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Hamlet | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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In Act 4, Scene 4 of Hamlet, the audience sees Fortinbras again. What has changed for the young Norwegian? How do his changes stack up against Hamlet's?

This scene brings Fortinbras back to the audience's consciousness. Having been warned off any aggression toward Denmark, he and his army are headed for Poland—crossing Danish land as had been previously agreed. Fortinbras shows himself a man of his word, keeping the promise he gave his uncle and the two of them gave Denmark. As the audience sees him, he is commanding one of his captains to greet the Danish king as the army passes. This note of civility suggests that Fortinbras has matured. On the way to the ship that will carry them to England, Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern pass Fortinbras, and Hamlet is struck again by the contrast he sees between himself and young Fortinbras. Hamlet does not see, however, that the two of them, perhaps at far ends of the continuum before, are now much more alike than they were.

Following Polonius's death, Laertes returns in Act 4, Scene 5 of Hamlet and discovers Ophelia's emotional collapse. What does this suggest for Laertes regarding the thought-versus-action theme?

When Laertes storms Elsinore, it would be natural for him to be passionate about his father's death and, as he'll discover, his sister's mental decline. Beyond these considerations, the audience sees that he has become a different man. He is no longer the obedient, thoughtful son and brother. As Hamlet has changed, Laertes, too, has become more of a man of action. The difference between him and Fortinbras and Hamlet, however, is balance. While Fortinbras and Hamlet are finding a balance between thought and action, Laertes, it seems, is lacking that—and perhaps lacking the introspection to even know something is missing. The audience will learn that Laertes's need for revenge will be his undoing—and the undoing of several others. Perhaps because he falls under the tutelage of Claudius, who is the rank weed here in Denmark, Laertes doesn't stand a chance. With Claudius as his mentor, Laertes cannot achieve the balance between thought and action—and the power that comes from that balance. Fortinbras does achieve that stability, and Hamlet might have done so had he not fallen victim to the events Claudius continues to manipulate. By the play's end, both Fortinbras and Hamlet are their own persons, although only Fortinbras will live into maturity. Laertes, though he seems to be both brave and determined, is manipulated—first by Polonius and then Claudius—and never comes into his own.

In Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 6, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will not return, and Hamlet is now showing quite straightforward behavior. How is that behavior shown in Hamlet's letter to Horatio?

Although Act 4, Scene 6 is a short scene, what transpires within it is powerful. Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet who is en route back to Denmark, having shaken loose his guardians Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His letter is plain and simple—a palpable change of pace from the various plots and schemes that have clouded the story since its outset. He is headed back and will meet with Horatio the next day. To Claudius he says much the same, behaving in a bolder, more decisive style than the audience has seen previously. That said, with the death of Polonius and, presumably, now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the plot seems to have shed some of its layers of deceit. As is true of Hamlet himself, there seems to be more focus and a more deliberate course of action. It is as if clouds have lifted. Claudius, his unfortunate protégé, Laertes, and their plans for revenge are perhaps the last elements of the deceit that was so prevalent at Elsinore in the earlier acts.

In Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet, Gertrude informs Claudius and Laertes of Ophelia's death. Laertes is overwhelmed by emotion and leaves. What does Claudius's response reveal about him?

When Gertrude comes to Claudius and Laertes, she tells them the details of Ophelia's death. Laertes, overwhelmed, leaves them. Claudius's simple response is to say how much he had to do to calm Laertes's rage, only to have this information reignite it. He suggests that he will have to begin again. In typical Claudius fashion, which the audience has come to understand is reflective of his true self, the king is totally focused on how an event affects him. Watching Claudius through the play's progression, the audience sees evidence mount up, proving Claudius to be as calculating, multifaced, and cold as when he first came on stage in Act 1, Scene 2.

In Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet, Gertrude describes Ophelia's demise. What details does she provide that contradict the discussion of Ophelia's death in the following churchyard scene?

When Gertrude reports Ophelia's death, she specifically states that the girl was making floral garlands and stringing them on a willow tree when a branch broke and she fell into the stream. The weight of her clothes dragged her down under the surface, drowning her. Gertrude says that the mishap was a terrible accident. In the following act, however, the gravediggers discuss the questionable death of the person for whom they are digging a grave—Ophelia, as it turns out. Further, it appears the king interceded on Ophelia's behalf when the officials had decided that the death was doubtful. Only because of the king's plea on Ophelia's behalf was she allowed a Christian burial.

In Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1, the audience comes to understand why the image of Hamlet holding Yorick's skull has become a cultural icon. What does this poignant image suggest?

Act 5, Scene 1 is well known for the graveyard scene in which Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, King Hamlet's jester. He relates to Horatio that he had often played with Yorick when he was a child. The image captures the play's theme of mortality, and also suggests Hamlet's struggle between thought and action—specifically, his tendency at the play's outset toward reflection. On another level, if the skull is imagined as representative of King Hamlet's death, the audience may see the the image as a symbol of Hamlet's most basic struggle: to seek revenge or not.

From the ghost to the graveyard to Yorick's skull, mortality is a constant theme in Hamlet. How does mortality pertain to Act 5, Scene 2?

Although the many deaths in the play's final scene are trademarks of a Shakespearean tragedy, here they do double duty, reminding the audience once again to consider mortality. Situational irony has Claudius succumb to his own terrible plan in this scene, and the moment brings the audience full circle: Claudius's schemes resulting in someone's death. Regarding Claudius in particular, the idea of mortality here pointedly suggests how insubstantial a person's time on this mortal coil can be. Further, his death makes the point that mortality is universal and unavoidable. We all eventually face death—no matter how powerful one is or how clever and scheming one has been. Here in the final scene, the idea of mortality is strong enough just in the number of deaths, but there is irony and tragedy woven into each as well. Dramatic irony is involved in all the deaths, and situational irony also is at work in the deaths of Claudius and Laertes. Claudius and Laertes plan to kill Hamlet by poisoning the tip of Laertes's sword. They also have a backup plan: a cup of poisoned wine to offer the prince. After Laertes wounds Hamlet, the swords accidentally get switched and Laertes is wounded with his own poisoned weapon. Gertrude toasts Hamlet by drinking some of the poisoned wine. Distraught that everything is going wrong, Laertes confesses, and Hamlet then strikes Claudius with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink the last of the wine. Finally, Hamlet lies dying. His death suggests that not only is death inevitable, but it truly waits for no man.

Hamlet prophesies Fortinbras as the next ruler of Denmark in Act 5, Scene 2. What does this suggest, especially with regard to the theme of thought versus action?

As the audience meets Hamlet and Fortinbras in the opening of the play, Hamlet is seen as the brooding, slow-to-act prince of Denmark, while Fortinbras is characterized as the courageous but quick-to-act avenging son of the slain king of Norway. When we first learn of Fortinbras, in fact, he is gathering an army to march on Denmark—an act that Denmark's ambassadors manage to head off by speaking with Fortinbras's uncle, Norway's current king. Through the course of the play, Fortinbras is set up as a foil to Hamlet as he struggles with the idea of avenging King Hamlet. It is a comparison that Hamlet himself makes; he looks to Fortinbras as the man he thinks that he should be—combining thought and action in order to be effective. Although at play's end it is too late for Hamlet, his endorsement of Fortinbras as Denmark's next king underlines his newfound commitment to thought and action.

What brings Horatio to join Barnardo and Marcellus on their watch in Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet?

Barnardo and Marcellus believe they have twice seen the ghost of King Hamlet, but are reluctant to share this information with others. They ask Horatio, a friend of Prince Hamlet, to join them on the watch. They wonder if what they're seeing is true, so they turn to Horatio to witness what they are seeing (if the ghost shows up again) and help make sense of it. They respect Horatio and trust his judgment. As Marcellus says when the ghost arrives again: "Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio" (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 51).

In Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet, whom do Horatio and the sentinels decide to tell of what they have seen, and why?

After the ghost appears to Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo twice in the same night, Horatio suggests that the three of them seek out Hamlet and tell him what they have seen. Horatio and the soldiers are hoping that the ghost will appear in Hamlet's presence. If it does, they believe Hamlet can persuade the ghost to speak to him so that they might know its intent.

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