Prince Hamlet attempts to avenge his father's death by deciphering the devious plot of the new king, his Uncle Claudius — only to be tragically killed.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In the informational text “United and Divided: How Religion Drove Politics in Pre-Modern Europe,” Shelby Ostergaard explores the important role that religion has played in shaping Europe.
Before reading the play, have students read this article to provide cultural and religious context for the play's setting — Denmark in Europe during the Middle Ages. As they read, ask students to consider how this context influences the plot, particularly in regards to death, marriage, ghosts, and power.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher whose work has greatly influenced Western modern philosophy. This passage discusses Nietzsche's concept of the “will to power” (German: der Wille zur Macht), the main desire and driving force in humans.
Have students read this passage after completing Act I Scene ii to provide insight into King Claudius’ assumption of power over Prince Hamlet. Ask students to explain the ways in which Claudius embodies Nietzsche’s concept of power. Have students predict what Claudius may do in order to stay in power.
In this excerpt from Poetics, Aristotle offers a definition of tragedy, as well as several examples and non-examples of the genre.
Have students read this passage after completing Act I in order to help students develop a deeper understanding of the tragic genre and why the ghost’s telling of King Hamlet’s murder and wish to be avenged serves as an important event in the revenge plot. Ask students to assess whether Hamlet meets Aristotle’s criteria of tragedy thus far and to discuss how they believe the plot will unfold based on Aristotle's definition of tragedy.
Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian Renaissance historian, politician, and writer based in Florence. His masterpiece, The Prince, published in 1532, advises new princes on how to get and retain power by any means necessary.
After reading Act II, have students read this passage to illuminate how the dominant character Laertes serves as a foil to the emotional Hamlet. At this point in the play, Laertes enjoys the fatherly advice from Polonius, while Hamlet has just spoken to the ghost of his own father. Machiavelli espouses advice for princes to become leaders independently from the influence of others with an emphasis on orderly control. Ask students to consider responses to Machiavelli’s question: “whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?” from the perspectives of the young royals, Hamlet and Laertes in an effort to compare and contrast the two characters.
In his final diary entry, John Wilkes Booth justifies his assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and wonders at his fate.
Have students read this passage after having read Act III scene ii in order to illuminate the themes of guilt and revenge. Ask students: How do Booth and Hamlet justify their actions? How do Booth and Hamlet factor religion into their decisions? How do guilt and revenge plague the guilty and vengeful?
William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), better known by his pen name, O. Henry, was an American writer. His short story, “The Guilty Party,” published in 1909, is a tragic story about a girl named Liz who is engaged to be married, overcome with jealousy, and then driven to violence.
Have students read this short story after reading Hamlet’s ‘my thoughts be bloody’ soliloquy in Act IV scene iv in order to develop the themes of deceit, love, and revenge. Ask students to draw on the significance of Lizzie’s father’s influence and to compare this to the many deaths that occur in Hamlet. What are the driving forces behind these incidents?
In Emily Dickinson’s poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” a speaker describes the loss of something internal that affects them deeply.
Have students read this poem about one’s loss of self, after reading Act IV when Ophelia loses her father, experiences a fit of rage and is ultimately found drowned in the river. Ask students to compare Ophelia to the speaker in Dickinson’s poem. How do they each respond to loss? Additionally, how do other characters (e.g. Hamlet, Laertes) respond to loss, in the play?
In the informational text “How Small Fibs Lead to Big Lies,” Rebecca Hersher discusses a study conducted by researchers to determine whether or not people who tell small lies are more likely to tell bigger lies.
Have students read this article after finishing Hamlet to help them explore the contrast of the play’s chaotic madness and its vengeful characters’ careful planning. Ask students to explain how the snowballing of deceit in the play serves as anecdotal evidence to the experimental results. Using the findings of the research, ask students to discuss how Polonius, Claudius, Laertes intended to benefit from their wrongdoings throughout the play.