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Karen Ann McCay

Hamlet Unit

Hamlet Unit

This unit is designed to instruct students in the literary analysis of drama, testing their understanding of symbolism, imagery, characterization, tone, and diction before moving into a more rigorous study of literary analysis using various forms of literary criticism.

            Hamlet is a challenging but manageable text, and its powerful use of traditional literary devices affords any instructor with multiple opportunities to teach and reinforce critical interpretation of literature.

            This unit on Hamlet focuses on teaching students how to think critically about their reading material and how to analyze the literary devices incorporated into the text to discern the theme of the text.  Shakespeare’s works all contain multiple themes and several excellent examples of traditional literary devices, so the text suits the primary objectives of this unit almost perfectly.

            Unfortunately, the literacy level of most high school students is insufficient to fully grasp the richness of Shakespeare’s diction or style, and I find that a parallel translation aids them significantly, not only with basic understanding, but also when they use both a modern rendition and the original, comparing the sound, flow, meter, and beauty of the original to the text they can more easily understand.

            The primary elements for this unit are tone, characterization, plot devices, imagery, and symbolism.  Instructors should focus on teaching these elements as devices intentionally used by Shakespeare to convey his message to the world.  Otherwise, the play uses its obvious rhetorical worth for composition students.  If they cannot correlate Shakespeare’s perfection with his intention to create, they will not receive any motivation to think critically and purposefully—to think rhetorically—about their own writing.

Hamlet Unit Calendar:

Wednesday, 8-18-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Introduction

Objectives: Students will identify with Hamlet as an individual with similarities to their own lives.  Students will develop intrinsic motivation to read the text by identifying with the main character.  Students will write meaningful documents in the form of journal entries.

Students will understand course syllabus and get to know instructor.

Activities: Syllabus Review, Introductions, Pass Out Text, Journal Entry, Volunteer Readers, homework: Act I, Scene 1

Assessment: Journal entries graded for completion and coherence

Materials: Course Syllabus, Journal Entry 1, Appropriate Number of Plays


Thursday, 8-19-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Semester Pretest

Objectives: Students will complete objective questions testing their vocabulary (their ability to recognize most correct syntactical choices) and their ability to analyze reading samples.  Students will recognize holes in their knowledge, as will the instructor.

Activities: Pretest

Assessment: Pretest graded for informational purposes only

Materials: Pretest


Friday, 8-20-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Back to the play: Act I, Scene I

Objectives: Students will understand the events occurring in the opening scene of Hamlet and will evaluate the nature of spiritual events in the play.

Activities: Journal Entry 2: Tone Reading; Small Groups: Act I, Scene 1 Study Questions with Short Sharing Presentations; Homework: Act I, Scene 2

Assessment: Journal entry graded for completion and coherence; students assessed informally for attentiveness, participation, and quality of insights provided

Materials: Journal Entry 2, Hamlet Study Questions


Monday, 8-23-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?

Objectives: Students will evaluate the biographical information on the two possible Shakespeares and judge for themselves which one is probably the true author of the plays.

Activities: Journal Entry 3, pass out vocabulary lists, group work to assess biographies, mini-presentations of findings; homework: Act I, Scene 2 Study Questions and select an AR Book

Assessment: Journal entry graded for completion and coherence, group work and presentations assessed informally

Materials: Journal Entry 3, SAT Vocabulary, Biography Print-Outs


Tuesday, 8-24-04

Lesson Title: Act I: What does it mean?

Objectives: Students will identify examples key literary elements of Act I (characterization, imagery, plot devices, etc.) and will communicate how these elements convey Shakespeare’s theme to the audience.

Activities: Journal Entry 5, Act I Small Group Questions: guided group work (each group will focus on a different element of the text), mini-presentations of findings; homework: read Act II

Assessment: journals graded for completion and coherence; group work and presentations assessed informally

Materials: Journal Entry 5, Act I Small Group Questions


Wednesday, 8-25-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Independent reading (AR)

Objectives: Students will select an appropriate reading text and sustain independent reading in class for 30 minutes

Activities: Journal Entry 4; independent reading (AR); homework: love Jesus and spend time with spiritual family

Assessment: journals graded for completion and coherence; reading assessed with log for time on task and number of pages completed


Thursday, 8-26-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Responsibility Training: Pop Quiz One

Objectives: Students will develop personal responsibility for completing their homework assignments

Activities: Journal Entry 6: Pop Quiz 1, Socratic class discussion of plot events in Act II, homework: Act III

Assessment: Journal entries graded for correct responses and quality of insights provided, discussion assessed informally for participation and notes taken

Materials: Journal Entry 6, Socratic Question Clusters


Friday, 8-26-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Readers’ Theater

Objectives: Students will understand the diction of Hamlet by reading it aloud in parts.

