Notes on Hamlet

(From Falcon Edition)

Act I sc. 1

-The opening scene in a Shakespearian play is of the greatest dramatic importance. It must provide enough information to enable the audience to understand the situation.

-The opening scene must also create interest; interest may be created by means of atmosphere.

1. How is interest created in this opening scene?

2. What information are we given to help us understand the situation?

3. What happens at the end of the scene to create suspense and keep up the reader's interest?

4a. Describe the prevailing atmosphere in this scene.

4b. Explain how this atmosphere is created?

5. What reasons are suggested by Horatio for the appearance of the late King's ghost?

sc. 2

-This scene provides us with more information and creates further suspense.

-The scene is divided into three main sections: the first deals with Claudius, the second with Hamlet's first soliloquy, the third with Horatio's report to Hamlet.

1. How does Claudius reveal himself as a capable monarch in this scene?

2. What do you think Hamlet is doing on stage while the King speaks to his subjects? Explain.

3. What qualities of Hamlet's character are brought out by his first words in the play?

4. What does the Queen's opening speech reveal about her character?

5. Explain the bitter irony of Hamlet's reply to his mother, "Ay, madam, it is common."

6. Rewrite Hamlet's soliloquy in modern day English.

7. How is suspense created at the end of this scene?

sc. 3

1. What is the purpose of this scene? What plot information is revealed?

sc. 4

-The contrast, on the one hand between Hamlet and his friends tensely awaiting the appearance of the Ghost and, on the other hand the roistering of Claudius, is very sharp and dramatic.

1. Show that this scene contains example of contrast, surprise, and suspense.

2. Marcellus states, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." What is the significance of this quotation?

sc. 5

-This scene is of primary importance in the development of the plot, for it is here that Hamlet is made aware for the first time that his Uncle Claudius is the murderer of the late King.

1a. State the substance of the Ghost's revelation to Hamlet.

1b. What reasons would Hamlet have for feigning madness?

-"The time is out of joint; O cursed spite

That ever I was born to set it right!

These lines express Hamlet's whole tragedy. He does not doubt that revenge is his duty, but there is a premonition of doom and disaster in the couplet.

Summary of Act I

In five skilfully informative and exciting scenes, Shakespeare has introduce seven important characters including the Ghost. He has made us aware of the domestic situation in the royal family, and through the Ghost's revelation he has caused us to realize that this is to be a play of revenge. Hamlet's plan to feign madness also creates suspense. In addition, Shakespeare has established the Fortinbras plot on the international scene with the dispatch of the ambassadors to Norway. We have also met Polonius and his family; Laertes departs for Paris but will return at a later date to play an important part. Hints are presented with regard to Ophelia and the romantic plot.

1. By reference to the main characters and various plots and episodes in it, show that Act I provides a sound introduction to the play.

Other questions:

1. How does Hamlet's soliloquy betray his melancholy?

2. What is the effect of Laertes' talk with Ophelia in Scene 3?

3. What is the significance of Polonius' advice to Laertes?

4. In scene 5, why is the ghost's reminder about his descent to Hell significant?

Act II sc.1

-This scene is divided into two parts: Polonius' instructions to Reynaldo to spy on Laertes and Ophelia's report of Hamlet's strange behaviour.

-This scene develops Polonius' character and creates suspense.

1. Describe and account for Hamlet's behaviour to Ophelia as she reports it to Polonius.

2. What change of mood occurs with Scene 1?

sc. 2

This scene, the longest in the play, develops with masterly skill to its climax in Hamlet's second soliloquy. The royal couple have invited Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out what is troubling Hamlet. Polonius is sure he knows what is troubling Hamlet. In his second soliloquy Hamlet blames himself for his failure to act, but all his energies are caught up in a plan to present before the King a play that will reproduce the circumstances of the elder Hamlet's murder.

1a. How does Polonius proceed to prove his theory about the cause of Hamlet's madness?

1b. What plan does he suggest in order to test it?

2. Show that Hamlet's soliloquy contributes to the plot, characterization, and atmosphere of the play.

Summary of Act II

As act II ends, the conflict between Hamlet and the King is becoming more sharply defined. Hamlet's madness has aroused the suspicion of Claudius, but he does not seem as yet unduly alarmed. His spies, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius are active, the last with his eavesdropping scheme. Hamlet, knowing what he knows about the Ghost and his antic disposition, is in a more favourable position than Claudius in this act. He too has his scheme, which he hopes will establish his uncle's guilt.

1. Show that Hamlet's supposed madness dominates Act II.

2. What evidence is there of his sanity?

3. "The attitude of Hamlet towards Ophelia is without doubt the greatest of all puzzles in the play, greater even than that of the delay itself." Describe the attitude referred to and state why it is a puzzle.

Act III sc. 1

-Hamlet's soliloquy suggests that despite his plan, he has lost the initiative.

