Reality, Mortality, Murder, and Madness: Psychological Perspectives on Hamlet

Why is Hamlet considered Shakespeare’s greatest play? Why has it been translated into 90 different languages and performed in eight countries? This course aims to make Hamlet more accessible and understandable, and to demonstrate its relevance to our own lives and times. We will analyze the many- faceted, chameleon-like personality of Hamlet and the motives of the other principal characters: his mother, Gertrude; his stepfather, Claudius; his girlfriend, Ophelia; and her father, Polonius. 


Insights from psychoanalysis and contemporary social psychology will be introduced. The class will consider the many meanings of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be.” Because Shakespeare’s plays come across best when they can be heard and seen, we will use the text but will also compare very different interpretations of the title role by actors like Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Plummer, Mel Gibson, David Tennant, and Lawrence Olivier. The class will also meet an accomplished actor who has played the role of Hamlet.

Instructor: Stephen Bank

Date: Tuesdays, Sept 14, 21, 28, Oct 5

Time: 4-5:30 pm

Location: Butterfield Room, Wasch Center

Cost: $115


  • Suggested Reading List

    Cliff’s Complete Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It provides helpful notes explaining s early modern English words and phrases. Packed with useful information about Shakespeare’s life and times, it is well worth $12.95.


    Watch at least two of these filmed productions of Hamlet on Netflix or Prime Video, featuring as Hamlet:

    Laurence Olivier

    Mel Gibson

    David Tenant

    Kenneth Branagh

    Learn how different actors and directors have interpreted the play in very different ways. Be sure to turn on the English subtitles!



    I created two videos that may help you enjoy and appreciate Hamlet. You will find them on You Tube.


    Reality, Mortality, Murder and Madness in Hamlet: A Psychological Viewpoint


    Hamlet: An Actor’s Point of View: With Marcella Trowbridge



    Other Resources


    Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies. Mary Z. Maher. Interviews with 9 actors who interpreted the title role in different ways.


    Hamlet-Poem Unlimited. Harold Bloom. Short critical essays.


    Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Mary Pipher. Ophelia’s life and suicide from a feminist standpoint.


    Ophelia Speaks-Adolescent Girls Write about their Search for Self. Written by Sara Shandler, when she was a Wesleyan student.


    A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare -1599. James Shapiro. A far-reaching description of the treacherous political and religious backdrop of England when Hamlet was first performed.



    Hamlet-Globe to Globe. Domenik Dromgoole. An account of London’s Globe Theater’s two-year190, 000 mile tour: performed Hamlet in 197 countries.


    Spin -offs and Creative Adaptations

    After reading/watching Shakespeare’s original play, you may want to read my own modern adaptation, The Trial of Hamlet, available on Amazon books and Kindle. Hamlet survives and faces execution for killing Polonius, Ophelia’s father. Awaiting trial, he undergoes a psychological examination and psychotherapy. He is confronted by Ophelia’s feminist ghost and uncovers his parents’ darkest secrets. A court-room battle between defense and prosecution unfolds.

    Nutshell. Author Ian McEwan imagines Gertrude and Claudius conspiring to murder King Hamlet, Gertrude’s husband, Hamlet’s father. Gertrude is pregnant. Hamlet as a fetus overhears their sinister plot.