Understanding and teaching Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! Proper planning and guidance allow you to bring new life into this timeless work quickly. This blog post will provide an overview of best practices for preparing and delivering a successful class focusing on Hamlet. We’ll introduce different approaches to developing students’ understanding of the text and critically analyse characters, major themes, and more.
As teachers, we must take extra care when introducing our students to challenging works such as Hamlet–and with these tips in hand, you will give them the best possible opportunity to explore one of English literature’s all-time greatest tragedies!
Hamlet’s Plot in Acts
The ghost of the late King of Denmark appears to the guards. They tell Prince Hamlet, who is soon revealed to be the dead King’s son. He sees his father’s ghost and learns that he was murdered by Claudius, his uncle and present King. Claudius has also married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude.
Hamlet devises a plan to determine if Claudius is guilty or innocent. He arranges for a play that closely resembles his father’s murder, hoping it will force Claudius into revealing his guilt. However, when watching the play, Hamlet becomes so enraged that he kills Polonius, believing him to be Claudius.
Claudius sends Hamlet away to England on the pretence of seeking diplomatic relations with England. Meanwhile, Laertes returns from France and seeks revenge for his father’s death at the hands of Hamlet. Claudius enlists Laertes’ help in killing Hamlet during a fencing match between them.
Hamlet returns from England having narrowly escaped assassination thanks to Osric, who Claudius had sent. Before the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, Gertrude drinks a poisoned toast intended for her son; she dies because of consuming it, leaving Hamlet heartbroken and vengeful enough to win against Laertes in their duel.
Claudius is exposed as King and is killed by Hamlet while attempting to drink another poisoned beverage meant for him; moments before dying, he confesses all his sins, restores power to old King Fortinbras of Norway and requests proper burial services for himself and those killed due to various acts stirred up by his scheming throughout the play so far. At last, succumbing to wounds inflicted upon him by Laertes’ treachery and taking one final sip from the poisoned cup meant for Claudius—Hamlet dies after making peace with Horatio—his beloved friend since the start of this saga.
Key Themes In Hamlet
- Revenge: Hamlet is driven to seek revenge against Claudius for the murder of his father. He stages a play to elicit a reaction from Claudius and contemplates ways to take his revenge without incriminating himself. After risking his own life, Hamlet eventually acts on his desire for revenge and kills Claudius.
- Betrayal: Numerous characters are guilty of treason throughout the story. Gertrude betrays Hamlet’s father by marrying Claudius, turning her back on her son’s love and loyalty. Claudius betrays Old King Hamlet and Hamlet by murdering the former and plotting against the latter. Even Laertes betrays Hamlet when he allows himself to be manipulated by Claudius into killing him during their duel.
- Moral Corruption: Moral corruption seeps through almost every facet of the play, from Gertrude’s remarriage to Claudius’ betrayal and deception. Even those thought trustworthy such as Horatio, appear morally corrupt at times when they turn away from justice for friends or family members.
- Appearance vs Reality: This theme plays out in various situations, from Polonius’ false praise of the King’s honour to Ophelia’s false grief over her father’s death – it forces readers to question what is real or fake and who can be trusted.
- Death and Mortality: Death hangs heavy over the play from beginning to end. Not only does the ghost haunt Denmark, but nearly every scene either anticipates or reflects upon mortality in some way; even Prince Hamlet’s soliloquies show his preoccupation with death in all its forms and consequences.
Characters in Hamlet
- Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, son of the late King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude, nephew of Claudius. He is passionate, reflective and driven by revenge.
- Claudius: King of Denmark, brother to the dead King Hamlet and uncle/stepfather to Hamlet. He is calculating and ambitious, willing to do whatever it takes to gain power.
- Gertrude: Queen of Denmark, mother of Hamlet and wife to King Hamlet and Claudius. She is emotionally driven and sometimes unaware of her actions’ consequences on those around her.
