Shakespeare is one of those authors who is hard to escape if you’re in any English or literature program long enough. While Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays, they fall roughly into two categories: comedies and tragedies. And when he wrote tragedies, he went all out.
Spoiler alert: Most, if not all, of the characters die in Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Hamlet is no exception.
But beyond the bloodbath, Hamlet offers a lot of possible elements to analyze. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, though, I’ll give you a few pointers on how to set yourself up for success when writing your Hamlet essay.
Read Critically Before Writing Your Hamlet Essay
The first key to writing well is reading well. There are tons of methods to critical reading, and you may have to try a couple until you find one that fits your style.
My personal favorite is highlighting. If this sounds a bit basic, you haven’t highlighted the way I have before.
You’ll definitely need more than one color—around 4 or 5 should do it. When you see something pertaining to one theme, use yellow. Then pink for a particular symbol. Blue for things you might want to use in a character analysis.
Always be sure to make a key, so you know what each color means.
Color-coding your highlighting does two things—it keeps your evidence organized and allows you to see if you have enough support to write your whole Hamlet essay on symbolism or on one character.
Other methods include annotating and taking notes on the computer or a separate sheet of paper. These two methods work roughly the same way.
With annotations in the margins of books, you can see exactly which lines made you write a note, and everything is right there in front of you. Note-taking, on the other hand, gives you more space to explain your thoughts, but always be sure to jot down what part of the work the notes pertain to.
You can use all of these methods at once or come up with a technique all your own.
The important part is to read beyond basic enjoyment of the story with the goal of really comprehending the play… plus, this prewriting work will help you remember exactly which points to write about in your Hamlet essay.
Draft a Detailed Outline
Once you have all the important bits flagged in some way, it’s time to figure out what you want your Hamlet essay to focus on and organize the information in an outline.
The more detail you put into this outline, the less work you’ll have to do later in the writing process. (If you have lots of details in your outline, the essay will basically just be about making everything connect and read better.)
Let’s say I’m writing my Hamlet essay on what the ghost of Hamlet’s father represents. My outline would look like this:
- Auditory and visual hallucinations in modern times are considered signs of a mental disorder, and the same could be said in Hamlet’s time.
- Thesis Statement
- In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is the only character to have conversations with the ghost of his father, and the ghost advises him to murder his uncle. The existence of the ghost demonstrates how mad Hamlet has become.
- Castle guards and Horatio see, but don’t talk to, the ghost.
- Hamlet gets advice from the ghost, which puts the idea of revenge in his mind.
- Hamlet tells Horatio he senses his father before he knows about the guards’ sightings of the ghost, showing his grief and longing to connect with his father again.
- Hamlet is the only one at all to notice the ghost in Gertrude’s room
- Murder Advice
- The ghost says that he will be tormented in the afterlife until all is made right.
- Hamlet doesn’t believe the news about Claudio, calling into question the validity of the advice.
- Questioning this advice can be seen as questioning the validity of the ghost in general and questioning Hamlet’s own sanity.
- Hamlet is grief-stricken more than anyone else in the play and is focused almost the entire time on revenge.
- In his grief and diminishing mental state, he hallucinates a ghost and has conversations with it as a way to justify his revenge plot.
(Note: If you also have to turn in a formal outline as part of the assignment, make sure each level has at least two parts.)
Come Up With a Killer Thesis Statement
Your thesis statement is perhaps the most important sentence of your entire essay. I’ve known teachers who have taken half of the points away if there was no thesis statement.
While the stakes may not be that high for you, pretending like they are really makes you focus on writing a clear, identifiable thesis statement.
But what is a thesis statement, and why is it so important?
Simply put, a thesis statement tells the reader what you’re going to be writing about in the rest of your Hamlet essay. It’s a little bit of a preview that lets the reader know what they’re in for.
And that’s why it’s so important—you’re going to bring up a lot of points in your essay, but your thesis is the thing that ties all of those points together.
You can either write the entire thesis statement during your outlining phase or write a simple version while outlining and refine it when you start writing.
Different Directions Your Hamlet Essay Can Take
Like I said before, there’s a lot to unpack in Hamlet. It’s not just a story about people killing other people (even though there’s a lot of that)—it’s about madness, mistrust, revenge, and inaction. And it’s got some pretty interesting characters to boot.
Some students make the mistake of trying to fit too much into their Hamlet essay at once. This not only creates incohesive writing, but also doesn’t give you the space to actually analyze your main points.
Focus on one theme, character, or symbol—and analyze the heck out of it.
Below are a few of the different topics you could use for your Hamlet essay. There are so many more. Feel free to write about something totally different. As long as you have enough support for your argument, you can essentially write about anything in the play.
The need for revenge vs. the inability to take action
Revenge is a pretty common theme in tragedies, but in Hamlet, it’s not actually about the act of revenge itself. Hamlet is not the most decisive person in the world. He wants to be certain of the facts.
If he had simply killed Claudius when the ghost told him to, the play wouldn’t have made it past the first act.
But the idea that a murderer like Uncle Claudius gets to live is enough to drive Hamlet up the wall. He thinks about revenge and talks about revenge, but when it comes time to pull the metaphorical trigger, he chokes almost every time.
And when he does try in earnest, he ends up killing the wrong guy, sending someone else (Laertes) into a tizzy and leaving him ready to get his own revenge.
If Hamlet had taken swifter action in the first place, maybe only one person would’ve wound up dead. But instead, everyone dies.
So in the end, there are two things of note about what Hamlet says about revenge:
- Revenge breeds more revenge; violence begets violence.
- If you absolutely have to carry out a revenge plot, at least do it decisively. Fewer people get hurt that way, except… you know… the one on the receiving end of said revenge.
My thesis statement for this theme would be:
In Hamlet, Shakespeare poses the need for revenge against the inability to take action by showing how both revenge and indecisiveness can cause destruction.
Theme of madness
There’s so much uncertainty in Hamlet, both from the characters and from the audience/readers. Take, for example, the theme of madness.
Hamlet’s plot from the beginning is to fake being crazy so that he can get Claudius’s guard down. The only problem is that he starts talking to his dead dad’s spirit a lot, which no one else seems to be doing.
Also, his inability to take action starts making for a lot of dead bodies. That’s certainly enough to drive anyone crazy.
So the question is, is Hamlet just really good at acting mad? Or did he take the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach and go mad because he was playing the part?
My thesis statement here would read:
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet feigning madness ultimately drives him mad, as seen through him talking to the ghost and becoming stuck between the decision to kill or not to kill.
The ghost is another symbol/character that makes some readers skeptical. The king had just died, and those who loved him were grieving, naturally. So a few people actually did see the ghost.
Hamlet was the only person to actually talk to the ghost, though.
This is a pretty big detail. The guards and Horatio could’ve been tired and just seeing things when they witnessed the ghost. But carrying on full conversations with the spirit of your dead father is more than “just seeing things.”
Even Hamlet is skeptical that the ghost is real, which is why he doesn’t kill Claudius immediately. (He might be mad, but if he is, he’s not mad enough to kill someone without real proof.)
So the ghost can stand for different things, depending on the evidence you pull from the play. It can serve as proof that Hamlet is actually mad or can represent the elusiveness of certainty.
You can find my thesis statement for this one in the outline above, but as a quick reminder, here it is again:
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is the only character to have conversations with the ghost of his father, and the ghost advises him to murder his uncle. The ghost shows how mad Hamlet has become.
If these themes weren’t enough to inspire you, here are some example Hamlet essays other people have written. Take a look, and get your ideas flowing.
As always, if you feel like your Hamlet essay is still lacking life, send it to the Kibin editors to take a look at.
