SUBJECTS — Drama/England;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Revenge, Fighting, Grieving;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring.
AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating — PG; Drama; 1990; 135 minutes; Color.
Available from Amazon.com.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
This is an accessible version of Shakespeare’s classic. Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Hamlet is strong and full of life. The action of the play is easy to follow and moves quickly. The costumes, artistic design, and scenery are rich and beautiful.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: Academy Award nominations for Art Direction and Costume Design.
Featured Actors: Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Dillane, and Nathaniel Parker.
Director: Franco Zeffirelli.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“Hamlet” is probably the greatest play ever written. The interpretation suggested by this Learning Guide emphasizes Shakespeare’s message about the moral and practical pitfalls of revenge. This analysis maximizes the play’s relevance to teenagers by prompting them to work out their own feelings about “payback” (revenge). The background and discussion questions in this Guide will introduce the process of critical thinking about great works of literature.
For an introductory handout, setting the stage for watching the play, click here.
MINOR. The last scene involves the poisoning of the Queen, Hamlet and Laertes, and Hamlet’s “belated” dispatch of Claudius (the King) with a sword. The death throes of Gertrude, the Queen, may be disturbing to sensitive children.
There is sexual tension between Hamlet and Gertrude, his mother. The director intended this and it is part of the interpretation of the play. Hamlet and Gertrude’s conduct is only slightly inappropriate in some scenes, involving tender embraces and kissing. However, in the bedroom scene Hamlet loses his temper and taunts Gertrude about her sexual relationship with Claudius. He lies on top of her and humps to mock them. There is some minor violence between them. They kiss on the mouth.
There is some carousing but it is not a major part of the movie.
Most high school students read this play and the film helps them access the language and understand the themes. It is appropriate to see the film prior to reading the play or while it is being read, as long as watching the movie does not serve as a substitute for reading. Before watching the movie, set the scene for your child and tell him or her about the law of unintended consequences (whether or not what you do has the effect you intend, it will have consequences that you don’t expect and therefore don’t intend). The Helpful Background section offers a concise interpretation of the play which is relevant to many teenagers. After the movie, ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Questions.
There is a reason why this play is the most famous in the English language. If your child gets into it, go over as many of the Discussion Questions as you can.
“Hamlet” shows what the loss of a loved one does to four different people. By comparing what happens to each of them, we can discover at least some of what Shakespeare is trying to tell us in this play. Much of it is about revenge.
Gertrude, the Queen, does not express her grief at the loss of her husband through normal mourning. She allows herself to be taken up by a new husband and involved in a new relationship. Note that Gertrude had many reasons to marry the new King. In the Middle Ages an aristocratic lady whose husband died, even a queen, suffered a substantial loss of status. Marrying Claudius allowed Gertrude to retain her status as Queen of Denmark. There was also a tradition, dating back to the Bible, in which a surviving brother would take up the wife of a deceased brother. Psychologically, marrying Claudius allows Gertrude to avoid facing her grief at the tremendous loss that she has suffered. But most importantly, Gertrude seems to love Claudius and be genuinely happy in her new marriage.
Ophelia’s life is destroyed when Hamlet murders Polonius. Loving her father, she cannot forgive Hamlet for killing him. Loving Hamlet, she cannot hate him or take revenge upon him. Ophelia has no place to go for emotional support and is unable to find an outlet for her various and conflicting griefs. Her pent up emotions weigh her down and she sinks, literally and figuratively, to her death.
Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, has an outlet for his grief. He seeks revenge, eagerly conspiring with Claudius against Hamlet. In the duel, Laertes’ own instrument of revenge, the poisoned sword, is turned against him. (He drops it and Hamlet picks it up. Not knowing the sword is poisoned, Hamlet begins to use it and pricks Laertes.) The unintended consequence of Laertes’ act of revenge is his own death. (In this way Laertes’ fate is similar to that of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo avenges Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt. Killing Tybalt leads inexorably to Romeo’s death and that of Juliet. While Romeo’s death is not immediately caused by his instrument of revenge, his act of revenge sets in motion the chain of events that, in the end, causes his death.)
The law of unintended consequences holds that whether or not what you do has the effect you intend, it will have consequences that you don’t expect and therefore consequences that you don’t intend. Some unintended consequences can be very unpleasant.
The law of unintended consequences applies with special force to acts of revenge for three reasons. First, in any person’s life, acts of revenge are infrequent. Experience is an excellent teacher. If we have little experience with an action, our anticipation of the consequences will be less accurate than if we have taken the action frequently in the past. Second, revenge usually affects a number of people, either directly or indirectly. Everyone is different and when other people are affected by our actions, there is an increased risk that we won’t accurately predict how they’ll react. Third, revenge is often taken in a rage or a fit of passion. Our actions are often not well considered when we are in such a state. Therefore, the risk that we’ll fail to anticipate some of the consequences is increased.
Hamlet’s loss, like Ophelia’s, is more than simply the loss of a father. The murderer is his uncle and then Hamlet’s mother allies herself with the murderer in the most intimate way. Hamlet is tortured by these circumstances. But unlike Ophelia, he has a potential outlet in action.
Hamlet finds disaster when he tries to follow the Ghost’s demand for quick revenge. Polonius, rather than the King, is behind the curtain. The killing of Polonius sets in motion the events that seal Hamlet’s fate, motivating Laertes to kill Hamlet and making it clear to Claudius that Hamlet is a threat to his power. The attempt at simple revenge, even after the positive proof of Claudius’ guilt at the play, makes Hamlet, like Romeo and Laertes, subject to the law of unintended consequences.
One of the central questions of the play is why Hamlet delays in killing Claudius. Many people have advanced theories to explain why Hamlet’s urge for revenge is blocked. Some say that Hamlet is an intellectual neurotic who cannot act. Others say that his Oedipal conflicts block him. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of theories. But perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in what is blocking Hamlet. Actually, Hamlet did try, fairly early in the play, to take revenge on the King. He not only failed, but he killed another man and isolated himself forever from the woman he loved. (He also set in motion the chain of events that would lead to his death. But he didn’t know this until the very end of the play.) So, the question is not why didn’t Hamlet act, the question is why did Hamlet wait to try to take revenge a second time? The answer is that he learned from his first attempt at revenge that revenge itself is evil. Hamlet cannot act until the killing of Claudius is necessary to save the state and revenge is only a secondary motive.
Just before Hamlet takes the action we’ve all been waiting for, the King allows Gertrude, the only person for whom he has any affection, to drink the poisoned wine. In order to save the Queen, Claudius would have had to admit the conspiracy against Hamlet and his own guilt. When Laertes discloses that Claudius is to blame for the killings, the King is revealed as an evil person who will continue to corrupt others and cause their deaths, just as he had done to Laertes and the Queen. The killing of the King is now an execution, an act that is necessary for the good of society as a whole.
Laertes takes revenge upon Hamlet for the death of his father. Like Hamlet’s attempt at revenge that led to the death of Polonius, Laertes’ action is rash and poorly thought out but also taken under great provocation. Laertes is remorseful, and we agree with this remorse because Hamlet’s killing of his father, even when considered the indirect cause of Ophelia’s death, did not justify full retribution.
But no one feels the need for an apology when Hamlet kills Claudius. In fact, it’s a point of catharsis, a great relief. Would we have felt this way had Hamlet not kept his revenge waiting and had killed the King just after the scene with the Players? (Shakespeare gives him an opportunity while Claudius is praying.) Would we have felt this way if, immediately after killing Polonius, Hamlet went after the King? Claudius is not a bad ruler and, until the last scene, he is a loving husband. Claudius is tortured by the crime by which he became king. Had Hamlet killed Claudius early in the play, we would have felt some sympathy for the King while Hamlet would have been just another angry son avenging the death of his father.
Hamlet waits and attains the status of hero because, learning from the killing of Polonius, he won’t kill for revenge alone. Hamlet’s revenge is postponed until Claudius, who is the King and absolute power in Denmark, is revealed as someone so evil that his extermination is necessary for the protection of society. This is why, by the end of the play, Claudius’ death is something we applaud, regretting only that he was not dispatched sooner. It is the delay itself that is Hamlet’s moral triumph. Hamlet’s hesitation to act after he has mistakenly killed Polonius is his heroic quality.
Shakespeare, using our own instinctive reactions to the events of the play, shows revenge as a potent force for evil when it rules the actions of someone rash like Laertes, like Romeo, or like Hamlet when he kills Polonius. As Laertes, Romeo, and Hamlet discover, unexpected and disastrous consequences flow in the wake of revenge. Hamlet is not a hero throughout most of the play. Rather, he becomes a hero by keeping his revenge waiting until its expression serves other, more legitimate ends. Through this play, Shakespeare reaches beyond the grave, and instructs us all that revenge alone is never an adequate basis for taking action. There must also be some overriding disinterested purpose beneficial to society as a whole.
In modern society, revenge by individuals is not permitted because it leads to breaches of the peace and cycles of vengeance. (Note e.g. the problems caused by tit-for-tat revenge in honor cultures, see Learning Guide to “Behind the Sun”.) The government, through courts and administrative agencies, tempered by the due process of law, has a monopoly on punishment. The state also decides when to take action to prevent wrongdoing in the future. In modern society, all impulses to revenge rightfully go through the government.
Hamlet and Tragedy: We know Hamlet is a tragedy because Shakespeare tells us. The title to the play is: “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”. However, this tragedy departs from the classic plot structure of a tragedy in which the protagonist has made a mistake or done something that leads inevitably to his destruction (the main action). In a classic tragedy, situations then follow that bring the character face to face with his mistake (confrontation/realization). Through the confrontation/realization, the protagonist either learns from his mistake or he dies (resolution). “King Lear” and “Oedipus Rex” are examples of this basic plot structure.
Hamlet, however, is just a young kid thrust by events over which he has no control into the role of purifier of his society/avenger for the deaths of his father, mother and himself. His only choice is whether “to be or not to be”: whether to step up to the plate and purify Danish society or not.
Hamlet does have a flaw which causes his death. However, the flaw does not cause the “main action” which sets the tragic train of events in motion. Hamlet’s tragic flaw was his delayed recognition that revenge for the sake of revenge is evil. Thus, thinking that it was the King behind the curtain, in Act III, Scene 4, Hamlet kills Polonius. This sets in motion the revenge of Laertes which the King turns into a successful conspiracy to poison Hamlet. Put another way, Hamlet’s tragic flaw was that he lacked the understanding or a system of ethics to tell him that revenge for the sake of revenge was wrong. Such a realization or a moral code would have stopped Hamlet from trying to kill Claudius until it was clear that there was no other way to rid Denmark of the King’s corrupting influence.
This is one interpretation of one aspect of the play based on a careful reading of the text and a lot of thought. The Discussion Questions and the websites referred to in the Links to the Internet Section offer several other interpretations of the play. “Hamlet” also has much to say about the purpose of human existence, action and inaction, friendship, loyalty, and appearance vs. reality. Other themes in the play include: decay and corruption; relationships between father and son; relationships between mother and son; friendship; romantic relationships; the corrupting influence of the desire for power; and the meaning and possibilities of stagecraft.
Often quoted phrases from this play:
Hamlet: … [F]oul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.
— Act One, Scene II, line 256.
Marcellus: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
—— Act One, Scene IV, line 90.
Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.
— Act One, Scene V, line 27.
Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
— Act One, Scene V, line 166.
Hamlet: … [T]he Play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
— Act Two, Scene II, line 633.
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 heartache 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,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
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 pitch and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
— Act Three, Scene I: Line 56.
Hamlet: Get thee to a nunnery.
Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?
— Act Three, Scene I, line 121.
The Queen: The lady doth protest too much . . .
— Act Three, Scene II, line 239.
Hamlet: Alas, poor Yorick! , I knew him, Horatio . . .
— Act V, Scene I: line 178.
Hamlet: Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew, and the dog will have his day.
— Act V, Scene I: lines 314 & 315.
Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
— Act V, Scene II: line 370 & 371. Text and line numbers from The Complete Works of Shakespeare Hardin Craig, editor, Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Ill. 1961.
1. For each of the killings listed below, tell us what they mean in the context of this play.
— Hamlet kills Polonius.
Hamlet has every reason to think that the man behind the curtain is the King. Who else would be in the Queen’s bedroom? But Hamlet is wrong; instead of avenging the murder of his father, Hamlet himself kills a relatively innocent man. But there is more. The man he kills is the father of Ophelia, the woman he loves. As a result of Hamlet’s action, weighed down by a double grief, Ophelia will die. Finally, this unthinking, reflexive act of revenge starts in motion the chain of events that leads to Hamlet’s own death at the hands of Laertes.
— Laertes takes revenge on Hamlet and kills him with the poisoned sword.
This is another simple, unthinking act of revenge. Again, the killer pays with his life. Laertes clears his guilt by confessing, obtaining Hamlet’s forgiveness, and revealing that the King put him up to it.
— Claudius kills Gertrude by allowing her to drink from the cup of poisoned wine intended for Hamlet.
In order to prevent Gertrude from drinking the wine, Claudius would have to tell her it was poisoned. This would expose his role in the plot to kill Hamlet. Gertrude was the only person for whom Claudius felt any affection. His failure to protect her demonstrates his own selfishness and abject evil.
— Hamlet finally kills Claudius.
Once Claudius allows Gertrude to drink the poisoned wine, his complete and utter evil is exposed. Not only has Claudius killed Hamlet’s father, he has tried to kill Hamlet, he has corrupted the good youth Laertes, and he has allowed his beloved queen to drink poison to avoid having to admit his part in the plot to kill Hamlet. Claudius is a cancer on the state of Denmark that must be excised to prevent him from spreading corruption throughout the land. Hamlet’s killing of Claudius has a purpose that is more important than mere revenge. It is necessary for society to continue.
2. What was Hamlet’s tragic flaw?
There is no one right answer to this question. One view is that Hamlet’s tragic flaw was that he committed a simple, reflexive, unthinking act of revenge in killing Polonius. To put this another way, Hamlet’s tragic flaw was that he did not have a set of ethical principles that told him that revenge was itself evil and that he could not kill Claudius for simple revenge. But, we say, he could not just let it go. In modern life, when the criminal justice system fails, that is exactly what victims have to do. Sometimes, if the wrongdoer has assets, a civil law suit for damages is a way of seeking recompense. But the civil justice system doesn’t always work either. Often, the perpetrator has no assets or files for bankruptcy protection and the victim is left with no recourse. As frustrating as this is, it is better than the alternative of vigilante justice and vendettas.
3. State the law of unintended consequences and give three reasons why it applies with particular force to acts of revenge.
The law of unintended consequences holds that whether or not what you do has the effect you intend, it will have consequences that you don’t expect and therefore consequences that you don’t intend. Some unintended consequences can be very unpleasant. Three reasons that the law of unintended consequences applies with particular force to acts of revenge are: (1) In any person’s life, acts of revenge are infrequent. Experience is an excellent teacher. If we have little experience with an action, our anticipation of the consequences will be less accurate than if we have taken the action frequently in the past. (2) Revenge usually affects a number of people, either directly or indirectly. Everyone is different and when other people are affected by our actions, there is an increased risk that we won’t accurately predict how they’ll react. (3) Revenge is often taken in a rage or a fit of passion. Our actions are often not well considered when we are in such a state. Therefore, the risk that we’ll fail to anticipate some of the consequences is increased.
4. How does Hamlet attain the status of a hero despite the fact that he kills the wrong man in a hasty act of revenge and delays going after Claudius again until forced to act just before his own death?
There is no one right answer to this question. One answer is that Hamlet learned from the killing of Polonius that revenge must wait until the act is necessary for the good of the entire state. Hamlet becomes a hero by keeping his revenge waiting until its expression serves other, more legitimate purposes.
5. The scene in which Hamlet stabs the man behind the curtain is a symbol for all acts of revenge. What is the meaning of that symbol?
When you commit revenge, especially reflexive unthinking acts of revenge, you are striking at something unknown that may not be what you think it is. Acts of revenge may result in the loss of something very dear to you.
OTHER DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
7. In addition to being characters that advance the plot, Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia are symbols. What do they represent?
Polonius represents the falseness of Claudius’ regime: the show of wisdom hiding deceitful plotting. Laertes represents the youth and promise of Denmark that is corrupted by Claudius’ rule. Ophelia represents Hamlet’s hope for a relationship with a woman that is beyond that of his mother; a romantic relationship with a future.
8. Some commentators argue that the force of Hamlet’s hatred of Claudius stemmed not from the fact that Claudius killed Hamlet’s father but because Claudius has acted out Hamlet’s own long-repressed Oedipal fantasy, i.e., to eliminate the father and marry the mother. Others apply the Oedipal analysis in a different way and suggest that Hamlet can’t kill Claudius while his mother is alive because Claudius has stepped into the role of the father in Hamlet’s Oedipal fantasy. To kill Claudius would force Hamlet to face his repressed sexual desire for his mother, something that any man would be loath to do. Do these two Freudian analyses of “Hamlet” have any validity? Does this explain Act III, Scene 4 in which Hamlet has an interview with his mother that has heavy sexual overtones? Does it explain Hamlet’s delay in killing Claudius? See, e.g., Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, search on “Oedipus” and start one paragraph back.
This is a matter of interpretation and there is no one right answer to the question. A good answer will include a thoughtful analysis of the various theories. An argument can be made that the interpretation of the play as a lesson about revenge is consistent with the Oedipal interpretations.
9. Why doesn’t Ophelia take revenge on Hamlet for her father’s death?
Ophelia’s life is destroyed when Hamlet murders Polonius. Loving her father, she cannot forgive Hamlet for killing him. Loving Hamlet, she cannot hate him or take revenge upon him for killing her father. Ophelia has no place to go for emotional support and is unable to find an outlet for her various and conflicting griefs. Her pent up emotions weigh her down and she sinks, literally and figuratively, to her death.
10. What is it about the manner of Ophelia’s death which is a symbol for her inability to deal with the several misfortunes that have befallen her?
See response to the preceding question.
11. Two people in this play apparently went mad. Describe their affliction, trace the sources of those afflictions, and compare them.
Ophelia went mad due to her inability to reconcile the love she had for her father and the love she had for Hamlet, her father’s killer. Unlike Laertes, she could not divert her grief into an act of revenge. Hamlet appeared to go mad but if he was, it was a transitory affliction. The source of his madness was similar to Ophelia’s in that it stemmed from unbearable pain due to the actions of others. However, the similarities stop there. Hamlet was able to deal with his madness (if he ever suffered from it) by taking action.
12. If Hamlet tries to use a play to “prick the conscience of the King,” what is Shakespeare trying to do to our consciences in the larger play?
There is no one right answer to this question. This Learning Guide suggests that Shakespeare was trying to alert us to the dangers of revenge when it serves no greater societal purpose.
