Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 323-424).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Marcellus and Bernardo looked to Hamlet’s friend Horatio to interpret the apparition they have seen. What assumptions does Horatio make, and what leads him to make such assumptions?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet speaks with bitter irony to Gertrude and Claudius. So far, what is apparent about Claudius from his remarks? To what extent does the King “speak reason” to a grieving son, and to what extent does his speech reflect upon him in ways he may not recognize?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet offers a soliloquy (i.e. speaks to himself) after he talks with Claudius and Gertrude. What seems to be his state of mind — what lies at the bottom of his depression? Does the famous “Oedipal interpretation” of the play begin to earn its stars at this point? If so, how?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Hamlet receive the news of his father’s appearance as a ghost to Horatio and the two watchmen?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Ophelia first listens to her brother’s departing sermon about chastity and politics, and then faces her father Polonius. How does this counselor understand Hamlet’s attentions to Ophelia? What advice does he give his daughter?

6. In Act 1, Scenes 4-5, the ghost beckons Hamlet to a private audience. On what grounds might the ghost’s demands be considered reasonable? On what grounds might they be considered unreasonable? (Is it appropriate for a Christian to take revenge? Where does the revenge code come from?)

7. In Act 1, Scene 5, follow Hamlet’s response to what he has just seen and heard. How much of this response do you consider appropriate in the circumstances and how much is jarring, contradictory, or unintentionally revealing? Explain your rationale.


8. In Act 2, Scene 1, Polonius keeps tabs on Laertes and is sure Hamlet has gone mad for love of Ophelia. Polonius is often portrayed to match Hamlet’s estimation of him as a “foolish, prating knave.” How would you stage this character, and why? (You might also consider Act 2, scene two, where Polonius lays out a plan for Claudius.)

9. In Act 2, Scene 2, evidently without prompting from Polonius, Claudius and Gertrude summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to sound out the cause of Hamlet’s disturbance. What does Claudius suspect — why should he be so concerned about Hamlet’s behavior?

10. In Act 2, Scene 2, Voltimand informs Claudius that the King of Norway has rebuked young Fortinbras for trying to get his hereditary lands back from Denmark. What is the rest of the news from Norway? What does Claudius’ response to this news suggest about his powers of statecraft?

11. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet enters reading, and Polonius questions him. Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try their luck at getting the Prince to talk. Hamlet obviously knows he’s being spied upon, and so he manipulates his auditors. But to what extent, and where, does he perhaps reveal more about his mental state than he knows? Are there some unintended ironies and evidence of obsession here? Explain.

12. In Act 2, Scene 2, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that his favorite acting troupe is on the way to Elsinore. What connections does the Prince begin to make between drama and the rest of life? And how does his taste for speeches about the Trojan War reflect on his own situation and underlying motives? (Consider “Pyrrhus” as a possible point of comparison.)

13. At the end of Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet (alone) reproaches himself for his failure to act even though he (unlike an actor) has real-life motivation for taking revenge. But what doubts about his course of action does Hamlet betray? Where do these doubts seem to have come from — have the audience been adequately prepared to hear them? Explain.


14. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet speaks his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. He has already rejected suicide as un-Christian, so what exactly is the point of this speech — what does he admit? Does that admission entirely account for his failure to act so far? Explain.

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, Polonius and Claudius conceal themselves to hear Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia. The scene has been variously played, based on the director’s surmises about what Hamlet knows and when. How would you suggest an actor play the scene — to what extent does Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia seem sincere? When, if at all, does he become aware that he is being spied upon? Is he carried away, utterly sane, or somewhere in between? Explain with specific reference to the text.

16. In Act 3, Scene 2, why should there be a “dumb show” preceding the main play The Murder of Gonzago (or, in Hamlet’s revision, The Mouse Trap)? Why would this representational doubling up be the most effective way to “catch the conscience of the king”? Why does Hamlet need this confirmation anyhow? (You may want to refer to the end of Act 2, scene 2 for Hamlet’s explanation.)

