Hamlet Essay Topics And Quotes

Brevity is the soul of wit (2.2.90)
This phrase is from Polonius’s speech to Gertrude and Claudius concerning why he thinks young Hamlet is mad. But he seems to be having a hard time getting to the point. It must be remembered that, although Polonius is a minister in the Danish court, he is still talking to the King and Queen of Denmark as well as the uncle/step-father and mother of a man who could be the next King. He just cannot blurt out that he has a corny love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia that suggests he is lovesick, which in the Renaissance, was considered a medical condition that could result in death. A man affected by this disease was known as an enamorato. Polonius therefore skirts the issue until Gertrude gives him a way in: ‘‘More matter, with less art’’ (95), or in other words, get to the point.

Cruel to be kind (3.4.178)
Polonius, with Gertrude and Claudius’s approval, intends to cure Hamlet of his lovesickness by getting Gertrude to tell him to snap out of it. Hamlet, who has just been given an opportunity to kill Claudius in the chapel, goes to see his mother to beg her to give up Claudius. Their exchange is fiery and angry. Hamlet murders Polonius, who is hiding behind the arras and sees his father’s Ghost again. Hamlet spends a good deal of time trying to rationalize his action against Polonius, but then his thoughts turn again to his mother. He begs her not to sleep with Polonius and she agrees. Realizing that so much violence has passed during their meeting, he tells her that he ‘‘must be cruel only to be kind.’’ But Hamlet is also speaking to the audience, letting them know that his treatment of Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fits into his plan for revenge of his father’s murder. In order to be kind to those who have been tainted by Claudius, Hamlet must be cruel and mad.

A hit, a very palpable hit (5.2.281)
During the duel between Laertes and Hamlet, Hamlet scores a point which Laertes contests. Hamlet looks to Osric for a judgment of whether he scored. Osric replies with ‘‘A hit, a very palpable hit.’’ For the Elizabethans, ‘‘palpable,’’ which had originally meant ‘‘sensitive to the touch,’’ had come to mean ‘‘perceivable by any of the senses.’’ Here Shakespeare also intends an ironic meaning. When Hamlet has been hit by the poisoned tip of Laertes’ sword, he will feel it physically.

The lady doth protest too much (3.2.230)
During the play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet asks his mother how she likes the play. His question is pointed. The Queen has been watching the Player Queen swear undying devotion to her husband and that she will never take another husband after he is dead. Her life will simply end. This, in Hamlet’s opinion, is how Gertrude should have behaved when King Hamlet died. For Shakespeare’s audience, ‘‘protest’’ meant to make a vow or a solemn promise. What Gertrude is actually saying is that the Player Queen’s vows and promises are ‘‘too much,’’ too pretty, too unbelievable. Unfortunately, we do not know what kind of marriage Gertrude and King Hamlet had, only Hamlet’s perception of how they behaved toward each other in his presence, so that by her response, Gertrude may be implying that such vows as these are typical of a silly first love, and that such silliness is not part of her own second marriage.

Method in the madness (2.2.205-206)
Polonius, trying to discover what ails Hamlet, comes upon him reading, and engages him in conversation. Though Hamlet’s responses do not make much sense, Polonius can see that they could not be the ravings of a madman (such as will be seen with Ophelia), but that they seem to be carefully crafted responses. Hamlet is using Polonius’s own techniques to make fun of the old man by enumerating the many characteristics of feeble, old men. The phrase really reads: ‘‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.’’ Like many of the phrases from Hamlet, we often change it to: there’s a method to my madness.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be (1.3.75)
When Laertes get permission from Claudius to go to France for an education in gentleman’s ways, Polonius offers him a speech full of clichés and platitudes. This advice is probably the most famous, followed by ‘‘to thine own self be true’’ (78). It may seem to us that Polonius is just telling Laertes the obvious, but in Shakespeare’s audience were probably many...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)

Quotes & Possible Essay Questions for Hamlet


1. "Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables." 1.2 (Hamlet)

2. "The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown." 1.5 (Ghost)

3. "Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, / I will be brief." 2.2 (Polonius)

4. "Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t." 2.2 (Polonius)

5. "He’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps." 2.2 (Hamlet)

6. "Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity." 2.2 (Hamlet)

7. "The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil: and the devil hath power / T’assume a pleasing shape . . ." 2.2 (Hamlet)

8. "Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind." 3.1 (Ophelia)

9. "Love? His affections do not that way tend; / Nor what he spake, though it lackt form a little, / Was not like madness." 3.1 (Claudius)

10. "Die two months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year." 3.2 (Hamlet)

11. "O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound." 3.2 (Hamlet)

12. "I will speak daggers to her, but use none." 3.2 (Hamlet)

13. "These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears." 3.4 (Gertrude)

14. "Besides, to be demanded of a sponge! What replication should be made by the son of a king?" 4.2 (Hamlet)

15. "Do it, England; / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me." 4.3 (Claudius)

16. "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." 4.5 (Ophelia)

17. "It warms the very sickness in my heart, / That I shall live and tell him to his teeth, / Thus diddest thou." 4.7 (Laertes)

18. "’Twill not be seen in him there; there the men are as mad as he." 5.1 (Clown)

19. "Forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up my sum." 5.1 (Hamlet)

20. "So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to’t." 5.2 (Horatio)

21. "Dost know this water-fly? ... Thy state is the more gracious; for ’tis a vice to know him." 5.2 (Hamlet)

22. "He has my dying voice." 5.2 (Hamlet)

23. "For he was likely, had he been put on / To have proved most royal . . ." 5.2 (Fortinbras)


Possible Essay Questions:

1. Discuss Hamlet’s treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In what way are they part of a pattern that includes Polonius, Osric, and Gertrude? How do they help to point the difference between the followers of fortune and the searchers for wisdom?

2. In what way is Hamlet a typical Renaissance prince? How do his problems and his character serve as a document and introduction to the changes that occurred during the Renaissance?

3. Ophelia falls into the water accidentally and passively drowns. Discuss her death as a symbol of her life, her honor, and her relationship with Hamlet.

4. Discuss Hamlet’s supernatural uncertainties and their ultimate resolution (if any). Does the play contradict or support any of the theories about the ghost?

5. Discuss Claudius as the poisoner of Denmark; does he use the same poison in the goblet at the end of the play as he used on Hamlet’s father before the play began? Does it matter?

6. Discuss Hamlet as the savior of Denmark.

7. It is possible to say that the other characters in the play are mirrors held up to Hamlet’s nature? Discuss the three-part harmony of approval (Laertes, Horatio, Fortinbras) at the end of the play in this context.

8. Why is Hamlet’s tragedy more profound if he does not have a tragic flaw but is, in fact, a superb example of the Renaissance man?

9. Discuss the strategy which Hamlet pursues in his play-long duel with his "mighty opposite," Claudius.

10. Compare and contrast the three pairs of fathers and sons in Hamlet.

11. Discuss the concept of honor as it is presented and attacked in the play.

12. The Renaissance view of death was essentially different from the modern one; compare and contrast the two visions, using examples from Hamlet.

13. Once Hamlet has determined that the King is guilty, he must then decide whether or not he has a right to kill him. Discuss the various Renaissance responses to this complex question.

14. Compare any or all of the Hamlets, including the Olivier, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, Branagh, and Jacobi versions.

15. Discuss any one of the Hamlets listed above.

16. Compare and contrast any two films of Hamlet.


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