Activities: Journal Entry 7, Read Act IV together; complete for homework

Assessment: Journal entry graded for completion and coherence; students assessed informally for attentiveness, participation, and understanding

Materials: Journal Entry 7


Monday, 8-30-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Act III and IV: The Prince and His Bride

Objective: Students will compare Hamlet to Christ, evaluating the quality of the allegory in Shakespeare’s text.

Activities: Journal entry 8; group work: comparison of Christ's letters in Revelations to Hamlet's soliloquies and comparison of Hamlet's conversations with Ophelia and Gertrude to Christ's conversation with the woman at the well; mini reports on Tuesday; homework: Review Questions

Assessment: journal entries assessed for completion and coherence; group work assessed for attention, participation, and level of effort contributed; presentations assessed informally for insights and professionalism

Materials: Journal Entry 8, Christ Allegory Handouts


Tuesday, 8-31-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Trial of Errors: Hamlet in the Judgment Seat

Objective: Students will evaluate the damning and redeeming evidence regarding Hamlet's participation in Ophelia's death.

Activities: Journal Entry 9; group work and mini presentations: two defenses and two prosecutions of Hamlet, one jury to determine his guilt or innocence; class discussion of Christ allegory thus far in the play; homework: Act V, scene 1 and study questions

Assessment: journal entries graded for completion and coherence; group work and presentations assessed informally for participation and professionalism

Materials: Journal Entry 9


Wednesday, 9-1-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: An End to All Things

Objective: Students will interpret the meaning of complex symbols in Hamlet.

Activities: Oral reading of Act V, scene 2; students will take note of all possible symbols in the scene as they listen to the dialogue read aloud; students will meet in pairs to share their lists of symbols before the class ends; homework: love Jesus and spend time with spiritual families

Assessment: students informally assessed for attention, comprehension, and ability to create defendable interpretations

Materials: None


Thursday, 9-2-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: A Final Comparison of Hamlet's kingdom and the Kingdom of Christ

Objective: Students will evaluate the rhetorical use of symbol, character, and language in Hamlet to convey theme.

Activities: Group work: rhetorical evaluations and mini presentations to prepare for exam; mini lecture: dire situation in the church; homework: study for exam 1

Assessment: group work and presentations assessed informally for attention and participation; lecture assessed informally for understanding and attention; exam graded according to provided percentage scale and essay rubric

Materials: Essay Rubric, extra copies of study guide


Friday, 9-3-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Fake Out: Cram Session on Hamlet

Objective: Students will identify the important elements of their unit of study, which they have not mastered, and will share their learning in groups to prepare for the test.

Activities: Small groups: sharing answers from review; Jeopardy in teams (identifying key symbols, passages of imagery, characters, etc); homework: study for exam over 3-day weekend

Assessment: Students’ participation and quality of insight assessed informally.

Materials: Jeopardy PowerPoint


Tuesday, 9-6-04

Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Lesson Title: Unit Exam

Objective: Students will complete vocabulary questions and rhetorical questions with 90% accuracy; students will write critical essays evaluating the use of literary devices, including symbolism, tone, and characterization, in Hamlet as a vehicle of meaning transmission.

Activities: Exam

Assessment: Test graded for correct answers and insight/coherence of essay (graded according to a provided rubric) Unit Title: Hamlet: Revenge or Sacrifice?

Materials: Unit Exams I, II, III, and IV

Hamlet Unit Journals:

Journal Entry One:



Imagine that you have graduated and gone to the college of your dreams.  You are on cloud nine until you receive a telegram: The central member of your family, the one who keeps everyone else together, has died unexpectedly.  You have been called home to help the family recover.  But when you get home, your family has already had the funeral.  Your family members have even chosen someone else to fill the shoes of your special loved one.  Describe how you would feel once you got home about the situation, about losing your family member, and about this other member of your family stepping into the central role.


(On the back of your journal entry, please write the following information: Name; birthday; favorite book, movie, and color; parent contact information, including phone numbers and email; your email; at least one very strange thing about yourself.)


Journal Entry 2: Tone Reading


Circle 3 words or phrases, which depict the tone of this passage.  In a journal entry name the tone of the passage and discuss how your 3 choices depict that tone to readers.


Hamlet Act I, Scene 1, Lines 34-51


Bernardo:                   Sit down awhile,

            And let us once again assail your ears,

            That are so fortified against our story,

            What we have two nights seen.

Horatio:                      Well, sit we down,

            And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.

Bernardo: Last night of all,

            When yond same star that’s westward from the pole

            Had made his course to illume that part of heaven

            Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,

            The bell then beating one—

                                                            (Enter Ghost)

Marcellus: Peace, break thee off.  Look where it comes again!

Bernardo: In the same figure, like the King that’s dead.

