia… Yet Ophelia is the most represented of Shakespeare’s heroines in painting, literature and popular culture.”
The essay walks readers through the depictions of Ophelia in various stages and periods, particularly her sexuality. But the fascination for this heroine goes beyond the stage. Ophelia’s madness in the play has paved the way for constructive concepts on insanity among young women. She has also inspired many artists of the Pre-Rapahelite period and feminists to reimagine Hamlet through the lens of feminism.
“… [A]s the shame-and-troll cycle of Internet culture spins out of control, lives are ruined. Some of these lives are lesser, we might think, because they are racist, sexist, or just unbelievably stupid. Shakespeare’s Hamlet cautions us against espousing this attitude: it is not that we shouldn’t call out inane or wrong ideas… He errs, however, when he acts as if Polonius’s very life doesn’t matter.”
An English professor rethinks our present moral compass through the so-called “Hamlet Effect,” which pertains to how one loses moral standards when doing something righteous. Indeed, Hamlet’s desire for retribution for his father is justifiable. However, given his focus on his bigger, more heroic goal of revenge, he treats the lives of other characters as having no significance.
10 Writing Prompts For Essays About Hamlet
It is said that Shakespeare’s primary inspiration for Hamlet lies in the pages of François de Belleforest’s Histories Tragique, published in 1570 when Shakespeare was six years old. For your historical essay, determine the similarities between Belleforest’s book and Hamlet. Research other stories that have helped Shakespeare create this masterpiece.
Hamlet is the most fascinating of Shakespeare’s heroes for the complexity of his character, desire, and existential struggle. But is Hamlet sane or insane? That question has been at the center of debates in the literary world. To answer this, pore over Hamlet’s seven soliloquies and find lines that most reveal Hamlet’s conflicting thoughts and feelings.
Physicians have long mused over Hamlet’s characters like real people. They have even turned the cast into subjects of their psychiatric work but have come up with different diagnoses. For this prompt, dig deep into the ever-growing pool of psychoanalysis commentaries on Hamlet. Then, find out how these works affect future adaptations in theaters.
Throughout the play, Ophelia is depicted as submissive, bending to the whims of male characters in the play. In your essay, explain how Ophelia’s character reflects the perception and autonomy of women in the Elizabethan era when the play was created. You can go further by analyzing whether Shakespeare was a misogynist trapping his heroine into such a helpless character or a feminist exposing these realities.
Hamlet was written at a time London was actively practicing Protestantism, so it would be interesting to explore the religious theme in Hamlet to know how Shakespeare perceives the dominant religion in England in his time and Catholicism before the Reformation. First, identify the religions of the characters. Then, describe how their religious beliefs affected their decisions in the scenes.
Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud proposes that Hamlet is hesitant to kill Claudius due to his Oedipus Complex, which grows with him in his adult years. An Oedipus Complex pertains to a male infant’s repressed desire to take possession of his mother from his father, who is viewed as a rival. First, write your analysis on whether you agree with Freud’s view. Then, gather evidence from passages of the play to agree or argue otherwise.
Hamlet in an “inky cloak” to signify his grief, a Denmark under Claudius linked to corruption and disease — these are just some imageries used in Hamlet. Find other imageries and explain how they achieved their dramatic effect on highlighting the moods of characters and scenes.
During Shakespeare’s time, playwrights are expected to follow the so-called Doctrine of Decorum which recognizes the hierarchy in society. So the gravediggers in Hamlet spoke in prose, as Hamlet does in his mad soliloquies. However, Shakespeare breaks this rule in Hamlet. Find dialogues where Shakespeare allowed Hamlet’s characters to be more distinct and flexible in language.
In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates suicide. Why do you think these lines continue to be relevant to this day even after centuries since Shakespeare? Answer this in your essay by elaborating on how Hamlet, through these lines, shares the suffering of the “whips and scorns of time” and our innate nature to endure.
In your essay, evaluate the famous philosophies that resound in Hamlet. For example, with the theme of suicide, Hamlet may echo the teachings of Seneca and the movement of Stoicism , who view suicide as freedom from life’s chains. One may also find traces of Albert Camus’s lessons from the Myth of Sisyphus, which tells of a human’s ability to endure.
Interested in learning more? Check out our essay writing tips . If you’re still stuck, check out our general resource of essay writing topics .
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I. Introduction Hamlet is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, probably written in 1600 or 1601. It is often considered his supreme achievement, and one of the world’s greatest tragedies. Considered as one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet is also one of the best-known plays in world...
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Grammaticus The problems related to the origin and sources of Hamlet are no less contentious and inconclusive than the philosophical, moral and structural problems traditionally associated with the play. The present day iconic status of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ often obscures the...
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Q1) The character of Claudius can be recognized as the major antagonist in the play. Traits such as being cleverly evil, lustful, and conniving were the factors that won him the crown as the King of Denmark. As a king, Claudius focused on protecting his throne from being relinquished from him. He...
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Shakespeare's characterization of Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet is paradoxical as it challenges as well as complements the contemporary social traditions and norms. Gertrude is the best example of this paradox that is manifested through her extraordinary supremacy over all the major characters of...
Hamlet is a character with whom most of us could relate not only because of his imperfections but also because of his insecurities. He is imperfect, he has his insecurities, but what is most remarkable in him is his goodness of heart which makes it very difficult for him to think ill of other...
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Isabella is a woman with a seemingly over pious regard to herself and her virginity, placing the same over an individual’s life and liberty. This is made evident in her statement “Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die: More than our brother is our chastity (Measure for measure...
William Shakespeare is perhaps best known for being the father of plays. Of all playwrights, none can compare to Shakespeare’s style, creativity, and wit. A great example would be Hamlet which could perhaps be viewed as the best of all his plays. The lines of the play have been remembered in the...
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Introduction When discussing “Hamlet”, whether in casual company, stage production or academic study, the conversation can quite literally go in a million different directions. Widely regarded as Shakepeare’s most complex play, Hamlet can in fact be deeply examined and extensively interpreted...
Aristotle has written numerous treatises about a variety of topics, one of which is his treatise on Poetics. In this treatise he discusses poetry and the construction of epics, but the treatise focuses heavily on the creation and the definition of a tragedy, especially on the development of the...
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There are a number of reasons why Hamlet has remained a classic and one of these reasons is because of the great characterization that Shakespeare uses in the creation of his characters. It is because of these characters that the play comes alive and the reason why the audience is able to laugh...
It is chiefly character that is responsible for the tragic fate of the hero, but a Shakespearean tragedy also arouses a feeling that there is a mysterious power in this universe, whom we may call Fate or Destiny or Providence that operates in the universe and is responsible for the manner in which...
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1. Hamlet, one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies possesses an intense environment of uncertainty. This sense of “uncertainty” is governed primarily by the indecision and hesitation demonstrated by the protagonist, Hamlet, the prince of Denmark. He is always in two minds and cannot seem...
William Shakespeare once said that “action is eloquence”. Hamlet finds it easy to make a choice to avenge his father’s death, but is unable to execute this choice. Hamlet’s choices and inconsistencies in carrying them out is what will lead to multiple tragedies and ultimately, his redemption...
The 1996 film version of Hamlet directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh in the title role is a faithful adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous play. The exposition of the plot occupies the first few minutes of the story. It begins with the appearance of a ghost to the castle guards. This...
Hamlet is a well known character in the body of works of Shakespeare. The soliloquy signifies the derailed and arguments of a wearied soul trying to explain life and the consequences of hardships of thoughts' impacts on decision makings throughout life which end with the beginning of death and the...
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Introduction In order to understand the role of the rites in Hamlet, one must conceptualize the ritual. The rites in Hamlet concern mainly marriage, mourning and funeral. It is crucial to distinguish their specific nature to detect how they participate in the tragedy. Arnold van Gennep identified...
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The first soliloquy of Hamlet occurs (act I, scene ii, lines 129-59) after the King and the Queen have urged Hamlet in the open court to cast off the deep melancholy which, as they think, has taken possession of him as a consequence of his father’s death. In this soliloquy, Hamlet reveals the...
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Introduction Every emotion and feeling of human beings is captured by literary works such as stories, novels and poems. The characters, plot and themes in the stories and novels bring forth the varied emotions experienced by human beings. Two such stories which focus on the feelings and emotions...
This student owes a great deal of intellectual debt to Louise Cowans thanks in great part to the theoretical criticism the author expressed in her introduction to The Comic Terrain. An example of the brilliance of her critical theory is found in an extended quotation from the work’s introduction...
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The dilemma about the intrinsical meaning of the story about the Prince of Denmark is a perturbing issue of discussion. Question about whether Hamlet feels affection to Ophelia is still not answered because the author uses various evasive situations when readers get more and more confused. Those...
The significant tragedy “Hamlet” violates the eternal problems. Those problems are connected with the contradiction between action and ideal, the role of personality in the history of humanity, the meaning of the life of each person, with justice, revenge, betrayal, love, friendship...