They’ll check for grammar, flow, and to see whether it makes sense overall. With their help, you can be absolutely certain your Hamlet essay won’t be dead in the water.
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Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for Hamlet by William Shakespeare that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of Hamlet in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from Hamlet by William Shakespeare at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Hamlet’s Preoccupation with Philosophy
One of the most famous Shakepearean lines—“To be or not to be, that is the question" is found in Hamlet, spoken by the title character himself. While this is the most obvious reference that Hamlet makes to his own philosophy, Hamlet makes frequent proclamations about his philosophy of life. Hamlet’s philosophy touches not only on the subject of love, but also about loyalty, family, and the virtue of suffering, among other themes. His philosophy, summed up in the “To be or not to be" (click here for a full analysis of the “to be or not to be” speech) soliloquy and reflected in his actions, might not be comfortable for all characters or all readers. Hamlet’s philosophy is particular to his own strange obsessions, and help explain the fates of the characters in the play.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Hamlet’s View of Love
Because Hamlet has been disillusioned about love by his mother’s actions, he rejects the possibility that romantic love is an important part of human relationships. He is consumed by the outrageousness of his mother’s love for his uncle, and he rejects Ophelia’s love for him, though he admitted once to loving her. Although Hamlet is justified to feel disgust towards his mother and her actions, his pessimistic view of love has dreadful implications, not just for him, but for other characters as well. For this essay on Hamlet, you might want to take a character analysis approach to Hamlet with this theme as your guide or thesis statement.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Taboos in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Many of Shakespeare’s plays involve transgressions that violate social taboos. Hamlet is no exception. In this play, numerous social norms are violated; however, the most powerful taboo is that of incest. Hamlet is outraged when his mother marries his uncle shortly after the death of his father, and his mother’s action causes him to lose faith in love. Although the incest taboo may seem grotesque, Shakespeare puts his characters in such dynamic tension and outrageous situations in order to make profound observations about the nature of both familial and romantic love.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Unmanly Grief in Hamlet
Claudius could hardly be considered to be a model of upright behavior and insight, given that he seduces Gertrude while the grief over her husband’s death is still fresh. While he is obviously advancing his own motives, his speech to Hamlet about “unmanly grief" is oddly compelling. Claudius takes the view that all men die, all men lose their fathers. They enter a period of appropriate grief and then move on. Because Hamlet is not conforming to this norm, Claudius suggests that Hamlet’s grief is not only unhealthy, but unmanly. A close reading of the play supports Claudius’s observation. Although Claudius is certainly not free from reproach, Hamlet’s obsessional grief is not praiseworthy either.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Role of Women in Hamlet
The female characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are a complicated lot. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is much maligned for her sexual and romantic alliance with Hamlet’s own uncle. Ophelia is portrayed as a woman who is so consumed with love for Hamlet that she is willing to sacrifice her life for him. Through these two very different characters, Shakespeare portrays women negatively in limited roles. Women have no chance for redemption, and are subject to the decisions that men make for them.
A few articles that might offer some guidance with these thesis statements for Hamlet include :
This list of important quotations from Hamlet by William Shakespeare will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Hamlet listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet they are referring to.
“Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father. But you must know your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound in filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubborness, tis unmanly grief…." (I.ii. ll. 87-94).
“O God, God, How stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!." (I.ii.132-134).
“Within a month, Ere, yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, Shemarried–O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets, It is not, nor it cannot come to good…” (I.ii.153-57).
“Be wary then, best safety lies in fear…." (I.ii.43)
“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast… who won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming virtuous queen." (I.v.42-46)
“There are more things in heaven and earth,…Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…." (II.i.166-167)
“This must be known, which, being kept close, might move More grief to hid, than hate to utter love." (II.i.113-115)
“To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them." (III.i.55-59)
“Be not too tame neither, but your own discretion be your tutor." (III.ii.16)
Reference: Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In The Riverside Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 1189-1234.