Hamlet Viewing Guide – 2 homework grades

As you watch Hamlet over the next few days, record your thoughts and observations in this packet. The questions are in order and divided into Acts. Between your first viewing and your second viewing you need to annotate the embedded paragraphs.

Characters in Hamlet

  • Old Hamlet: Hamlet’s father, King of Denmark residing at the castle at Elsinore. Murdered by his brother, Claudius. Old Hamlet appears as a ghost in the play.
  • Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, nephew to Claudius. Must decided whether to avenge his father’s murder. Feigns madness. Studied at the University of Wittenberg, and has a philosophical and existentialist approach to life.
  • Claudius: Brother to the old king Hamlet, but after old Hamlet’s death he married his brother’s wife (Queen Gertrude) and became king of Denmark and father/uncle to Hamlet.
  • Gertrude: Queen of Denmark, married to old Hamlet then after his death to his brother Claudius. She is mother to young Hamlet.
  • Fortinbras: prince of Norway (foil for Hamlet). He doesn’t really appear in the play, but is spoken about and creates tension. His father (old Fortinbras) was killed by old Hamlet (on the day of young Hamlet’s birth) who recaptured territories from Fortinbras. Prince Fortinbras is gathering troops to invade Denmark – Claudius appeals to young Fortinbras’ Uncle (Old Norway – a foil for Claudius) who says he will stop him, but Fortinbras becomes King of Denmark at the end of the play.
  • Horatio: Friend to Hamlet – studied at Wittenberg together. Tells Hamlet about the ghost.
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: old schoolmates of Hamlet’s. Claudius and Gertrude ask them to come back to Denmark to find out why Hamlet is acting crazy. Eventually sent to England with Hamlet to have him executed for Claudius (once he realizes that Hamlet knows about his murder). Hamlet instead switches the documents and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed.
  • Laertes: Polonius son who leaves to study in Paris, but comes back when he finds out that Hamlet killed his father, soon after his sister goes insane. Laertes works with Claudius to kill Hamlet.
  • Polonius: Laertes’ and Ophelia’s father, verbose and somewhat meddlesome and foolish. He is killed by Hamlet in a type of accident.
  • Ophelia: Daughter to Polonius and sister to Laertes. She is Hamlet’s love interest, but he treats her poorly during the play and also kills her father, which contributes to her insanity.

Draw a relationship chart below!

Motifs: Watch for references to…

  • Snake (serpent, devil, venom)
  • Poison/disease/sickness (physical, spiritual, mental)
  • Afterlife references, biblical allusions

Critical Approaches:

  • New Criticism – close reading of the text (homework)
  • Psychoanalysis – Freudian approach (in the movie) to sexuality, incest, Oedipus complex
  • Feminist approach (Hamlet’s action/attitude toward Gertrude and Ophelia and their responses)


  • Illusion vs. Reality (madness/acting vs. the true character)
  • Illusion of love…lust
  • Existentialism – does life have meaning? Is it worth living?
  • Action vs. Inaction (revenge vs. contemplation/hesitation)
  • Deception, ambition, loyalty, corruption

Act 1: starts with the guards sighting the ghost – ends with Hamlet’s first crazed encounter with Ophelia.

How does Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet begin? What do we lose when this is left off in Mel Gibson’s version?

What are Claudius’ and Gertrude’s views of Hamlet’s mourning?

What do you learn from Hamlet’s first soliloquy?

What does the ghost reveal and request?

What do we learn from Hamlet’s next soliloquy after the ghost – describe Hamlet’s mental state?

Describe the characters and list the traits and relationships of …

Polonius / Laertes / Ophelia

Act 2: begins after Hamlet’s first encounter with Ophelia – ends with the arrival of the players.

How does Polonius show his foolishness? Is the King/Queen convinced by his arguments?

What is comic, ironic, sad about the interaction between Polonius and Hamlet? What points are made by Hamlet?

(actually Act 3) How do you think Hamlet and Ophelia truly feel about each other? What is the importance of this scene?

(actually Act 3) To Be Soliloquy…What is Hamlet struggling with? Tone of this soliloquy versus the previous ones?

Why are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern visiting Hamlet? How does Hamlet deal with them/view them? What points does he make around them?

Homework after the first viewing (before the next section of the movie) - Read and annotate the section below for Wed/Thurs.

Hamlet’s Hesitation

Hamlet has an obligation to avenge his father’s murder, according to the customs of his time. But he also has an obligation to abide by the moral law, which dictates, “Thou shalt not kill.” Consequently, Hamlet has great difficulty deciding what to do and, thus, hesitates to take decisive action. In his famous critiques of Shakespeare’s works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) has written:

He [Hamlet] is all dispatch and resolution as far as words and present intentions are concerned, but all hesitation and irresolution when called upon to carry his words and intentions into effect; so that, resolving to do everything, he does nothing. He is full of purpose but void of that quality of mind which accomplishes purpose. . . . Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth that action is the chief end of existence—that no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from or rend us repugnant to action, and lead us to think and think of doing until the time has elapsed when we can do anything effectually.

Biblical Allusions in Hamlet

In Hamlet, humans are fallen creatures, victims of the devil’s trickery as described in Genesis. Allusions or direct references to Adam, the Garden of Eden, and original sin occur throughout the play. In the first act, Shakespeare discloses that King Hamlet died in an orchard (Garden of Eden) from the bite of a serpent (Claudius). Later, Hamlet alludes to the burdens imposed by original sin when he says, in his famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, that the “flesh is heir to” tribulation in the form of “heart-ache” and a “thousand natural shocks” (3. 1. 72-73). In the third scene of the same act, Claudius compares himself with the biblical Cain. In Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Like Cain, Claudius kills his brother, old King Hamlet.

In Act V, the second gravedigger tells the first gravedigger that Ophelia, who apparently committed suicide, would not receive a Christian burial if she were a commoner instead of a noble. In his reply, the first gravedigger refers directly to Adam: "Why, there thou sayest: and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam’s profession" (5. 1. 13). After the gravedigger tosses Yorick’s skull to Hamlet, the prince observes: “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder!” (5. 1. 34). All of these references to Genesis seem to suggest that Hamlet is a kind of Everyman who inherits “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—that is, the effects of original sin.

Hamlet is like Christ, George Bernard Shaw has observed, in that he struggles against the old order.

Also imagery throughout the play dwells on Satan’s toxic influence on Elsinore and its inhabitants. Particularly striking are the snake metaphors. It is the venom of a serpent (in the person of Claudius) that kills old King Hamlet. Claudius, remember, had poured poison into the king’s ear as reported by the Ghost of the old king: While “sleeping in mine orchard,” the Ghost says, “A serpent stung me” (1. 5. 42-43). It is a sword—a steel snake, as it were—that kills Polonius, Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius. (The sword that kills Hamlet and Laertes is tipped with poison.) Moreover, it is a poisoned drink that kills Gertrude. As for Ophelia, it is poisoned words that kill her. The word poison and its forms (such as poisons, poisoner, and poisoning) occur thirteen times in the play. Serpent occurs twice, venom or envenom six times, devil nine times, and hell or hellish eleven times. Garden (as a symbol for the Garden of Eden) or gardener occurs three times. Adam occurs twice.

Act 3: begins with a soliloquy by Hamlet – ends with Hamlet’s confrontation in his mother’s bedchamber.

Important realizations in this soliloquy (ruminations on “man” and the players)? Tone compared to the To Be speech?

What is the purpose of the play within a play? Irony of the name? How does it the actual audience?

How does Hamlet act during the play?

To Ophelia? / To Gertrude (Queen)? / To Claudius (King)?

What is the analogy Hamlet uses with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

What does Claudius admit to? Why doesn’t Hamlet kill him then?

Does Hamlet actually give in to madness with his mother? Does he really see his father? Describe his complex relationship with Gertrude.

Act 4: begins with Gertrude speaking to the king about Hamlet’s actions – ends with the death of Ophelia.

Explain Hamlet’s answer to what happens to Polonius. Significance?

What are the obvious and also underlying reasons that Hamlet is sent to England? What is meant to happen there? What actually happens?

Why does Ophelia go crazy and how is this a foil to Hamlet?

What kind of things does Ophelia say when she is crazy? Tone?

Do you think Ophelia’s death was an accident or suicide? Purpose of her death?

Act 5: begins with grave digger scene – ends with Fortinbras taking over Denmark after all the royalty die.

What is the purpose of the gravedigger scene? What thoughts on death are expressed? Purpose of fools (Yoric’s skull, gravedigger, Polonius) in the play?

Compare Laertes’ vs. Hamlet’s mourning/love for Ophelia – how is he a foil for Hamlet?

Laertes / Similarities / Hamlet

How does Claudius harness Laertes anger/vengeance?

Describe how the play ends. Why must it end this way and what point is it making?

How is Kenneth Branagh’s version different and what do we lose with the Gibson version?

Add in these characters to this chart based on where they are in the beginning of the play and draw an arrow to where they are toward the end of the play.

Ophelia, Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio, Polonius


Not too smart