Marcellus: Thou art a scholar.  Speak to it, Horatio.

Bernardo: Looks it not like the King?

            Mark it, Horatio.

Horatio: Most like.  It harrows me with fear and wonder.

Bernardo: It would be spoken to.

Marcellus:                  Question it, Horatio.

Horatio: What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,

            Together with that fair and warlike form

            In which the majesty of buried Denmark

            Did sometimes march?  By Heaven I charge thee, speak!

Marcellus: It is offended.

Bernardo:                   See, it stalks away!

Horatio: Stay!  Speak, speak!  I charge thee, speak!

                                                            (Exit Ghost)



Journal Entry 3


Imagine that you have grown up and that you are finally doing what God made you to do.  What are you doing?  Do you have passion for the work God has given you?  Do you think your passion will ever change?


Journal Entry 4


Discuss three things from Hamlet which you think Oxford has done on purpose to get his point across to the audience.  Your discussion should include the list of three things to be discussed and an explanation of how they are being used to convey meaning to the audience.


Journal Entry 5


Today’s journal entry asks you to anticipate what will happen next in Denmark.  Hamlet has sworn to avenge his father’s wrongful death at the hands of his uncle, Claudius.  So what happens next?  Share your wildest guesses and your most astute predictions.


Journal Entry 6: Quiz over Act II


1. In one sentence, explain who Hamlet meets at the end of Act II and how he will use them to judge Claudius’ guilt or innocence. 


2. Why, do you think, Hamlet needs to judge Claudius’ guilt or innocence after his father’s ghost flat out told him that Claudius is a murderer? 


3. Put yourselves in the shoes of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern.  How would you feel about the King’s request if you were the one, who had to do it?  Is it right?  Explain your answer.

Journal Entry 7


In today’s journal entry discuss the similarities and differences that you see so far between Hamlet and Christ.  You may discuss any aspect of Hamlet’s character that you want, as long as it is in comparison to Christ.

Journal Entry 8


Suicide is a significant issue to all human beings.  In today’s journal discuss Ophelia’s death in terms of suicide.  Do you think her death is, in fact, a suicide, or do you think it was a horrible, heart-breaking accident?  What do you think her death means in the greater meaning of the play?

Journal Entry 9


List the evidence you have collected, which either proves or disproves Hamlet’s guilt in Ophelia’s death.  Which evidence is the most damning or redeeming to you?  Why is it the most important?

Senior English Hamlet Study Guide


Act I Study Questions


Scene One

  1. What is the mood of the men on watch?
  2. Why is Horatio appointed to speak with the Ghost?
  3. What political entanglement between Denmark and a neighboring land contributes to alertness on guard duty?
  4. Mentioned in the scene are two Hamlets, father and son, and two Fortinbras characters, father and son.  The men on watch call each other by name.  Who is referred to by his title only?
  5. To whom do the men say that they owe their loyalty?
  6. How has the mood changed by the end of the scene?


Scene Two

  1. From the information in Claudius’s opening address, give an account of the personal life of the royal family and of the affairs of state.
  2. How does Hamlet’s feeling about a suitable period of mourning conflict with that held by Claudius and by Gertrude?  How is he distinguished from them—in clothes, words, and attitude?
  3. Why does Claudius want Hamlet to stay in Elsinore?
  4. What are Hamlet’s feelings about the world in general and Denmark in particular before he hears anything about the Ghost?
  5. What picture of the Ghost does Hamlet create by his rapid questioning of Horatio?
  6. If you directed the staging of this scene, where on the stage would you place the King, Gertrude, the attendants, Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet?


The Action

  1. How does the message given Hamlet by the Ghost reinforce the expectancy and apprehension of the opening scene on the wall?
  2. What meaning beyond the physical actions do you perceive in Hamlet’s movement from the isolation of his solitary speech in Scene 2 to the fraternal oath-taking scene at the end of the act?
  3. Marcellus senses that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”  How can an entire country be so identified with the death, or even with the murder, of one man?
  4. Relate Hamlet’s desire for vengeance to his words, “The time is out of joint.  Oh, cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right!”
  5. Working from your conclusions to the above questions, describe the overall purpose of Act I.



  1. Why is the Ghost correct to call Claudius a “smiling villain”?
  2. How does Gertrude deserve the Ghost’s sympathy and concern?
  3. Hamlet does not appear to be the man best suited to carry out a plan of revenge.  What instances in his speeches or actions support this view?
  4. What qualities in Hamlet’s character as revealed in Act I prove valuable to him in his mission of revenge?
  5. Hamlet is a young prince whose way to the throne has been usurped by his uncle Claudius.  Explain his statements and movements accordingly.  Does Hamlet indicate that he is ambitions for the throne?  Support your answer.
  6. What similarities are there in the positions of Laertes and Hamlet in their families?



