Well-renowned as William Shakespeare's longest play, Hamlet is arguably the most influential tragedy in English literature. The play's key themes can be used as classroom discussion points, initiating conversations about justice, mortality, revenge, deception, and family. Because these themes are still relevant today, students can easily imagine themselves in Hamlet's place; would they have chosen to handle the situation differently? What was the right thing to do?

Teachers may also ask their students to consider Hamlet's sanity. How does Hamlet's state of mind compare to Ophelia's? Students can be divided into two groups for debate: was Hamlet truly insane, or was he simply pretending? Still devastated by his father's death, Hamlet may have truly been mad; imagined his interactions with the late king's ghost; projected his anger onto the queen's new husband; and sought revenge to help ease his pain. Hamlet may have also feigned madness as part of his scheme against Claudius. Students should provide examples from the text as evidence to support their answers.

Because Hamlet was written during the Elizabethan era, its use of language is often challenging for students to comprehend. To provide students with a better understanding of the play, teachers can split the class into five groups, one for each act of the play. Each group will translate their assigned act into contemporary contexts to perform for the rest of the class. This activity gives students the opportunity to work closely with the original text, apply it to the modern world, and make it memorable for their peers.

Summary of Hamlet

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1603
  • Length: 144 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1390
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11-12

At the play's beginning, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is visited by his father's ghost. The ghost claims that he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, the man the queen married almost immediately following the late king's death.

Hamlet vows to avenge his father's death, which ultimately leads him to feign insanity and hire actors to reenact the late-king's assassination. At the play's end, all the characters perish in a duel, with the exception of Horatio, who lives to tell Hamlet's story.

Content Warning: This text contains violence and death.

What Your Students Will Love About Hamlet

  • The philosophical questions that are raised.
  • The universal themes of mortaility, revenge, and honor.

Potential Student Struggles With Hamlet

  • Shakespeare's language.
  • Following the status of affairs between Denmark and Norway.

Learning Objectives for Hamlet

  • Analyze Hamlet's view of death/mortality and the events that influence this perspective.
  • Discuss the role of deception in the play; name the characters and motives involved in it.
  • Observe Hamlet's overall distrust in women.
  • Identify the correlation between identity and performance.
  • Understand how Hamlet's state of mind is reflected in his soliloquies.
  • Consider the dynamic of Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship leading up to Ophelia's madness and death.

Literary Elements in Hamlet

  • Allusion
  • Foil
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Soliloquy
  • Symbolism

Major Themes in Hamlet

Revenge — When Hamlet's father—the king—is murdered, Hamlet vows to avenge his death.

Justice — Hamlet justifies his deeds based on his "eye for an eye" mentality; he will be able to achieve peace for his father only by killing the new king.

Madness — Readers question the sanity of several characters throughout the play, including Claudius, who murders the king; Hamlet, who obsessively seeks revenge; and Ophelia, whose psychological decline ultimately leads to her death.

Other Resources for Hamlet

  • Hamlet was most famously adapted to the big screen by Disney in 1994, in their production of The Lion King. Simba, voiced by Matthew Broderick, seeks revenge on Scar for the death of his father, the late king. The Lion King received a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, where critics agreed, "Emotionally stirring, richly drawn, and beautifully animated, The Lion King stands tall within Disney's pantheon of classic family films." The film won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture—Comedy or Musical in 1995, along with a number of awards for its musical accompaniments.
  • Another adaptation, which premiered in 1990, starred Mel Gibson as Hamlet. This film, titled Hamlet, won the David di Donatello for Best Foreign Film in 1991 and received a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • The play's most recent interpretation, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was performed in 2015 at London's Barbican Centre, where it became the fastest-selling show in the history of London theatre. During its run on the London stage, Hamlet was broadcast live in more than 500 theatres across the globe.
  • IMDb list of film adaptations
  • National Theatre Live: Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, trailer
  • Video clip of Jude Law's performance
  • A biography on William Shakespeare
  • Teacher's guide on Hamlet
  • Storyboard and student activities

Order Hamlet Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Hamlet Paperback Student Edition
Hamlet Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Hamlet AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Hamlet Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Hamlet Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Hamlet Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible