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Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Hamlet | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Act 2, Scene 1 of Hamlet, Polonius sends Reynaldo to France to check on Laertes. What is shocking about this assignment? What does Polonius's request signify?

As this scene opens, Polonius is sending his servant, Reynaldo, to France with money and notes for Laertes. While there, Reynaldo is to spy on him. Worse yet, Polonius asks Reynaldo to "lay slight sullies" (Line 44) against Laertes in order to dredge information out of various sources. That Polonius feels the need to check up on Laertes may be innocent enough, but not in the way he chooses to do it. Like much of what Polonius says and does, this indicates that he is a cynical man—one who thinks that only he has the answer and that information can best be obtained in underhanded ways. The trap he and Claudius lay for Hamlet by "loosing" Ophelia on him and the trap he lays by hiding in Gertrude's chambers when Hamlet visits her indicate his inability to function in the realm of truth. He, like Claudius, takes a deceitful approach to life. Here, Shakespeare introduces dramatic irony: not only is Polonius building a dishonest relationship with his children, he casually instructs Reynaldo to damage Laertes's reputation, while he is always careful to protect his own. This is the man who, just a few scenes earlier, warned Ophelia about maintaining her reputation lest her missteps make him a fool (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 115).

In Hamlet, what does the appearance of the theater company reveal about the theme of truth versus deception?

A theater company is built around the idea of truth versus deception, or reality versus appearance. The very basis of theater is a suspension of disbelief—a willingness to believe what one is presented. Placing that idea into the middle of this play so fraught with deception, and shines a light on all of the other examples of "play acting" around it. The final line in this scene foreshadows the importance of this company being here at Elsinore at this time. Says Hamlet "The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 612–613).

In Hamlet, how does the appearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern affect Hamlet?

The very presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern contributes a good deal to the audience's thoughts about truth and deception. These men are—or were—Hamlet's long-time friends. So when Hamlet first greets them, there is the expectation on his part that that is who they are. Initially he seems to look to them, as he does to Horatio, as a potential oasis of comfort amid overwhelming confusion. Yet from the moment they arrive at Elsinore, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act as Claudius's spies. They forsake their loyalty to the prince for the promised favor of the king. Though several times Hamlet asks them bluntly why they have come to Elsinore, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not forthcoming. Although they are less important to Hamlet than Horatio is, they present another instance of the people in Hamlet's life deceiving him.

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 contains Hamlet's "to be, or not to be" soliloquy. What is the intent of this passage?

Hamlet's "to be, or not to be" soliloquy is one of the play's most well-known and often-quoted lines. These few simple words capture the essence of both this scene and the entire play. When Hamlet says the line as part of a longer soliloquy (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 64–76), he is as sorrow-filled and world-weary a man as the audience has seen. The simplicity of the words radiate his despair. While many in the audience take this passage as giving voice to a struggle between suicide and existence, another interpretation suggests that this is Hamlet's dilemma with living in a way that is true to himself. Either interpretation provides the audience a greater insight into Hamlet and the matters with which he struggles throughout the play. The need for living in a way that is true to oneself applies to many of the characters besides Hamlet. So, the audience can see that his struggles are not limited to him—or shouldn't be.

In Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet asks the actors to perform a play that he has rewritten. Besides probing for Claudius's guilty response, what else is he testing?

In asking the players to perform the amended play, The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet is trying to prick the conscience of the king—he says in the prior scene, "The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 612–613). Perhaps an even stronger motive for doing this is to determine, once and for all, the nature of the ghost. At the outset of this scene, Hamlet is still deliberating whether the ghost is a demon or an actual ghost. In his revision of the play, Hamlet will include a scene depicting details of King Hamlet's death. With art mimicking reality, Hamlet hopes he will catch Claudius in his guilt. He even refers to the play as The Mousetrap when Claudius asks its name. Hamlet does not want to seek revenge until he is sure of the ghost's honesty.

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3 provides insight into Claudius's psyche as he assigns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to convey Hamlet to England, then attempts to pray. What does the scene divulge?

