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Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Hamlet, what does the appearance of the ghost of Prince Hamlet's father foreshadow?

The characters certainly find the ghost's appearance fearful, particularly because he is wearing the very armor he wore to fight the elder King Fortinbras of Norway. They also feel that the ghost foreshadows something much darker. Hamlet says: "My father's spirit—in arms? All is not well" (Act 1, Scene 2, Line 279). The audience can't help but think the same. The country does not go to war in the literal sense—which audience members might suspect is the significance of the ghost's armor. However, Hamlet begins to investigate his father's death and Claudius's possible guilt.

The theme of truth versus deception, expressed also as reality versus appearance, appears throughout Hamlet. Consider this theme in the scene where the audience is introduced to the ghost.

In Hamlet, the ghost is linked to the idea of reality versus appearance in that no one is ever quite sure that what they're seeing is real—in this case, the ghost of Hamlet's father. The soldiers on watch aren't sure what they're seeing but are brave enough to call in Horatio. Horatio is shocked but, being a reasonable person, he has the sense to tell Hamlet. Hamlet takes the appearance-versus-reality question to a deeper level by wondering about the ghost's intent. He agrees that the ghost looks like his father, but he wonders if it is a demon or an actual ghost. This is an expanded level of the appearance-versus-reality question—and that same question comes up again and again in the play.

Hamlet's first scene introduces young Fortinbras of Norway and his quest to reclaim lands captured from Norway. What information does this provide regarding the theme of thought versus action?

From what Horatio relates to Barnardo and Marcellus in Act 1, Scene 1, the audience learns the particulars of the Norway-versus-Denmark dispute that ended in a win for Denmark, a loss of land for Norway, and the death of old Fortinbras. Horatio further tells them that young Fortinbras, son and namesake of the deceased king of Norway, is raising an army to march on Denmark, intending to avenge his father's death and to retake the land Norway lost. The younger Fortinbras, as we will see, becomes a foil for Hamlet. Initially, Hamlet is deep-thinking and slow to act; Fortinbras is quick to act, "of unimproved mettle hot and full" (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 109). Hamlet himself sees the difference, pondering on it a few times, including when he is leaving for England and Fortinbras is passing through Denmark en route to Poland. Gradually, like two ends of a continuum (action/thought or action/nonaction), Hamlet and Fortinbras temper their behaviors and, by the play's end, are much closer to each other on that continuum than they were.

In Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet has short interchanges with the king and queen, an aside, and a soliloquy. What do these speeches reveal and foreshadow?

In the interchanges, aside, and the soliloquy at the end of the scene, Hamlet reveals that—in addition to still being in deep mourning over his father—he has misgivings about his relationship with his uncle and is dismayed by his mother's apparent ability to move on though his father is so recently deceased. The interchanges seen in this very early scene set up much of the play: King Hamlet is dead; his brother Claudius has taken the throne and his wife Gertrude; their only son Hamlet is devastated for all of these reasons; tension is established between the parties, and uncle and nephew are on a collision course. Shakespeare does an excellent job in both Scenes 1 and 2 of supplying the backstory, setting up the tension, and then sliding into the present action.

In Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2, Claudius interacts with Polonius's son, Laertes, and with Hamlet, his nephew. How does his behavior support what the audience learns about Claudius?

The audience notices the fatherly way in which Claudius interacts with Laertes and, in strong contrast, the dismissive, almost heartless treatment he gives his nephew Hamlet. Most striking, perhaps, is that Claudius tells Hamlet that he has grieved long enough for his father, a discussion that he begins with the question, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" (Line 70). Were Claudius simply a new stepfather, this would seem an inappropriate question; that he is brother to the now-deceased King Hamlet makes this interaction all the more inappropriate. The whole middle part of this scene—after the discussion with Laertes and before Hamlet's first soliloquy—provides a first glance at Claudius: egocentric, calculating, manipulative, and even sociopathic. Audience members get a gut feeling that he may not be the face he shows to Laertes; we wonder about Hamlet as we see him interact with Claudius and about the whole situation in Denmark based on the ghost's appearance in the previous scene. As the play unfolds, the audience will find that the callousness first seen here in Claudius is, indeed, who Claudius is.

When the ghost appears in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4, Horatio cautions Hamlet against following him. What is Horatio's fear? How does it relate to the theme of madness?

Horatio fears that Hamlet's interacting with the ghost can't lead to a good outcome. He wonders if the ghost might somehow be able to steal the prince's sanity and push him into madness. This directly relates to the theme of madness that becomes part of the complicated tapestry of the play. In particular, as the play progresses, characters and the audience will have occasion to question Hamlet's sanity. Although others have seen the ghost, the fact that no one else ever hears it speak to Hamlet can be used to support the idea that Hamlet may indeed be mad and imagining all that the ghost imparts to him.

In Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4, how does Marcellus's declaration, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," relate to the theme of mortality?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Marcellus says, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," which is an often-quoted piece of text. In the moment, he is referring to the presence of the ghost of King Hamlet appearing to them. In the grander scheme, he could be seen as making an initial comment on mortality, which is a reoccurring theme in the play. Regardless of one's standing, we all eventually die. King Hamlet, a beloved and strong king, met his death too soon and at his brother's hands. His brother, who personifies the something that is rotten in Denmark, is set on his own collision course with mortality once the ghost comes on the scene. Some critics talk of death and decay—which are nearly synonymous with mortality here in the play—as being thematic in Hamlet as well. In short, when Marcellus utters this famous line, he is, in a way, touching on the theme but also foreshadowing Claudius's downfall.

In Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, the ghost directs Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius but to spare Gertrude. Consider this in light of Hamlet's impression of his parents' bond.

During his soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2, the prince speaks glowingly of his parents' relationship and, in particular, of his father's devotion to Gertrude. He reports King Hamlet as "so loving to my mother/That he might not beteem the winds of heaven/Visit her face too roughly" (Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 146–148). With that in mind, the ghost's directive that Hamlet not touch his mother can be read as evidence of King Hamlet's protectiveness. Even in the afterlife, the spirit of King Hamlet is attempting to care for Gertrude. From another viewpoint, the ghost's instruction to Hamlet with regard to his mother could be seen as supporting the idea that Gertrude either was completely blameless with regard to King Hamlet's death or that the ghost of King Hamlet, perhaps knowing only what Hamlet would have known, can neither prove nor disprove her guilt and, thus, she must be left to heaven's judgment.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5 considers the theme of truth versus deception. How does this theme relate to the ghost, Hamlet's thought about feigning madness, or other relevant moments?

This scene is built around the ghost, especially because Hamlet and the others have yet to decide whether this ghost is a demon with intentions to mislead or if the ghost is really that of the king. Truth versus deception/reality versus appearance is a big consideration here. This theme is also addressed with regard to Hamlet's warning to his friends that he may have to put on an "antic disposition"; that is, act mad. This is another matter that the audience and the characters will have to sort out for themselves, deciding eventually what is real and what is not. How audience members decide this issue will color how they experience the play.

King Hamlet's ghost is central to Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet. As a theatrical element, ghosts are often useful additions. How does King Hamlet's ghost facilitate the plot?

Each scene with the ghost of King Hamlet seems to add tremendous complexity to the plot. The ghost's presence adds dimension to the action, both literally and figuratively. With the ghost now speaking to Hamlet, King Hamlet is revealing actions and even motivation (particularly around the event of his own death) that the characters and audience would not otherwise know. He is also a catalyst (especially with regard to Hamlet) capable of turning the course of the play's action. He is a pivotal element when considering themes such as madness or revenge.

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