  1. How are the incidents surrounding the Ghost’s appearance arranged to convey the maximum amount of mystery?
  2. Would Act I have been more or less effective had it opened with the enactment of the actual murder of the King?  Explain your answer.
  3. How might your first impression of Claudius have been affected had the Ghost told his tale to the men in Scene 1?
  4. The events of Act I take place over a twenty-four hour period.  What parts of the day are more emphasized than others?  How does this influence the main action as well as the mood of this act?
  5. Other than the fact that they are both living in Claudius’s court, what links the similar but otherwise separate stories of Laertes and Hamlet?



  1. Relate the visual picture of the men on watch peering into the darkness to the action of the first act.
  2. How does Hamlet’s “nighted color” relate to his immediate situation? to his character? To the problems of Denmark?
  3. “With an auspicious and a dropping eye” is the way Claudius describes the mood of the time.  Explain the changes of scene from castle wall to council room, and so forth, in light of this image. 
  4. Locate the image by which Hamlet conveys his sense of the brief passage of time between his father’s death and his mother’s second marriage.  What is the effect of this image?



  1. Explain how the shift in light—from dark night to the approach of dawn after the cock’s crow has chased the Ghost—is reflected in the speech of the men in the first scene.
  2. Does the manner of Polonius’s speech—the long strings of wise sayings, his extended puns so different from Hamlet’s—tell you something about his character?  Explain your answer.

Act II Study Questions



Scene One

1. What job has Polonius hired Reynaldo to do?  By what means does Polonius recommend that Reynaldo accomplish this task?

2. Describe Hamlet’s appearance when he entered Ophelia’s room.

3. How does Polonius react to Ophelia’s story?  How does it change the attitude he had toward Hamlet and Ophelia in Act I?


Scene Two

1.      Why did the King as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to come to Denmark?  Why are they particularly qualified for the job they have been asked to do?

2. Give a clear account of the news brought by the ambassadors who have returned from Norway.

3. What evidence does Polonius introduce to help his case against Hamlet? What trap does Polonius set for Hamlet?

4. Describe Hamlet’s “antic disposition.”  What does Polonius say that indicates he has some doubt about Hamlet’s madness?

5. What new fact about Hamlet’s interests is brought to light by his meeting with the players?  What does Hamlet want the players to do?  What does Hamlet hope to accomplish by using the players in this way?

6. Hamlet takes stock of himself in the last speech of the act.  What is the result of his self-estimate?  Do you agree with him?


The Action

1. Out of Polonius’s meeting with Reynaldo, the King’s with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet’s with the players grow three similar tasks.  How are they parallel?  In what ways do they differ?  Explore the various ways these incidents are presented to the audience.

2. Each of the two scenes in Act II reveals a new facet of Hamlet’s character.  Describe the development of the act from this point of view, beginning with Ophelia’s disclosure to her father that Hamlet has visited her, and Polonius’s decision to inform the King about this visit.

3. The mystery and expectation of Act I give way in Act II to the use of specific rational methods for exposing the rot in Denmark.  Is Act II any less passionate because of this emphasis on contrivance?  How are the strong feelings of Polonius, Claudius, and Hamlet revealed, and how do they contribute to the furthering of the action?



1. What do we learn about Ophelia in this act?

2. What kind of man is Polonius?  Is he a good talker?  What kind of language does he use, and what do others think of it?  Is Polonius a good father?  A good courtier? A good Dane? A good Christian?  Hamlet has nothing but contempt for him.  Formulate an argument to convince Hamlet of the old man’s worth.

3. Explain the meaning, by illustration from Act II, of Polonius’s remark to Reynaldo that he can “by indirections find direction out.”

4. A picture of Hamlet as lover, poet, lunatic, devoted fan of the theater, actor, and private detective emerges from Act II.  Use appropriate quotations from this act to prove this statement.

5. Compare the picture of Hamlet as outlined in question 4 to the picture you have of the following characters, treating them with respect to Hamlet’s own interests and skills: young Fortinbras, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Who compares most favorably with Hamlet?  Who least?



1. In Act II, are the three plots invented to disclose the truth arranged (a) from most to least interesting, (b) least to most important, (c) most to least important, (d) in no special order?  Defend whichever of the above statements you think valid.  Consider the victims of the plots as well as those who contrive them.

2. The traveling players innocently come to Elsinore to perform.  How do they become crucial to the plot of the play?



Denmark’s a prison,” Hamlet tells his boyhood friends.  What is the meaning of this metaphor?  Where else is it picked up?



“More matter, with less art,” Gertrude tells Polonius when she becomes annoyed with him.  What bothers her in his presentation of his findings about Hamlet?


General Questions

1. The two methods of playwriting listed on the players’ handbill were “scene individable, or poem unlimited.”  If the first is a play in which all the characters are noble, the time is twenty-four hours or thereabouts, and the action takes place only on one set, and the second is a play which presents time, place, character—everything—as it needs to be fully developed, what kind of play is Hamlet?  Be specific, and use quotations from the text to prove your points.

2. How has Polonius’ passing remark in Act I that Hamlet’s words of love to Ophelia were merely “springes to catch woodcocks” become central to the action of the play?

Act III Study Questions:

Scene 1

  1. What part does Ophelia play in the plan of Polonius and the King?  What is her reaction to the way Hamlet speaks to her?
  2. How does Claudius’s opinion of Hamlet’s condition differ from Ophelia’s?  To what in Hamlet’s speeches is Claudius sensitive that Ophelia is not?
  3. What new move does Polonius suggest?

Scene 2

  1. What does Hamlet expect of Horatio?  How does the way he speaks to him differ from the manner in which he speaks to everyone else?
  2. Describe the dumb show.  Describe both Hamlet’s and Claudius’s actions from the beginning of the “play within the play” to its end.


Scene 3

  1. What steps does Claudius take to rid himself of Hamlet?
  2. Why does Hamlet hesitate to kill Claudius when Claudius is at prayer?


Scene 4

  1. Whom does Hamlet think he is stabbing when he strikes through the curtain?
  2. What results from Hamlet’s interview with Gertrude?
  3. What new part of the King’s plan comes to the surface at the end of the scene?


The Action

  1. The plans for several spying scenes were made in Act II.  Act III depicts three spying sequences—the King and Polonius on Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet and Horatio on the King during the performance of the play, and Polonius on Hamlet and Gertrude.  Each of these has a similar motive—to get to the truth.  Compare the results of the three sequences, considering which is most central to the movement of Act II and the play as a whole.
  2. Act III, Scene 2, is the turning point of the play.  From the moment Claudius betrays himself during the performance of the play, Hamlet has no choice but to act swiftly.  Defend or attack this statement using evidence from the text.
  3. At the beginning of Act III, the King is still in the dark about Hamlet’s reasons for acting as he does, and Hamlet is not yet sure that the King is guilty of the murder.  At the turning point of the play, answers to both their uncertainties come simultaneously.  What action by the King marks this moment?



  1. What is Hamlet’s estimate of Horatio?  Compare his earlier talk with Horatio with that in Act III.  Is there any change or development?
  2. What is the manner of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia?  What can you tell about Ophelia from her reactions to Hamlet’s sharp retorts?
  3. In Scene 1, Hamlet sinks to the darkest depths of all his black moods.  Compare his thoughts about suicide, pro and con, in Scene 1 to his first statements about it in Act I, Scene 2, lines 129 and following.  How have his feelings changed?
  4. What character trait brings about Polonius’s death?
  5. What are Gertrude’s feelings when she says, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain”?
  6. What is the result of Claudius’s self-appraisal when at prayer?



  1. Does the dumb show before the actual play serve to weaken suspense or heighten it?  How?
  2. There are several little rehearsals of actions before the major performances, such as Polonius spying on Hamlet and Ophelia as a prelude to the later scene in Gertrude’s room, and Hamlet rehearsing the players for their evening performance as prelude to the court performance.  Can Hamlet’s impulse to kill Claudius as he prays be seen as a prelude to his killing Polonius?  In each prelude, the concerns of the characters, and the language in which they express these concerns, prevent serious consequences.  Explain how the circumstances in the major performances act upon the characters to produce violently different language and dire results.
  3. By the introduction of what figure from Act I is the spirit of that act injected into Act III, scene 4?



  1. By what means is a sense of both strength and weakness conveyed through Hamlet’s remark: “And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”?
  2. In Scene 1, what image does Ophelia use to describe Hamlet’s mind when she cries, “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”?  How does she thus connect her conception of Hamlet to the action in the world around her?
  3. Explain Act III as a representation of a mousetrap.  What part serves as the bait?  What part acts as the trigger?
  4. Using the action of Scene 2, explain Hamlet’s remark that a play holds a “mirror up to nature.”



  1. How does the rapid-fire delivery of Hamlet’s speeches to Ophelia color their meaning?
  2. Through what device beyond language is Hamlet’s triumphant mood at the end of the players’ play brought out?


General Questions

  1. Describe the relationship of each of the major characters to the theater, considering their own remarks, such as Polonius’s revelation that he once played Julius Caesar.

Act IV Study Questions



Scenes 1, 2, 3


  1. Where has Hamlet hidden Polonius’s corpse?
  2. What excuse does Claudius use for sending Hamlet to England?  What has he planned for Hamlet upon his arrival there?


Scene 4


  1. What is Hamlet’s reaction to his encounter with Fortinbras’ army?  Why is Fortinbras’ army on the march?  What is its destination?
  2. To what physical ailment does Hamlet compare the faults of nations as he sees them displayed in Fortinbras’ war with Poland?


Scene 5

  1. What are the outward signs of Ophelia’s madness?
  2. On whom does Laertes blame his father’s death?  How does Laertes’ response to his father’s murder compare with Hamlet’s movement toward revenge?


Scene 6

  1. What are the contents of Hamlet’s letter to Horatio?
  2. Compare Hamlet’s mood and attitude toward other characters as expressed in this letter with what he displayed in Act III.


Scene 7

  1. How does Claudius win Laertes’ confidence?
  2. Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet is very popular with the common people.  How does Hamlet’s letter to Horatio support Claudius’ statement?  What earlier scenes in the play support this view of Hamlet?
  3. Who is Lamond?  How does Claudius use Lamond’s reputation for his own purposes?
  4. Outline Claudius’ new plan for trapping Hamlet.
  5. How does Ophelia’s condition lead to her death?


The Action

  1. The first three scenes of Act IV seem to hold together as a group.  By what strands of plot are the three connected?  How does Claudius speed the various characters on their way toward their fates?  How does his sure, calm order to ship Hamlet to England grow out of his perception of the events of Act III?
  2. Scene 4 acts as a natural break after the three terse scenes before it.  In what ways does it recall earlier strains in the play?
  3. Two new tense elements break out in the remainder of Act IV: Laertes’ rebellion and Ophelia’s madness.  How are these elements, which are at first presented alternately, at last unified into one action at the end of the act?



  1. Compare Laertes’ response to the news of his father’s murder to Hamlet’s first response to the news of the murder of his father.  Compare also the circumstances in which each character finds himself at the time he learns of the murder, and the relative definiteness and reliability of the reports he receives.
  2. Ophelia has gone mad from grief, but other sources of remorse appear in her songs and remarks.  What else does she appear to be mourning besides her father’s death?
  3. Try to put yourself fin Gertrude’s place and plot her mental action and her thoughts and emotions during the course of Act IV.  To whom is she most loyal?  Does she act as if she knows what she wants?  In what ways is she similar to Ophelia?



  1. Consider how the death of Polonius in Act III leads, in Act IV, to the further exposure of something rotten in the state of Denmark.
  2. There seems to be more individual suffering in Act IV than there is earlier.  Consider the various ways in which mental and physical suffering are portrayed in the act as a whole.
  3. By what device is Hamlet kept in the minds of the other characters when he is not on stage in Act IV?



  1. The body is often compared to a state or kingdom, and the state to a body.  Hamlet describes political ailments as an “imposthume,” a cancerous growth in the body of a state.  What in Denmark corresponds to this “imposthume” that Hamlet sees lying behind the march of Fortinbras’ army?
  2. Why is it fitting that Ophelia, in her madness, should talk so much about flowers?  How do flowers play a part in her death, and why is it fitting that they should do so?



  1. How does Laertes’ use of language compare with that of Polonius in Acts I-III?  Cite the passages in which you feel Laertes comes closest to public speechmaking.  Relate these passages to the content of the speeches as a whole to see if they are appropriate to the moment.


General Questions

  1. “Frailty, thy name is woman.”  With these words Hamlet early in the play gives his appraisal of feminine nature.  Would you say that the events of Acts III and IV support or dispute Hamlet’s evaluation?  Why or why not?

Act V Study Questions

Scene 1

  1. What is the occupation of the clowns?  What is their attitude toward their work?  How is this attitude expressed?
  2. Who is Yorick?
  3. What rites take place in the graveyard?  Why are they “maimed”?
  4. What act of Laertes prompts Hamlet to reveal his presence?
  5. How does Hamlet’s move play directly into the King’s hand?


Scene 2

  1. Give a brief synopsis of Hamlet’s escape from the trap Claudius has set for him.
  2. What kind of man is Osric?  How does his fashion of speaking differ from that of those around him?
  3. What does the Queen ask of Hamlet before his contest with Laertes?
  4. What is the King’s bet?
  5. Describe the scene and the equipment of the duel.
  6. When does the King offer Hamlet the poisoned wine?
  7. How is Laertes poisoned?  How is Gertrude poisoned?  How is Hamlet poisoned?  How does the King die?
  8. What is Hamlet’s charge to Horatio?  To whom does he bequeath his political property?
  9. What news do the ambassadors bring from England?
  10. Who assumes power in Denmark at the end of the play?


The Action

  1. What clue to the play’s outcome is given in the setting of Scene 1?
  2. What physical actions of Laertes and Hamlet in Scene 1 foreshadow their common end?
  3. What common motives bring Laertes and Hamlet together in the final duel?
  4. The goal of each of the major characters has been to rid Denmark of its problems.  How is this goal achieved for each of these characters in the final scene of the play?  On what note of hope does the play end?



