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Ministry of Education.

The rotten state of Denmark - a study of Shakespeare's Hamlet

Teacher Karen Melhuish


 NCEA Level


13 3 8 weeks


Achievement Standard Being Assessed

Achievement Criteria

 AS90722 (English 3.3): Respond critically to Shakespearean drama studied

This achievement standard involves a previous reading and study of a Shakespearean drama, and developing a critical response, using supporting evidence.

Achieved with credit:
Develop a critical response to a Shakespearean drama using supporting evidence.

Achieved with merit:
Develop a critical response to a Shakespearean drama that integrates supporting evidence and shows perceptive understanding.

Achieved with excellence:
Develop a critical response to a Shakespearean drama that integrates supporting evidence and demonstrates sustained insight.

Curriculum Links

 This achievement standard is derived from English in the New Zealand Curriculum, Learning Media, Ministry of Education, 1994, up to and including Level 8.

  •  READING: Close Reading, Exploring Language, Thinking Critically
  •  WRITING: Transactional Writing

 With links to:

  •  VIEWING: Reading Visual and Dramatic Texts
  •  LISTENING: Listening to Texts.


There are many points of entry into this exciting and complex play - a revenge tragedy? Hamlet as arch procrastinator? an exploration of dysfunctional families? Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this complexity is to focus initially on one interpretation before going on to explore a wider range of viewpoints.

This unit takes as its focus the view that there is an immoral and corrupt influence at the heart of court life in Elsinore, and that the tragic events of the plot, the motivation of the characters, several themes, motifs and aspects of the language can be linked to this immorality.

Guidelines for use

  • The class works through a range of activities, focusing on the corruption and immorality of the court, as they study the five Acts.
  • In small groups of 2/3, students then prepare and deliver a peer-assessed seminar to the class about an aspect of corruption in Hamlet. Students should provide a summary of their notes for their peers, and visual aids may be used to support their points, such as Powerpoint, OHTs or dramatic performance.
  • Students then produce an essay on the topic which will be formatively assessed by the teacher and/or their peers, as preparation for English 90722 (3.3).
  • Students can then complete a timed essay in class as the final summative assessment.


This unit requires both classroom and homework time.

Students should be given class time to peer critique and rehearse their seminar presentations with sufficient homework time to follow up the suggestions made, ready for the final delivery in class.

Students should complete the formatively assessed essay as a homework exercise while the summatively assessed essay should be completed under timed conditions.

Teacher background reading

There are some full teaching guides available on the web for Hamlet; see list of Resources at the end of this Unit. Also useful are background notes on aspects of the play relevant to the central theme of this unit:

Teaching and learning activities

Select and adapt these learning activities to best meet the needs of your students, and to fit the time available:

Learning task 1

Learning task 2

Learning task 3

Learning task 4

Learning task 5


Preparation for seminar

  • In groups of 2-3, students should now be given worksheet6 (RTF 7KB) which outlines the seminar task. Tasks could be chosen, picked out of a hat or allocated by the teacher.
  • The preparation and rehearsal should take about 3 lessons plus homework.
  • The teacher will need to either photocopy the notes which they prepare to distribute to the rest of the class, have the groups email notes to their classmates or students could be required to take notes as the seminars are presented.
  • This is peer-assessed work: each group should be prepared for questions from the class at the end and the class needs to be ready to ask challenging questions, especially if the group has drawn conclusions with which others disagree.

Preparation to write exam-style essay

  • Students can then be given an worksheet7 (RTF 8KB) to complete for homework which will be formatively assessed by the teacher according to the standard. Alternatively, the essays could be (sensitively!) peer assessed, using the standard.
  • A further, summatively assessed essay is then set as a timed exercise.

Students should be able to write at least 500 words in which they analyse a passage from Hamlet and/or analyse a selected aspect. The emphasis of the English 90722 (3.3) standard is that they provide a critical response (see point 2 of the Explanatory Notes)

Further activities

  1. Go back through the play compiling a full character study of Hamlet - his actions, moods, typical language - and note the change in attitude between Acts 4 and 5. Each student is given a scene on which to focus to become an 'expert' on Hamlet as a focus. They compile notes on him in their scene to feedback to the class.
  2. In groups, students could select one scene which typifies the ideas of corruption in the play and perform it as a celebration of this theme. Alternatively, students select one scene and capture its essence in a freeze frame, with a key quotation chosen as a title for this 'painting'. Show to the class.



  • The Arden Edition of Hamlet, ed. By Harold Jenkins (Methuen, 1982)
  • Teaching Shakespeare: A Handbook for Teachers by Rex Gibson (Cambridge School Shakespeare S.)


  • Hamlet - DVD version starring Mel Gibson (1991) available on Amazon


  • For an online text of Hamlet and general notes on the play, go to Hamlet Online
  • Useful scene by scene commentary and notes on themes by Ed Friedlander are available on Enjoying Hamlet
  • No Fear Shakespeare
     A site which presents the language of Shakespeare's plays side-by-side with a facing-page translation into modern English.
  • Shakespeare Games
     Quizzes on Elizabethan English, Hamlet, memorable quotes and what's in a name?

 Teaching guides on Hamlet:

 General Shakespeare websites:

Published on: 23 Apr 2009