Hamlet’s different perspectives of death Death is perceived as different things according to different people. In William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” the title character, Hamlet openly expresses his opinion of death through the various acts he commits and the things he says...
Shakespeare’s early 17th century revenge tragedy “Hamlet” is shaped by our understanding that knowledge of its contextual milieu develops an appreciation for the play’s timeless resonance. We also recognize the play’s textual integrity allows Shakespeare to explore...
Both Hamlet and Frankenstein deal with the concept of revenge. In a well-organized essay discuss the importance of revenge as a central theme in either Frankenstein OR Hamlet . Avoid mere plot summary. You must provide strong textual references to support your ideas. The revenge theme came in both...
“THE DEAD AMONGST THE LIVING” IN HAMLET AND FRANKENSTEIN William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein are challenging literary works that both have the same theme about the dead amongst the living. Both protagonists Hamlet and Victor Frankenstein...
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Female voices in classic literature are rarely allowed to be heard as they should, especially in a society like Shakespeare’s, where women are expected to make children and hot meals and not much more than that. While Shakespeare does take drastic steps forward in allowing such prominent...
Harold Bloom says the genius of Shakespeare is that “Characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves” (The Invention of the Human XVII). Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, shows the development of Hamlet within the land of Denmark. Hamlet...
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English 30-1 Hamlet Personal Response March 21 2013 Final Draft Interior Monologue My uncle is dead. Along with everyone else I love and the people they care about. My mother Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes, and their father Polonius. Dead and gone to heaven forever. I finally killed Claudius! He has...
Hamlet: Response To Literature Taking place in Elsinore, Denmark Hamlet by Williams Shakespeare is a remarkable play where love and madness co-exist in an all-out war between family and friends. For many years, literature scholars have viewed Hamlet’s themes in many ways and forms. I intend...
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Hamlet essay questions.
Hamlet is widely hailed as the first modern play in the English language. Which characteristics of its central character might account for this label?
Hamlet is considered the first modern play partly because of the psychological depth of its main character -- Hamlet suffers from melancholy, self-doubt, and even delusions. The audience never quite knows what Hamlet is thinking, or what is real. In fact, Hamlet himself declares again and again that he doesn't understand his doubts either ("I have of late, but wherefore I know not , lost all my mirth.")
Death is a constant presence in this play. Does Hamlet's speech to Yorick's skull represent a philosophy of death? How does his attitude toward death differ from that of the gravediggers?
Death was a much more ordinary presence in Elizabethan England than it is in the modern world. Infant mortality was high and plagues swept whole nations. In this sense, the gravediggers exhibit a much more realistic approach to death than most people. Hamlet uses the occasion for a more general examination of mortality. His attitude toward death is not necessarily inconsistent with that of the gravediggers, but it is different in his emphasis on metaphysical rather than physical implications of death.
Does the text hold up to a Freudian reading of Hamlet's relationship with his mother? How does Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia support, complicate or work against an Oedipal interpretation of the play?
Certainly Hamlet does visit his mother's bedchamber, and is immensely interested in her sexual relationships with other men, both of which are classic elements of an Oedipal complex. Freud's reading of the play may have influenced his sexual theories—but it is important to remember the order of events, especially because scholars tend to label Hamlet "Freudian." Better stated, Freud is Shakespearean, not the other way around.
"To be or not to be" is the famous question that Hamlet poses in Act Three, Scene One. Explore this speech. What does he mean by this famous question? What events of the play prompt this speech?
Hamlet is musing about death, but whose death, or what kind of death, is frustratingly difficult to pin down. He is perhaps contemplating suicide, perhaps thinking about the risks he must run in order to fulfill the task of revenge. He has an audience of Ophelia, Polonius and Claudius, who are eavesdropping on him; but he most likely does not realize that they are present.
The play within a play, the long soliloquies wherein Hamlet faces the audience and speaks to them directly, the vivid discussions of whether or not Hamlet is "acting" mad -- there are many elements of Hamlet that call attention to its status as a play, rather than reality. By showing the trappings of theater and non-reality, does Shakespeare make Hamlet's suffering seem more acute or more distant? How?
"Life's but a stage," another Shakespearean character proclaims, and the playwright recognized quite well the dramatic trappings of life and the life-like elements of staged productions. Soliloquies are modern in that they break what is much later termed the "fourth wall" separating audience from stage; the character speaks directly to the audience. Although the whole atmosphere seems patently false and theatrical, this serves to draw Hamlet somehow closer. Somehow, the effect of such "metatheatrical" gestures is to show not how different acting is from life, but how similar life is to acting.
In terms of the usual categorizations, Shakespeare's tragedies end in death, his comedies in marriage. By this measure, Hamlet is a tragedy. But Shakespeare's best plays are a tragicomic mix. Choose and discuss two comical or farcical elements in Hamlet.
The scene with gravediggers is a good example of tragedy mixed with comedy. The work is morbid, but the workers joke and sing as they go about their business. They seem totally unaware of the majestic tragedy unfolding itself in the castle nearby. On a smaller level, Yorick's skull embodies the tragicomic dichotomy; it is a gruesome, deathly object that once belonged to a joker. There are several other comic scenes, including much of Hamlet's dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and most of Polonius' scenes before his death. This gruesome mixture of pathos and humor is the essence of Shakespearean theater.
Define revenge. Is Hamlet a traditional revenge play? What other forces are at work in Hamlet's psyche?
Revenge is traditionally the cold-blooded pursuit to make up for one hurt with a strike against its perpetrator. Revenge is usually violent. Hamlet is hardly a traditional play of revenge, because the main character is so uncertain and ambivalent about both the original strike and what he should do about it. Melancholy and uncertainty play just as large a role in Hamlet's character as the desire for revenge.
Discuss the setting of Hamlet. What effect does setting the psycho-drama in a bleak northern castle -- similar to that in Macbeth -- have on the characters and audience?
From the script, the audience gathers that Elsinore Castle is a remote place in northern Europe. Not much else is known: there were no sets in Shakespeare's time. But the setting certainly matches Hamlet's melancholy mood, and the isolation of the place helps make the violence and implied incest believable.
The play begins with the fantastical appearance of a ghost. Are we meant to believe that this is really Hamlet's father, or is he a figment of Hamlet's imagination? If he is imagined, is the rest of the play imagined as well?
Hamlet struggles with the question of whether the ghost is his father and decides that he must be who he says he is. The audience remains in doubt, however, because of the ghost's claim that he comes from Purgatory (blasphemous in Elizabethan England), and the fact that Gertrude is unable to see it when it appears to Hamlet in her chamber. One of the moral questions of the play is resolved, however, when it becomes clear that Claudius is a murderer. Whether the ghost is Old Hamlet or a demon, he has told the truth about Claudius' guilt.
Can a healthy state be presided over by a corrupt ruler? Shakespeare draws frequent comparisons between the moral legitimacy of a leader and the health of a state. Is Denmark's monarchy responsible for the demise of the state in this play?
At the end of the tragedy, it is not only Hamlet and most of the characters who die. The entire state of Denmark fails after Norway invades, and the health of the nation seems very much wrapped up with the moral state of the leader. This accords with the medieval idea of the "body politic" with the leader making up the head, literally, and the people the body of a personified state.
Hamlet Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hamlet is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Describe Fortinbras based on what Horatio says.
Do you mean in Act 1? Based upon Horatio's description, young Fortinbras is bold, inexperienced, and willing to do anything to regain his father's lost lands.
Why is a clock mentioned in Hamlet. There weren’t any clock’s in Hanlet’s time.
Yes I've heard this question before. This is called an anachronism. It is an inconsistency in some chronological arrangement. In this case, there were clocks in Shakespeare’s time but not in Hamlet's. Shakespeare wrote it in because he thought it...
Hamlet’s obsession with the partying going on inside the castle while he stands watch with Horatio mainly suggests that he .
D. feels that King Claudius wants to hide his evil with merriment
Study Guide for Hamlet
Hamlet study guide contains a biography of William Shakespeare, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
- About Hamlet
- Hamlet Summary
- Hamlet Video
- Character List
Essays for Hamlet
Hamlet essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
- Through Rose Colored Glasses: How the Victorian Age Shifted the Focus of Hamlet
- Q to F7: Mate; Hamlet's Emotions, Actions, and Importance in the Nunnery Scene
- Before the Storm
- Haunted: Hamlet's Relationship With His Dead Father
- Heliocentric Hamlet: The Astronomy of Hamlet
Lesson Plan for Hamlet
- About the Author
- Study Objectives
- Common Core Standards
- Introduction to Hamlet
- Relationship to Other Books
- Bringing in Technology
- Notes to the Teacher
- Related Links
- Hamlet Bibliography
E-Text of Hamlet
The Hamlet e-text contains the full text of the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
- List of Characters
Wikipedia Entries for Hamlet
107 Exceptional Hamlet Essay Topics: Questions & Prompts
Every academic paper starts with a captivating idea, and Hamlet research paper or essay shouldn’t be an exception. In the list below, our team has collected unique and inspiring topics for you. You can use them in your writing or develop your own idea according to the format.
Here are some Hamlet essay topics for you:
- Elaborate on the weather in Denmark. How does it reflect the state of affairs and mood in the country? How does it change throughout the play? Start this Hamlet essay by describing the foggy weather in the first scene and gradually provide more examples as evidence.
- Think of irony in Hamlet . How and for what purposes did Shakespeare incorporate it in the play? Provide examples of the lines and situations that can be considered ironic.
- Reflect on Gertrude’s marriages. Why did she marry Claudius? Did they have an affair when King Hamlet was alive? Or did she agree on the new marriage to help the country?
- Compare and contrast Claudius and King Oedipus from Oedipus the King . What character traits do they share? Who is a better politician? Why?
- Explain whether you think Gertrude is on Hamlet’s or Claudius’ side. Did she switch the side by the end of the play? Analyze her conversation with Hamlet and how she later told Claudius that Hamlet was mad. Why did she drink the suspicious (poisoned) wine?
- Analyze the fact that dying Hamlet asked Horatio to spread his story. Will Horatio retell it without changes? Can he tell the truth about what happened at all?
- Examine an approach to violence in Hamlet . Are violence and aggression excessive in the play? How do characters react to it? Comment on how violence is mainly linked to vengeance.
- Consider the Ghost of Old Hamlet and all his appearances in Hamlet . Who saw him? Who do you think can see him? In your Hamlet essay, analyze every scene where he occurred and elaborate on why he did so.
- Talk about the relationship between Gertrude and Old Hamlet. Analyze what we know about their marriage and her reaction to her husband’s death. Did Gertrude see the Ghost in the scene with Hamlet? Could she have pretended that she didn’t?
- If Hamlet had survived, would he have been a good king? Analyze his strengths and weaknesses concerning the matter. Did he prove to be a good leader or politician in the play? Consider that Fortinbras explicitly stated that Hamlet could’ve become a good ruler.
- Elaborate on the way Hamlet killed Polonius in act 3, scene 4. Why did Hamlet act so quickly and calmly when he hesitates to kill his enemy, Claudius? Was this murder intentional? Did Hamlet regret it or freak out about it?
- Explore Hamlet’s mental state. How did grief affect him? His depression and suicidal tendencies are apparent. How do they change throughout the play?
- Compare Hamlet’s attitude towards the only women in the play, Ophelia and Gertrude. Why does he shame both of them for their sexual relationships? Examine his dialogues with his mother and his (ex)girlfriend, where he expresses cruelty. Elaborate on how his mother’s remarriage affected his relationships with the women.
- Examine the madness that Hamlet may or may not obtain. Thanks to his dialogue with Horatio, we know that he fakes his insanity. But could it have changed by the end of the play? What could’ve caused it? Analyze the evidence of his abnormal behavior and whether you can consider it natural, not acted.
- Analyze how Hamlet reflects on suicide. Provide examples from the soliloquies where Hamlet presumably tells the truth about his feelings. He considers suicide as an option, way out of the situation. Why doesn’t he commit it? Or was his death close to suicide?
- Consider whether the Ghost exists or not. A few people have seen him, but may it have been a case of mass hysteria? Hamlet may have gone mad over the death of his father and his mother’s remarriage. What if he imagined his dialogues with deceased King Hamlet? Provide evidence for that opinion or refute it.
- Elaborate on Hamlet’s trust issues. He suspects everyone from the start except for one person. Why does Hamlet trust Horatio? Analyze how the prince never lies during their conversations, even when the truth is a little insane. Why does Horatio believe everything he says?
- Examine friendship in Hamlet . Most of the relationships in the play are based on manipulation and benefit. Who can you see as friends in Hamlet ? Reflect on whether Hamlet values his friendship with Horatio. What can you say about Hamlet’s friends from childhood?
- Analyze the literary period during which Shakespeare came up with Hamlet . What features of the Elizabethan era does he illustrate in the play? Examplify various scenes and dialogues to prove your point.
- Consider prominent theatrical productions of Hamlet . How did they change over the centuries? What does modern theatre do that the Medieval one could not? Did theatrical performances evolve?
- Compare and contrast the original play and Lion King by Disney corporation. What are the key differences that were made in the cartoon? Why did Disney decide to come up with them? Analyze which version do you like more and why.
- Comment on the theme of death and mortality What events and objects made Hamlet obsessed with death? Elaborate on the role that religion plays in his considerations concerning the matter.
