What's Eating Hamlet? Reading Shakespeare

Updated on Oct 3, 2012
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What's Eating Hamlet? Reading Shakespeare Activity

If your teen is moaning and groaning about his latest reading assignment, have no fear. At the heart of Hamlet lies a tale of murder, intrigue, and revenge to rival a gory slasher flick. But how to get past all the unfamiliar language? To help your teen get through this Shakespearean classic, here's a teen-friendly refresher course in the plot of this classic work of literature, with some SAT vocabulary thrown in.

Hamlet always thought there was something fishy about his mother marrying his uncle so quickly after the death of his father. But he never realized how fishy until his father’s ghost appears to him begging for vengeance. Hamlet’s father reveals that he was murdered by his brother in order to take over as King of Denmark and as husband to Gertrude. Now that Hamlet is confronted with the knowledge he is convinced of what he must do, right? Actually, he has to think about it a little more first, giving special attention to the question of whether he is just plain crazy. In fact, he spends much of the play exploring his thoughts and emotions out loud (maybe for the benefit of an audience?).

First, Hamlet sets about verifying his dead father’s story, because ghosts are not always reliable witnesses. His behavior is strange to those around him, as he sneaks around, asks odd questions, and acts in a generally suspicious manner. He was never all that fun to begin with, but now Hamlet's uncle-father and queen-mother are worried for his sanity.

Useful vocabulary to describe the personality of Hamlet:

  • Capricious- Changeable
  • Irascible- Easily angered
  • Melancholy- Depressed
  • Surly- Grumpy; rude
  • Bestial- Behaving like a beast

Lord Polonius, friend of the court and old blowhard, has told his lovely daughter Ophelia to stay far away from Hamlet because he only has one thing on his mind. (Polonius believes that Hamlet’s strange behavior might be a result of a broken heart.) Uncle Claudius, new King of Denmark, thinks it might be because he married Hamlet’s mother moments after his brother’s body cooled - but hey, the Ophelia theory sounds good, too. Polonius and Claudius agree to spy on the two having a conversation and quickly hide behind a tapestry as Hamlet approaches Ophelia.

Ophelia returns Hamlet’s letters and gifts, but Hamlet, rather than seeming broken up, launches into a furious rant about people, women, and marriage. (I think he has a reason to be a little anti-marriage right now, don’t you?) Polonius says that Hamlet was just playing it cool and resolves to catch Hamlet speaking to his mother, because a boy will always tell his mother about his girl troubles, right? Poor, old Polonius.

Gertrude and Claudius, rather than admitting that their relationship is just creepy, bring in two of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to see if they can figure out what’s eating Hamlet. They are going to follow him and report back if he does anything strange – like talk to ghosts or kill someone.