In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot teaches Hamlet. Youll learn the complete background of the play, the setting, and the characters. Rebekah goes over each character in detail, including Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Horatio and everyone in between. Youll learn each element of the plot from the first sighting of the Ghost to the final sword fight. Themes, major passages, and essay topic jumping-off points are also discussed. With Rebekah, youll learn how to examine Hamlet as a comedy, discuss the roles of women in the play, and go over major soliloquies. The lesson concludes with a few secrets to make understanding Shakespeare a lot easier.
This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
Written 1600 or 1601, probably performed 1602
Taken from a Scandinavian legend about a prince who feigns madness in order to kill his usurping uncle
Shakespeare added a lot of moral ambiguity
Role probably written for Richard Burbage
First published in 1603
Elsinore (Kronborg Castle, Helsingor)
Fortinbras/Norway recently defeated
King Claudius newly on the throne, newly married to Queen Gertrude
Prince Hamlet grieving and restive
Hamlet—Son of the previous king (Old Hamlet), nephew of the current king (Claudius), hero of the play; may or may not be crazy. Role played by Richard Burbage.
Claudius—King of Denmark and Hamlet’s uncle. Possibly (probably?) a murderer.
Gertrude—Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother, now married to Claudius. Possibly complicit in the murder of the previous king.
Polonius—Lord Chamberlain, aide to Claudius, father of Laertes and Ophelia, loves the sound of his own voice.
Laertes—Son of Polonius. A brash young man, loyal to his father and protective of his sister.
Ophelia—Daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, object of Hamlet’s affections (?).
Horatio—Hamlet’s closest friend and the sole surviving witness to the events of the play.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—Treacherous friends of Hamlet.
The Ghost—The ghost of Hamlet’s father (?). Role may have been played by Shakespeare himself.
Fortinbras—Prince of Norway.
Gravediggers—A pair of clowns
A death, a wedding and a coronation
The appearance of the ghost and Hamlet’s plan
The mad prince
Laertes leaves for Paris; Ophelia gets advice
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Hamlet and Ophelia
Meeting with the players
Claudius at prayer
Hamlet and Gertrude
The Ghost reappears
Where’s the body?
Hamlet sent away
The death warrant
Laertes returns; Ophelia dies
Hamlet returns; Yorick and Ophelia’s grave
Everybody dies (except Horatio)
Nothing is certain
“O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God! …”
-Act I, Scene 2, 129-158
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
-Act I, Scene 4, 67
“…What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
-Act II, Scene 2, 297-298
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:.…”
-Act III Scene 1, 58-90
“I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in it.”
-Act V, Scene 1, 122
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”
-Act V, Scene 1, 185-195
How does uncertainty inform this play? Can we trust the ghost? Is Hamlet really mad? Is Claudius really guilty? How does the play change with the different resolutions of these questions?
Examine comedy in Hamlet. How does Shakespeare use characters like the gravediggers, Oscric, and Polonius?
There are several “hinge points” in the play—moments where the action takes a sudden dramatic turn. Why do you think Shakespeare chose the hinge points he did? Why do other events fail to have the same impact?
Consider the role of women in Hamlet. How much does Hamlet’s misogyny reflect the mood of the play? How do the characters of Ophelia and Gertrude interact and play off each other? Did Hamlet love Ophelia, and did Ophelia love Hamlet?
Suicide looms large in Hamlet. How does Hamlet regard the act of killing himself—physically, morally, and psychologically? Why does he contemplate suicide, and why does he reject it? Is Hamlet’s death in the duel a murder or a suicide? (Consider the phenomenon of “suicide by cop”.)
Examine theatricality in Hamlet. Who plays what roles, and when? How does this “mirror up to nature” shape the story and its characters?
Actors pace out Hamlet by the six soliloquies Hamlet gives (O that this too too solid flesh/O what a rogue and peasant slave/To be or not to be/’Tis now the very witching hour/Now might I do it pat/How all occasions do inform against me). How do these speeches give structure to the play? How do they propel the action?
The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …
Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.
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