13. Hamlet appears at times to be insane. Is he insane or is he pretending? Justify your answer.
There is no one right answer. Good answers will refer to some of the following: His pain and metaphysical doubt were beyond enduring and this is how he coped. He is pretending to be mad to be absolved from responsibility for his actions. It’s a strategy that allows him to investigate the murder of his father and the motives of the people around him without interference. It can be all of these things or some of them.
14. One of the great debates about this play is whether Hamlet is a man of action or a man of inaction. List out each of the actions that Hamlet takes and each of the actions that he could have taken within the context of the play but didn’t. Then state and justify your conclusion about whether Hamlet was a man of action or a man of inaction.
15. List the characters in this play who betray or disappoint Hamlet and describe their actions. Then list the characters that stand by him and describe their actions. What does this say to you about Hamlet’s world?
16. Compare Hamlet’s world before his father was murdered to his world in Act V, after he returns from England.
17. Do you agree with the critical analysis of Hamlet contained in the Learning Guide? Justify your position with text from the play.
There is no one right answer to this question. The argument for the revenge analysis is contained in the Helpful Background section of the Guide. There are many others. In this play, what is Shakespeare trying to tell us about revenge? Suggested Response: Shakespeare was trying to tell us that we cannot anticipate the consequences of an act of revenge and that revenge alone is never an adequate basis for taking action. There must also be some disinterested purpose beneficial to society as a whole.
18. What was the role of traveling bands of actors in medieval society?
19. Why could Denmark order the English King to kill Hamlet?
See the Quick Discussion Questions.
1. When you take revenge on someone else, do you know what the consequences will be? Consider the lessons of “Hamlet” and “Romeo & Juliet” in answering this question. Did Romeo, who killed Tybalt to avenge the death of Mercutio, think that the result would be his death and that of Juliet? Did Laertes, intent on revenge for the killing of his father, anticipate his own death with dishonor? Did Hamlet, who stabbed the man behind the curtain intending to avenge his father’s murder, anticipate that his action would eventually lead to his own death and that of Ophelia?
The answer is no. The law of unintended consequences states that we cannot anticipate all of the consequences of our actions. It applies to every person, every day. It applies especially to actions that are unusual or which cause other people to react. Experience is an excellent teacher. If we have little experience with an action, our anticipation of the consequences will be less accurate than for those actions that we take frequently. Actions which affect other people cause very uncertain reactions because everyone is different and it is difficult to predict their reactions. For these reasons, since revenge is taken only infrequently and since it involves other people, revenge is often subject to the law of unintended consequences. In addition, revenge is usually taken in the heat of the moment or in the grip of passion and thus it is usually not well thought out.
2. Laertes entered the fight with Hamlet confident that he would win. What happened and how does this illustrate the uncertainty principle that characterizes fighting? Shakespeare also makes this point in Romeo and Juliet. Describe the scene in which this occurs.
Fighting is very uncertain and you can never be sure how it will turn out. The scene in “Romeo & Juliet” that demonstrates this is when Romeo, enraged over the murder of Mercutio, attacks Tybalt who is a much stronger and more experienced fighter. Tybalt is getting the best of Romeo and moving in for the kill when Romeo suddenly turns and is able to stab Tybalt, killing him. Something similar happened to Laertes who never expected to lose control of the poisoned sword.
3. Each of the main characters in the play lost a person important to them. Describe how each dealt with their grief and whether those mechanisms were healthy.
See the Helpful Background Section.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
1. Does Shakespeare’s play “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” have a moral message?
Yes. The message is that mere revenge does not justify taking action against another person, no matter how great the injury they have caused. Hamlet is not justified in killing Claudius until it is clear that Claudius corrupts everyone around him and that he needs to be removed for the good of the state. (In modern society, revenge by individuals is not permitted because it would lead to breaches of the peace and cycles of vengeance. The government, through courts and administrative agencies, has a monopoly on punishment. The state also decides when to take action to prevent wrongdoing in the future. In modern society, all impulses to revenge rightfully go through the government.) For a full description of this interpretation of the play, see the Helpful Background section.
2. Is Hamlet governed by a moral or ethical code?
Hamlet doesn’t appear to be concerned with ethics or morality except that through the course of the play he learns that revenge by itself is evil. In one interpretation of the play, Hamlet’s lack of a moral compass is his tragic flaw. See the Helpful Background section.
3. Does Hamlet honor the Six Pillars in his actions toward Gertrude?
At times no — see for example the bedroom scene (Act III, Scene IV) — but eventually, under the tutelage of the Ghost, he comes around and forgives her. This is an important part of “caring”.
4. Does Hamlet honor the Six Pillars in his actions toward Polonius?
No. Hamlet kills the old man in a rash act aimed at Claudius. This was an egregious violation of the Pillars of Respect and Responsibility toward Claudius. Hamlet’s actions were the result of his grief for his father and his understandable anger at Claudius. But this did not give him the right to act violently toward Claudius. These considerations may affect the degree by which Hamlet violated moral precepts, his eligibility for forgiveness, and the extent of his punishment if called to account in a court of law. But Hamlet is still responsible for his actions. Ethics and morality apply to negligent as well as intentional conduct. The fact that Polonius had no right to be secretly listening from behind the curtain doesn’t justify killing the man.
5. Does Hamlet honor the Six Pillars in his actions toward Ophelia?
No. He killed her father, albeit accidentally. Ophelia was one of the stakeholders in Hamlet’s decision to stab the man behind the curtain before he knew who it was. When Hamlet violated the Pillars of Respect and Responsibility toward Polonius, he violated them with respect to Ophelia as well. Hamlet is also insufficiently “caring” toward Ophelia. Wrapped up in his own troubles and angry at her betrayal, he is blind to her pain. Many people served Ophelia poorly, including Claudius and her father. But Hamlet loved her and should have been more attentive. Hamlet also fails to forgive Ophelia until after her death.
6. Does Hamlet honor the Six Pillars in his actions toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
No. While they betrayed Hamlet at the behest of the King, Hamlet had many alternatives that would have protected himself from harm but which were not so drastic as to cause the death of his former friends. For example, the instructions to the English King that Hamlet forged could have required that they should be exiled from England, or imprisoned for a year and then released. Hamlet’s actions towards his former friends lacked both respect (in that he caused them harm unnecessarily) and caring (in that he didn’t forgive them).
7. Who acts more unethically toward the other, Hamlet or Laertes?
Hamlet wronged Laertes by killing his father. Laertes was a stakeholder in Hamlet’s decision to stab the man behind the curtain. But this was accidental. Laertes intended to kill Hamlet. Generally, intentionally wrongful conduct is worse than negligent conduct. The conclusion is that Laertes acted more unethically toward Hamlet than Hamlet did to Laertes.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)
8. In the context of this play, when kings held absolute power and there was no independent justice system, can you think of any way to deal with Claudius other than to kill him?
We must first remember that this is a play which requires dramatic action. The answer is “No.” Given the absolute power of medieval monarchs and the fact that Claudius was intent on killing Hamlet, there was probably no way to deal with him other than assassination. This was certainly true after Hamlet was poisoned in the duel.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See questions 3 and 5 above.
9. In his dealings with one of the characters in the play, Hamlet violates each of the principles of caring set out above. Tell us who the character is and describe how Hamlet violates the principles of caring as to this character.
It was Ophelia. Hamlet loved her, but could not forgive her for her betrayal and was oblivious to the pain that he caused her that drove her out of her mind. Another possible answer is Gertrude, but by the end of the play, under the Ghost’s tutelage, Hamlet has forgiven her.
10. Should Hamlet have forgiven Claudius for killing his father, seducing his mother, and stealing the crown? What are the limits of forgiveness?
Had Claudius confessed, renounced the crown, accepted the punishment, and permitted the marriage to be annulled, Hamlet should have forgiven him. Forgiveness is a two-way street. A person seeking forgiveness must renounce and return the fruits of his unlawful or unethical conduct. Claudius was unable to do this. Hamlet had no obligation to forgive him.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Divide the class into groups of 10 or less and assign characters to each student to read. The readings can be among the group or with the rest of the class as audience. The smaller parts can be assigned to one or two persons. Suggested scenes to read are described in the Bridges to Reading section.
Locating imagery: Students can be asked to locate language concerning certain key sets of images used in the play. This can be done as homework or in class, individually or in groups. It can be done as a competition between individuals or groups, as a project (with the results described to the class by the students) or as a written assignment. The assignment can relate to different scenes or acts or it can relate to the entire play. Different sets of images that can be used are 1) decay and corruption; 2) descriptions of actions; 3) insanity and mental illness; 4) truth and falsehood. Another variation on the above assignment is to ask the students to identify each use of the imagery as symbol, metaphor, or simile.
Ask students to list each separate subplot, trace the lines of each subplot, and describe how the subplot contributes to the play as a whole.
Ask students to paraphrase one of Hamlet’s soliloquies in modern language. This can be a writing assignment or a class presentation. It can be done in groups or individually. Hamlet’s soliloquies are: 1) “O that this too sullied flesh would melt” (Act One, Scene Two); 2) “O all you host of heaven” (Act One, Scene Five); 3) “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (Act Two, Scene Two); 4) “To be, or not to be, that is the question” (Act Three, Scene One); 5) “Tis now the very witching time of night” (Act Three, Scene Three); 6) “And so a goes to heaven” (Act Three, Scene Three); 7) “How all occasions do inform against me” (Act Four, Scene Four).
Ask the class to write journals of their study of the play, setting out their personal reactions to particular characters or situations or writing in response to assigned topics such as a few of the Discussion Questions set out above. In the journal, students should relate each observation or entry to a theme of the play.
Ask the students to select a major character in the play and write an essay about what was motivating him or her.
Have students write an essay in which they discuss the following: What is a tragedy and what is the structure of a tragic plot? How does the structure of “Hamlet” compare to that of the tragedies of the ancient Greeks, to Shakespeare’s other great tragedies such as “King Lear” or “Macbeth”, or to modern tragedies such as “Death of a Salesman”?
Ask the students to write essays on appropriate questions set out in the Discussion Questions section above.
Have students compare various film versions of “Hamlet”, particularly the updated adaptation, –>Hamlet (2000, Michael Almereyda, director) with the Mel Gibson version.
BRIDGES TO READING
Read scenes from the play together. You can compete to see who reads various parts best or just enjoy the beautiful language. Suggested portions to read are: Act One, Scene III through the exit of Laertes; Act Two, Scene II, beginning at line 575; Act Three, Scene I, beginning at line 56; Act Three, Scene II through the exit of the Players and Act Four, Scene IV. After you have read several scenes, see the movie again.
Another excellent idea is to assign parts to several people in the class or the family or among friends and to read various scenes, or the entire play if you can. If your family has a literary bent, this would be especially fun at family gatherings. All of the aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers can participate.
There are annotated editions of Shakespeare’s plays with explanations of the antique phrases set out in the margins or on a page facing the text. You may want to obtain a copy of one of these books from the library before reading scenes from the play. Shakespeare’s Characters for Students Ed. by Catherine C. Dominic. Living in a Shakespearean World. (2 CD Rom) Rhino Records. 1999.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- Hamlet Online provides a list of links to websites about Shakespeare’s play;
- Introduction to Hamlet by Michel Delville, Pierre Michel and Eriks Uskalis of the University of Liége;
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
- A translation of one of the ancient stories that served as a basis for the play can be found on the Internet at Amleth, Prince of Denmark.
The websites which are linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine.
This Learning Guide was last updated on July 21, 2011.