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Teaching Guide

Teaching Hamlet

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In this guide you will find

  • a vocab list to help your students master their Shakespearean.
  • activities exploring Hamlet's connection to other arts and literature, from the paintings of John Everett Millais to the works of Margaret Atwood.
  • essay questions exploring the play's themes of death, madness, and family dysfunction.

Hamlet has the hardest time making decisions, but your decision here is easy: use our teaching guide.

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  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
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  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Hamlet is a dead-on tragedy, and our main man, Hamlet, is a classic tragic hero. He seems destined for a downfall right from the start; plus there's a veritable bloodbath of death and destruction by the end—definite tragedy material. But calling something "tragic" in the general sense and assigning it the official genre of "tragedy" are two different things. Lots of tragic stuff happens in literature that is not a "tragedy." So what exactly does it mean to categorize Hamlet as a tragedy and Hamlet as a tragic hero?

In this lesson, students will learn the elements of a classic tragedy and will conduct an in-depth character analysis of Hamlet as a tragic hero. What is Hamlet's inner psychology? Why does he put off his revenge? What makes him destined for a downfall? Scholars have long debated the finer points of these questions, and now it's your students' turn to take a stab at figuring this guy out. Maybe being moody teenagers will give them some inside insight to our mysterious hero.

This lesson will take about two class periods, and students may need to complete some of the work at home.

Materials Needed:

Step 1: Let's start by defining tragedy as a genre. Direct students to Shmoop's analysis of Hamlet's genre as well as our literature glossary page on tragedy.

Follow up this info with some thought-provoking questions:

  • What elements of a tragedy do you see in Hamlet? Did Shmoop leave any elements out? 
  • Which seems to be Shakespeare's focus: revenge or tragedy? Why? 
  • Do you agree that Hamlet's major flaw is that he thinks about things too much or for too long? What else could it be?

Step 2: Next, remind the class that tragedies must have tragic heroes (duh). Our tragic hero is, of course, Hamlet. Hamlet, like all tragic heroes, has certain qualities that make him "tragic" (like, you know, dying). But of course, every character who dies isn't a tragic hero, so students need to dig in to the precise criteria for a tragic hero and determine how Hamlet fits this description.

Shmoop has created a handy chart for tragic hero analysis, and we recommend allowing students to complete said chart in groups. They can just explain how the character of Hamlet fits each criterion, but we would really love it if they found exact quotes to support their points. You know how we feel about text evidence. Oh, and if students need a little extra help, send them over to Shmoop's character page on Hamlet.


Tragic Hero CharacteristicExample in Hamlet
Character is a nobleman or is born to a high social class.
Character tries to do the right thing.
Character's actions affect lots of other people.
Character has a trait which is normally good, but in this case brings about his downfall.
Character is frequently blinded to reality.
Character suffers greatly.
Character ends the story by dying.

Once the students have talked in their groups, discuss their charts as a class. Compare their answers, correct any missteps, then as a follow-up ask:

  • Which part of the chart was the most difficult to find a quote for? Why? 
  • Which part was the easiest? Why do you think that was?

Step 3: It's time to move Hamlet from 15th-century Denmark to 21st-century cyber land. How, you ask? We are giving the Prince his own Facebook page. Facebook may as well have been made for this kid and his mood swings. What better place to air one's royal grievances than on the news feed for all to see? Students will demonstrate why Hamlet is a tragic figure by creating a fake Facebook wall that illustrates his psychology and internal suffering through status updates.

Direct students to the Wall Machine, and have each student work independently on creating a page for Hamlet. This site requires access to Facebook, so depending on your school's Internet filter, it may be necessary to assign this step for homework.

Facebook is fun, but this assignment is serious business (it's a tragedy after all). Give students the following guidelines to keep them on track:

  • Be creative. Use Hamlet as a background, but use 21st-century language to describe what is happening and express Hamlet's thoughts.
  • Focus on the tragic elements. Only put comments on your page that demonstrate Hamlet's tragic qualities. 
  • Use specific details from the text. The more information on your page, the better your grade. 
  • Make inferences to fill in the blanks. As readers we have lots of questions about Hamlet. Why does he delay his revenge? What does he really think about this ghost that shows up? Now is your chance to speculate. What would Hamlet post on his wall about these things?
  • Stay on task. Checking your own Facebook page will triple the time it takes to complete this assignment. No joke.