- Laertes: Son of former adviser to the King Polonius, brother to Ophelia. He is hot-tempered yet, at times, wise beyond his years. He seeks revenge against Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius.
- Polonius: Former adviser to the late King Hamlet, father to Laertes and Ophelia. He is loyal yet often misguided in his attempts to protect those close to him with good intentions but poor judgement.
- Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius and love interest of Prince Hamlet, whom she eventually rejects after following her father’s advice not to be with him out of fear she will be hurt.
Key Battles in Hamlet
- The Battle of Wittenberg: The first key battle takes place between the armies of King Claudius and King Fortinbras. It symbolises the inner turmoil and conflict Hamlet is facing throughout the play as his fellow citizens fight each other while he is contemplating how to avenge his father’s death.
- The Battle at Elsinore marks the play’s climax when Laertes and Hamlet duel with one another to avenge their father’s death. Hamlet ultimately kills Claudius, but both he and Laertes soon succumb to their wounds after they are poisoned by the former.
- The Battle Against Death: Finally, an ongoing battle between life and death permeates almost all of Shakespeare’s plays – from Romeo & Juliet to Hamlet – which speaks to our own mortality and the realisation that no one can escape death, matter how hard we try.
Critical Character Development in Hamlet
Hamlet: Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles to accept his father’s death and his mother’s betrayal. He starts as an idealistic young prince but eventually becomes a darker version of himself, torn between revenge and morality.
Claudius: Claudius starts as a calculating, ambitious figure who will do whatever it takes to gain power. As the play progresses, however, he reveals his hidden fears and insecurities, ultimately leading him to his downfall.
Gertrude: Gertrude is initially depicted as an oblivious character who does not recognise her actions’ consequences on those around her. However, towards the end of the play, she finally wakes up from her slumber, realises her marriage’s impact on others, and decides to change.
Laertes & Ophelia: Laertes and Ophelia are initially naïve characters that follow their father’s advice without question – Laertes seeks revenge against Hamlet for killing Polonius, and Ophelia rejects Hamlet out of fear of being hurt. Eventually, they both realise their mistakes after experiencing significant losses.
Analysing Laertes’ and Ophelia’s Decisions in Hamlet
Laertes and Ophelia are two characters whose decisions significantly impact the play’s events. Laertes is initially motivated by revenge when he seeks to avenge his father’s death by killing Hamlet, while Ophelia is swayed by her fears of being hurt into rejecting Hamlet. While they both face significant losses due to their decisions, they eventually realise their mistakes.
Laertes ultimately pays for his pursuit of revenge when he dies due to wounds inflicted during his duel with Hamlet. In addition, his activities contribute to the deaths of Gertrude, Claudius and himself, and almost all the other characters in the play. On the other hand, despite facing ridicule from society due to her rejection of Hamlet, resulting in him going mad, her death ultimately brings about redemption for herself and him.
Overall, Laertes and Ophelia’s decisions significantly impact the plot – from influencing other characters’ choices to bringing about redemption – demonstrating how even seemingly insignificant decisions can cause dramatic effects down the line.
Moral Corruption in Hamlet
Moral corruption is a recurring theme throughout the play of Hamlet, appearing in various forms and developing as the story unfolds. At first, it is depicted through Claudius’ ambitious pursuit of power at any cost, even if it means murdering his brother to achieve it. His immoral behaviour is mirrored by Gertrude’s marriage to him, which she decides to pursue despite knowing its implications.
The moral corruption then spreads to the other characters, who face difficult choices and ultimately succumb to their darker sides. Laertes seeks revenge against Hamlet for killing Polonius, and Ophelia rejects Hamlet out of fear – both decisions they later regret.
The corruption culminates in the death of almost all the characters due to their actions before finally being brought to an end, as redemption is found in Ophelia’s death. This demonstrates how unchecked moral corruption can have devastating consequences.