17. In Act 3, Scene 3, Claudius (having decided to send Hamlet to England), privately assesses his spiritual state. Hamlet decides that killing the King just now would amount to “hire and salary, not revenge.” Based on what the audience hears, is Hamlet correct — what has Claudius come to understand about his spiritual condition? How does this scene also represent a clash between the play’s revenge plot and its Christian overtones?

18. In Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet confronts Gertrude, mistakenly killing Polonius in the process. What accusations does Hamlet level against his mother? Are they accurate? How does Gertrude respond to them? Also, how much of this scene, as you would play it, has to do with Hamlet’s private obsessions, and how much of it has to with matters of marriage and state? (Consider the appearance of the Ghost in this regard.)

19. At the end of Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet at first demands that Gertrude avoid Claudius and not reveal to the King that her son is “but mad in craft” rather than actually insane, but then he changes his mind and advises her to go to the King. What seems to be Hamlet’s strategy at this point — how is he trying to outmaneuver Claudius?


20. In Act 4, Scenes 1-4, Claudius deals with the aftermath of Polonius’ death, sending Hamlet off to England with a sealed death sentence. In scene 4, Hamlet catches sight of Fortinbras’ troops on their way to war in Poland. What insight does Hamlet gather from this incident — is the resolution he draws from it convincing, or unconvincing? Explain.

21. In Act 4, Scenes 5-7, Ophelia’s madness is on display and then she drowns in a brook. What has caused Ophelia’s insanity, and why do you suppose it takes the particular form it does — bawdy songs and obsession with the symbolism of flowers? Also, why is it appropriate that Gertrude should offer such a beautiful, elaborate description of Ophelia’s death? (Act 4.7.166-83 is one of Shakespeare’s finest flights of verse, aptly memorialized in Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite painting “Ophelia.”)

22. In Act 4, Scenes 5-7, Laertes bursts into Elsinore Castle demanding revenge for his father’s death, and Claudius steers him towards what appears to be a foolproof plot against Hamlet’s life. How has Laertes (here and elsewhere) served as a foil for Hamlet’s character and his relationship to the heroic revenge code?


23. In Act 5, Scene 1, Hamlet, having made his escape at sea and been set ashore by pirates, now joins Horatio in an extended and partly comic confrontation with a punctilious gravedigger (“First Clown”) and several visual reminders of death (memento mori). In what sense does this scene advance the play’s action — at least indirectly — rather than just amounting to comic relief? What insight does Hamlet draw from talking to the gravedigger, meditating upon the skull of “poor Yorick,” etc.?

24. In Act 5, Scene 1, Ophelia’s funeral party arrives at the cemetery, and Hamlet competes with Laertes for the title of “Denmark’s most ridiculous grieving person.” Aside from bringing the major characters together, what does this scene accomplish structurally and thematically?

25. In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet explains to Horatio how he has managed to return to Denmark. If the beginning of this scene marks Hamlet’s recognition (in Aristotelian terms, his anagnorisis), what is that recognition and where does it seem to have come from? How do Hamlet’s utterances about “divinity” (providence) reflect on his adherence to an ancient revenge code that demands blood for blood?

26. In Act 5, Scene 2, the foppish courtier Osric makes the necessary sporting challenge, and Hamlet accepts. To what extent does the succession of events leading to four deaths (Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet) reconcile the revenge plot to Christian misgivings about revenge and Christian insistence on providence as the ruling order?

27. In Act 5, Scene 2, Fortinbras (having finished his bloody task in Poland), marches into Elsinore takes command of the situation — what does he make of the carnage that greets him? Why is it appropriate that Horatio should insist on a public display of the corpses to accompany his explanation of the tragic events?

28. In Act 5, Scene 2, theater-goers and critics have long noted the bizarre quality of Hamlet’s final scene — aptly embodied in the line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (Tom Stoppard has written a play by that title, starring none other than “R and G.”) How do you account for such a comic line at the culmination of a tragedy?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake