TIPS FOR READING HAMLET CLOSELY
When we examine a text we look for the ways it expresses meaning. These are often
found where words and sounds become expressive because something echoes or repeats
something else, or stands as its direct opposite, or in some way relates expressively with
some other part of the text. When we read we keep our eyes and ears on the lookout for
the patterns and resonances created by such repetitions and echoes, and for how they
might vary, because where we find such patterning of language we are likely to find the
expressive force of meaning. With Shakespeare, of course, much happens in the
language. When you read Shakespeare, everything happens in the language.
1. Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text.
"Annotating" means underlining or highlighting key words and phrases—anything that
strikes you as surprising or significant, or that raises questions—as well as making notes
in the margins. When we respond to a text in this way, we not only force ourselves to pay
close attention, but we also begin to think with the author about the evidence—the first
step in moving from reader to writer.
2. Look for patterns in the things you've noticed about the text—repetitions,
The Sentences: Read sentences to see how simple or elaborate they are. Collect
sentences for further study, as if you were on a field trip, and put them alongside each
other for comparison. For example, compare one of the relatively simple sentences in the
first few lines of the play with the elaborate sentence which Claudius uses to open his
first speech in I.ii. Also, see how the sentences you collect work by finding the main
verb or verbs. Are there lots of different parts (words, phrases, clauses) to the sentence?
How do the parts of a sentence relate to each other? Does he delay getting to the point?
Compare lengthy and brief sentences when juxtaposed. What expressive effect does the
sentence have, as a sentence, and why?
The Line: The line is the basic structural component of verse. What does the line look
and sound like? What is its syntax? Notice how it stands alone and in relation to other
lines; is it end-stopped or enjambed? Shared? Where does the caesura lie? How
important is that caesura to the expression of meaning? What significant metrical
variations are there and do they contribute to the expression of meaning?
The Sounds: Sounds may be repeated in ways that are highly or loosely patterened. Do
you find any alliteration, consonance, assonance? Is there a couplet, thus emphasizing
The Contrasts: What are the contrasts in any given passage? Find examples of
juxtaposition of opposites.
The Metaphors: In any passage, find the metaphors and similar figures of speech and
images which use words in a way that changes what they ordinarily mean.
The Themes and Motifs: In any passage, find the themes and motifs which are the larger
patterns of thought and imagery the play expresses. A theme is the expression and
exposition of a general concern or activity, often expressed by way of abstract opposites.
A motif is the repetition of references to tangible and imagistic things-which we can
experience with our sense, even if it is just the language that takes us there. These may
become symbols of larger thoughts and themes, generally because the recur.
3. Ask questions about the patterns you've noticed—especially how and why.
Finally, Explication Questions:
1. What is the specific and general context? How does context (speaker, situation)
modify the speech? How does the passage contribute to the scene and its larger
2. Outline the progression of ideas, identifying major sections. Is there a clear
system of organization? Are there antithesis? Repetitions? Indirections?
3. How does the passage elucidate the character of the speaker? Or some other
4. What is the speaker’s attitude toward the subject of his utterance? Toward the
hearers? Toward him or herself? In other words, what is the tone?
5. Is irony a factor? Is there, in other words, a discrepancy between the character’s
words and meanings? Might this irony be unconscious?
6. Examine the diction of the passage. After reading for denotation, think about
connotations. Also, what type of diction does the speaker use?
7. Think about wordplay—punning. Are there words with multiple senses?
8. Notice the imagery. Is it particularly abundant? Noticeably sparse? Is there a
major image around which the speaker’s thoughts or ideas circulate? If so, why is
that image so powerful?
9. What about figurative language: similes, metaphors, personification, etc?
Analyze these devices with an eye on both the vehicle (the metaphor) and tenor
(the impact). Why is the speaker making an imaginative leap at this moment?
10. Are there classical, biblical, or historical allusions? What do they contribute?
11. Do you find understatement? Hyperbole? Paradox?