Death and Mortality in Hamlet
Death and mortality are integral to the story of Hamlet, playing a significant role in shaping the characters’ development. When Prince Hamlet learns of his father’s death at the hands of Claudius, he is filled with grief while striving to find justice. This causes him to become increasingly cynical and disillusioned, even going so far as to contemplate suicide.
Laertes and Ophelia also experience their share of grief due to their respective losses. Laertes mourns for his father, which motivates him to want revenge against Hamlet. Meanwhile, Ophelia’s descent into madness can be attributed to her fear of losing her beloved.
The deaths of almost all the characters in the play signify a destructive force that arises from moral corruption due to unchecked ambitions or desires. Ultimately, death is an ever-present reminder for all surfaces of their mortality, influencing their decisions and causing them to re-evaluate their choices before it’s too late.
Essay Questions Based on Hamlet
- Analyse Hamlet’s concept of ‘revenge’ and how it contributes to the story.
- Outline the role of fate in Hamlet and its implications
- Discuss morality and moral corruption as themes in Hamlet
- Evaluate how death affects the characters’ development
- Explain the significance of symbols such as madness, marriage, and poison in Hamlet
- Examine how gender roles are portrayed within the play of Hamlet
Lesson Plan: Exploring the Themes of Hamlet
- Analyse themes in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, such as revenge, ambition, and fate.
- Explore how different characters in the play use revenge to further their goals.
- Apply the themes to modern life by discussing how ethical decisions are made in various circumstances.
- Copies of the play Hamlet
- Pencils/pens and paper or laptops for writing
Introduction (10 minutes)
Introduce the class to the main themes of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet. Explain that they will explore these concepts throughout the lesson and discuss how they manifest within the play. Then review ideas such as ambition, fate, revenge, and morality with a quick discussion or quiz. Ensure all students understand these basic concepts before continuing with the lesson plan.
Activity (30 minutes)
Divide students into small groups and assign each group one key theme from Hamlet (e.g., revenge). Instruct them to read through Act II of the play and find examples of their given theme. As they read, students should also jot down any questions or observations about how this theme is portrayed in the text. After each group has discussed their assigned theme from Act II, lead a whole-class discussion about what was learned from reading it together. Ask students to explore any connections between their given theme and other significant points from Act II (e.g., death).
Conclusion (10 minutes)
Wrap up by asking students to consider how these major themes can be applied to modern life scenarios involving ethical decision-making (e.g., someone seeking revenge on someone who wronged them). Give an example situation as a thought experiment and ask them what they would do if presented with that dilemma. Encourage thoughtful conversation by asking follow-up questions until everyone can share their thoughts.
10 Most Popular Shakespeare Plays
- Romeo and Juliet
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- The Taming of the Shrew
- King Lear
- Twelfth Night, or What You Will
- The Merchant of Venice
- Much Ado About Nothing*
How can I introduce the themes of Hamlet to my students?
When introducing your students to the main themes of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, explain that they will explore these concepts throughout the lesson and discuss how they manifest within the play. Then review ideas such as ambition, fate, revenge, and morality with a quick discussion or quiz. Ensure all students understand these basic concepts before continuing with the lesson plan.
What activities can I assign to explore the themes in Hamlet?
Divide students into small groups and assign each group one key theme from Hamlet (e.g., revenge). Instruct them to read through Act II of the play and find examples of their given theme.
As they read, students should also jot down any questions or observations about how this theme is portrayed in the text. After each group has discussed their assigned theme from Act II, lead a whole-class discussion about what was learned from reading it together. Ask students to explore any connections between their given theme and other significant points from Act II (e.g., death).
How should we apply these themes to real-life scenarios?
Ask your students to consider how these major themes can be applied to modern life scenarios involving ethical decision-making (e.g., someone seeking revenge on someone who wronged them). Give an example situation as a thought experiment and ask them what they would do if presented with that dilemma. Encourage thoughtful conversation by asking follow-up questions until everyone can share their thoughts.