Hamlet as an Examination Text

Examiners want you to know the story, study the characters, know the dramatic form/type of play, think of the play as a piece for performance, understand the language and poetry within the text and understand the themes of the play.

Remember that the play is a text for interpretation in ACTION, so you need to concentrate on the dialogue, language, poetry, imagery in terms of how they aid the action.

The theme of the play is revealed through the characters and their interaction.

A level often asks for comment on "dramatic effectiveness", i.e. presenting the story and saying what the characters represent thematically. You may also be asked about "dramatic effectiveness", e.g. Hamlet is tragedy with COMEDY, you may be asked how well the comedy fits the piece, or you may be asked to comment on "revenge tragedy" and say how well Hamlet fits the genre.


How to approach preparation:

Through a SYNOPSIS, scene by scene, looking at



length of scene

features (what happens) and significance

In Act One, for example:


Sc i fear, mystery, foreboding, discussion of ghosts, occult as symbolic opening of play


Sc ii court scene, royal family, separateness of Hamlet, isolation, concerns of Claudius and Gertrude, first soliloquy and importance. Prepare all the soliloquies in detail as they are often key questions.


Question - Choose two soliloquies and discuss the importance of their presentation of dramatic themes and issues.

Sc iii Polonius family, loving concern (c.f. Royal "split" family), family characters, loving interference (which proves disastrous), Ophelia as alternative side to hamlet's character. Misinterpretation of Polonius with regard to Hamlet's behaviour is fatal.


Sc iv/v Ghost scenes, all characters wary of ghost

Having done the synopsis (in much more detail than here) study it and you will find that you have begun to find the A level questions.

In the first scenes you should "find", among others


The supernatural (corruption, illusion and reality, art and life)


Hamlet's development (from depression through to distraction)


The two families theme ( a common theme in Shakespeare's work. Both families linked by Hamlet's love for Ophelia and Polonius's position as chief courtier.)

In addition, as you work through the play you will find additional themes and question topics like "set scenes" and turning points. (See over.)


Set Scenes

Act 2 Sc 2 is the "cat and mouse" game between Hamlet and Claudius. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are brought in to spy, Polonius decides to "loose" Ophelia to Hamlet. Hamlet is trying to find out the truth


Question How does evil spread in Hamlet?

Act 3 Mousetrap scene (play within the play) A turning point. Hamlet goes past the point of no return. The actors are the only ones in court NOT controlled by Claudius, but by Hamlet. Acting style must be true to life to "catch the King". Hamlet finds out the truth by using Art, playing a game to reveal the truth. "O what a rogue" soliloquy summarises the idea of art/life. At this point the hunter (Claudius) becomes the hunted (by Hamlet)


Question - Everyone in the play seems to be playing a role. Discuss

Act 4 Two contrasts to Hamlet in characters of Laertes & Fortinbras. Examines nature of nobility & revenge - both men in contrast - Fortinbras represents direct action/honour (inheritance later as a result) Laertes is revenger and an extension of the evil of Claudius. Manipulated by Claudius and compromised by him.


Question - In Act 4 the hero leaves the stage and the action falls apart

Act 5 Graveyard scene. Theme mortality, death and life. On Hamlet's return we see a different hero "the readiness is all" Comedy here effective, used as relief. Also occurs elsewhere, e.g. Hamlet/Polonius, Hamlet/Osric


Question - How should it be played, type of question.

Other Themes

How the other characters elucidate Hamlet.

Look at how Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia interact with Hamlet, and how each of them affect him, and how he affects them.



How does Hamlet handle his role as an avenger? Look at Laertes and Fortinbras and compare them with Hamlet. Also remember to mention PHYRRUS, who is the "artificial" or "classical" example of revenger. (Player's speech) Hamlet has a burden as an avenger which he hasn't asked for and this is the "real" tragedy, not the hesitation which prevents him from carrying out the task.


Happy and unhappy families

Art and reality


Who is the "real" King? The "successful" head of state? Hamlet is the disappointed heir apparent, Laertes the "people's choice", Fortinbras the man of action and Claudius the flawed, corrupt manipulator.



General question "types" should be

Character questions. Look for the angles


Theme questions (good/evil, corruption, revenge)


Theatre/drama questions (how would you stage it?)


Role play


How to answer

Say something strong to start, stick to the point, answer what you are asked, detail your answer with reference to the text and plot, link to the themes and issues and remember to wind up with a strong final comment. Keep quotations short and relevant..

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope