Here are a few discussion prompts. Please read them all and reply to at least two of them.

Hamlet and the Canon

Hamlet is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most important and difficult plays, and one of the most interesting things about the play is the character of Hamlet. He has been played in many, many different ways, from a devious trickster who is the brilliant master of every situation to a neurotic mess who can’t make up his mind to do anything and is completely ineffectual, from a robust, tragic hero to a pathetic and suicidal wimp. All of these variations are plausible, given the text of the play. Hamlet is one of the most complex characters in literature, and the plot of Hamlet is one of the most complex plots in Renaissance drama.

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Compare the character of Hamlet or the plot (and maybe also the theme or themes) of Hamlet to a character or plot of another work we’ve read this term. Who does Hamlet remind you of? Why? What other work does the plot or the themes of Hamlet remind you of? Why? (You may want to use a quote or two to develop your ideas.)

Victim and Murder, Accusations and Guilt

Review the Ghost’s soliloquey in Act 1, Scene 5, on page 675, and compare it to Claudius’s soliloquey in Act 3, Scene 3, on pages 710-11, after watching Hamlet’s play. What is striking about these two extended discussions of sin and guilt and their consequences? How do these two monologues illuminate each other? What do you think Shakespeare is trying to say to his audience about the consequences of our actions?

Polonius and His Family

Polonius is the father of Laertes, a young courtier, and Ophelia, whom he may have a secret desire to see married to Hamlet, who is the likeliest person to inherit the throne. Polonius’s job is to serve the king, and his family is deeply (and tragically) involved with the royal family. For the purposes of the play, they represent the constituents of the kingdom.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare introduces us to Polonius and his family. Polonius gives his son Laertes some famous and often-quoted fatherly advice, which focuses on how to dress, how to act around others, when to spend money and when not to. Most of the advice concerns how a young courtier in a king’s court should maintain and control his appearance and reputation. At the end of his long speech on page 669, Polonius concludes by telling Laertes “Neither a borrower nor a lender be:/ For loan oft loses both itself and friend,/ And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man” (1.3.76-82).

Is this advice, “to thine own self be true,” really good advice? How might this be interpreted as bad advice? How is this advice less than straightforward? What does Polonius mean by “true” and “false” here? Might it ever be a bad idea to be true to “thine own self”? Does Laertes follow this advice? Does Polonius?

“to hold the mirror up to nature”

Take a look at Act 3, Scene 2, on pages 700-09, especially Hamlet’s instructions to the players on pages 700-01. Hamlet tells the actors to “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you,” and to “let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action” and “o’erstep no the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end … is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” (3.2.1-19).

What is ironic about Hamlet’s character here? What inspiration might Shakespeare have had in writing these lines for his character to speak? What might it tell you about Shakespeare’s ideas about the purpose and the value of art, and of his own plays? What is the purpose of art, according to Hamlet? What is the purpose of the play he’s creating in this scene? What does it mean to “hold a mirror up to nature”? Can art ever represent reality?

Appearances and Realities in Hamlet

In the opening scene of Hamlet, the audience discovers that a ghost has been seen by various people at Castle Elsinore. So when Hamlet meets the ghost himself, there is some evidence that he is not insane and simply hallucinating or suffering from a delusion in his grief. From the beginning of the play, the audience is meant to wonder where to draw the line between what is real and what is imaginary, between what is visible and what is invisible, between what can be known and what can’t, between appearances and realities.

Before meeting the ghost, in Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet has a conversation with his mother, Queen Gertrude and with his uncle and father-in-law, King Claudius.Review this scene, especially Hamlet’s comments on page 663. What does Hamlet mean when he tells his mother that “it is common” (1.2.74)? What is common? What does Hamlet mean by “common” here? Later, Hamlet says, “I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.76), and “I have that within which passeth show;/These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (lines 85-6).

What is the subtext of Hamlet’s dialogue in this scene? What kind of a person is Hamlet (this is the first time the audience sees and hears the title character) and how can you tell? Offer a brief explication of this scene.

Suicide in Hamlet

In the second scene of Hamlet, the audience gets to see and hear Hamlet for the first time, and when he is alone, he speaks the first soliloquey of the play, in which he wishes aloud that “the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!/ How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.131-34). So from the beginning of the play, suicide is one of the main themes, as is Hamlet’s fear of the afterlife and the consequences (the unseen consequences) of our actions (and sins).

Find at least one other place in the play in which suicide and/or Hamlet’s obsession with the afterlife (and therefore his struggle with the meaning of life) is important and explain the significance of the passage, using a quote or two.

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