English 304: Shakespeare: Major Plays
The best beginning procedure is always to familiarize yourself with the cast of characters and then to read the play (or at least an act or a scene) all the way through so that you know what's happening. The notes can help if you're stuck, but try to get the big picture of a scene before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to think about the questions.
1. What happens when Francisco and Bernardo meet at the beginning of 1.1? Where are we, and when? Why is there confusion over which one is supposed to challenge the other by asking "Who's there"? Why is Horatio with Bernardo and Marcellus? Who is he?
2. What is Horatio's initial response to the story of the apparition? What happens when the ghost appears for the first time (184.108.40.206)? Notice that Horatio addresses it as "thou." This is the form of address used with friends or inferiors. Shakespeare's audience would have been much more attuned to the difference than we are. What is the effect of Horatio's addressing the ghost as "thou"?
3. What does Horatio first assume the appearance of the ghost means (1.1.68)? Why are there such intense war preparations in Denmark? (Read 1.1.69-106 carefully to get the international background of the play.) What does Horatio suggest by his discussion of Julius Caesar's death (220.127.116.11-.18)? Why does he choose the example of Rome? Why is the passage set off and in italics? (See note 2, line 106.)
4. What happens when the ghost appears for the second time (at the SD before 18.104.22.168)? Why does it leave so abruptly? The questions Horatio asks it represent, according to the thought of the time, the reasons why a ghost could appear.
5. What is the purpose of the two discussions of the crowing of the cock, Horatio's pagan one (1.1.130-37) and Marcellus' Christian one (1.1.138-45)?
6. What do we know so far about the nature of the ghost? Do we know yet if it is a "good" ghost (i.e., "really" the spirit of the person it appears to be) or a "damned" ghost (a devil or evil spirit in the shape of the person it appears to be)?
1. What is Claudius telling the court in the first part of his speech (1.2.1-16)? What does he say about young Fortinbras and his uncle the king of Norway (ll. 17-41)? How is Claudius responding to the threat? (You may also want to keep in mind that the name "Claudius" appears only in the opening stage direction for 1.2. The name is never spoken in the play. He is simply "the King.")
2. What does Laertes want from the King? How does Claudius respond to him? Based on his first 64 lines in office (1.2.1-64), how would you rate Claudius as a ruler? In what ways does he already differ from Old Hamlet as king? (Consider how Old Hamlet would have responded to Young Fortinbras.)
3. What do Claudius and Gertrude want Hamlet to do that he doesn't want to do? What won't they let him do it? How does he respond to them? How do they respond to the way he responds to them? (You probably know three names associated with the University of Wittenberg in Germany: Martin Luther, Doctor Faustus, and Hamlet. Can you see any connections among the three?)
4. How seriously do you take Claudius' argument against Hamlet's "prolonged" mourning (1.2.87-108)? How long has Hamlet been mourning (1.2.138)? (The normal mourning period of a noble or gentle woman for a dead husband at this time [ca. 1600] was a year or more.)
5. Read Hamlet's first soliloquy (1.2.129-59) carefully. What is it that is really bothering him about what has happened since his father's death? How would you describe the tone of his feelingsdetached, impassioned, rational, ironic, or what?
6. What is Hamlet's response to the news from Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo? Notice the way Hamlet questions them. How much do we know about how his mind works at this point of the play? What does he suspect as the reason for the ghost's appearance (1.2.254-57)?
1. What does Laertes warn Ophelia about? What, apparently, has been the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia since his return from Wittenberg?
2. How seriously do you take Polonius' precepts (1.3.58-80)? Consider especially the last one (1.3.78-80).
3. How willing is Ophelia to discuss with her father what she has discussed with Laertes? What is his response to Hamlet's interest in her and her response to him? How seriously should she take their warnings about Hamlet's lack of seriousness and his inability to choose his own wife?
4. What do we know about Laertes, Polonius, and Ophelia by the end of 1.3? What sort of people are they? What sort of family are they? Who is missing from this family? How strong-willed in Ophelia?
1. Why do the trumpets and cannons sound, according to Hamlet? What does Hamlet think of the custom?
2. Read 22.214.171.124-.22 carefully. What is Hamlet saying here?
3. How does Hamlet respond to the ghost? If it is a "damned ghost," is he as safe as he thinks he is in 1.4.45-48? Why don't the others want him to go? Why can't/don't they stop him? What does Marcellus still think the nature of the problem is (1.4.67)?
1. Is Hamlet surprised when the Ghost asks him to revenge his father's murder? Is he surprised when he learns who the murderer is?
2. Do father and son have the same opinion of Claudius? (Compare 1.2.139-40, 152-53 and 1.5.47-52.) Would others in the court, not knowing about Claudius' crime, see Claudius as this much below his dead brother?
3. How did Claudius murder Old Hamlet?
4. What does the Ghost tell Hamlet to do about his mother?
5. Read Hamlet's second soliloquy carefully (1.5.92-113). What does Hamlet say he has learned? In other words, what general piece of wisdom does he want to save from this encounter (1.5.109). Is this shockingly new information to us? Or is Hamlet just becoming "grown up"? (When did you first learn that you couldn't always trust people?) Notice how quickly Hamlet moves from the specific (Claudius) to the general ("one"). Compare the same movement he makes from the specific person Gertrude to "frailty, thy name is woman" (1.2.146). Given this soliloquy, how soon would you expect Hamlet to go for his revenge?
6. What happens when the others find Hamlet. What does he ask them to swear? What does his mention of an "antic disposition" (1.5.173) suggest about his future plans? How might you expect Hamlet to be acting when next we see him?
1. How much time has passed between Act 1 and Act 2? How do you know? (Keep watching for evidence.)
2. What is Polonius telling Reynaldo to do? What does this tell up about Polonius and his way of thinking and acting?
3. Why is Ophelia so upset when she enters at 126.96.36.199? What has happened to her? Does Hamlet's appearance (in her telling) as a madman (a distracted lover) come as a surprise after what we last heard him say? Why would he appear in this sort of madness to her? Is there any possibility he really is a distracted lover responding to Ophelia's apparent rejection of him? How well has she obeyed her father's orders in 1.3?
4. What is Polonius' response to what Ophelia tells him? Where are they going?
1. Why have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to court? What is their relation to Hamlet? What use does Claudius have for them? Does this remind you of Polonius' use for Reynaldo? Are there any significant differences?
2. We've now had several different explanations of Hamlet's madness: love (2.1.86, 103), his father's death (2.2.8), and that plus "our o'erhasty marriage" (2.2.57note Gertrude's awareness of impropriety). Are people content with these explanations? Are you?
3. What results have come from Cornelius' and Voltemand's trip to Norway? Has Claudius' use of diplomacy rather than war been justified? What will Fortinbras be doing next? Can we expect to see him in Denmark after all? Why?
4. How effective is Polonius as a bearer of news? How convinced are Claudius and Gertrude that Polonius has found the answer? How do they plan to test this answer? Does Polonius' plan sound like his normal way of operating (2.2.163-68)?
5. Immediately following the discussion of the plan, Hamlet appears. Wouldn't this be a good time to try out the plan? Do they?
6. How does Hamlet behave when he enters? Does Polonius think he is mad? Is this the way we would expect Hamlet to act after Ophelia's description in 2.1? Why does he call Polonius a fishmonger? (It may help to know that fishmongers' wives, and daughters, apparently because of the fish, were assumed to be extremely fertile and thus able to conceive easilyand thus the connection in 2.2.185-86.)
7. How does Hamlet behave initially with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (through 2.2.216-66)? Is it different from the way he just acted with Polonius? How does Hamlet change when he realizes that the two were sent for by Claudius and Gertrude?
8. How seriously should we take Hamlet's view of the world and of "man" (2.2.287-98). How do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern react to Hamlet's use of "generic" man (2.2.298-300)?
9. Why are the players traveling? What has been going on in the city? (Much of 2.2.317-46 refers to contemporary events in London around 1599-1601.)
10. What is the significance of Hamlet's referring to Polonius as Jephthah (2.2.385). Jephthah's story is interesting in this contextsee Judges 11:30-40.
11. What is unusual about the speech Hamlet begins to recite (2.2.430-44) and the First Player continues (2.2.448-498). How is its style different from that of the surrounding lines of Hamlet? Why is its subject matter appropriate? (See Note 2 to line 430.) Do lines 461-62 echo anything from or about the play Hamlet? Why can't the First Player finish the speech?
12. What play does Hamlet want the players to play? What does he want to do to the play?
13. Read Hamlet's third soliloquy carefully (2.2.526-82). How does he use the player's response to show how different his own position is? Is the comparison justified by what we have seen happen in the play? He complains that he hasn't acted on his vengeance. Why hasn't he? Why does he need the play? What will he learn from it?
1. How much have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern learned from/about Hamlet?
2. Finally the planned meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia is arranged, spies and all. What does Polonius give Ophelia to read (3.1.46)? What response does his remark get (in an aside) from Claudius? Why is this speech of Claudius' important? What do we learn that we have not learned before?
3. Read Hamlet's fourth soliloquy carefully (3.1.58-90). How is this soliloquy different from the first two? Think about the way Hamlet's mind works within the first two--is the same thing happening here? What is the main idea of this third soliloquy? (For an interesting variant of this speech, you might want to look at the duke's version in chapter 21 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-a great parody/pastiche.)
4. What happens between Hamlet and Ophelia in the so-called "Nunnery scene" (3.1.90-160)? Does Hamlet know that he's being watched? Does he determine that during the scene? Can you spot a place where he might? (Remember how he changed his way of talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at 2.2.267.) Who is the "one" referred to in "all but one" (3.1.147)? What does it add to note that in talking about marriage in 3.1.146-48 Hamlet seems to be echoing St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7?
5. How does Claudius respond to what he has seen and heard? Is he convinced that love is the cause of Hamlet's madness? What does he plan to do about Hamlet? How does Polonius respond? Is he willing to give up his "love" answer? What does he propose as an additional way to find out what Hamlet is thinking? Are you surprised that it includes spying?
1. What advice does Hamlet have for the actors? Why?
2. Why does Hamlet say he especially likes Horatio (3.2.56-67, esp. 64-67)? Does Hamlet see Horatio as similar to him or different from him?
3. What function is served by the discussion of Polonius as an actor (3.1.89-96)? Hamlet was written within a year or two of Julius Caesar; what is added to the scene for the audience if Richard Burbage, playing Hamlet, also played Brutus? Can you guess what part the actor playing Polonius might have played in Julius Caesar?
4. Based on 3.2.116, how much time elapsed between Act 1 and Act 2 (since the action has been continuous since the beginning of Act 2)?
5. How does the play-within-the-play (188.8.131.52-242) reflect the issues bothering Hamlet? Can you identify the lines he has had inserted? (Don't worry, nobody else can either.) Interestingly, the story of Gonzago as known outside Hamlet turns into a revenge story, with Gonzago's son revenging his father's death. So what we've seen is only the first few minutes of a much longer play. What lines would hit the intended audience hardest? (Consider, certainly, 3.2.159-62.) Although Hamlet is interested in Claudius' response, notice that so far Gertrude has taken the strongest "hits" (except, perhaps, for the poisoning in the earone of the new "Italianate" evil inventions, a way to murder someone without it appearing to be murder). Consider also the Player King's more abstract speech in 3.2.1168-195. How does this speech reflect issues that appear elsewhere in the play?
6. What is Claudius' mood as he stops the play at 3.2.247? How does Hamlet respond? If Hamlet has learned that Claudius is indeed guilty (if that's why he stopped the play and not for some other reason), Claudius has also learned something from the presentation of the play. What has Claudius learned?
7. What message do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have for Hamlet? Despite the chaos at the end of the play, is this message unexpected after hearing Polonius' suggestion at the end of the Nunnery scene (3.1)? What lesson does Hamlet teach with a recorder?
8. Read Hamlet's fifth soliloquy carefully (3.2.358-69). How is it different from the other soliloquies? What is the mood of the soliloquy? How do you react to it? What about line 360? What is happening to Hamlet?
1. What has Claudius decided to do with Hamlet? Who will go with him? What "theoretical" message about kingship does Rosencrantz tell to Claudius?
2. Where is Polonius going?
3. What does Claudius admit in his attempt to pray? Has the play actually had an effect on him? Why can't he ask for forgiveness?
4. What happens when Hamlet enters? Why doesn't Hamlet kill Claudius then? What is ironic about Hamlet's decision?
1. How successful is the first part of the interview between Gertrude and Hamlet? What goes wrong (even before Polonius' death)? Who controls the conversation? Why does Gertrude call for help?
2. Does Gertrude know that Claudius killed Hamlet's father? (Consider 3.4.27-29, 38-39, 50-51.)
3. What device does Hamlet use to force Gertrude to consider what she has done?
4. Hamlet seems to be getting through to Hamlet when the Ghost enters. Why does the Ghost appear at this point? How is his appearance different from his appearances in Act 1? Who saw him then? Who sees him now? What is his message to Hamlet?
5. After the Ghost leaves, does Hamlet succeed in what he came to do? What is Gertrude's state when he leaves? What should she do, and what should she not do?
6. What does Hamlet think of his upcoming trip to England? What does he expect to do?
1. Does Gertrude tell Claudius the truth about what happened between her and Hamlet (4.1.6-7)? Is she following Hamlet's advice at the end of 3.4?
2. How does Claudius respond to the death of Polonius? Does he understand the implications of what happened? What will he do now?
1. What do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern learn from Hamlet?
1. Why does Claudius believe he can't simply arrest Hamlet?
2. What is the result of Hamlet's joking about death and worms? What connection do the worms and their diet have with Wittenberg? (Note 4 to line 31gives most of the answer. The Diet, headed by the Emperor and meeting at Worms in 1521, pronounced its ban on Luther after he refused to recant.) Keep the whole "worm" discussion in mind when you get to 5.1, the graveyard scene. This discussion is a prelude to that one.
3. Is Hamlet going to England as a prisoner or in the guise of a royal representative?
4. What do Claudius' letters tell England (i.e., the king of England) to do with Hamlet? Why does Claudius expect to be obeyed? (The situation is more or less historical, since England was ruled by a Danish king from 1016-1042. The original Hamlet story seems to date from about this time.)
1. Why is Fortinbras' army passing through Denmark? (Remember 2.2.60-80.)
2. Notice that the Folio text contains only lines 1-9 of this scene. What is the effect of having only those lines? Why would even that much of the scene appear? In other words, what is the function within the play of 4.4.1-9?
3. What sort of judgment does the Captain make about the place they are fighting for? How does Hamlet describe it (184.108.40.206-.19)?
4. Where is Hamlet going when he meets the Captain?
5. Read Hamlet's sixth soliloquy carefully (220.127.116.11-.56). What is unusual about it given its position in the play? Has Hamlet been delaying, as he says? What example does he compare himself to? (And what other soliloquy does this one remind you of?)
6. Look at 18.104.22.168-.46 closely. What is Hamlet saying? (See note 8 to line 9.46 for a suggestion. Is this the only possibility?) This passage introduces the idea of "honor" that we will be meeting again, particularly as represented by the "code of dueling," something new in the late 16th century that is represented in the play by Laertes and his "French connection" (as opposed to Hamlet's Wittenberg, philosophical connection). And be sure to recall what Falstaff had to say about it (1H4 5.1.127-39.)
7. 4.4 ends a long "movement" in the play that began at 2.1 with Polonius taking Ophelia to the King and Queen, followed by the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and then of the players. 3.1 begins the day after the players arrive (the day the play is to be performed); the action of that day runs through the rest of Act 3 and the first scenes of Act 4. In 4.4 we must assume that it is early morning of the next day and that Hamlet is on his way to England. In 4.5 Laertes returns, having had enough time to learn in Paris of his father's death, so some time must pass between 4.4 and 4.5.
1. What do we learn about the state of Gertrude's soul in her aside (4.5.17-20)? What does this say about how she has responded to Hamlet's accusations and recommendations in 3.4?
2. The court assumes Ophelia's madness is caused by her father's death. Judging from her songs, are they correct? Is that the only thing that has made her mad? What else is on her mind and coming to the surface in her madness?
3. What is Laertes' approach to revenging his father's death? How does it compare to Hamlet's? How much support does he have? Whom does he initially blame?
4. What is being threatened as Laertes enters (22.214.171.124)? How well does Claudius handle this emergency?
5. How does Laertes respond to mad Ophelia? What offer does Claudius make to get his discussion with Laertes back on track?
1. Who brings Hamlet's letter to Horatio? What has happened to Hamlet? (Happily, we have been spared seeing Hamlet as Errol Flynnsee Olivier's movie version for that. However, this letter does show us a Hamlet quite capable of acting when the occasion presents itself.)
1. Claudius has obviously convinced Laertes of his innocence. What things of a personal nature do we learn about Gertrude and Claudius (4.7.11-16)? Laertes wants his revenge, but Claudius tells him "You shortly shall hear more." What does Claudius expect to be able to tell Laertes soon?
2. What does Hamlet's letter tell Claudius? Why does Hamlet want to see him"alone"? What seems to be Hamlet's plan?
3. What plan do Claudius and Laertes develop? What happened when Lamord came to Denmark two months ago? How will Claudius and Laertes use Laertes' reputation to get revenge?
4. What would Laertes do to get revenge (4.7.98)? How does this compare to Hamlet? How does Claudius respond?
5. How many tricks and poisons does it take (according to Claudius and Laertes) to kill a Hamlet?
6. What happened to Ophelia? Did she kill herself, or is her death accidental (based on this description; her death gets a different spin in 5.1)?
7. What is Laertes' response to her death? What does Claudius fear will happen?
1. What are the two clowns doing while they talk? Who is the "she" of 5.1.1? Why, according to the second clown, is she really being given a Christian burial?
2. What happens in the discussion between Hamlet and the Gravedigger? What does Hamlet learn from his confrontation with Yorick's skull? What does he learn from his meditation on Alexander and Caesar? How does the mood here differ from that in 4.3.17-38?
3. How old is Hamlet?
4. What do we learn from Gertrude's farewell to Ophelia (5.1.227-30)? Would Polonius have been surprised if he had heard this?
5. What happens when Hamlet appears to the others? What is significant about him calling himself "Hamlet the Dane" (5.1.242see the footnote)? Why is he so angry?
1. What new sort of attitude to life do you see in the Hamlet of the first 81 lines of 5.2 ?
2. What would have happened to him in England? How did he find out? What did he do about it? What has happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Do they know what hit them? (See Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) How does Hamlet feel about them?
3. What sort of person is Osric? What message does he have for Hamlet? What seems to be the problem with his hat? What is the wager (5.2.122-25)? (No one has been able to explain this speech in a way convincing to everyone.)
4. What is Hamlet's reaction to the idea of the match (5.2.148-61)? (The Folio text has an additional sentence at the end: "Let be.")? How well does Hamlet expect to do? Why does he go ahead with it? How does this reflect the new attitude we saw in Hamlet in 5.1?
5. Hamlet clearly apologizes to Laertes (5.2.163-81). How does Laertes respond? Given what we know about the plans of Laertes and Claudius, how do you take Laertes' promise (5.2.187-89)? Can we say he has any honor at all? Has he followed his father's precept in 1.3.78-80?
6. What is Laertes doing at line 202?
7. What is the "union" Claudius promises to put in the cup at line 210 and perhaps does not put into the cup until after line 225? What problem is created by Hamlet's response in line 227? What happens at line 232? (And what is the score by now?)
8. Look carefully at lines 245-55, noting who wounds whom and with what sword, and what happens to Gertrude (including Claudius' lie at line 251).
9. Why is Hamlet so concerned that Horatio stay alive to tell his story? How much do the other people at court know at this point?
10. Do you believe Horatio in his assumption that Hamlet is saved and not damned? Why or why not?
11. Does the Hamlet Fortinbras describes (5.2.339-44) sound like the Hamlet we have known? What will happen to the kingdom under Fortinbras?
Return to English 304 list of reading questions
Return to English 511 list of reading questions