- Examine Claudius’ soliloquy . What’s its role in the play? What’s the crucial idea of his speech? Elaborate on the reasons why Claudius, the villain, has a soliloquy in Hamlet .
- Analyze all the symbols of death in the play What symbols from Hamlet refer to mortality? Speculate whether you can call fences, poison, unweeded gardens, flowers, and so on a symbol of death.
- Explore the conflicts of Hamlet . The play combines inner and outer conflicts, which are addressed mainly through Hamlet’s monologues. List the fundamental oppositions and lines that exemplify them.
- Reflect on Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude Why is he upset with her? How does it affect his actions and opinion about all the women? Does Gertrude love her son?
- Analyze the setting of the play. Does the fact that Hamlet takes place in Denmark play any crucial role? Speculate why Shakespeare may have decided upon this country and support your opinion with evidence.
- Elaborate on Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. Does the prince consider her significant? Does he care about her? Compare how he treated Ophelia before and after her death.
- Comment on Hamlet’s religious beliefs Does religion have an impact on the prince’s decisions? Why is Hamlet considered a protestant? Prove your point by providing evidence from the play.
- Reflect on the theme of revenge Why does everyone value revenge in the play? Why do people passionately seek it in the society presented in Hamlet ? Elaborate on what impact it has on the characters’ motivations and decisions.
- Consider the language of Hamlet . Explain that Shakespeare’s play is well-known for its rich language and broad vocabulary. He composed a few characters who pay close attention to the words they say and hear. Why is language crucial for Hamlet?
- Examine Fortinbras. Who is he? Why is he a character foil for Hamlet? Analyze why he succeeded in everything he did and even became the king of Denmark.
- Analyze imagery and descriptions in the play. How does Shakespeare enhance each scene by alternating descriptions of the weather and nature? Provide examples of prominent images presented in the play and elaborate on their purpose.
- Compare Hamlet to Oedipus Rex . What do the characters of the famous plays have in common? Do they have a similar goal? Elaborate on how their character traits affect the endings of the respective plays.
- Explore the deception in Hamlet . What things and events are built on lies? Why and how do characters try to manipulate each other throughout the whole play?
- Elaborate on the imagery of rot and diseases How do unweeded gardens reflect the state of affairs? Explain how ill atmosphere foreshadows and represents problems caused by the actions of the royal court’s members.
- Comment on the role of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the play. Speculate whether they are simply comic relief characters or they have another purpose in Hamlet . Why did Shakespeare decide that he needed such characters in the play?
- Analyze Gertrude’s attitude towards Ophelia. Elaborate on the scenes where Gertrude communicates with Ophelia and mentions her. What does the queen think of her and her relationships with Hamlet? How does Gertrude comments on Ophelia’s death?
- Compare Hamlet’s and Horatio’s character traits. In what ways are they different and similar? What Horatio’s qualities Hamlet explicitly admires and lacks?
- Speculate on Shakespeare’s opinion about theatre. Examine a few references to the English stage of the Elizabethan era that the author put in the play in Act 2. How does he comment on the theatre of his own time through Hamlet’s lines of dialogue?
- Explore the relationships between Hamlet and Claudius. Why does Hamlet suspect his uncle from the start? Does Claudius think of Hamlet as dangerous? When does he become highly aware of his nephew’s capabilities?
- Consider the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When and how did they die? Why does a reader find out about it after the deaths of the royal family members? Speculate on the reasons why it was structured to be so anticlimactic. Why did W. S. Gilbert write a short comic play about them?
- Analyze the reception and comprehension of Hamlet . Why is it one of the most popular Shakespeare’s plays even today? Is it still relevant? Explain why nowadays our understanding of the play differs from the one from the writer’s era.
- Comment on the appearance vs. reality in Hamlet . Why do so many characters pretend to have another personality or obtain character traits that they don’t have? Why does Hamlet see through the pretense?
- Elaborate on Ophelia’s death . Was it a suicide, how gravediggers presumed, or an accident, as Gertrude claimed? Explain in your Hamlet essay the reasons for Ophelia to commit suicide. Did she have a choice?
- Reflect on political corruption. What characters represent corrupted politicians in the play? How do they manipulate public opinion?
- Analyze one movie adaptation of Hamlet . Write about the changes that were made in the film version. What differences from the play did you like? What changes were you surprised to see?
- Examine the political situation in the play. What war did Fortinbras lead? Why? How does it affect Denmark during the play and after it’s the last scene?
- Explore the role of women in Hamlet . The play presents the social norms that were relevant for people of this period. What parts of women’s lives did men explicitly control? Provide examples from the play.
- Compare Laertes and Hamlet . Laertes is known as Hamlet’s character foil. Examine similarities and differences in their character traits.
- Consider the doubt and indecisiveness of Hamlet . Why are such traits uncommon for the genre? What do they say about the prince as a character? Explain how these qualities affect the plot and Hamlet’s thought process.
- Elaborate on the symbolism in the play. Finding symbolism can be challenging as the interpretations differ. Some individuals consider particular objects as symbols, while others don’t. What do you view as examples of symbolism in the play? Why? What role do they play in understanding the story?
- Reflect on the Oedipus complex. Comment on whether Hamlet has it or not. Provide evidence from the play, especially from the scene with Gertrude, to prove your point. How can this idea be approached on the stage? Find examples of theatrical productions where Hamlet and Gertrude had a conversation in her closet.
- Compare and contrast Claudius and Polonius. What character traits do they have in common? Explain how they are not who they are trying to appear. Who is better at lying and manipulating others? Why?
- Examine how revenge affected characters in Hamlet . Three characters wish to avenge their fathers: Laertes, Hamlet, and Fortinbras. How does revenge affect their lives? Who succeeded in getting their revenge?
- Consider the family theme. What role does family play for various characters? Elaborate on how blood ties motivate multiple characters.
- Reflect on Yorick’s role in the play. Who was Yorick? What impact did he have on Hamlet during the prince’s childhood and present time? Elaborate on how Yorick led Hamlet to his last soliloquy.
- Analyze the religious conflict of the play. How did events from Shakespeare’s time affect the theme of religion? Explain how Hamlet presents the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism through the prince and King Hamlet.
- Comment on the theme of madness. Who went mad in the play? Compare Hamlet’s and Laerte’s insanity to Ophelia’s one. How was her madness different from the other examples?
- Explore Polonius’ character. What was Polonius’ motivation throughout the play? Whom did he manipulate, and why? Explain why he tried to appear a good person and a parent.
- Elaborate on the reasons why Hamlet is the protagonist of the story. What makes him a tragic hero? Why is he considered a good person after every crime he committed and every cruel thing he said to his mother and Ophelia?
- Think of the conflict of good and evil. What imagery is associated with each of them in the play? Does evil spread like a disease?
- Explain how Hamlet differs from other plays of Shakespeare’s time . What new features and connections within the story did the writer present? How did Shakespeare make characters contribute to the plot?
- Analyze the “To be or not to be” speech. It’s one of the most famous lines in history, but what meaning is behind it? Elaborate on the circumstances around the monologue and whether Hamlet is partially lying.
- Reflect on performances of Hamlet. Choose a couple of performances on the stage or in a movie and compare them. Whose version of the character you prefer and why?
- Elaborate on the movie Ophelia (2018). What’s intriguing about a story told from Ophelia’s point of view? Exemplify the differences from the original play and how the change of perspective affected the story.
- Explore Hamlet’s obsession with inaction and action . What stops Hamlet from acting decisively? Exemplify situations from the play when characters act quickly, without any doubt compared to Hamlet’s almost constant hesitance.
- Compare Hamlet and King Lear. What similar character traits have an impact on the respective plays? Can we call the prince and the king victims of the social norms?
- Think of how the play’s themes are relevant nowadays . Which of them remained timeless, relevant for any period? Are any themes become obsolete and useless in today’s world? Elaborate on each theme separately with examples from the play.
- Reflect on Hamlet’s mood swings . Provide examples of how the prince’s mood affects his actions and speech. What can and did influence his mood?
- Examine Polonius’ death. Why was he hiding behind the tapestry during the scene? Was it his idea? How did he die? Elaborate on irony in the way he was murdered. How did it affect the plot?
- Analyze Hamlet as an actor. Is he good at playing a character? Elaborate on his dialogue with the First Player and his opinion about acting.
- Consider the motif of betrayal. Who betrays Hamlet? Explain how the attitude towards this act varies from character to character. How does Hamlet’s betrayal affect Ophelia?
- Explore the connection between honor and revenge . Explain why it’s the principal motivation for such characters as Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. Comment on scenes where it reveals itself through actions and conversations.
- Elaborate on Hamlet’s death. Was it the only logical conclusion for Hamlet’s psychological and emotional development? Was he satisfied?
- Comment on the genre of the play . Can we call it revenge tragedy without any reservation? How did Shakespeare ruin the genre by Hamlet ?
- Compare Hamlet and the Ghost. What can you say about the language that the characters use? List the lines that state that Hamlet and the Ghost look similar.
