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For more information, please see full course syllabus of Shakespeare: Plays & Sonnets
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Lecture Comments (4)

0 answers

Post by GLENN MENSAH on March 5, 2015


0 answers

Post by Velmurugan Gurusamy on March 15, 2014

Laertes is Odysseus's father, right?

1 answer

Last reply by: Professor Hendershot
Wed Apr 24, 2013 11:05 AM

Post by Ikze Cho on April 24, 2013

will reading shakespeare improve my english?


  • First Things First
    • 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.
  • Background
    • 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
  • Setting
    • Elsinore (Kronborg Castle, Helsingor)
    • Fortinbras/Norway recently defeated
    • King Claudius newly on the throne, newly married to Queen Gertrude
    • Prince Hamlet grieving and restive
  • Major Characters
    • 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
  • Plot
    • 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
    • The Mouse-Trap
      • Meeting with the players
      • The performance
      • Claudius at prayer
      • Hamlet and Gertrude
      • Polonius dies
      • The Ghost reappears
    • Reaction
      • Where’s the body?
      • Hamlet sent away
      • The death warrant
    • Ophelia’s madness
    • Laertes returns; Ophelia dies
    • Hamlet returns; Yorick and Ophelia’s grave
    • The duel
    • Everybody dies (except Horatio)
  • Themes
    • Nothing is certain
    • Unintended consequences
    • Theatricality
    • Death
    • Rot
  • Major Passages
    • “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

  • Jumping-Off Points
    • 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 Hamletby 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.

  • Intro 0:00
  • First Things First 0:10
  • Lesson Overview 0:40
  • Background 1:20
  • Setting 2:54
  • Major Characters 4:02
    • Hamlet
    • Claudius
    • Gertrude
    • Polonius
    • Laertes
    • Ophelia
    • Horatio
    • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
    • The Ghost
    • Fortinbras
    • Gravediggers
  • Plot 7:32
    • A death, a wedding, and a coronation
    • Appearance of the ghost
    • The mad prince
    • Laertes leaves for Paris and Ophelia gets advice
    • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
    • Hamlet and Ophelia
    • The Mouse-Trap
    • Reaction
    • Ophelia's madness
    • Laertes returns and Ophelia dies
    • Hamlet returns; Yorick and Ophelia's grave
    • The duel
    • Everybody dies (except Horatio)
  • Themes 22:10
  • Major Passages 26:18
    • Act I, scene 2, 129-158
    • Act I, scene 4, 67
    • Act II, scene 2, 297-298
    • Act III, scene 1, 58-90
    • Act V, scene 1, 122
    • Act V, scene 1, 185-195
  • Jumping-off Points 31:58
    • Uncertainty in the play
    • Examine comedy
    • Hinge points in the play
    • The role of women
    • Suicide
    • Examine theatricality
    • Soliloquies
    • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare