How to Read Hamlet

An English Major’s Guide to Reading Shakespeare


There’s no doubt about it, reading Shakespeare for the first time can be intimidating. Here are some tips that might help you through your first foray into The Bard’s work.

1) Read a summary.

Your best plan of action for approaching the play for the first time is to read a basic plot outline before you start.

I know, I know–spoilers. If you’ve managed to get this far in life without knowing what becomes of our fine Danish prince, I apologize, but becoming familiar with the characters and the plot will help you understand the play more effectively the first time. Believe me on this one; it’s worth it.

2) Read the play.

And take notes in your margins.

I don’t care if it’s your favorite, pristine Shakespeare Anthology that you love and cherish; buy yourself another copy and scribble away in it. Write down anything that comes to mind. Nobody is going to judge your marginalia (to your face), and interacting with the text will help you think critically. It also gives you a great place to start for class discussion.

3) Phone a friend.

Some of your most productive thinking happens out loud. One of the best ways to find out what really interests you in a text is to just talk to someone about it. Call a classmate or a friend and chat about the play. Talk about your favorite lines, have an argument about a character you loved or hated—just have a good time and talk about the play.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1880-1885 (Library of Congress)

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1880-1885 (Library of Congress)

4) See a production.

Preferably a good one. Shakespeare is truly meant to be seen, not read. While reading is the only way to dig into the text, the real Shakespeare experience comes from a viewing a performance. (While you’re watching it’s important to remember that this is just one interpretation of the text. You’re allowed to question it. Hell, you’re encouraged to question it!)

It’s not terribly likely that there will be a live performance of Hamlet happening just when you need it to be. If there is one, go see it. Live Shakespeare can be magnificent (it can also be disastrous, so beware amateur productions).

Luckily for us, you can find a recording of Hamlet as easy as pie. My personal favorite is the David Tennant/Patrick Stewart production. Tennant’s Hamlet is dynamic and captivating. If you’d prefer a more traditional interpretation, Branagh and Olivier are always stellar choices.

So, have a Hamlet watching party. Invite your friends, order a pizza, and don’t you dare take notes. Experiencing the play as a whole not only helps you establish anything you might have missed or been confused by in your initial reading, it also allows you to get a feel for the flow of the play.

5) Discuss.

Yes, discuss again. This time, get prepared for class.

Have a more “academic” chat with a friend. Take your vague ideas (“I actually kind of liked Hamlet as a person”) and turn them into pointed discussion topics (“I don’t think Hamlet was actually crazy”) and then find some evidence in the text. Take the ideas and questions you’ve already established and make organized notes to take with you. This will help when your teacher calls on you and you suddenly forget everything you ever knew about Hamlet (it happens to the best of us). Discussing these notes with a friend helps you solidify your own ideas.

6) Rock your class discussion.

Go in prepared, and actually talk. You’ve done the work—now it’s time to show off (and get a good grade)!

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