Included in this guide to Shakespeare's Hamlet are act-by-act synopses, discussion questions, student activities, and writing topics. Your students will enjoy this tragic play of revenge and familial relationships.
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A motivating introduction and activities designed for all ability levels can make Hamlet accessible to every student. The following are suggestions for organizing the instruction for any ability level of student, and then more specific recommendations for use with those with advanced and nonacademic ability levels.

All Ability Levels

A. Journal writing is an essential part of an English classroom, especially with works of literature. At a glance, teachers can readily assess whether a student has read and understood a work. Students should be encouraged or required to write in their journals throughout the study of the play, detailing their personal reactions to particular characters or situations or writing in response to assigned topics like those below. Have students relate each topic they write on to characters or situation in the play.

Journal Topics

  1. How common do you believe the act of revenge is in everyday life? Write about specific incidents, including any in which you were involved or have witnessed.
  2. Find magazine/newspaper articles, short stories, plays, poems, or novels containing events motivated by revenge. How might events have been changed had someone not sought revenge?
  3. Characterize yourself as a "thinker" or a "doer." In this respect what character in the play are you most like? How would you like to be different, or would you like to be different?
  4. Have you or anyone you have known ever seen or claimed to have witnessed some kind of supernatural being? Explain the circumstances surrounding the even. Do you believe in the supernatural? Explain.
  5. In Act I, scene iii of Hamlet, Polonius gives Laertes a great deal of "fatherly advice" about how to live his life. Look at this section and find advice you have heard from your own parents. How valuable is this advice? Have you used it? Have you been involved in any situation to which this advice was applicable?
  6. To what extent do parents have the right to "spy" or check up on their children? What circumstance might allow or prevent this?
  7. How are relationships between stepparents and stepchildren generally depicted in fiction or film? Do you have any experience with or knowledge of step-relationships? What conflicts and barriers must be overcome? What are the advantages, the positive aspects of these relationships?
  8. Are parents generally blind to their children's faults? Why or why not?
  9. King Claudius states "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go." (III, i) How is this true in any age? What evidence can you find in recent news stories to support this statement? How do societies keep checks and balances on their "great ones?"
  10. So you know what an "apple polisher" is? Have you every known one or been one yourself? Why do you think people do this? How do you feel about it?
  11. Have you ever been the victim of unrequited love? How did you feel? Have you ever been the recipient of affection from someone whom you did not care about? How did you feel about this situation?
  12. Write about a time when you discovered that someone was purposefully plotting against you for some reason. Explain the situation--how you felt, how it turned out.

B. Using small groups in the regular classroom can serve several functions. Groups containing mixed ability levels can work on study questions, summarize scenes, prepare presentations, work on projects, and aid each other in deciphering more difficult sections of the play. These same groups can also serve as peer groups for various writing activities.

Group activities should be structured carefully for students on all ability levels. Teachers should provide groups with specific directions and expectation for each task, reasonable (but flexible) time limits, and follow-up activities connecting group work to the broader objectives for teaching the play.

Upper-Ability Levels

A. More capable students can be assigned to read the play prior to intensive act-by-act analysis with the teacher. Students should keep a reading journal summarizing what they have read, writing down questions about any aspect of the play, and responding to the actions of the characters and the plot.

B. A second reading of the play is desirable. After the initial reading students may re-read each act, focusing attention on specifics through the use of study/discussion questions or group activities.

Lower-Ability Levels

A. With some students, reading the play aloud and summarizing the major actions scene-by-scene is necessary for comprehension. Care must be taken not to cover too much in one-class period. To avoid monotony, other teaching strategies such as the following should be used on occasion:

  • Assigning manageable sections of the play to small groups, and having students prepare to read aloud and interpret these sections for the class.
  • Viewing a videotaped production of the play prior to studying the written drama, or viewing the play scene-by-scene and then summarizing and discussing.

B. The use of study/discussion questions is appropriate with all levels of students. However, lower-ability students need to answer more surface-level comprehension questions before moving to the levels of analysis and synthesis. Such questions can establish the essentials of plot, setting, and character. Here are some examples:

  • What characters are present when the play opens?
  • Where are they?
  • What have they seen that is unusual?
  • What do they decide to do?

Thought-provoking questions worded to promote understanding can be employed as well. These students can become equally involved with Hamlet's dilemma if they are afforded an appropriate entry through engaging questions and activities such as those which follow.


Having students consider some major conflicts in the play prior to reading can help establish a basis on which to build their knowledge of the play. Some useful activities might include one or more of the following:

A. Journal writing on topics related to the conflicts and events in the play is one way students can become interested and involved in the issues and topics in the play. Students should be given the opportunity to share and discuss the ideas they express in their journals. (See the topics noted in "Suggesting for Organizing Instruction.")

B. Bring in magazine and/or newspaper articles containing examples of people seeking revenge. Students can read these and draw parallels between the events in the articles and those in the play. This activity might be done in small groups with a follow-up journal writing and class discussion. (The second journal topic included previously asks students to bring in examples of the role revenge plays in their lives.)

C. Teachers talented at writing scripts might modernize the basic plot line of Hamlet in a simple reader's theater script, perhaps as an afternoon soap opera, and have students present the drama to the class. A follow-up to this activity might include a class discussion in which students examine how the plot unfolds. A subsequent writing assignment, in the form of a journal entry or a more structured composition, could be appropriate.

D. Students might be interested in reading "A Note on the Sources of Hamlet" included in the Signet Classic edition prior to studying the play. A succinct background on the origins of the Hamlet story, this information might be summarized and presented by the teacher or assigned to a small group for presentation to the class.

Note: This activity in isolation from one or more of the preceding activities will not allow students to become personally involved with the issues of the play, a necessary step for a fuller appreciation and understanding of literature.

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