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Ministry of Education.

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

Students explore how immoral and corrupt influences at the heart of court life in Elsinore underpin many aspects of the play. They then present seminars and write essays based on their studies.

Learning Outcomes | Teaching and Learning | Assessment and Evaluation | Printing Version

Writer: Karen Melhuish
Year level 13
Who are my learners and what do they already know? See  Planning using Inquiry
School curriculum outcomes How your school’s principles, values, or priorities will be developed through this unit

Learning Outcomes

 (What do my students need to learn)

Curriculum achievement objectives (AOs) for:  

Processes and strategies

Integrate sources of information, processes, and strategies purposefully, confidently, and precisely to identify, form, and express increasingly sophisticated ideas.

  • thinks critically about texts with understanding and confidence
  • creates a range of increasingly coherent, varied, and complex texts by integrating sources of information and processing strategies


Select, develop, and communicate sustained and insightful ideas on a range of topics.

  • develops, communicates, and sustains sophisticated ideas, information, and understandings

Language features

Select, integrate and sustain a range of language features appropriately for a variety of effects.

  • uses a wide range of text conventions, including grammatical and spelling conventions, appropriately, effectively, and with accuracy.


Organise texts, using a range of appropriate, coherent, and effective structures.

  •  organises and develops ideas and information for a particular purpose or effect, using the characteristics and conventions of a range of text forms with control.
Achievement Standard(s) aligned to AO(s) AS 90725 Construct and deliver an oral presentation

Teaching and Learning

 (What do I need to know and do?)

1-2 related professional readings or links to relevant research

Planning using Inquiry

English Teaching and Learning Guide 

Assessment and Examination Rules and Procedures

Learning task 1:

Learning intention(s)

Examining key text aspects

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Thinking – explore texts

Relate to others – peer discussion

Learning task 1

Act 1

By the end of their study of Act 1, you should appreciate that Claudius' crimes (fratricide, regicide) plus his usurpation and 'incestuous' marriage mark him as the protagonist of the immorality in the court. Hamlet must engage with Claudius to confront this corruption, and in doing so, he must confront his own perceived inadequacies. Other characters' lack of trust, the presence of the ghost and the concept of revenge are all evidence that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. The frequent use of imagery related to disease, dungeons and weeds is an important indicator of this theme and should be noted as it occurs.

  1. Begin by introducing this theme through discussion of the details in Act 1 Scene 1, such as the omen of the ghost, the time of night, the chill in the air, the forebodings of the soldiers in a time of war and disorder.
  2. Before reading the first scene, watch the opening scenes of the play on video, up to the ghost's first appearance (end of scene 1). Mel Gibson provides a good version (although it is not completely faithful to the actual order of the text). Discuss with the class how the uneasy mood and atmosphere is conveyed in the film version.
  3. Complete a dramatic reading of Act 1 Scene 1 in class. Perhaps warm up the reluctant readers with a quick game of wink murder or any other good warm-up games. Continue the discussion about which details in the plot and language in the first scene create a sense that all is not well in Denmark. Compare with the video version which you saw earlier.
  4. Now complete a full reading of the entire Act in class, focusing initially on the basics of plot, who's who etc. so that you can grasp the basic story as it unfolds. Online study guides for the play can be useful at this point, plus a prose version of the play. Ideas for activities that might enliven class readings include:
    • Individuals taking key roles
    • Performances of key moments in small groups
    • Freeze frames created by small groups of key moments
    • Intersperse video clips of key moments
    • Prepared readings - allocate key speeches to prepare for homework to read/perform the next lesson
    • Rex Gibson has many other great ideas in his teachers' book
  5. Take a closer look at the character of Claudius using worksheet 1 - split the class into two - one side takes the 'positives' as listed on the sheet, the other side the 'negatives' - to gather both positive and negative points about his behaviour from Act 1, scenes 2, 4 and 5. Each group then feeds back to the class. Gather comments on the board.
  6. In pairs explore Hamlet's feelings of disillusionment which so frequently inform the uneasy atmosphere at court. You should closely analyse the language of his soliloquy using worksheet 2; this is also a good opportunity to look at the finer points of iambic pentameter, imagery, connotative language and the dramatic function of class soliloquies.
  7. Research the following background topics in small groups to then feedback to the class; provide an oral summary of these background notes for other students and explain how the information on these topics is relevant to the events and ideas of corruption in Act 1 of the play:

Learning task 2:

Learning intention(s)

Examining key text aspects

KCs/ Principles/Values focus

KCs: Thinking – explore texts

Relate to others – peer discussion

Learning task 2

Act 2

By the end of their study of Act 2, you should appreciate that the court is peopled with other characters who, like Claudius, contribute to the atmosphere of corruption and mistrust in the play. Others, such as Ophelia and Hamlet, are caught up in the chaos that has resulted from Claudius' original actions.

  1. Read through the Act as a class and establish key plot events. Continue to use the video or activities as suggested for Act 1 as support, if time allows.
  2. Divide class into three to focus on Polonius, whose sycophancy and mistrust of his children contributes to the deceit and moral corruption of the court. Each group looks at one of the aspects of Polonius' behaviour towards one of the following: Claudius, Laertes, Ophelia, as shown on worksheet 3. Gather their comments on the board.
  3. Motif of spying and deceptive appearances:list the occurrences of spying so far in the play. As a class, discuss how it adds to the claustrophobic, deceitful mood -and hence the theme of corruption - at court. Update the list of examples of spying as the play continues.
  4. Motif of madness: Discuss how various actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company have portrayed Hamlet's madness. Discuss with the class why madness as a state of mind has relevance to Elsinore as a diseased place as well as a place in which appearances can be deceptive. The class should appreciate that Hamlet's madness - his 'antic disposition' - is perceived as a 'disease' of the mind and a way of avoiding reality; in his madness, he can play other roles and deceive those around him. As a class, make a list of all the instances so far in which madness and pretence has occurred. Update this as the play continues. As a homework activity, read the background information provided here as to whether Hamlet is truly mad or not.
  5.  Hamlet mocks Polonius and dissembles with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Scene 2. Look at his speech to his friends. In pairs discuss how the ideas and language add to the theme of corruption at court. Gather their comments on the board.

Learning task 3:

Learning intention(s)

 Examining key text aspects

KCs/ Principles/Values focus

KCs: Thinking – explore texts

 Relate to others – peer discussion

Learning task 3

Act 3

By the end of their study of Act 3, you should appreciate that the corruption in Elsinore has lead to hysteria, deception, further plotting and the death of Polonius...

  1. Read through the Act as a class and establish key plot events.
  2. Act 3 scene 1: "Get thee to a nunnery". Read through the scene again in pairs, including Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and his dialogue with Ophelia to list as many references as can be found to corrupt and diseased images, such as "breeder of sinners". You should appreciate how spoiled Hamlet's view of the world and people around him has become following the unnatural death of his father and his mother's marriage.
  3. Stage the mousetrap scene (in an abridged form, perhaps) as a class, making sure that as many of the class as possible has someone else to watch to emphasise the elements of spying and layers of deception at work in the play. Remember that we, the audience, also watch the actors beyond the 'fourth wall' of the theatre. Freeze the action at tense moments and thought track some of the characters.
  4. Take a close look now at Ophelia - give out to small groups moments from the play so far which feature her, one scene per group: Act 1 scene 3 / Act 2 scene 2 / Act 3 scene 1 / Act 3 scene 2. You should produce a group mindmap of her character to explore the way she is presented as a victim of the corruption at court; look at her actions, her reactions, and her language. The disillusionment which consumes Hamlet as a result of Claudius' actions causes him to reject her and murder her father, resulting ultimately in her death in Act 4. Mindmaps should be displayed to the class by each group and explained. Groups could then make notes from the mindmaps.
  5. Complete a close analysis of Claudius in Scene 3, using worksheet 4.
  6. Scene 4: discuss Hamlet's view on Gertrude's marriage to Claudius - how is this symptomatic of his views on the court being corrupt? Polonius' murder - what comment might Shakespeare be making here?
  7.  Hamlet says to Gertrude that he must be heaven's "scourge and minister" - what might this suggest about his role within the theme of corruption in the play? You should grasp that Hamlet may correct the fault at court but, in Elizabethan terms, by opting for revenge, he is taking the law of God into his own hands and will be punished himself.

