Engaging with the text

Enjoy the text

  • If studying the play becomes a chore, you will gain little from it
  • Although the language may seem unfamiliar, even difficult, at first, most people find they have no difficulty following the play once they see it performed
  • Hamlet is a play which is full of mysteries and ideas which have engrossed audiences and scholars for generations — allow yourself to think!

Remember that Hamlet is drama

  • Try to ensure that you see it performed live on stage — ideally in more than one production, so that you start to become aware of the possibilities for different interpretations by different actors and directors
  • If it is not possible to see a live performance, there are at least half a dozen different film productions readily available on DVD:
    • The 1980 BBC production offers a good straightforward production with a sensitive performance by Derek Jacobi
    • The 1991 Mel Gibson production is worth seeing
    • Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version has some interesting interpretations
    • If you are lucky enough to see the 1964 Russian version directed by Grigory Kozintsev, you may well find this particularly memorable
  • If you find yourself disagreeing with a director's interpretations ask yourself why — you clearly have your own opinions and responses, which is the aim of studying the text
  • Remember, however, that as Hamlet is a particularly long play, it is often cut in performance, and you need to know the complete text.

Get to know the text

There is no substitute for reading the text — several times.

  • Familiarising yourself with the events, ideas and language of Hamlet takes time, but is essential if you are to have your own well-informed response to it
  • Critics and study-guides may suggest approaches
  • Ultimately it is your opinion which counts, based on your own knowledge and understanding.

Know the complete text

Examiners often report that students seem to know the start of a play or novel well, but not the end. Study in class may tend to focus on the beginning of a text, where the writer introduces characters, themes and imagery to the reader, and then to become less detailed as the class grows more familiar with these concepts. So:

  • Do not ignore the impact of significant scenes later in the play
  • Do not forget how characters can change during the play
  • If you are planning to re-read the text several times for revision, make sure that you do not always start at the beginning
  • Once you are very familiar with the play in its normal beginning-to-end structure, try reading Act V first, then Act IV, and so on; this will give you new insights into cause and effect.

Listen to the text

The language Shakespeare uses is carefully chosen and structured; it is, in fact, poetry. In order fully to appreciate his use of blank verse (see Shakespeare's language: Blank verse, prose and rhyme, for an explanation of how this operates) you need to hear it.

  • Listening to a professional tape-recording of the text will help,
  • An even better method is to read it out loud yourself, or with a group of friends
  • Making a tape-recording of yourselves gives you a recording for revision purposes.

Analyse the text

In order to ensure that you are fully aware of the playwright's techniques and use of language:

  • Make notes under specific headings, such as, for example, ‘Polonius', ‘Laertes', ‘images of poison', ‘references to nature/the unnatural'
  • Take a key word from an essay question (see Approaching exams and essays: Possible essay questions) or from the list of Themes and significant ideas and Imagery and symbolism, and list everything you can think of in Hamlet, including relevant supporting quotations, related to that point — e.g. to madness, acting, spying.


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