  1. One function of the clowns and of Osric is to provide comic relief.  Why are these comic scenes more necessary here in Act V than in Previous acts?  How does the philosophy expressed by the clowns contrast with Hamlet’s philosophy?
  2. What final revelation about Hamlet’s character is hinted at in his graveyard conference with Horatio and stated explicitly in Hamlet’s reply to Horatio’s suggestion, in Scene 2, that he withdraw from the duel?
  3. Reconstruct the character of Yorick from the reminiscences about him.  Why should Hamlet’s memory of him be so poignant now?  How does Yorick compare with Osric?



  1. If it is a chance that brings Hamlet and Horatio to the graveyard, it is Hamlet’s morbid preoccupation with bones that keeps them there until the funeral arrives.  Given this, in what ways does the plot reflect Hamlet’s character?  Does he cast a morbid influence on the plot?  Do others around him force morbidity on him?  Consider both aspects of the question.
  2. What chance occurrence in the duel seems absolutely essential to the furthering of the action?
  3. What impulse on Gertrude’s part changes irrevocably the course of the action?
  4. How is the subplot of Fortinbras’ military success brought to a conclusion?  How does his success affect Denmark?



  1. What visions seem to lie behind the skulls that Hamlet and the clowns toss about in the graveyard?
  2. Consider the appropriateness to Act V of the scene with Hamlet and Laertes standing in Ophelia’s grave with the King and Gertrude hovering over them.
  3. “Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe.”  With these words Laertes describes his fatal wounding.  Consider this statement in the light of earlier references in the play to traps and trapping.  Can Laertes’ words be taken as a final comment on the nature of this kind of intrigue?  What mood is produced when a hunter is caught in his own trap?
  4. When else in the play have ordnances been shot off on the castle battlements to mark special events?  What depth does this add to the last two cannon shots in Act V?



  1. What does Osric’s speech add to your picture of life at court?  Consider also the language of Polonius and that of the King.  What other aspects of court life are shown in this play?


General Questions

  1. Consider the final scenes of the play in terms of “physic to the illness of the state.”  How is the social disorder in the state resolved?
  2. Relate the attitudes and feelings of all the participants in the “maimed rites” of Ophelia’s funeral to Hamlet’s earlier remarks about the differences between feigned and real emotions.
  3. Explain the differences between court life and private life as demonstrated in the character of Hamlet, the crown prince, and Hamlet, the man.  In what ways does court life affect private life and vice versa?
  4. Reread the opening scene of Act I and point out as many portents or hints at the action to come as you see present there.  What effect does such subtle and elaborate foreshadowing have on the audience?  In what way is it fundamental to the play and not simply a playwright’s game of burying hints for clever observers to find?




Howard, D.  (1970).  Lessons in Critical Reading and Writing: William Shakespeare: Hamlet.  New York: Harcourt

              Brace Jovanovich.

Senior English Hamlet Vocabulary


Group 1



troublesome influence


tacitly support, overlook


taking things from different sources


a category, type


easily angered


ordinary, worldly


caused to continue


resentment, animosity, bad feeling


swagger, show off




Group 2





overlooking, disregarding, ignoring


building, structure, construction




anger (Remember irate means very angry)


generous, charitable




use bombastic language


astonishing, shocking, stunning into silence


very large, spacious


Group 3



fortress, stronghold


big fire


wipe out, remove all trace of


just growing, not developed, immature


annoying, infuriating


very rebellious




approve, consent


summons to court




Group 4







a model of a person


making meaningless noises


satiric, unexpected


in large numbers


insightful, sharp, wise


rough, unpleasant (of sounds)


give supporting evidence


surrender, give up


Group 5





to solidify


gushing; demonstrative


hostile, unfriendly, cold, icy


unreasonable, absurd


suitable for sailing




destroy, demolish, tear down


a trick


grow less


Group 6



mislead, lure


present from birth


belief in equality


prod, urge


cannot be criticized; perfect








not obvious


hesitant, cautious

Standard AP Rubric for Grading Essays:



 Name ______________________ Topic __________________________

A (9/8) Paper: Distinguished/outstanding. Perhaps the principal characteristic of the A paper is its rich content. It is dense, packed, or full. The information delivered is such that one feels significantly taught by the author, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. The A paper is also marked by stylistic finesse: the title and opening paragraph are engaging; the transitions are artful; the phrasing is tight, fresh, and highly specific; the sentence structure is varied; the tone enhances the purposes of the paper. Finally, the A paper, because of its careful organization and development, imparts a feeling of wholeness and unusual clarity. It makes the reading experience not just a pleasurable but also a memorable one, and leaves the reader feeling bright and thoroughly satisfied. An A paper sparks a desire to reread the piece.

