VCCS Litonline Introduction to Literature
English 112 (English Composition II)

The Hamlet Site

Study and Essay Questions

Objective for this Page: To analyze the play’s theme, characters, and staging.

Study and Essay Questions


DIRECTIONS: Reading the play: Use the questions behind the links below to help you see beyond just what happens in the play and to consider the dynamics of the conflict and the artful staging of the play.

Writing about the play: Following your instructor's directives, you may write about any of the bold or italic questions on these pages; since the italic questions are very focused, you might consider combining three or more closely related questions together to make one thesis. Click on the bold question to access the italicized subquestions.

All of these are adapted from questions that students in previous classes have asked or suggested about Hamlet. Under each large (bold) question, the more focused (italic) questions more or less parallel the sequence of events in the play--for ease of reference, not to promote summarizing.

Theme and Character = Questions 1-4

1. Does Hamlet live and die by making free choices, or are his choices all controlled by forces larger than himself?

2. To what extent are the female characters in this drama pivotal to the story's structure? (That is, try defending or modifying this thesis statement: Everything that happens in this play occurs because of a woman.) [Hint: What are Claudius's motives for killing his brother? What finally moves Hamlet to kill Claudius?]

3. Mel Gibson says that all of the deaths during the play result from Hamlet's decision not to kill Claudius while he is praying. Agree or disagree and explain why.

4. Compare and contrast the personalities and situations of Hamlet and Oedipus. Which one over-reaches himself more (takes on an opponent he can't handle)? Which one is more incestuous? Which one is more effective in handling the problem he has to confront?

Staging = Question 5

5. Consider the staging of a crucial scene--Hamlet and Gertrude in the queen's bedroom. How do the staging elements make this scene plausible? It is during this scene when Hamlet turns Gertrude away from Claudius and makes her silent or neutral, if not an ally in his plan against Claudius. Explain how the music, props, costumes, scenery, camera work, blocking (actor's positions and actions, e.g. Hamlet on top of Gertrude and grabbing her medallion), sound effects or special effects (like the ghost), and uses of light, shadow, and color all contribute to making Hamlet's recruiting of Gertrude to his cause believable.

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CAUTION: If you attempt to write an essay that shows a progression or deterioration--and therefore must parallel some of the events in the play--be absolutely sure that you do NOT fall into summarizing the play by ALWAYS explaining each reference to the play and each quotation.  That means having an idea for each paragraph, preferably stated in a topic sentence, and relating each incident and quotation mentioned in the paragraph to that idea. (If you find yourself starting a paragraph with "next" or "then" or other transitions for marking the mere passage of time, step back, find (or make) your topic sentence--about characters' motives or the function of color in the costuming to signal who's allied with whom or whatever interpretive insight will cause you to organize data from the play.)