This scene includes a moment where Claudius is seen alone with his own thoughts—thus, providing the audience deeper knowledge about his character. Here is Claudius at his most basic. From his plans to dispatch Hamlet to England, to his continued scheming with Polonius, to his confession of the murder when he is alone—Claudius is revealed for what he is: a ruthless, scheming politician capable of murdering his own brother for power and love, and driven to retain his newly captured position. Particularly interesting is Claudius's moment alone when he attempts to pray for forgiveness. He wonders if it is possible to be forgiven for his fratricide (the killing of his brother). He realizes that to be forgiven, he must truly repent, and, in this case, repenting means giving up the spoils gained by what he has done. Clearly he has no intention of giving any of it up—crown, queen, or country. The power that comes with the trappings is too great. "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below" (Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 100–101) he concludes at last, realizing the futility of what he is doing.

In Hamlet, how does Claudius's furious reaction to The Mousetrap's murder scene lead to Hamlet's killing of Polonius, and what is the dramatic irony in that murder?

When Claudius is thrown into a panic by the murder scene in The Mousetrap, this convinces Hamlet that the ghost spoke the truth: Claudius is guilty of killing Hamlet's father. Hamlet is now ready to take deadly revenge and, when Polonius cries out from behind the tapestry in Gertrude's room, he thinks he has found the moment to strike. Hamlet's error in killing Polonius is an example of dramatic irony in two ways: the audience knew in advance that it was Polonius, not Claudius, behind the tapestry and, in slaying their father, Hamlet has set Ophelia and Laertes in motion to take deadly actions of their own.

In Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 2, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern search for Hamlet and for Polonius's body. How and why has the relationship between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deteriorated?

The interaction between Hamlet and his former friends has been deteriorating and loses all of the false niceties in this scene. Just a few scenes ago after the play (Act 3, Scene 2), Hamlet became angry when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern treated him as if they were superior to him. In that scene Hamlet told them, "Do you think I am easier to be played on/than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though/you can fret me, you cannot play upon me" (Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 377–379). In Act 4, Scene 2, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, perhaps wearied by the situation, make no attempt to hide their frustration. They want to find Polonius's body and take it to the chapel, but Hamlet won't tell them where he had hidden the corpse. For his part, he is weary of these men, whom he now calls "sponges." He spars with them, talking in word-play riddles and no longer attempting civility.

Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet opens with the king talking to himself. How does this soliloquy feel different from others?

As this scene opens, Claudius is alone, expounding to himself upon Hamlet's slaying of Polonius as excellent rationale for sending him abroad. Oddly, something about Claudius's use of the royal "we," the points he is making to himself, and the way they are phrased ring with a sense of desperation. Claudius seems like someone seeking to regain control of a situation that's slipping out of control. And that's exactly what his circumstances are. Shakespeare, ever in command, also may have intended his speech to straddle the line between sanity and madness. The more Claudius is seen on his own, the more the audience learns about the workings of his brain.

Hamlet sees Fortinbras's army marching toward Poland in Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 4, and comments on the contrast between Fortinbras and himself. Consider this against the thought-versus-action theme.

As Hamlet considers the differences between himself and Fortinbras, his definition of greatness, and his own shortcomings, the audience may feel a shift in Hamlet's resolution. It's as if the audience sees Hamlet's thinking unfurl as he observes the doggedness with which Fortinbras and his men pursue their goals—in this case, a tiny plot of Polish soil—even when their gain is at best "a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name (Act 4, Scene 4, Lines 18–19). Something in that realization and in his discussion with Fortinbras's captain seems to settle in Hamlet, and the prince begins to shift from a man of thought to a man of action. The scene closes with Hamlet's renewed resolution that "From this time forth,/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (Act 4, Scene 4, Lines 67–68). The fact that he reaches this resolution as he is about to set sail for England leaves the audience with the impression that something of Fortinbras—something of his quickness to action—has taken hold of Hamlet.

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