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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Considering Major Themes: Through class discussion and other activities, students can discover how Shakespeare develops major themes in the play which include:

Hamlet searches continuously for the answer to the question of whether or not he should avenge his father's death. His concern with right and wrong in religious, moral, and political terms causes him much inner turmoil. (Journal Topics 1, 2)

Appearance vs. Reality:
The play contains many situations in which the surface appearance of things does not always match reality. Hamlet struggles to determine who his true friends are; the players in the acting troupe assume new identities; Claudius appears to be a true and just king and Gertrude his virtuous queen. (Journal Topics 4, 8, 10, 11)

Sanity vs. Insanity:
In many ways this conflict is intertwined with the theme of appearance vs. reality. Hamlet's sanity or insanity has baffled critics for years. Even the characters in the play discuss inconsistencies in Hamlet's behavior, sometimes assuming he is really insane, at other times amazed by his clarity of thought. (Journal Topics 3, 9)

Decay and Corruption:
Among the most powerful images of the play are those which reveal disintegrating situations, both in personal terms for Prince Hamlet, and in political terms for Denmark. (Journal Topics 1, 2, 9, 12)

Activities for Discovering Themes

  • Assign appropriate journal topics for leading into the discussion of a particular theme as it is evidenced in the play. (See above list of themes.)
  • Provide students with a handout listing themes to be found. Advanced students can be instructed to note specific passages and situations that develop these ideas. A simpler approach for less skilled readers is to hand out a list of page numbers where important passages related to themes are found and requiring the students to locate the passages and note their significance.
  • Organize students into small groups, assigning each group a different theme. Allow time for groups to collaborate on a class presentation of this particular theme as it is found in Hamlet. Groups can present the important passages to the class, perhaps in the form of a handout or an overhead transparency. They might also include a dramatization and discussion of selected passages related to their assigned theme. Groups can develop a list of study questions, both short answer and essay, to guide others in discovering this theme in Hamlet.

A. Progressing through the Play: In lieu of a list of questions, have students summarize each scene as they read, either in writing or orally for the class. As a variation on the reading journal/log, have students make a chart for each scene in which they list primary characters, major actions and conflicts, resolutions, significant references to themes, recurring images, and questions. After students have read Acts I and II, allow small groups to write modern versions of the significant scenes or incidents in the play and present these to the class.
B. Using Study/Discussion Questions: Listed by the traditional elements of fiction (character analysis, plot, theme), the following study/discussion questions can be used to engage students in class discussion or writing, or small groups of students can deal with specific questions and present their observations to the class.

Study/Discussion Questions

Character Analysis

  1. The following phrases might be used to describe the character of Prince Hamlet. How do you think each relates to Hamlet's nature? Refer to the text for support.
    • a victim of circumstance
    • a man incapable of taking action
    • an excessively ambitious prince who lusts for power
    • a person of exceptional intellect and intelligence
    • a man in the grip of insanity
  2. Consider Hamlet's behavior when he is with each of the following characters. What is revealed about him in his dealings with each of these people?
    • Claudius
    • Gertrude
    • Ophelia
    • Horatio
    • Polonius
    • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  3. What developments and/or states of mind do each of Hamlet's six soliloquies reveal? (I, ii; II, ii; III, i; III, iii; IV, iv)
  4. How do you explain Hamlet's inability to act in avenging his father's death?
  5. Is Hamlet a likable character? Would you want to be his friend? Explain.
  6. What questions do you have about the character of Hamlet? What problems do you see in analyzing his character? Do you admire Shakespeare's ability to develop a character, or do you think he leaves too many questions unresolved?


  1. When the play begins, a major event, the death of King Hamlet has already occurred. How does this affect the reader's understanding of the play?
  2. What purposes do the subplots of the relationship between Polonius and his children and the political situation with Norway and young Fortinbras serve? How is the story of Prince Hamlet and his particular situation reflected in each of these subplots?
  3. Look carefully at each act of the drama. What is the function of each? What important event or situation is developed in each act by Shakespeare?
  4. How does Shakespeare keep his audience apprised of developments outside the primary action of the play? Why are events on the ship taking Hamlet to England not portrayed? Find other examples in the play where Shakespeare keeps his readers aware of important events, but does so without presenting the action in the drama. Is this appropriate in your opinion? Why or why not?
  5. Did you find the action in the play difficult to follow? Where? What did you find challenging about these sections?
  6. Consider the dramatic pacing of the play. Does Shakespeare keep the audience or reader involved in the action? How? Explain your opinion.