Learning task 4:

Learning intention(s)

Examining key text aspects

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Thinking – explore texts

Relate to others – peer discussion

Learning task 4

Act 4

By the end of their study of Act 4, you should appreciate that times in Elsinore have become desperate as the corruption unravels what little order is left. The frequency of the scenes adds momentum to the downfall of the main characters. Claudius is increasingly concerned, ironically, that it is Hamlet who is causing discord in Denmark and sends him to his execution, Ophelia goes mad and dies, Laertes returns to discover his father's murder and is drawn into Claudius' final plot....

  1. Read through the Act as a class and establish key plot events.
  2. Ophelia as victim: in pairs, look at the way she is presented in scenes 6 and 7, commenting on how the language and imagery (e.g. flowers) conveys her innocence in the face of others' immorality. Gather comments on the board.
  3. View famous pictures of her as another way of discussing the way she is presented. Discuss which elements of the play have influenced the various artists in their interpretations of her.
  4. Claudius's last attempts to regain control: split the class into two, each side to make notes on one of the following aspects of his behaviour with reference to scenes 1, 3, 5 and 7: 
    Claudius is desperately keen to be a strong ruler and uses diplomacy to attempt to restore order
    Claudius is manipulative and corrupt.
  5. Conduct a whole class debate on the issue, in which every person from each team must stand up and contribute one point to further their team's argument. No one must speak twice. Keep score on the board, giving points for any reasonable point well made or even just attempted, quotations used etc. and removing points for anything you feel is justified! Extra credit should be given for references to the language used by the various characters. Establish the rules beforehand though. Alternatively, have the two sides condense their arguments down for an 'expert' panel of three students from each side which can present their case in a more traditional debate format.
  6.  Separate the class into three, each group taking one of the following: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Ophelia; Laertes. Brainstorm and feedback in discussion on their actions in Act 4 and how these actions perpetuate the theme of moral corruption in the play at this point. Gather notes on the board.

Learning task 5:

Learning intention(s)

Examining key text aspects

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Thinking – explore texts

Relate to others – peer discussion

Learning task 5

Act 5

In the denouement, Shakespeare draws to a close his theme and the ending apparently restores order to the previously corrupt court. Characters that are seen to have taken the law of the land and of God into their own hands are killed, often "hoist by their own petards". The notion of Fortinbras as being the appropriate man to take the throne is, however, always up for discussion.

  1. Complete a reading of the play as a class.
  2. Discuss:
    • The graveyard scene: note Hamlet's declaration "This is I, Hamlet the Dane": his certitude about his own identity does not excuse his commitment to taking the law of heaven into his own hands through an act of revenge.
    • Hamlet's tale of his escape in scene 2: how is he, too, marked as a character of questionable morals, despite his desperation to avenge his father's death?
  3. The final scene: stage it in class / watch it on video as well as reading it through. Discuss how far the corrupt influences in the play have been destroyed. Note the recurrence of the motif of poison. Conduct a balloon debate to explore why each character should / should not have deserved to die, with reference to the key theme they have been studying. Extra credit should be given for references to the language used by the various characters.

    Balloon debate:

    Pick about five or six people, each of whom chooses one of the play's characters to impersonate. Then imagine all of them were together in a hot air balloon that was rapidly sinking. One of them must be thrown overboard in order to save the others: but who will it be? Each participant must make a speech saying why they should be allowed to stay in the balloon. The audience votes, and the losers are disqualified from the debate. The process is then repeated until only one speaker remains.

