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Hamlet (Shakespeare) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Hamlet:

1. In what way does the opening scene of Hamlet set the tone for the play that follows? What atmosphere is established? Why are the sentries on guard so jittery?

2. In the court scene (II.ii), is Claudius genuine in his wish to keep Hamlet at court? He permits Laertes to return to France, yet he refuses to grant similar permission to Hamlet. Why would Claudius wish to keep Hamlet near? To please Gertrude? Or for some other reason?

3. What is Gertrude's role in all this? Was her marriage to Claudius unduly hasty? Might she have married him for reasons of state—to maintain stability in the passage of power? Or were her actions less noble?

4. Read aloud Hamlet's famous speech, "O that this too too solid flesh would melt (I.ii.129-159). Trace Hamlet's mood and the way in which it changes during the speech. What is the reason for Hamlet's distress? Note also the mythical allusions...what do they signifiy?

5. Opinions differ as to Polonius. How do you see him—as a garrulous fool, an overbearing albeit wise father, an opportunist with an eye to the main chance, a valuable advisor to the king, or an obsequious courtier?

6. Follow-up to Question 5: Read aloud Polonius's advice to his son as Laertes takes leave for France, taking special note of some of the phrases that have since become common aphorisms.

7. Follow-up to Question 5 & 6: Does Polonius live up to his own advice? What do you think of the fact that he hires a spy to keep an eye on Laertes (II.i)? Keep in mind the clever way in which this scene foreshadows the other spy scenes (II.ii and III.iv).

8. Does the old king's ghost, or spirit, truly appear to Hamlet? Or is it a psychological delusion—borne of wish fulfillment, anxiety, or despair?

9. Follow-up to Question 8: If, in deed, the king's ghost is real...is it a demon bent on evil? Or is the ghost a restless spirit requiring revenge for his murder before he can attain peace? Hamlet, himself, is unsure. Scholars debate, as well. Where do you stand?

10. Follow-up to Questions 8 & 9: Hamlet is commanded to avenge his father's death. How does he accept the charge from his father? Trace the changes in his emotional reactions during the scene that follows...ending with "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right" (I.v.187).

11. Follow-up to Questions 8, 9 & 10: Initially hell-bent on revenge, Hamlet prevaricates. This is one of the central riddles of the play, which has intrigued readers and scholars for 400 years. Why do you think Hamlet waffles in fulfilling his promise to the ghost? What does it suggest about his nature? Does Hamlet have justification to delay?

12. Some modern readers overlay a Freudian Oedipal interpretation on Hamlet's relationship to his mother (see Mel Gibson's 1990 film version, which makes this approach blatantly obvious)—though certainly there is a wide divergence of opinion on the subject. What do you think—is Hamlet in love with his mother? At the very least, would you say he has an unhealthy obsession with her sex life? Yet it is also said that Hamlet is well justified in resenting his mother's physical display of fondness for her second husband—especially in that her affections come so soon after her first husband's death. What do you think?

13. One of the other central issues readers and scholars have pondered for centuries is whether or not Hamlet is mad. Is his "madness" a feint, as he tells Horatio (I.v.170-172)? Or does he slowly descend into true madness? What do you think...and why does he pretend to be insane, for what purpose (I.v.170-71)?

14. Consider Claudius, a fascinating character in his own right. Might he be viewed as a decisive ruler, perhaps wiser and steadier in dire times than a young, untested prince? (Consider the court scene in which Claudius dispatches his envoys to Norway [I.ii.33]). Or is Claudius an out and out villain?

15. Read aloud the "To be or not to be" speech—arguably the most famous lines in all of English literature. What is going on in Hamlet's mind? What is his meditation about. Trace the development of his thought and shift in mood as the speech progresses.

16. Talk about Hamlet and Ophelia. What is the nature of their relationship? Why do both Laertes and Polonius* instruct Ophelia to maintain her distance from Hamlet (I.iii.5-44 and 88-135)? What about Hamlet's treatment of her during the spy scene? Why does he tell her to "get thee to a nunnery" (III.i.90-153)? (In Shakespeare's time, a "nunnery" is both a monastery and a joking reference to a brothel.) Is Hamlet's anger toward her justified? Is she a passive or an active agent in the court's intrigue?

17. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia descends into madness. We see her pitiable state in the flower scene before her death (IV.v.145). Read the scene aloud and do some research into the language of plants in Renaissance England. What are the symbolic meanings behind the flowers that Ophelia presents to Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes? What is being said?

18. Follow-up to Question 16: Is Hamlet a misogynist? Or is his anger toward Ophelia a spill-over from his disppointment at his mother's hasty marriage? A particularly good version of the confrontation between the two is Kenneth Brannagh's Hamlet and Kate Winslet's Ophelia in the 1996 film version.

19. Follow-up to question 14: Toward the end of Hamlet's "Mousetrap" play, Claudius rushes out, clearly perturbed (III.ii.273). Why? Does it confirm his guilt? Hamlet later finds him at prayer. Read aloud Claudius's speech (III.iii.36-72 and 96-98)—what is he saying? What are your feelings about Claudius at this point? And why does Hamlet not take his revenge then and there?

20. Why do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray Hamlet? Are they willing or unwitting accomplices? What about Hamlet's switching the letters on the way to England? Are his actions fair or just? Was there any alternative?

21. Hamlet returns to Denmark after pirates have rescued him from the ship to England. He meets Horatio in the graveyard and holds up the most famous Hamlet icon of all—the skull of Ulric. Once again, Hamlet meditates on human mortality. What does he say about the passage of life and our inexorable movement toward death (V.i.189-223)?

22. Immediately following his Ulric speech, Hamlet sees the funeral cortege for Ophelia. Talk about his response to her death. Had he, in fact, loved her? Does he have a right to claim grief at her death? Laertes certainly thinks not.

23. Shakespeare creates a contrast between two sons, both set on avenging their fathers' deaths. One is resolute while one seems anything but. Talk about the difference between the two young men. Are we to admire Laertes over Hamlet because of his doggedness in pursuing his goal? Or are there flaws in Laertes's character, as well?

24. At what point...and why...does Hamlet seem to accept that he will die? What does he mean when he says to Horatio before the duel with Laertes, "there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (V.ii.223-224)?

25. What purpose, as a character, does Horatio serve in this drama? He initiates little or no action: what is he there for?

26. Pay particular attention to the word "remember" in this play—where it's used, how it's used, and how often it's used. In what way is Hamlet about remembrance...and why is remembrance so important?

27. In all, what do you think of Prince Hamlet? How would you describe him? Does he deserve our sympathy...or do you find him petulant and exasperating? Does he change or mature by the play's end? Most important, why has he endured as literature's most brilliant character?

28. Have some fun...go through the play and point out all the famous lines you find—the aphorisms in Polonius's advice to Laertes, the famous "sweets to the sweet" line, and the many others you've heard all your life. It's shocking, isn't it?, how familiar these phrases are to us. You could even play a game to see who comes up with the most? Or place the phrases on pieces of paper and have club members draw them, one by one, and tell who uttered the phrase...and when. Even more important, ask yourselves WHY these lines remain so firmly embedded in the English language—even after 400 years.

* Note how Polonius indulges in extended metaphors in his warning to Ophelia about Hamlet (I.iii.103-135)...but then seems to get tripped up in his own words...e.g., "tender,"  "burning" and financal language (i.e, brokers and "bawds" for bonds, et al).

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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