How to Teach Hamlet

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s most complex and perplexing tragic hero. Shakespeare’s nuanced characterization of the young Danish prince, the play’s tangled plot, and the 16th-century language make reading Hamlet especially challenging for students. Here are 8 instructional strategies that will make the text more accessible. 

1.) Sort out the characters

Before reading the play, provide students with a handout that asks them to match the most important characters with their descriptions and their relationships to one another

  • For example, Hamlet could be described as the late King Hamlet’s son, rightful heir to the throne, and King Claudius’s nephew. 

Have students work with a partner to complete the handout by referring to the Dramatis Personae list that appears before act 1. When they have completed the handout, go over the answers as a class. 

2.) Play a recording of Hamlet while reading the play

Have students follow along in the text as they listen to a professional recording of the play. Hearing the dialogue dramatized by actors brings the play to life and makes Shakespeare’s language seem less foreign. While students listen, note passages you want to discuss with the class later. Pace instruction by listening to the play act by act or scene by scene. After listening to each scene or each act, add major events to a plot timeline displayed in the classroom. 

3.) Review annotations to the text with the class

As you move through the play, point out the annotations and review them with students. Annotations are a great resource for quickly defining words and clarifying figures of speech in the play, and they explain Shakespeare’s numerous allusions to historical figures, the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, geography, and cultural beliefs and practices. They also provide insights into the characters and identify literary devices used in passages.

4.) Have students keep character journals

Organize students into 6 groups, and assign one character to each group: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia. While reading the play, have students keep individual journals, recording their thoughts and observations about their assigned character and the character’s actions, motivations, and behavior. 

  • For an additional creative layer, your students could write journal entries from their character’s point of view.

Have them indicate the act and scene for each journal entry. From time to time, ask students to share their journal entries with the class when discussing the characters. 

5.) Untangle Shakespeare’s language with a modern translation of Hamlet

While studying the original text, use a modern translation of the play to help students understand Shakespeare’s colloquialisms, allusions, vocabulary, and syntax. The modern text will help clarify especially challenging passages, increasing students’ overall comprehension. 

6.) Design independent study projects

Students will engage more with Hamlet when they can pursue some aspect of the play that interests them. Give them a list of topics to investigate through internal research, and let them choose their own project. Some topics could include:

Have students share with the class what they learned through their research. 

7.) Show film clips from a movie of Hamlet

Movie versions of Hamlet that are completely faithful to Shakespeare’s script take several hours to view, more time than you could probably devote to the activity. However, showing film clips of key scenes in the text is a good alternative. Watching a movie of Hamlet gives students a strong sense of the play’s setting, atmosphere, and staging, and it allows them to draw inferences about the characters based on actors’ interpretations of the dialogue. Students are more likely to relate to a modern version, such as Franco Zeffirelli’s film starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet.

8.) Do some research of your own

Before teaching Hamlet, read some literary analysis and criticism of the play, to help you present material and guide discussions with confidence. Secondary sources will often present background information and interpretations of the text that you had not previously considered. Resources to review can be found  on eNotes. Under “Study Guide,” click on “More,” and then select “Analysis” or “Critical Essays” from the drop-down menu.

Initially, students often consider reading Hamlet to be a daunting prospect. Employing these instructional strategies, however, will draw them into Shakespeare’s tragic tale of love, death, revenge, and deceit, as the tortured young prince seeks to avenge his father’s murder without losing his own soul.