How Act I of Hamlet Drives the Rest of the Play

After you have read the entire play, Hamlet, re-read Act I and write an essay of around 1000 words concerning what we learn from Act I that will determine how the rest of the play goes. Not a great deal actually happens in Act I, but there is a huge amount going on among the characters.

There are several ways to do this, and you should use whichever will help you. One way is to use the “A wants B but C” formula to show how the goals or wishes of the various characters lead to conflict and complication. Another is to read “through” the action to see the inner elements of character on display as the characters interact with each other—what’s really going on under all the talking. (For example you might notice how Claudius tries to make what he wants feel like what everybody wants. You might call attention to the way Shakespeare puts us off balance by making it look like the play is going to be a ghost story, when it’s really not: does he put us off balance in other ways?) A third approach would be to focus strictly on the character of Hamlet—to show how the ways he is presented to us in Act I lay the foundation for his later behavior (and how this helps us understand the play as a whole). Still another set of approaches would be by way of themes (e.g. appearance vs. reality), images (e.g. rottenness, illness, rupture), or dramatic devices (e.g. people watching or spying on other people). All of these are introduced in Act I and have payoffs later in the play.

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