If you missed the discussion of Acts 1 and 2 you can catch up here.
In Acts 3 and 4 we see Hamlet express his grief as a rational genius when he sets up the play to catch the King and confirm his suspicions about the circumstances of his father’s demise. We also see Hamlet senselessly kill Polonius. Who is Hamlet? Is he a rational man capable of being judge, jury, and executioner on behalf of his father? Or is Hamlet instead a vulnerable man driven by his emotions to ignore reason? Can Hamlet be both? Are we, like Hamlet, able to exhibit flashes of rational brilliance in one moment only to be swept up and carried by our emotions and forced to ignore good reason in the next?
1. “To be or not to be….”
Is Hamlet’s consideration of suicide evidence of madness? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 64-98.
2. Hamlet blames Opehlia for his madness.
What is it that makes Hamlet say, “It hath made me mad,” to Ophelia. What of her actions have made Hamlet mad? Is it a fair statement from Hamlet? Act 3. Sc. 1 lines 154-162.
3. Is melancholy the same as madness?
Claudius uses the word melancholy when talking about Hamlet in Act 3. Sc. 1 line 179. Do you think Cladius is using the word as a symptom of madness, a cause of madness, or something else?
4. Is Hamlet “not guilty by reason of insanity” under our modern use of the defense when he kills Polonius? Act. 3 Sc.4 lines 25-35.
Imagine yourself on the jury in Hamlet’s murder trial. Would you send Hamlet to a mental institute or to prison for killing Polonius? Can Hamlet be rehabilitated? Is Hamlet a murderer? Is Hamlet a danger to himself and others? If he is a danger to others, is he a danger to everyone?
5. The Queen can not see her dead husband’s ghost.
The Queen tells Hamlet that the ghost is “the very coinage of [his] brain.” She thinks he’s made it up, but this is after he’s already killed Polonius. Does Hamlet’s mother think he’s mad before this point? Act 3. Sc. 4 line 157.
6. Would an English audience want Hamlet dead?
Shakespeare brilliantly includes the audience and draws them into the play to judge Hamlet when Claudius announces he’s sending Hamlet to England to be killed. Act 4. Sc. 4 lines 70-77. How would the English audience feel about doing Claudius’ dirty work? Would the English audience want to be responsible for Hamlet’s death?
7. Compare Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death to Hamlet’s.
Do Hamlet and Ophelia handle their fathers’ deaths in similar ways? Do they handle their fathers’ deaths differently? Act 4. Sc. 5. What does Shakespeare accomplish by this juxtaposition?
We’re one act away from an epic finish. We’ll discuss Act Five next Sunday.
Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for more on Hamlet, here’s a good starting point. There are several free pieces of literary criticism linked there.