-The King plans to send Hamlet to England.

-Polonius plans once again to spy on Hamlet.

1. With regard to Hamlet's soliloquy "To be or not to be" state the theme and summarize the content.

2a. Of what dramatic importance (to plot, characterization, and atmosphere) is Hamlet's interview with Ophelia?

2b. Why is it almost essential to assume either that Hamlet had overheard Polonius' plans, or that he became aware of the presence of both men?

sc. 2

-Hamlet establishes Claudius' guilt.

-After the play within the play, his excitement reaches a feverish pitch of intensity, but as yet there is no plan of action.

1. Why may the establishment of Claudius' guilt be considered the crisis of the revenge plot?

sc. 3

-Claudius takes steps to send Hamlet out of the country.

-The most absorbing aspect of the scene, however, is Hamlet's failure to take advantage of his opportunity.

1. Which may be regarded as the more logical crisis of the play: the King's revelation of his guilt in the preceding scene, or Hamlet's failure to kill him in this scene?

2a. Explain how Shakespeare creates sympathy for Claudius in this scene.

2b. Of what dramatic importance is this attempt to create sympathy?

3. How is Polonius' behaviour in this scene consistent with his previous actions?

4. Analyze Hamlet's reasons for not killing the King as presented in his speech.

sc. 4

-The murder of Polonius is considered by some critics to be the turning point of the play.

-The appearance of the Ghost emphasizes Hamlet's delay.

-Hamlet's ability to act impulsively is underlined in this scene; his failure to kill the King cannot be blamed merely on his habit of "thinking too precisely on the event".

-Gertrude's affection for her son is brought out here; she promises to keep his secret and appears much moved by his accusations.

1. What effect will the murder of Polonius have on the revenge plot?

2. Why does the ghost appear in this scene?

Summary of Act III

Hamlet's brutal rejection of Ophelia brings out the misogyny that is poisoning his nature. Hamlet's behaviour, certainly not that of an irresponsible madman, results in Claudius' decision to send this dangerous young man to England. Hamlet loses a perfect opportunity to kill the King. His failure here and his murder of Polonius give the King the advantage in their conflict. Suspense is marked at various points in the act, as the tension rises and falls and rises.

1. Of the three possible crises in Act III, which do you regard as the turning point of the play?

2. State concisely the importance of each of the following episode:

a)the Nunnery Scene (III i 90-150)

b)the Play Scene (III ii 94-291)

c)the Prayer Scene (III iii 36-98)

d)the Closet Scene (III iv 1-33)

e)the Portrait Scene (III iv 34-217)

Act IV sc. 1

Gertrude reports the murder of Polonius to Claudius, who is mor than ever determined to get rid of Hamlet at once.

sc. 2

This brief scene shows Hamlet's attitude towards the King's spies and reveals once more his antic disposition, adopted here to distract his former schoolfellows

sc. 3

The King is now desperately eager to get rid of Hamlet, whose life is a threat to Claudius' own. His plan for having Hamlet murdered on arrival in England is a clever device.

sc. 4

Fortinbras appears once again. This scene provides a dramatic contrast between a man of action and a man tormented by thought. One of the insoluble problems of the play is underlined by Hamlet's anguished cry: "I do not know/Why yet I live to say this thing's to do,/Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means/To do't."

1. What points of comparison and contrast are suggested between Fortinbras and Hamlet?

2. "Some craven scruple/Of thinking too precisely on the event." Comment on this phrase as providing the reason for Hamlet's delay.

sc. 5.

Ophelia is mad. We see a tremendous contrast between Laertes and Hamlet. Claudius is brave and bold.

sc. 6

The letter from Hamlet to Horatio provides surprise and creates suspense. The fact that the Prince has returned without the King's permission will certainly create trouble. Hamlet's account of his behaviour suggest that when occasion demanded, he could act with resolution.

sc. 7

Claudius presents a plan to Laertes to get rid of Hamlet. Laertes finds out that Ophelia is dead and is even more determined to get revenge. Claudius shows his devious, crafty nature. Ophelia's untimely end shows how Hamlet's failure to act is responsible for yet another death.

1. Show that the forces in opposition to Hamlet appear to have gained the upper hand.

Summary of Act IV

The first five scenes of Act IV present the consequences of the murder of Polonius: Hamlet's banishment, Ophelia's madness, and Laertes' return. Hamlet's soliloquy brings out the contrast between his inaction on the one hand and the energy and initiative of Fortinbras on the other.

Act V sc. 1

-This is the grave-diggers scene.

1. How does the scene bring out Hamlet's intellectual curiosity and his speculative powers?


-This scene present the climax and the catastrophe, as well as the outcome, of the tragedy.

1. How has the moral order prevailed?

2. What does the survival of Fortinbras and Horatio indicate?

Back to Hamlet Page