William Shakespeare Hamlet

William Shakespeare
Act 4, Scene 1 through Act 4, Scene 7

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Partly for the reasons we have discussed regarding the nature of the Elizabethan audience, Shakespeare always employs comedy in his tragedies. Hamlet displays his ability with puns and other wordplay more consistently in Scene 2 and 3 of Act 4 than in any other, as Hamlet enjoys using language to make his enemies look foolish. Indeed, at times in this act Hamlet virtually becomes a comedy, though a rather dark one. Aristotle would not have approved: he thought that to be effective, a tragedy must maintain a consistent tone and sensibility. What is the effect of all this comic wordplay (and even, as these scenes are often performed, action) on the play? Does it make the play less tragic? Less emotionally wrenching? Or does the comedy accentuate the tragedy?

Hamlet delivers another substantial soliloquy in Act 4, and then promptly disappears from the play for several scenes. What do we learn in this soliloquy? What, if anything, has Hamlet learned and how does he resolve to change as a result?

How would you describe Laertes? Using his own words, compare him with Hamlet. Are his actions justifiable? Why does he prove to be so easily manipulated by the king?

Shakespeare carefully constructs the play so that three characters find themselves in the same basic situation, yet because their temperaments are different they respond to that situation in utterly different ways. Who are the three characters, what is the situation, and which response do you think Shakespeare advocates?

Hamlet may be feigning madness, but in Ophelia we see the real thing. Is she just rambling when she comes in and starts singing, or, like Hamlet, do her words have meaning that no one around her can understand — or in her case even bothers to listen closely to?

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