ELEMENTS OF TRAGEDY IN HAMLET
He is a nobleman, revered by his countrymen, who strives to alter the world around him. Ultimately, he must forfeit his own life to see justice done. The plot that unfolds in Shakespeare's drama includes politics, murder, and domestic strife.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF HAMLET
Students will be interested to know that the story of Prince Hamlet was not original with Shakespeare's version. The basic plot was found in ancient stories which eventually made their way to Scandinavia, specifically Denmark. The Signet Classic edition contains more specific background on the origins of this story in "A Note on the Sources of Hamlet " and in Sylvan Barnet's prefatory remarks. Barnet also includes more general information about Shakespeare, the Elizabethan
theater, and the various texts of Hamlet. Suggested teaching strategies utilizing this information are included in the activities for use before reading the play.
The enormous contribution which William Shakespeare has made to the English language is evidenced in the volumes of scholarly endeavor devoted to his body of works and in the direct and indirect allusions to his words in contemporary language and culture.
A richness in imagery and an ability to tap the depths of meaning in every word make the reading of a Shakespearean play more than memorable.
ACTIVITIES FOR DISCOVERING AND APPRECIATING SHAKESPEARE'S LANGUAGE
A list of possibilities follows:
Absent thee from felicity awhile (V, i)
All is not well (I, ii)
The bird of dawning singeth all night long (I, i)
Brevity is the soul of wit (II, ii)
Frailty, thy name is woman! (I, ii)
Give me that man/That is not passion's slave (III, ii)
Give thy thoughts no tongue (I, iii)
How all occasions do inform against me (IV, iv)
I am sick at heart (I, i)
I could a tale unfold (I, v)
In my mind's eye (I, ii)
It cannot come to good (I, ii)
It started like a guilty thing (I, i)
The lady doth protest too much (III, ii)
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul. (III, iv)
Leave her to heaven (I, v)
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tun and harsh (III, i)
Man delights not me;/nor woman neither (II, ii)
More honoured in the breach than the observance (I, iv)
More in sorrow than in anger (I, ii)
More matter, with less art (II, ii)
Neither a borrower, nor a lender be (I, iii)
Not a mouse stirring (I, i)
Now cracks a noble heart, Good-night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest? (V, ii)
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven (III, iii)
O my prophetic soul! (I, v)
The primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede (I, iii)
The rest is silence (V, ii)
Rosemary, that's for remembrance IV, v)
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (III, i)
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I, v)
So much for him (I, ii)
Sweets to the sweet; farewell! (V, i)
That it should come to this! (I, ii)
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (I, v)
There's a divinity that shapes our ends (V, ii)
This too too solid flesh (I, ii)
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all (III, i)
'Tis bitter cold (I, i)
'Tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity,
And pity 'tis 'tis true (II, ii)
To be, or not to be: that is the question (III, i)
To die, to sleep--No more (III, i)
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see! (III, i)
To sleep; perchance to dream (III, i)
To thine own self be true (I, iii)
'Twas/caviare to the general (II, ii)
We know what we are, but know not what we may be (IV, v)
What a piece of work is man (II, ii)
When sorrows come, they come not single spies, But in battalions (IV, v)
* 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.
* 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?
* 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?
* 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.
* 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?
* To what extent do parents have the right to "spy" or check up on their children? What circumstance might allow or prevent this?
* 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?
* Are parents generally blind to their children's faults? Why or why not?
* 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?"
* 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?
* 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?
* 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.
CONSIDERING MAJOR THEMES
* Revenge: 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)
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
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?
* Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
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)
How do you explain Hamlet's inability to act in avenging his father's death?
Is Hamlet a likable character? Would you want to be his friend? Explain.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
Did you find the action in the play difficult to follow? Where? What did you find challenging about these sections?
Consider the dramatic pacing of the play. Does Shakespeare keep the audience or reader involved in the action? How?
To what extent is Hamlet's quest for revenge justifiable in terms of the situation presented? Why or why not?
Find evidence of Hamlet's religious beliefs. How do these beliefs influence his actions and decisions?
Examine the characters and events in terms of appearance and reality. Cite examples of things that are not what they seem.
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?
Explain what you think is revealed about human nature in Hamlet. Use characters and situations to illustrate your points.
AFTER READING THE PLAY
* Determine if, in your opinion, the character of Prince Hamlet, is a believable one.
* Compare and contrast the character of Hamlet to that of Horatio, Laertes, and/or Fortinbras.
* Consider the women in the play, and assess Shakespeare's portrayal of them.
* 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.
* Of the themes presented in Hamlet, decide which was most important and justify your selection.
The commentaries included in the Signet Classic edition are especially useful with more advanced readers. These can be assigned for prÃÂ©cis writing, journal responses, or both.
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).
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.
* 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.
* 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.
A Teacher's Guide to the Signet Classic Edition of William Shakespeare's Hamlet 10
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.
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.
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.