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Is Hamlet Insane? For Engaged Discussion in the High School Classroom

written by: Beth Taylor • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark! But is it truly rotten, or is it all in the Dark Prince's head?

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    Entice your High School English students to read and enjoy Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' by presenting a story of psychological intrigue.The many possible motives for Hamlet's behavior have been discussed by dramatists over the generation, and also make great classroom discussion.

    The Arden Shakespeare is a great teacher resource. The well-researched introductions are useful for finding essential points in the play, and the introductions also cover various theories of the text.

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    Ghosts

    Hamlet sees ghosts. There is no doubt about this, the Ghost of Hamlet's father is a character in the play. But Shakespeare has cleverly omitted whether the Ghost of Hamlet's father is a real apparition, or if, perhaps, Hamlet's imagination is running wild.

    Hamlet has carried much emotional baggage since his father's death, due in part to his mother's choice to marry Hamlet's uncle. A potentially uncomfortable situation for any child, there may have been a real conspiracy to kill the father. Or, perhaps Hamlet suffers so much from grief that he sees what he wants to believe.

    While Hamlet swears to swiftly remember and revenge his Ghost father, the Ghost makes second appearance later in the play, and proclaims to Hamlet:

    This visitation

    Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.

    The Ghost is putting pressure on Hamlet to act faster. This could be his father putting pressure on him to seek justice, or could be an imagined result of an already guilty and paranoid mind.

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    The Players

    Hamlet hires travelling actors to perform the scenes depicting how he believes his father died. The players show the sleeping king, the uncle pour poison in his ear, and after the king's death they show the queen and murderer marry.

    By this time, Hamlet has dispelled any reasonable doubt about his uncle's guilt. After the play, he has harsh words for his mother and denounces marriage in general, as well.

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    Love

    Hamlet, of course, refuses to marry Ophelia, admonishing her to get thee to a nunnery!

    But is Hamlet truly concerned about what is best for Ophelia, or is his complete rejection of his betrothed the irrational tirade of an addled mind?

    Hamlet may simply be gearing up to commit the murder of Claudius to revenge his own father. Perhaps he thinks Ophelia is better off without him. Or, he may be so racked with pain, fear, and paranoia that he can no longer function. Ophelia's reaction to the news is suicide; we can wonder whether Hamlet had any inkling what she would do, and if not, why not.

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    Lesson Plan

    After reading 'Hamlet,' assign a five paragraph persuasive essay. Instruct your students to form an opinion regarding Hamlet's psychological health or lack thereof, and write an essay backing up their theory with dialogue from the text.

Teaching Shakespeare's Plays

Lesson plans for high school English teachers to help their students tackle the Bard's work, one play at a time.
  1. A Midsummer Night's Dream Summary
  2. Is the Merchant of Venice an Anti-Semitic Play? A Debate For the Classroom
  3. Is Hamlet Insane? For Engaged Discussion in the High School Classroom