  4. Fortinbras - is he a force for good and morality? In pairs, look at all the references to him, one person to consider the pros, the other, the cons in Act 1 scene 2, Act 2 scene 2, Act 4 scene 4, Act 5 scene 2. How far has the character of Fortinbras provided a counter-view for the theme of corruption in the play? He has followed orders (Act 2) and not been as vengeful as the other two sons in the play (Hamlet and Laertes) although he marched through Denmark on a flimsy excuse (Act 4) and largely appears strong as he is contrasted with the less courageous Hamlet.
  5. Quotation Quest: Split the class into two or more teams. Using Worksheet 5 read out the quotations one by one, alternating between each team. When it is their turn the teams have to identify (either quickest hand up or by conferring as a group):
    • Who said it (1 point)
    • When it was said (in terms of plot, rather than which specific scene) - (1 point)
    • How it is relevant to the theme of corruption in the play (1 point)
  6. Worksheet 5 could then be distributed so you have a list of useful quotations on the topic. You should be aware that imagery of weeds, disease, chaos and poison, which run throughout the play, are indicators of the corruption within the court.
  7. Prior to beginning their seminars, it would be useful for to undertake some reading on critical viewpoints of the play, which will help students fine tune their own critical standpoints - and is especially important for those preparing for Scholarship English. This could be assigned as a homework exercise, in which students must read an aspect of a critical work and then summarise it for a partner the next lesson.

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, compile notes on him in their scene to feedback to the class.
  2.  In groups, select one scene which typifies the ideas of corruption in the play and perform it as a celebration of this theme. Alternatively, 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.

Learning task 6:

Learning intention(s)

 Presenting orally and in writing

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Use language, symbols and texts – structure and express understandings about texts

Learning task 6

Delivering a seminar

  1. Look at worksheet 6 which outlines the seminar task. Tasks could be chosen, picked out of a hat or allocated by the teacher.
  2. You will be assessed on how well you:
    • develop and support ideas about your topic
    • use a range of appropriate presentation techniques
    • how well you construct and deliver your presentation to your audience.

      Look at the ‘speaking standards clarification’ for information expectation regarding a Level 3 seminar.

      The following web pages also provide advice to help you deliver your presentation in an interesting, engaging and confident manner:

  3. In pairs, practise delivering your presentation. Make any necessary adjustments. Your presentation must be at least six minutes long.]
  4. Deliver your presentation.

Writing an essay

  1. While Hamlet is not a prescribed Level 3 play, from 2013 with the introduction of the curriculum aligned standards at Level 3, there are no longer prescribed Shakespearean plays so that any play could be used for the new level achievement standard 3.2 Respond critically to specified aspect(s) of studied written text(s), using supporting evidence
  2.  Select a topic from worksheet 7. Write at least 400 words in which they analyse a passage from Hamlet and/or analyse a selected aspect. The emphasis is that you provide a critical response.

Learning task 7:

Learning intention(s)

 Extending learning

KCs/ Principles/Values focus KCs: Thinking – explore texts

Learning task 7 – Additional Resources

Background notes on aspects of the play relevant to the central theme of this unit:

The Great Chain of Being


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

Teaching guides on Hamlet:

Teacher's Guide to the Signet Edition of Hamlet
SparkNotes: study notes on the whole play

Assessment and Evaluation

 (What is the impact of my teaching and learning?)

Formative and/or Summative assessment task(s), including how will feedback be provided AS 90725 Construct and deliver an oral presentation

Provision for identifying next learning steps for students who need:

  • further learning opportunities
  • increased challenge
English Teaching and Learning Guide 

Tools or ideas which, for example might be used to evaluate:

  • progress of the class and groups within it
  • student engagement

leading to :

  • changes to the sequence
  •  addressing teacher learning needs
See:  Planning Using Inquiry

Printing this unit:

If you are not able to access the zipped files, please download the following individual files.

Updated on: 01 May 2019