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Shakespeare Study Questions for Hamlet

Vocabulary: Hell-mouth, Revenge Play, Tragedy, Quarto, Bad Quarto, Folio, Purgatory, Nemesis, Ur-Hamlet. Comic Relief, Dramatic Irony. You can find many of these defined at the list of literary terms. Others we will discuss in class.

Identify the Following Characters: Prince Hamlet, King Hamlet, Claudius Polonius, Ophelia, Horatio, Yorrick, Laertes, Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, the Two Clowns.


  • Be familiar with Tillyard's discussion of the Great Chain of Being. Be able to explain what it is and how it connects to Hamlet's dilemma.
  • Why, in Renaissance belief, did the crow of a rooster have the power to avert ghosts and demons?
  • When the ghost appears, who do the armed soldiers send to speak to it? Why is that a bit humorous?
  • What characterized Polonius' advice to his son Laertes before Laertes sets off to college?
  • Why do all the guardsmen react so adversely to the sound of pistols being fired? What political event are they concerned with?
  • Why do many critics see Hamlet as the first modern "existential" man?


  • ACT I: Why are the guards so nervous and jumpy at the opening of the play?
  • How does the ghost react when the cock crows?
  • What political event do Horatio and the guards link to the strange appearance of Old Hamlet's ghost?
  • I. ii. What sort of clothing does Hamlet wear to the Queen's wedding? Why does that bother Gertrude and Claudius?
  • When Hamlet asks that this "too sullied flesh would melt" and complains that the Everlasting had "fixed / His canon gainst self-slaughter," what is he contemplating doing?
  • I. iii. Why does Laertes not want Ophelia to date Hamlet?
  • List any one bit of advice Polonius gives to Hamlet.
  • I. iv. What does Hamlet think of Claudius' participation in traditional Danish drinking games?
  • What character makes the famous statement, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark"?
  • What secret does the Ghost reveal to Hamlet concerning his death?
  • What does the ghost ask Hamlet to do? To whom is Hamlet supposed to be merciful?
  • When the ghost commands Marcellus and Horatio to "swear" to secrecy, where does his voice come from? Why is this disturbing given Renaissance stage conventions?
  • ACT II: Why does Polonius send Reynaldo to Paris? What does this mission reveal about Polonius' family relationships?
  • What ploy does Hamlet use to misdirect others from any unusual behavior he might evince during his plot to kill the king?
  • What off-stage action does Polonius reveal concerning Hamlet's behavior in in Act II, Scene ii?
  • Why does Hamlet want to show uncle Claudius the particular play he selects for the actors?
  • Who does Claudius send to spy on Prince Hamlet and monitor his insanity?
  • What does Hamlet (correctly) suspect about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's arrival?
  • Why does Hamlet say that Denmark is a prison?
  • What does Hamlet mean when he says he is "but mad north-northwest?"
  • Why does Hamlet call Polonius "Jeptha" in Act II, Scene ii? Who is Jeptha? (If your Old Testament is a bit rusty here, read Judges 11 for a refresher). Why is that appropriate given the orders Polonius has given Ophelia?
  • Why is Hamlet so disturbed by watching the actors weep on stage as they play Queen Hecuba and King Priam?
  • What plan or test does Hamlet come up with for seeing if his Uncle is guilty?
  • ACT III, scene 1: When Hamlet asks, "To be, or not to be," what is he asking himself? Rephrase that question in modern terms.
  • Our introduction to the textbook argues that the verb "to be" can have the force of "to act" in Elizabethan English. Alternatively, the verb "to be" could mean "to live." How does each interpretation change the nature of Hamlet's argument?
  • Why does Hamlet pause and not kill Claudius in the chapel, even though Hamlet is armed, Claudius is alone, and the opportunity is perfect? Why is it ironic that Hamlet does not kill King Claudius at that point in the play?
  • III. ii. Describe how Hamlet treats Ophelia during his conversation at the theatre watching the play.
  • When the Player-Queen on stage cries out, "Oh, confound the rest!/ Such love must needs be treason in my breast. / In second husband let me accurst! / None wed the second, but who killed the first," her words reflect on one of the members of the audience. Which character should feel uncomfortable hearing these lines? (Hint: It's not Claudius.)
  • When Gertrude critiques the play, she analyzes the Player-Queen's acting performance, and she concludes, "Methinks the lady doth protest too much." What is the irony in Gertrude's assessment?
  • What does Claudius do when the actor portraying Gonzago pours the fluid into the player-king's ear?
  • In lines 365 onward, Hamlet asks that never shall "the soul of Nero enter his firm bosom." Why does he make this request? (Hint: look up information about Emperor Nero online. How did Nero's mother die?) What does this suggest that Hamlet might do to his mother if he isn't careful? What does he mean when he says he shall "speak daggers to her" instead?
  • III. iv. Why does Hamlet stab through the curtains or arras in Gertrude's room?
  • How does Polonius end up getting killed? What is ironic about Hamlet's statement just before the blow that strikes down Polonius?
  • What or who stops Hamlet from doing violence to Gertrude when he forgets his father's commandment?
  • What evidence do you see in the text that Gertrude does not know how King Hamlet met his death? Is there any textual evidence she was "in" on the murder of the elder King Hamlet?
  • What does Hamlet do in line 210 onward, when he states he will "lug the guts into the neighboring room"? What is he moving?
  • ACT IV, scene ii:
  • What does Hamlet do with Polonius' body?
  • How does Claudius manage to recruit Laertes to his cause?
  • IV. iii. What does the letter Claudius writes to the King of England ask the King to do to the bearer? Who will bear that letter?
  • When Hamlet alters the content of Claudius' letter, what changes does he make?
  • IV. iv-vi. Why does Laertes return from abroad? What does he want to find out?
  • What is Laertes like in his temperament and personality?
  • What drives Ophelia nuts?
  • When Claudius challenges the sincerity of Laertes' grief, where does Laertes say he would be willing to cut Hamlet's throat, (i.e, in what sort of building?) How is that a contrast with Hamlet's earlier actions when he first spotted an opportunity to kill Claudius?
  • IV.vii. What news does Gertrude bring of concerning Ophelia's death? How did she die?
  • Why does Hamlet first believe in the "honesty" of the Ghost and then manifest profound doubts about its honesty? What is the significance of that indecision regarding Hamlet's character and the major conflict in the play?
  • ACT V
  • What theological and legal issue are the two clowns or bumpkins discussing in the graveyard as they dig?
  • Why is the doctor who examines Ophelia's body hesitant to allow her burial in holy ground?
  • Why is Hamlet sickened to learn whose skull the gravediggers hold?
  • Who does Laertes blame for Ophelia's death, and how does he respond?
  • What scandal occurs during Ophelia's funeral that disrupts the services?
  • V. ii. When Horatio tells Hamlet, "Never believe it; / I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:/ Here’s yet some liquor left" in the final act, what is he suggesting he will do? Why does Hamlet stop Horatio from doing that?
  • In Hamlet, what is the final sound at the end of the play after the main characters have left the stage?
  • How does Hamlet get poisoned? How does Laertes? How does Gertrude? How does Claudius die?
  • What mission or last request does Hamlet give Horatio as Hamlet lies dying?
  • What ruler shows up in the final act to discover all the dead bodies?
IDENTIFICATION PASSAGES: Become familiar with these passages. I might require you to identify the speaker, or identify who or what the speaker describes. Be able to paraphrase them, summarize them, and discuss their importance to the play generally through close reading or identification of themes.

A. A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse;
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.
But, soft! behold! lo! where it comes again.

B. Marcellus: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

C. 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!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world.
Fie on ’t! O fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown. . . . .

D. Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.

E. HORATIO: Is it a custom?
HAMLET: Ay, marry, is ’t:
But to my mind,—though I am native here
And to the manner born,—it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc’d and tax’d of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform’d at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.

EE. What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it;
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.

F. I am thy father’s spirit;
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:

G. Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,—meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark:

H. This business is well ended.
My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.

Question: What is funny about these words above spoken above by Polonius?

I. SPEAKER #1: . A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst [prisons].
SPEAKER #2: We think not so, my lord.
SPEAKER #1. Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.
SPEAKER #2: Why, then your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.
SPEAKER #1: O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.J. I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in 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? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.K. I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

L. Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, 384
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in ’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

M. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle; I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy—
As he is very potent with such spirits—
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

N. To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

O. But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

P. O! my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t;
A brother’s murder! Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . But, O! what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law; but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell’d
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it, when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that struggling to be free
Art more engaged! Help, angels! make assay;
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe.
All may be well.

Q. Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do ’t: and so he goes to heaven;
And so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

R. When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in ’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. . . .

S. And, England, if my love thou hold’st at aught,—
As my great power thereof may give thee sense,
Since yet thy cicatrice looks raw and red
After the Danish sword, and thy free awe
Pays homage to us,—thou mayst not coldly set
Our sovereign process, which imports at full,
By letters conjuring to that effect,
The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me. Till I know ’tis done,
Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er begun.

T. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O! from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

U. It must be se offendendo; it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly it argues an act; and an act hath three branches; it is, to act, to do, and to perform: argal, she drowned herself wittingly.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good: if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes; mark you that? but if the water come to him, and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

T. Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chapfallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.
Discuss the last half of the passage above. Who is the lady mentioned in "my lady's chamber"? Hamlet challenges the skull to make her laugh about what?

V. Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.

W. It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain;
No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour of life;
The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
Unbated and envenom’d. The foul practice
Hath turn’d itself on me; lo! here I lie,
Never to rise again. Thy mother’s poison’d.
I can no more. The king, the king’s to blame.

X. There, my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,
Bear ’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
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.
Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!

Y: The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England,
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited—The rest is silence.

Z. Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.



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