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Week Literary Interpretations and Intertextuality 2019

Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead


1 Introduction to Hamlet and Analysis of Act 1:
- Students to watch The Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of ‘Hamlet’ whilst following along with the play.
- Students to write down key plot points and additional notes on these key sections:
1. Hamlet converses with the Ghost (Act 1, Scene 5)
2. Hamlet sets a trap for Claudius (Act 2, Scene 2 and Act 3, Scene 2)
3. Hamlet confronts Gertrude and kills Polonius (Act 3, Scene 4)
4. Hamlet gains resolve and Laertes seeks revenge (Act 4, Scenes 4,5&7)
5. Hamlet Dies (Act 5, Scene 2)

Questions:
1. Contrast the attitudes towards the death of the old king as expressed by Claudius and Hamlet.
2. Compare the advice given to Ophelia by Laertes and that given by Polonius.

2 Hamlet (Analysis of Act 2):

Analyse the conflict between Appearance and Reality: Between Claudius’s “smiling villainy,” Hamlet’s alleged madness, and the ghost’s cryptic nature,
Hamlet is full of ambiguity. By the end of the play, every character except for Horatio believes that Hamlet has truly gone mad. Hamlet’s madness begins
as an act, but the question of whether his madness might be real has plagued readers since the play’s debut. The difficulty in discerning appearance
from reality can be further explored through the nature of the ghost. A major part of Hamlet’s inability to take revenge against Claudius rests in his own
uncertainty regarding the ghost’s claims. The untrustworthiness of appearances and the unknowability of reality limit Hamlet’s ability to act.

Discuss:
1. Do you think that Hamlet’s madness is real or feigned? How does Hamlet’s mental state inform how you read the play?
2. In what ways does Hamlet doubt the ghost’s reality? The ghost’s identity? How do Hamlet’s doubts about the ghost impact the way he
approaches his revenge? How does the play’s stance on revenge change when the ghost is considered from different perspectives?
3. How do different characters confront the conflict between appearances and reality? Is Hamlet’s judgment objective or subjective? What factors
influence his understanding of the characters around him?

Extended Response Questions:


1. Draw a character profile of Polonius from his interactions in this act with Reynaldo (Scene 1), Ophelia (Scene 1), Gertrude and Claudius (Scene 2),
Hamlet (Scene 2), and the Players (Scene 2).
2. Compare/contrast the relationship which the King and Queen have with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to the relationship which Hamlet has
with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as defined in Scene 2.
3.
Discussion of the Creative Assessment and Expectations
3 Hamlet (Analysis of Act 3):

Analyse Revenge as a theme: Revenge is the catalyst for the plot of Hamlet, and it is modelled in three different ways by Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras.
All three characters have lost a beloved father and are called upon to avenge them. Laertes and Fortinbras are quick to action, whereas Hamlet is not
totally convinced of the ghost’s claims and instead decides to obtain more tangible proof. The morality of murder and revenge is a frequent source of
angst for Hamlet, who has difficulty reconciling his own values with the gruesome task the ghost has given him.

Discuss:
1. Does the play advocate for or against revenge? Is Hamlet’s revenge successful? What does the play suggest makes someone a successful
avenger?
2. What evidence in the text suggests that revenge is cyclical? Do you think that the cycle will end with Hamlet? Why or why not?

Hamlet as a religiously conflicted character: Hamlet’s character and the conflicts he faces are deeply rooted in Christian beliefs. Furthermore, the play
situates his uncertainty about the ghost in the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, which Shakespeare’s contemporaries experienced
firsthand. Traditional Catholic doctrine affirmed the existence of purgatorial ghosts, which is what the ghost in Hamlet claims to be. Purgatorial ghosts
were spirits of the dead who could ask their families to give offerings or pray for them in order to reduce their time in purgatory, an intermediate state
between heaven and hell. However, Protestants rejected the doctrine of purgatory and believed that ghosts were mere manifestations of evil.
Furthermore, Protestants considered revenge itself to be at odds with Christian beliefs.

Discuss:
1. How is Hamlet’s sense of filial obedience at odds with his religious beliefs? How do religious values obstruct Hamlet’s pursuit of revenge? To
what extent can Hamlet be read as a play about resisting the temptations of sin?
2. How does Hamlet’s religious conflict echo the cultural landscape of Elizabethan England? How does this knowledge affect your reading of the
play?
3. How do other characters in Hamlet experience religious conflict? Consider Claudius as a Cain-like figure and Ophelia’s alleged suicide.

Extended Response Questions:


3. Discuss the thematic connection between Hamlet’s scene with Ophelia where he speaks of honesty, his speech to the Players on acting, and his
speech to Horatio on flattery.
4. Compare Claudius’ thoughts on his own guilt as he tries to pray to Gertrude’s recognition of her guilt when confronted by Hamlet.
5. Discuss the grouping of characters from scene to scene in Act III, beginning with a crowded stage in Scene 1 and ending with Gertrude alone in
Scene 4. What does Shakespeare achieve with the rapidly changing cast on stage as the action in this act unfolds?
4 Hamlet (Analysis of Acts 4&5):

Isolation as Theme: Hamlet begins as an emotionally isolated figure. He continues to mourn his father in the midst of a court that has moved on to
celebrating a wedding. His knowledge of his father’s murder serves to 1266 deepen this isolation, driving him to mistrust everyone except Horatio.
Ophelia’s abandonment, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s spying, and his mother’s marriage to Claudius leave Hamlet almost completely alone. Other
characters also experience their own forms of isolation, most notably Ophelia’s physically isolation as a result of her family’s insistence that she avoid
Hamlet. Even Claudius is mentally isolated by his knowledge of his “foul and most unnatural murder,” forced as he is to stew in private guilt.

Discuss:
1. What mental and physical factors contribute to Hamlet’s isolation? How might the story have gone differently if Hamlet had sought out allies
rather than isolating himself?
2. What factors contribute to Ophelia’s isolation? How is Ophelia’s story representative of the status of women in Elizabethan England?
3. Do you think there is a relationship between isolation and madness in the cases of Hamlet and Ophelia? Why or why not?

The Uncertainty of Death as Theme: Death pervades Hamlet, which begins with the murder of King Hamlet and ends with the deaths of all its principal
characters. Hamlet spends much of the play soliloquizing about suicide, held back by his uncertainty with regards to what lays beyond the “mortal coil.”
Symbols such as Yorick’s skull stand as a testament to Hamlet’s questions about death. In particular, Hamlet grapples with the meaning of life’s fleeting
attainments in the face of death’s mystery.

Discuss:
1. How do Hamlet’s views on death evolve throughout the play? To what extent has Hamlet accepted his own death by the end of the play?
2. How does religion influence the play’s portrayal of death?
3. What does Hamlet’s conversation with the First Clown in the Graveyard reveal about how different characters view death? What does Yorick’s
skull symbolize?

Extended Response Questions:


Act 4:
1. Trace the way Claudius tries to manipulate the following characters in this act in order to achieve his own ends: Gertrude, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, Hamlet, and Laertes.
2. Discuss the implications of Ophelia’s song lyrics. What do they suggest about her relationship with Hamlet, and her grief for her father, especially
as causes for her apparent madness?
Act 5:
1. Compare Claudius’ use of the “arranged” fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet to Hamlet’s use of “The Mousetrap,” and his rewriting of
the letters carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
2. Discuss the professions of love and grief expressed at Ophelia’s funeral by Laertes and Hamlet, as compared to similar scenes featuring Claudius,
in terms of their implications for the play’s outcome: who is honest, deserving, and just, among the play’s key players?