Step 4: Facebook just wouldn't be Facebook without sharing, so come up with some way for students to present their work. If you have the ability to project the Wall Machine for the class, students can present that way. They could also use their smartphones to share in small groups (You mean we get to use our phones in class?), or you could simply ask students discussion-style to talk about some of their best status updates or theories on Hamlet's psychology. See if you can come to a consensus about Hamlet's precise tragic flaw or why he waits so long to exact revenge. These questions would make great essay topics as well if you want to extend this lesson into a longer paper project.

Instructions for Your Students

Hamlet is a dead-on tragedy, and our main man, Hamlet, is a classic tragic hero. He seems destined for a downfall right from the start; plus there's a veritable bloodbath of death and destruction by the end—definite tragedy material. But calling something "tragic" in the general sense and assigning it the official genre of "tragedy" are two different things. Lots of tragic stuff happens in literature that is not a "tragedy." So what exactly does it mean to categorize Hamlet as a tragedy and Hamlet as a tragic hero?

In this lesson, you will learn the elements of a classic tragedy and will conduct an in-depth character analysis of Hamlet as a tragic hero. What is Hamlet's inner psychology? Why does he put off his revenge? What makes him destined for a downfall? Scholars have long debated the finer points of these questions, and now it's your turn to take a stab at figuring this guy out. Maybe being moody teenagers will give you some inside insight to our mysterious hero.

Step 1: Let's start by defining tragedy as a genre. What qualifies a play as a tragedy? Check out Shmoop's analysis of Hamlet's genre as well as our literature glossary page on tragedy.

Got all that? Good, now try your hand at these questions:

  • What elements of a tragedy do you see in Hamlet? Did Shmoop leave any elements out? 
  • Which seems to be Shakespeare's focus: revenge or tragedy? Why? 
  • Do you agree that Hamlet's major flaw is that he thinks about things too much or for too long? What else could it be?

Step 2: One of the most important elements of a tragedy is the tragic hero (duh). Our tragic hero is, of course, Hamlet. Hamlet, like all tragic heroes, has certain qualities that make him "tragic" (like, you know, dying). But of course, every character who dies isn't a tragic hero, so we need to dig in to the precise criteria for a tragic hero and determine how Hamlet fits this description.

Shmoop has created a handy chart for tragic hero analysis, so group up and break out the books. You know how we feel about text evidence, so try to back up each example with a specific quote from the play. If you get stuck, head over to Shmoop's character page on Hamlet for help.


Tragic Hero CharacteristicExample in Hamlet
Character is a nobleman or is born to a high social class.
Character tries to do the right thing.
Character's actions affect lots of other people.
Character has a trait which is normally good, but in this case brings about his downfall.
Character is frequently blinded to reality.
Character suffers greatly.
Character ends the story by dying.

Let's hear what you came up with. Oh, and it's not the worst idea to jot down some of your classmates' examples too; they may come in handy later.

  • Which part of the chart was the most difficult to find a quote for? Why? 
  • Which part was the easiest? Why do you think that was?

Step 3: It's time to move Hamlet from 15th-century Denmark to 21st-century cyber land. How, you ask? Contain your excitement… We are giving the Prince his own Facebook page. Facebook may as well have been made for this kid and his mood swings. What better place to air one's royal grievances than on the news feed for all to see?

Using this really cool website called the Wall Machine, you will demonstrate why Hamlet is a tragic figure by creating a fake Facebook wall that illustrates his psychology and internal suffering through status updates.

Facebook is fun, but this assignment is serious business (it's a tragedy after all). Use the following guidelines to stay on track:

  • Be creative. Use Hamlet as a background, but use 21st-century language to describe what is happening and express Hamlet's thoughts.
  • Focus on the tragic elements. Only put comments on your page that demonstrate Hamlet's tragic qualities. 
  • Use specific details from the text. The more information on your page, the better your grade. 
  • Make inferences to fill in the blanks. As readers we have lots of questions about Hamlet. Why does he delay his revenge? What does he really think about this ghost that shows up? Now is your chance to speculate. What would Hamlet post on his wall about these things?
  • Stay on task. Checking your own Facebook page will triple the time it takes to complete this assignment. No joke.

Step 4: Facebook just wouldn't be Facebook without sharing, so as a final step, you'll present your work to the class. What are some of your best status updates or theories on Hamlet's psychology? What do you believe is Hamlet's precise tragic flaw? Why do you think he waits so long to exact revenge?

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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.2

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING HAMLET?

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