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William Shakespeare's Hamlet: Questions and Themes

Just the Facts

Act 1

  • Marcellus asks why there are nightly watches and apparent preparations for warfare. How does Horatio respond?
  • What do both Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to do when they first speak to him?
  • How does Polonius react when his daughter, Ophelia, tells him about Hamlet's affections for her?
  • What information does the Ghost reveal to Hamlet?
  • What does the Ghost tell Hamlet to do?
  • What does Hamlet make Horatio and Marcellus swear to do near the end of Act 1?

Act 2

  • What does Polonius tell Reynaldo to do?
  • What does Polonius tell Claudius and Gertrude that he thinks is the cause of Hamlet's madness?
  • What does Hamlet figure out concerning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern soon after he begins speaking with them?
  • What group of people do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that they encountered on their journey and that followed them to the castle?

Act 3

  • What do Hamlet and Ophelia argue about?
  • How does Claudius react to the play that the players perform?
  • Hamlet considers killing Claudius when Hamlet sees Claudius alone, but Hamlet decides not to. Why?
  • Whom does Hamlet kill when Hamlet is in his mother's room?
  • After Hamlet kills the character referred to above, who appears in the room with Hamlet and Gertrude?

 Act 4

  • Where does Claudius tell Hamlet that he is sending him?
  • What does Hamlet see just before he considers how "all occasions do inform against" him?
  • Hamlet is supposed to be on a ship headed away from Denmark, but Horatio receives a letter explaining the circumstances that allow Hamlet to return to Denmark. According to the letter, what happened?
  • What two characters conspire to kill Hamlet?
  • How does Ophelia die?

Act 5

  • In the graveyard scene, Hamlet picks up the skull of Yorick and speaks to it. Who was Yorick?
  • What two characters get into a fight at Ophelia's funeral?
  • Hamlet explains to Horatio the content of a letter from Claudius that Hamlet found in the possession of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern while on the ship. What does this letter say?
  • Hamlet explains to Horatio that he wrote a new letter, sealed it, and then exchanged the two letters. What does this new letter say?
  • What character does Hamlet acknowledge as the new leader of Denmark at the end of the play?  

Major Themes and Questions

  1. Deception / Appearance and Reality
    Hamlet has been called a "claustrophobic" play because of the ways the characters spy on one another, but spying is only one form of deception in the play. There is also Claudius, the incestuous fratricide, playing the part of the good king, and Hamlet himself decides to "put an antic disposition on" (1.5.189). In a way, it is Hamlet's job to see through all of this deception and to discover the truth, although, to discover the truth, Hamlet himself must use deception. What point is Shakespeare trying to make by introducing all of the deception, lying, and false appearances into his play?
  2. Melancholy, Madness and Sanity
    Hamlet tells his mother that he "essentially [is] not in madness, / But mad in craft" (3.4.204-205) and claims to "put an antic disposition on" (1.5.189), but does he ever cross the line between sanity and insanity in the play? To complicate matters, the world of Hamlet seems insane: the king is a murderer; the queen lusts after her dead husband's brother; friends spy on friends; and one character (Ophelia) really does go insane. Could Hamlet really be sane in an insane world? And what about Hamlet's melancholy? From the beginning of the play, Hamlet is depressed, and he considers suicide several different times. What is the real cause of his melancholy? Does he ever break out of his melancholy?
  3. Passion and Reason
    As Hamlet says, "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!" (2.2.286-289). At the same time, though, we are sometimes ruled by our passions (lust, greed, gluttony, etc.). We are capable of greatness and nobility, but we are also capable of behavior fitting for a beast, so Hamlet asks another "pregnant" question (a question loaded with meaning) when he asks Ophelia, "What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?" (3.1.128-129). All of the characters in the play are "crawling between earth and heaven," but some are drawn more to earth by their "beastly" behavior. How does the theme of passion and reason apply to some of the main characters? How does the issue of passion and reason help to determine Hamlet's views of some of the other characters and of life in general?
  4. Decay and Corruption
    "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.98). In fact, many things are rotten in the state of Denmark, and images of decay, corruption, and disease are common throughout the play. Following the conventions of tragedy, many of the characters become corrupted in some way, and, by the end of the play, all of the corrupt characters must be eliminated so that Denmark can once again be set right. Many characters in Hamlet die. In what ways is each of these characters "corrupt"? What images in the play suggest decay, corruption, or disease?

Copyright Randy Rambo, 2011.