  1. To what extent is Hamlet's quest for revenge justifiable in terms of the situation presented? Why or why not?
  2. Find evidence of Hamlet's religious beliefs. How do these beliefs influence his actions and decisions?
  3. Examine the characters and events in terms of appearance and reality. Cite examples of things that are not what they seem.
  4. Find examples of imagery that reveal decay or corruption. What effect do these images have on the reader? How would you explain Shakespeare's inclusion of these images in the play?
  5. Explain what you think is revealed about human nature in Hamlet. Use characters and situations to illustrate your points.


Provide students with a variety of topics from which they can select a focus for a writing assignment. If students have been allowed to respond to characters and events in the play on a personal level, perhaps in the form of journal writing as the play was read, they can develop these topics into a critical expository essay.

Suggested Essay Topics:

  1. Determine if, in your opinion, the character of Prince Hamlet, is a believable one.
  2. Compare and contrast the character of Hamlet to that of Horatio, Laertes, and/or Fortinbras.
  3. Consider the women in the play, and assess Shakespeare's portrayal of them.
  4. Analyze Shakespeare's use of subplots in this play. (Examples include the relationship between Polonius and his children and the political events in Denmark.) Discuss the strengths and/or weaknesses of this technique and determine if it was appropriate in this play.
  5. Of the themes presented in Hamlet, decide which was most important and justify your selection.

A. The commentaries included in the Signet Classic edition are especially useful with more advanced readers. These can be assigned for precis writing, journal responses, or both.

Note: One way to organize the journal responses is to have students divide their journal page in half vertically, with the left side reserved for jotting down interesting or controversial statements made by the critics or provocative lines from the play, and the right side reserved for their own personal observations about these statements. In this way, the information is easily referenced for later use in class discussions, group projects, and/or writing assignments.

B. Students can extend their learning by researching any aspect of Shakespeare's theater. If this has been done extensively in a prior study of Shakespeare, students can research broader topics related to the play. Such topics might include parent-child relationships, stepfamilies, the supernatural, or the occult.

C. Students can modernize selected portions of the play and perform these for class. Possible situations might include: Hamlet's first encounter with his father's ghost (I, iv), Hamlet's third soliloquy (III, i), or the final death scene (V, ii).

D. Involving students in artistic projects based on the play is an appropriate way to end the study. Most of the following ideas are easily adaptable to group work.

  • Mini-posters containing a quotation from the play with appropriate artwork or collages.
  • Collages focusing on an individual character or one of the themes of the play.
  • Dioramas/shadow boxes depicting a significant scene in the play.

E. Many parallels have been drawn between the character of Oedipus in Sophocles's drama and that of Hamlet. Students can read Oedipus Rex and compare his plight to that of Hamlet's.

F. Show a videotape or film of the play. Involve students in writing movie reviews of the production or in comparison/contrast papers based on the written drama and the video production. If time allows and different videos are available, allow students to compare/contrast these in writing and/or class discussion.

Suggested Questions for Comparing the Drama and Video Production:

  • Did the production look like what you imagined as you read the play? How was it similar? Different?
  • Which actor/actress best portrayed his/her character? Why?
  • How was the production different from the written drama? What decisions did the director make about staging? Were these effective decisions?

Sylvan Barnet's "Hamlet on Stage and screen," included in the Signet Classic edition is an excellent overview of the different stage and film presentations of Hamlet. Students can read the article and discuss or write about which presentation they believe would be the most effective.

Another way to utilize this article is to organize the class into small groups and present students with the task of "cutting" the drama to a length manageable for a television production, approximately two hours. Have them decide what portions of the play could be deleted and present their views before the class.

A. Have students write a dialogue that might take place between Prince Hamlet and a psychologist. Small groups can write dialogue for therapy sessions that might take place at different stages during Hamlet's mental turmoil, for example:

  • when he learns of his mother's marriage to his uncle.
  • immediately after seeing his father's ghost for the first time.
  • after killing Polonius.
  • when he learns of Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's intentions.
  • after Ophelia's funeral.

B. The study and comparison of a modern work to that of Shakespeare can take students beyond the scope of Hamlet. Students can write comparison/contrast essays or prepare class presentations. An appropriate selection for such activities would Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, in which Hamlet is presented from an opposing viewpoint.

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