 �� Organization: clearly stated specific thesis; succeeding paragraphs follow logically from thesis; each paragraph has a thesis (topic sentence) which develops and refers back to the overall thesis

�� Content: a persuasive, insightful presentation of your own ideas that analyzes the topic thoroughly; sentences follow logically from each other; writer clearly articulates the relations/connections between ideas and sentences; conclusion considers the ramifications of thesis (answers question “So what?”)

�� Evidence: appropriate number of quotations used as evidence of prove thesis; quotations are integrated into the text of the essay (quotations are preceded by an identification of the speaker and brief explanation of context); quotations are followed by a thorough analysis that shows how they are evidence

�� Style: language is clear and concise with few grammatical or stylistic errors; literary present (tense) used throughout; quotations punctuated and/or blocked properly; written in third person


B (7/6) Paper: Proficient. It is significantly more than merely competent. Besides being almost free of mechanical errors, the B paper delivers substantial information- that is, substantial in both quantity and interest-value. Its specific points are logically ordered, well developed, and unified around a clear organizing principle that is apparent early in the paper. The opening paragraph draws the reader in; the closing paragraph is both conclusive and thematically related to the opening. The transitions between the paragraphs are for the most part smooth, the sentence structures pleasingly varied. The diction of the B paper is typically much more concise and precise than that found in the C paper. Occasionally even shows distinctiveness- i.e., finesse and memorability. On the whole, then, the B paper makes the reading experience a pleasurable one, for it offers substantial information with few distractions. Displays sound understanding of the text, some originality and a sense of the issues involved in interpretation, rather than mere exposition (background information/summary); may have one or two of the following problems:

�� Organization: thesis is vague, difficult to understand and/or prove; body paragraphs do not follow logically from thesis and paragraph theses (topic sentences) do not clearly relate to overall argument; writing structured by a hidden logic which diminishes the strength of the argument; conclusion merely restates or summarizes the thesis

�� Content: structure and argument are clear, but ideas lack depth and/or detail; paper covers topic adequately, but not thoroughly; topic needs more analysis

�� Evidence: too few quotations used as evidence or quotations do not prove thesis; quotations are not integrated (see above); quotations could be analyzed more thoroughly; quotations are not cited properly

�� Style: a number of grammatical or stylistic errors including vague, repetitious or colloquial (informal/ slang) language and/or shifting tenses; occasional use of first or second person, rather than third


C (5/4/3) Paper: Basic It is generally competent; it meets the assignment, has few mechanical errors, and is reasonably well organized and developed. The actual information it delivers, however, seems thin and commonplace. One reason for this impression is that the ideas are typically cast in the form of vague generalities- generalities that prompt the confused reader to ask for more specific details and clarification. Stylistically, the C paper has other shortcomings as well: the opening paragraph may do little to draw the reader in; the final paragraph may offer only a perfunctory wrap-up; the transitions between paragraphs are often bumpy; the sentences, besides being a bit choppy, tend to follow a predictable (hence monotonous) subject-verb-object pattern; and the diction is occasionally marred by unconscious repetitions, redundancy, and impression. The C paper, while it gets the job done, lacks the stylistic finesse and intellectual rigor of an upper-level paper. Displays either uneven performance (serious flaws of comprehension and/or presentation) alongside signs of talent, or competent exposition (background information/summary) without any real attempts at interpretation; may have three of the problems outlined in the B range and/or:

�� Organization: body paragraphs do not follow logically from thesis; topic sentences are facts rather than arguments; writing structured by plot rather than argument; writing structured by hidden logic which makes paper’s argument gap-filled �� Content: depends upon plot summary, rather than analysis or interpretation; inadequate coverage of the topic

�� Evidence: few quotations, little actual analysis

�� Style: stylistic and grammatical errors interfere with the content of the essay; continued use of first or second person, rather than third


NC (2/1/0) Paper: No Credit Its treatment and development of the subject are as yet only rudimentary/superficial. While organization may be present, it is neither clear nor effective. Sentences are frequently awkward, ambiguous, and marred by serious mechanical errors. Evidence of careful proofreading is scanty, if nonexistent. The whole piece, in fact, often gives the impression of having been conceived and written in haste. In short, the ideas, organization, or style fall far below what is acceptable of college writing.

�� Essay is off-topic (does not answer an assigned or approved topic); displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the text; has no thesis or discernable argument; or has three of the problems outlined in the C range.

�� No paper submitted; paper has been plagiarized (incorporates another author’s ideas or language without acknowledgement, or paper is actually written by someone else).

If you would like multiple exams written to fit this unit, or if you have any suggestions for improving this unit, please contact me!  I also have PowerPoint presentations on most literary elements, and I am happy to share them!