Tag Archives: Hamlet

Hamlet – typical questions

It’s difficult to predict what questions will come up for the Shakespearean play. A couple of years ago a lot of multinational companies in Ireland complained that graduates were increasingly finding it difficult to critically analyse data – in other words, to think about large amounts of information and pick out what mattered. Simultaneously, concerns were raised about grade inflation – the number of people achieving high grades in school and college exams kept increasing. The population weren’t getting any cleverer, so the exams must be getting easier.

The examinations commission responded and as a result the more predictable (‘there’s always a character Q’ or ‘personal response’ in poetry) questions are disappearing. There is no need to despair however. You know plenty – you just need a strategy to pick out what matters on the day.

If you figure out how to do this then you’ll also have developed a skill that will last you a lifetime, and one which multinational corporations will be looking for when you graduate college and are looking for a job. So it’s not all a big waste of time even if it feels like that now!

First of all let’s look at the broad categories questions usually fall into.

  2. THEME
  3. OPEN
  4. STYLE

You must be able to discuss the following when it comes to characters:


  • his state of mind (mostly revealed in soliloquies)
  • his ‘madness’
  • his delay (procrastination)
  • his nobility (is he a good man?) / strengths & weaknesses
  • a tragic hero or an anti-hero?
  • his relationship with Claudius (the struggle between them)
  • his relationship with women (Gertrude & Ophelia) & treatment of them

CLAUDIUS  (a good king? a villain? or an admirable villain?)

GERTRUDE (a good mother despite her flaws? a negative portrayal of women?)

OPHELIA (an innocent victim or a weak and foolish girl? a negative portrayal of women?)

I seriously doubt (please don’t let this come back to haunt me) they’ll ask you to discuss one of the minor characters like Polonius or Horatio, but be able to write one paragraph on each as they would be relevant in discussing good versus evil or loyalty and betrayal. You also need to be able to write one paragraph on Fortinbras and one on Laertes for the theme of revenge.

The major themes in the play are:

  • Revenge (and justice)
  • Good versus Evil
  • Loyalty & Betrayal
  • Appearance versus Reality (Deception)
  • Power & Corruption
  • Death
  • Love

For each theme – no matter what the wording – ask yourself

  1. WHO does this theme apply to?
  2. HOW / WHY does this character have to deal with this issue?
  3. Do they CHANGE over the course of the play?
  4. Are there any SCENES which highlight this theme specifically?
  5. What are our FINAL IMPRESSIONS of this issue?

Asking these questions – and being able to come up with answers yourself – is what critical analysis is all about. Also, anything you take the time to figure out for yourself sticks in your brain. Reading someone else’s ideas just isn’t quite the same!

Open questions ask you to discuss the entire play – not the plot, but your experience of watching/studying the play.

  • Favourite / most dramatic scene.
  • Relevance to a modern audience.
  • Although Hamlet is a tragedy, it is a play with many memorable comic moments – discuss.
  • Hamlet is a dark, depressing and pessimistic play – discuss.

Style questions are quite difficult and pretty rare in the new course (so far) – they ask you to look at how the play is written.

  • Language & imagery.
  • Dramatic function of various characters (how they make the plot more compelling).

No matter how the question is phrased on the day, you must stay calm. Keep using the words from the question and synonyms.

Write down the 5 key Q’s – 1. WHO? 2. HOW/WHY? 3. CHANGE? 4. SCENES? 5. FINAL IMPRESSIONS?

You must quickly plan your 6 paragraphs.

As you are writing, if one paragraph gets too long, turn it into two, no big deal.

Beware of just starting to write and writing until the hour is up (writing whatever comes into your head without doing any planning). This stream of consciousness approach tends to lead to waffle, plot summary and lots of irrelevant information which has nothing to do with the question.

Keep the question in your mind at all times as you write. Remember you must demonstrate that the information you are including is relevant to the question being asked.

If any of the questions above freak you out why not try to figure out what you might discuss now, rather than on the day? You don’t have to write the full essay, you could just plan your 6 paragraphs and think about what quotes you might include.

Good luck!

Hamlet plot & some other downloads.

Here’s an easy way to remember the order of events. It’s a montage of the major incidents in the play.

Download it here: Hamlet montage

You may also want to download samples for how to write introductions which respond directly to the Q asked (very very important to do this).

Download here: Hamlet sample introductions

I’ve also prepared a grid looking at whether or not Hamlet (the character rather than the play) can be considered ‘good’ but grids don’t appear properly so download it instead.

Download here: Hamlet – a noble man?

Hope the study’s going well and not driving you all demented!


As with the other posts on Claudius and Gertrude, this is a summary of Ophelia’s main appearances in the play. It is not an interpretation of her character – you have to make up your own mind. Is she a person we admire or pity? Why? Is she limited in what she can say and do because she is a woman living in Shakespearean times and thus must obey the men in her life? (If we judge her for being weak we are assuming she is free to act differently) Is she a good daughter? A good girlfriend to Hamlet? Does she deliberately hurt those around her? Do they hurt her? How does she respond? Does she deserve the suffering she goes through in the play? Does she deserve the way she dies?

Act 1, scene 3 Laertes & Polonius warn her off Hamlet.

  •  When Laertes warns her to guard her virtue and protect her reputation and virginity “Be wary then best safety lies in fear” Ophelia shows a lively spirit and a quick mind in her response “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven whiles…himself the primrose path of dalliance treads“. )Here she teases her brother for being a hypocrite).
  • Ophelia attempts to defend Hamlet “My lord he hath importuned me with love in honourable fashion” even though her father suggests that Hamlet’s love for her isn’t genuine and ridicules her naiveity “Affection, pooh! You speak like a green girl“.
  • She gives in quite easily when Polonius forbids her from seeing Hamlet again “I shall obey my lord“. A modern audience may expect her to (in the words of Cheryl Cole) fight fight fight fight fight for this love but this was unheard of in Shakepearean times when women were completely dependent on first their fathers and later their husbands for literally everything – food, clothes, shelter, security. They didn’t dare disobey. Even expressing an opinion here was brave on Ophelia’s part.
  • The dramatic function of this scene is to emphasise that yet another person is betraying Hamlet and at the moment when he needs her the most – he cannot turn to his mother, his father is dead and now the last person he is close to (his girlfriend) is about to turn her back on him too. We don’t necessarily blame her; nonetheless Hamlet has our sympathy as a result of her poorly timed rejection of him.

Act 2. scene 1  Ophelia describes Hamlet’s bizarre behaviour when he visited her in her chambers.

  • Ophelia describes Hamlet’s visit – his clothes were untidy “his doublet all unbraced“, he appeared deeply sad and distressed “with a look so piteous in purport as if he had been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors” and seemed unsure of Ophelia “he took me by the wrist and held me hard…he falls to such persual of my face as he would draw it” and then turned away but did not confide in her “he raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being“. We wonder why she didn’t follow him as he left, or make a greater effort to discover the cause if his misery – if someone you loved behaved like this would you not do everything you could to find out what was troubling them, so that you could help end their misery and distress?
  • Ophelia reveals that she has broken off their relationship “as you did command I did repel his letters and denied his access to me“. Her use of the word command implies that she didn’t feel she had a choice. Her concern following his visit shows that she cares for him and did not intentionally add to his suffering. This scene also convinces us that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is genuine but he is no longer sure that he can trust her – or any woman – because of his mother’s actions and because of Ophelia’s rejection of him.

Act 3, scene 1 The Nunnery Scene

  • Ophelia is told how to behave when Hamlet appears “Walk you here…Read on this book” . Iit is probably unfair to judge her for ‘going along’ with this plan to use her as bait because she was mosly likely never consulted – she is but a pawn in a game of chess being played by her father & Claudius (as a woman & the King’s subject she must obey).
  • Any hesitations she has are probably balanced out by her desire to see Hamlet again and her hope that her father is right – that Hamlet is lovesick – because if this is true, then there is a possibility that they can be reunited, if only to cure Hamlet of his melancholy and madness. (In her mind this is probably her best chance of getting her father to approve of them as a couple).
  • Ophelia rejects Hamlet a second time by trying to return the gifts he gave her when they were together (imagine how hurt you’d be if your ex did this, as though your entire relationship meant nothing). She defends this saying “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind” implying that she once treasured these love tokens but now – because of Hamlet’s ‘unkindness’ – no longer sees them in the same light. This seems highly unfair to Hamlet. After all, she broke up with him and his unkindness towards her now (“Get thee to a nunnery“) springs from the pain of her rejection. He is deeply insulted that she thought so little of him (that he was only after her virginity) so easily (just because her father and brother said so) and this is why he makes jokes about her chastity (“I’ll give thee this plague for a dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow“). He also starts to believe that all women are this fickle and untrustworthy “wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them”God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another“. He also seems to know that Polonius is spying on them – in his mind further proof that women cannot be trusted, as she seems to be helping the ‘enemy’!
  • Despite his cruel words and erratic behaviour, Ophelia refuses to think badly of Hamlet – the Hamlet she knows would never treat her like this. Again we sense that these are two star-crossed lovers torn apart by circumstances and misunderstandings yet truly in love and meant to be together.  Ophelia opts instead to believe that he is mad “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” “O woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, to see what I see”.

Act 3, scene 2 The Player’s Play

  • Ophelia remains calm despite Hamlet’s lewd sexual innuendos “Lady shall I lie in your lap?” “Did you think I meant country matters“. It is almost as if he is deliberately acting like a Lothario (a man who seduces women) to make fun of her belief that that’s the kind of man he is. Remember though, she only began to think this because her father put this thought in her head and now it’s possible that his behaviour is confirming for Ophelia that he really is like this!

Act 4, scene 5 Ophelia’s madness

  • Gertrude reluctantly agrees to speak to Ophelia, who enters, obviously mad, singing love songs. Her father has been murdered by the man she loves and her mind cannot cope with the horror of what has happened “I would give you some violets but they withered all when my father died“. She has moments of sanity where she contemplates the heartbreaking reality of burying her father “I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him ‘i the cold ground“.

Act 4, scene 7 & Act 5, scene 1 Ophelia’s death and funeral

  • The description of her death is one of the most haunting & poignant in all of literature and has inspired many famous paintings. Even the hardest of hearts melts with pity to hear how this beautiful innocent creature met her end “Her clothes spread wide and mermaid like awhile they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds as one incapable of her own distress“. The dramatic function of this description is to emphasise how damaging Hamlet’s delay has been for all concerned.
  • The tributes paid to Ophelia at her graveside remind the audience that she was essentially a pawn in a game she neither asked to play nor understood. Gertrude laments what could have been “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” , Laertes emphasises her innocence “Lay her ‘i th’ earth, and from her fair and unpolluted flesh let violets spring” (He blames Hamlet for her death because his murder of Polonius is what drove her mad) and Hamlet, blinded by grief and rage that he might be held responsible proclaims “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum“.

Ophelia’s dramatic function in the play is to do the following:

  1. Illustrate how powerless women were in Elizabethan times, living in a male-dominated society where men had absolute control over their wives and daughters.
  2. Emphasise Hamlet’s absolute isolation – if he cannot trust her, can he trust anyone?
  3. Remind us how easily true love can be destroyed, through circumstances and misunderstandings.
  4. Show how easily innocent people can get caught up in external political events and end up dead, particularly if those in power are corrupt.
  5. Highlight the tragic consequences of Hamlet’s inaction.

Now you need to organise this information into 6 coherent paragraphs

  • First look at Ophelia’s manipulation by her father and brother and how this relates to her position as a woman in this era.
  •  Examine her rejection of Hamlet & reaction when he visits her.
  • Next analyse her interaction with Hamlet in the nunnery scene and before the play.
  • Fourthly look at her madness.
  • Fifthly look at the impact of her death on the audience – the imagery used is designed to arouse our sympathy.
  • Finally discuss the tributes paid to her by other characters.


As with the post on Claudius, this is a summary of Gertrude’s main appearances in the play. It is not an interpretation of her character – you have to make up your own mind. Is she a person we admire or despise? Why? Are there moments when she redeems herself? Is she a good mother? A good wife? Is she guilty of the crimes her son accuses her of – adultery? incest? murder? (remember our understanding of incest differs from that of a Shakespearean audience). Does she show remorse for her crimes? Does she try to protect those she loves? (Hamlet / Claudius). Does she deserve to die in the horrific manner that she does?

Act 1, scene 2 First impressions

  • Gertrude seems genuinely concerned for her son but is also eager for him to accept her marriage to Claudius “Cast thy nighted colour off and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark”. This desire to ‘move on’ makes her insensitive to her son’s genuine grief.
  • Hamlet feels that her hasty remarriage is an absolute betrayal of his father’s memory “a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer” and proof that women’s love is fickle “frailty thy name is woman“. Hamlet accuses her of being guilty of both adultery and incest (she prob is). Disgust at Gertrude’s weakness and disloyalty dominates Hamlet’s mind and soul and is the primary cause of his depression. Is he being too hard on her?

Act 1, scene 5 The ghost’s visit

  • The ghost desribes Gertrude as “my most seeming virtuous queen” and reveals that – in his opinion – Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius was based on lust not love. There is no conclusive proof that Gertrude and Claudius were involved in an adulterous relationship before the King was murdered but it would certainly explain a lot – their hasty remarriage, Gertrude’s guilt later on hen Hamlet accuses her of sinning and Claudius’ indifference to her death (perhaps he was just using her all along and seduced her while his brother was still alive to ensure that he gained the throne once he murdered the King.)
  • Despite his hurt that Gertrude grew tired of him “O Hamlet! What a falling off was there”  (who wouldn’t choose bad boy Claudius over a sap that worries if the wind blows too roughly in your face? Sounds to me like Gertrude just wanted a bit of rough. But don’ phrase it like this in your exam!) the Ghost obviously still loves Gertrude, ordering his son not to punish her “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven“.

Act 2, scene 2 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern arrive

  • Gertrude hopes that R&G can help discover the root cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness. She seems genuinely concerned about her “too much changed son” and recognises the part she may have played in prolonging his despair “I doubt it is no other but the main/his father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage”.
  • There is a hint here that she views her former husbands death as a natural event – she talks of his death, not his murder. This suggests that she had nothing to do with it and possibly does not know that Claudius killed King Hamlet.

Act 3, scene 1 The Nunnery Scene

  • Gertrude again shows motherly concern. She quizes R&G asking if they managed to cheer him up.
  • She is full of hope that Ophelia can bring him back to his senses “so shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted way again” Although it seems wrong that she would go along with spying on her , she is son she is desperate to find some way to help him. Imagine if you caught your mother reading your diary? You’d find it hard to forgive her, but then again if she thought you were suicidal and was desperate to find out why so that she could help you, you might just forgive her.
  • When Polonius comes up with yet another spying plan “let the queen mother all alone entreat him to show his grief” Gertrude is not present. This is significant because Shakespeare wants us to see Gertrude as someone who despite her flaws is still looking out for her son rather than plotting and scheming against him. Is she weak for going along with the plan? Possibly, but again she is desperate to build bridges and to help her son.

Act 3, scene 2 The Player’s Play

  • Gertrude stays calm during the play despite hearing lines like “In second husband let me be accurst, noe wed the second but who killed the first”. When Hamlet asks “How like you this play Madam” she responds “The lady doth protest too much me thinks” to which he resonds cruelly “O, but she’ll keep her word”. Despite the public embarrassment she does not react, suggesting perhaps that she has nothing to hide.

Act 3, scene 4 Murder of Polonius

  • Gertrude expects Hamlet to treat her with respect (“have you forgot me?”) not contempt (“You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, and would it were not so, you are my mother“).
  • She actually believes he might kill her “Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho“.  Her panicked screams cause Polonius to also shout for help, which results in Hamlet stabbing the mystery person who’s hiding.
  • Gertrude is shocked “O what a rash and bloody deed is this” and then confused by Hamlet’s reply “A bloody deed, almost as bad, good mother, as kill a King and marry with his brother” to which she responds “As kill a King?”. Here we have confirmation that she had nothing to do with King Hamlet’s murder “What have I done?” “What act?” and truly believed that he died of natural causes.
  • When Hamlet presents her with two pictures – one of King Hamlet, one of Claudius – and asks how she could have chosen the lesser man, she begs him to stop “O Hamlet, speak no more, thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul“. He accuses her of letting her lust/passion/desires overcome her common sense “Nay but to live in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed” and again she is ashamed “No more, sweet Hamlet“.
  • Gertrude is deeply concerned about her son when the ghost appears “O gentle son… whereon do you look?
  • Hamlet begs her to repent her sins and reject Claudius but she cannot bear the idea of being forced to choose between her son and her lover/husband “O Hamlet thou hast left my heart in twain” despite the fact that she now knows what Claudius did (maye she thinks he did it so that they could be together? We think he did it to gain power).
  • As the sene ends she agrees to help her son “What shall I do?” and when Hamlet asks her not to reveal that his madness is just an act she promises to keep his secret “I have no life to breathe what thou hast said to me

Act 4, scene 1

  • Gertrude covers for Hamlet when she describes the murder of Polonius to Claudius, claining that her son is “mad as the sea and wind“. 

Act 4, scene 5 Ophelia’s madness

  • Gertrude reluctantly agrees to see Ophelia after initially saying “I will not speak with her“. Perhaps she cannot bear to see the pain her son has caused through his murder of Polonius.
  • She is filled with foreboding. Every event seems a sign that some great disaster is imminent “to my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is, each toy seems prologue to some great amiss”. Here Gertrude again recognises that she has sinned – she is probably referring to adultery and incest.
  • She remains loyal to Claudius in spite of all that Hamlet has told her. She allows her emotions (love) to take precedence over her sense of right and wrong (she should be morally outraged and disgusted by what he has done). When she hears a mob outside calling for Laertes to become King she is outraged “O! this is counter you false Danish dogs“. When Laertes enters she tries to keep him calm and then tries to physically restrain him from attacking Claudius. She is terrified that Laertes will kill Claudius before they get a hance to tell him that Claudius did not kill Polonius.

Act 4, scene 7 Ophelia’s death

  • Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death and there is a poetic beauty in her tragic words “There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke; When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide; And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up: Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes; As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element: but long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death”.
  • Gertrude seems deeply distressed and repeats the words “drowned, drowned” sadly. Here we see a sharp contrast between Gertrude’s genuine sadness & Claudius’ selfish response which endears her to us.

Act 5, scene 1 Ophelia’s funeral

  • Gertrude’s genuine grief is again evident “Sweets to the sweet, farewell! I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife”
  • She again tries to protect her son by explaining away his attack on Leartes saying “this is mere madness“.

Act 5, scene 2 Final scene

  • Gertrude hopes Hamlet will win his fencing match against Laertes – she wipes his brow, then drinks to his health, accidently drinking from the poisoned cup.
  • Claudius’ pathetic attempt to save her life makes us feel deep sympathy for her It seems she truly loved him whilst he loves only himself.
  • Her final deed in the play is to try to save her son’s life “the drink, the drink – o my dear Hamlet – …. I am poisoned

Now you need to organise this information into 6 coherent paragraphs.

  • You could begin by discussing our first impressions of her – she is accused of adultery, incest and a hasty remarriage which implies a betrayal of her first husband’s memory. She is initially insensitive to Hamlet’s grief.
  • You could then discuss the Ghost’s view of her and her inability to see what kind of man Claudius truly is. Yet there must be something to love in her (the Ghost still loves her and despite everything that has happened so does her son).
  • You could then look at the evidence of her motherly concern which is clear throughout the play -through all the spying plots & particularly after he murders Polonius.
  • Look at how she reacts when Hamlet confronts her – she is not guilty of murder, but admits to her sins and is tortured by them. She is racked by guilt (prob for incest/adultery/betrayal) and shows genuine remorse.
  • Gertrude’s humanity shines through in her compassionate reaction to Ophelia’s madness and death.
  • Finish examine the final scene: look at how she pays the ultimate price for her inability to see her man for who he truly is. She dies.


This is just a summary of Claudius’ main appearances in the play but you need to make up your own mind about his character.  Is he purely a villain? Does he have any redeeming features? Are there moments when you admire him? Is he a good king? A good husband? What motivates him as a person? What are our final impressions of him?

Act 1, scene 2

  • Claudius addresses the Danish court and although he claims to be filled with grief because of his “dear brother’s death” we immediately feel his hasty marriage to Gertrude “our sometime sister now our queen” is inappropriate.
  • He handles the threat from Fortinbras of Norway in a peaceful /diplomatic way, sending ambassadors to the King (Fortinbras’uncle) insisting he control his nephew.
  • He seems too eager to please: “What wouldst thou have Laertes?” especially when it comes to getting Hamlet on side “my cousin Hamlet and my son”.
  • Claudius is deeply insensitive towards Hamlet’s grief and has the audacity to suggest that Hamlet is insulting God by not accepting his father’s death “tis unmanly grief, it shows a will most incorrect to heaven” (we later learn that Claudius is the one who has actually challenged God’s power over life and death).
  • He is clever in his attempts to get Hamlet on side – he announces publicly “you are the most immediate to our throne”. We know it is unlikely that Hamlet will ever accept Claudius despite Claudius’ request to “think of us as of a father”.
  • He is determined to keep up appearances that all is well but comes across as false & irritatingly good humoured – when Hamlet says “I shall in all my best obey you madam” Claudius says with forced merriment “Why tis a loving and a fair reply
  • He obeys the rule of all tyrants – keep your friends close and your enemies closer – by asking Hamlet not to return to college in Wittenburg “remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye”. Claudius phrases it as a request but Hamlet has to obey.
  •  The contrast between the dead King Hamlet (“he was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again”) and the new King (“no more like my father than I to Hercules”) upsets Hamlet greatly.

Act 1, scene 5

  • We hear indirectly of Claudius’ crime from the ghost. There are echoes of the garden of Eden when the ghost describes his murder in the orchard “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown”. Claudius is referred to by the ghost as “garbage” & “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” who “won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming virtuous queen”.

Act 2, scene 2

  • Claudius again appears as a skilful liar. He sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so they can spy on Hamlet. He pretends to be concerned and baffled as to what is upsetting him “What it should be, more than his father’s death…I cannot dream of”. He is phoney and patronising “welcome dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…we much did long to see you” .
  • He  is sceptical of Polonius’ explanation of Hamlet’s madness (he is lovesick) but goes along with Polonius’ plan to spy on a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet.

Act 3, scene 1

  • Claudius suggests that Hamlet may be a danger with his “turbulent and dangerous lunacy” and concludes that “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go”.
  • We get our first glimpse of Claudius’ humanity. Polonius comments that it is easy to cover the truth & “suger o’er the devil himself” & Claudius reflects “how smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience” . His guilt is a “heavy burden”.
  • Having watched Hamlet with Ophelia Claudius is clever enough to realise that Hamlet is not lovesick, or crazy “Love? His affections do not that way tend, nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness. There’s something in his soul o’er which his melancholy sits on brood”.
  • He wants to send Hamlet away to England but Polonius convinces him not to. Instead, Gertrude will confront Hamlet while Polonius eavesdrops (spy plot 3!)

Act 3, scene 2 – the Player’s Play

  • Claudius is exposed. He says very little in this scene but briefly tries to stop the performance “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in it?” and changes the subject “what do you call the play” but when this fails he storms out.
  • We hear from R & G that he is “marvellous distempered” following the play.

Act 3, scene 3 – Prayer Scene

  • Claudius again reveals his more human side. Rather than offering us a completely evil ‘villain’, Shakespeare shows us a glimpse of his inner turmoil “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven”. He realises that he cannot gain forgiveness for as long as he still possesses the advantages he gained from committing the crime “my crown, mine own ambition and my queen”. He pleads with heaven for comfort “o wretched state! O bosom black as death!…help angels
  • Ironically, Hamlet postpones killing Claudius because he wants him to suffer for all eternity “trip him that his heels may kick at heaven” . Hamlet leaves & Claudius then reveals that he hasn’t been able to truly repent & thus hasn’t been forgiven “my words fly up my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go”. Claudius has been extremely fortunate – if it weren’t for the circumstances Hamlet would have murdered him (& sort of tries to in next scene)

Act 4, scene 1 & 3

  • Our brief sympathy for Claudius is quickly extinguished. Despite Polonius being his chief adviser, his reaction to Polonius’ murder is selfish relief that it wasn’t him that was killed “O heavy deed! It had been so with us, had we been there”.
  • Claudius now has the perfect excuse to send Hamlet away. He knows that Hamlet is popular and so doesn’t punish Hamlet himself for fear of negative publicity “yet must not we put the strong law upon him, he’s loved of the distracted multitude”.
  • His order that Hamlet be killed upon arrival in England will solve the greatest obstacle to Claudius retaining power and ensure his crime remains undetected “do it England for like the hectic in my blood he rages and thou must cure me” .

Act 4, scene 5

  • Ophelia’s madness is revealed and Claudius lists their woes “O Gertrude, Gertrude! When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions”. “First her father slain, next your son gone and he most violent author of his own just remove; the people muddied… poor Ophelia divided from herself and her fair judgement…her brother is in secret come from France” but his main concern is that people would believe he had something to do with Polonius’ death.
  • He courageously faces down Laertes’ accusations “o thou vile king, give me my father” & ironically finds comfort in the idea that as God’s representative on earth God will protect him “Let him go Gertrude, do not fear our person, there’s such divinity doth hedge a king that treason can but peep to what it would” . Laertes is difficult to calm “t0 hell allegiance…I dare damnation” & Claudius again uses his talent for flattery to win him over, “Good Laertes…why now you speak like a good child and a true gentleman…I am guiltless of your father’s death” urging him to distinguish between friend & foe “where th’ offence is let the great axe fall”.

Act 4, scene 7

  • Laertes demands an explanation why Claudius has not punished Hamlet for murdering Polonius. Claudius uses Hamlet’s popularity “the great love the general gender bear him” and Gertrude “she is so conjunctive to my life and soul, that as the star moves not but in his sphere I could not but by her” as excuses.
  • Claudius receives news that Hamlet has escaped the ship & returned to Denmark.
  • Claudius uses emotional blackmail to manipulate Laertes “was your father dear to you? Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart?” “What would you undertake to show yourself your father’s son in deed more than words?” (Laertes replies “to cut his throat i’ th’ church”).
  • The entire plan to challenge Hamlet to a duel, to poison the tip and the poisoned cup is dreamed up by Claudius but Leartes goes along with it because Claudius has convinced him that this will be proof of his devotion to his dead father.
  • Claudius’ reaction to Ophelia’s death is irritation. He fears it will provoke Laertes “How much I had to do to calm his rage! Now I fear this will give it start again

Act 5, scene 1

  • Claudius is eager to separate Hamlet and Laertes “pluck them asunder” and to keep Laertes calm “o he is mad Laertes” because he doesn’t want their plan to be ruined. He wants Hamlet’s death to seem like an accident.

Act 5, scene 2

  • Claudius makes only a very feeble attempt to save the Queen’s life “Gertrude do not drink” and then tries to distract attention from her when she collapses “she swoons to see them bleed”. Claudius clings to life until the very end “O yet defend me friends, I am but hurt”.

Now think about how you might organise this information into 6 paragraphs of information.

  • You might begin with your first impressions of him. Act 1, scene 2.
  • Then you might discuss the scene where Hamlet meets the Ghost of his dead father and how the audience are heavily influenced by the vivid description of his horrific crimes (regicide, incest, adultery). From the very beginning of the play we are seeing events through Hamlet’s eyes. Once the ghost clarifies what really happened we find it hard to escape our impression of Claudius as a murderous usurper.
  • In your third paragraph you might discuss the steps he takes to find out how much Hamlet knows. He’s a clever actor who plays the part of concerned uncle very well when he summons R&G. He’s also remarkably calm under pressure during the Murder of Gonzago.
  • Next discuss his aside (How smart a lash) and the Prayer scene which offers evidence that he has a conscience and think about the effect this has on the audience’s sympathy for him. However balance that against the fact that he doesn’t confess OR give up the fruits of his crimes.
  • In your fifth paragraph look at the completely selfish reaction to the deaths of Polonius (his chief advisor), Ophelia, and Gertrude (his wife and think about how this influenes our view of him.
  • Finally discuss the Machiavellian ruthlessness revealed in his emotional manipulation of Laertes. To say we admire him seems strange but in a way we do admire his evil genius – his determination, his intelligence, his practical decisive nature – even though we cannot approve of the way he uses these talents for evil rather than for good.