- Think of the father-son relationships in the play . Analyze the relationships between Hamlet and King Hamlet and compare them to those of Laertes and Polonius. Which features are common for both of them?
- Elaborate on the name Hamlet . What does it mean? What’s its country of origin? Add a sentence or two about Amleth.
- Consider allusions to historical figures in the play. Why does Hamlet mention Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar in act 5? Why did Shakespeare include allusions at all?
- Examine soliloquies in Hamlet . What’s their role in the play? Provide lines from soliloquies that let us dive into the thoughts and intentions of a character. Does anyone lie during such a speech?
- Compare the two film adaptations of the play. Elaborate on different film techniques and alterations of the plot. Concentrate on one scene in particular and explain what changes were made.
- Explore Hamlet’s nihilism. When does Hamlet start to display features that are inherent to this school of thought? Explain how the prince came to nihilism, what pushed him to this.
- List the most painful moments of Hamlet’s life and elaborate on them. Include events that happened before the first act and within the play. Prove your point with evidence from the prince’s lines.
- Think of what poison represents. What does it refer to? Who dies from poison in the play?
- Consider the play from the public’s perspective. How does Claudius manipulate the public’s opinion? What do people think of the new king and Hamlet?
- Compare and contrast Gertrude and Ophelia. What traits do they have in common? Explain differences and similarities in their affection towards Hamlet. Who controls these women?
- Elaborate on the villain of the story. Who can be considered an antagonist of the play? Why do some people regard Hamlet as a villain?
- Imagine how Hamlet could’ve reacted to modern society. What aspects of the future would he appreciate? What social norms would shock him? Would he be more comfortable in our period?
- Evaluate all the relationships in Hamlet’s life. What’s the most significant one? Why? What relationships changed throughout the play?
- Comment on contradictions in the play. What contradictions does Hamlet face? Is he himself a contradictory character? Provide examples of Hamlet’s contradictions
- Explore the fencing in the last scene of Hamlet . What does it contribute to the story? Does it affect the end of the duel?
- Elaborate on the gravediggers. How did their job affect their attitude towards death? Comment on their humor and whether it’s a coping mechanism. Does it illustrate their perception of life?
- Compare Claudius and King Hamlet. What qualities differentiate them? What do they have in common? Speculate on who was a more talented politician and a better leader.
- Think of comic relief in Hamlet . Comment on how Polonius, Osric, gravediggers, and Hamlet’s dialogues with them enlighten the mood. Was the humor appropriate for revenge tragedies before Shakespeare?
- Consider foreshadowing in the play. What events are foreshadowed early on in Hamlet ? Present lines and features from act 1 that indicate the tragic end.
- Elaborate on justice and truth . How does Shakespeare show attitude towards justice common for this time? Does Hamlet approach fairness differently from the others? Elaborate on how Hamlet both pursue the truth and ignores it.
- Examine the “Get thee to a nunnery, go.” sentence. Why did Hamlet say so to Ophelia? What made the prince think that she was vicious?
- Comment on Hamlet’s cruelty. When does Hamlet become cruel towards other characters? Is he cruel towards himself? Analyze situations where Hamlet talks viciously and whether it’s intentional or not.
- Explore Hamlet’s character . Why is the prince such an unusual figure for revenge tragedies? Explain how Shakespeare created the hero who struggles to act with firmness and constantly reflects on his actions and decisions. Is he easy to understand and relate to?
- Analyze the play within the play. What’s its role in plot development? Why did Hamlet let the play take place? Explain what scene he added and why. Elaborate on the title The Mousetrap .
- Examine the consequences of revenge . What conclusion does Shakespeare provide for the theme of revenge? Explain how does it influence the deaths of Hamlet and Laertes, the absolute victory of Fortinbras.
- Reflect on Hamlet’s hesitance to kill Claudius . Why does he consider murdering his uncle in act 1? What stops him? Illustrate all the occasions when Hamlet could’ve killed Claudius but didn’t, and one time he did. What pushed him in the end?
- Compare Claudius to Laertes. Are there any similarities? How do these characters form an alliance by the end of the play?
- Comment on Gertrude’s guiltiness . Hamlet considers his mother guilty of too many crimes, but was she guilty of anything? Speculate whether she participated in King Hamlet’s murder or had an affair with Claudius before her husband’s death. Was she loyal to Hamlet?
- Elaborate on the “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark …“ line. Who says it? Explain the context of the line, its meaning, and what it foreshadows.
- Examine Polonius’ advice to Laertes. Provide its meaning and reflect on Polonius’ intentions. Why is this speech ironic?
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Review of Hamlet by William Shakespeare
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