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Hamlet | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Regina Buccola, Chair of Humanities at Roosevelt University, explains symbols in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

Hamlet | Symbols


Yorick's Skull

The most obvious symbol in the play—and perhaps in Shakespeare's entire body of work—Yorick's skull represents mortality. Should the audience have any question about this symbolism, Hamlet explains it to them (and Horatio) when he says, "No matter one's stance in life, we all must face our own mortality." Hamlet has learned that death is inevitable and, given the "haunting" by his father's ghost, that the physical body is only temporary (Act 5, Scene 1).

The Mousetrap

Hamlet, in asking the players to perform The Murder of Gonzago with a few revisions, suggests that he has an understanding and appreciation for the idea of life imitating art. In this particular case, Hamlet is hoping to put that idea to use to catch the conscience of the king. In The Mousetrap, the edited version of the play, nearly everything is a symbol for the truth Hamlet hopes to uncover, with the most obvious symbols in the casting: "I'll have these players play something like the murder of my father." The King in The Mousetrap symbolizes King Hamlet and The Poisoner obviously symbolizes Claudius.

The Ghost

While the ghost symbolizes decay or evil—"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (Act 1, Scene 4)—it is an ambiguous character. It is not clear whether the ghost is truly the spirit of Hamlet's father, a demon that wants to mislead the prince, or a figment of Hamlet's imagination. Hamlet tries to find out by asking it, "Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned/... Be thy intents wicked, or charitable?" The ghost appears with the purpose of seeking revenge for his death. He comes dressed in armor, prepared for battle, but because he is a spirit, he needs Hamlet's physical strength to exact revenge. Vengeance is a dangerous emotion, however, and it nearly drives both Hamlet and Laertes mad through obsession: "O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"

Questions for Symbols

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Which of the following is an example of the fundamental attribution error? When Jeremiah scored 20 points in a basketball game, he said it was because he practiced hard that week; when he scored only
1. Explain why Denmark was making preparations for war. Who was initiating the challenge? What were they fighting over? Be sure to use the text to back up your answer and use proper grammar and spelli
1. Why does Hamlet fail to take action against Claudius when he has the opportunity, after he observes the King’s reaction to the play? What was Claudius doing? What does Hamlet’s inaction have to do
Question 1 The reason many students fail exams is because they do not study. incomplete comparison lack of parallelism faulty predication dangling modifier 1 points Question 2 Scuba diving is where yo
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