You Are At: AllSands Home > Literature > Shakespearean tragedies: research questions
Whether you’re an instructor preparing an exam or a student looking for a unique angle for your next paper on the Bard, it never hurts to have someone else’s perspective on the play or the ideas you’re considering. Try out these sample questions about three of Shakespeare’s great tragedies – Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. The suggested answers can remain short, as they are, or can be expanded into multi-paragraph essays.

Question: Choose two other characters from the play and, providing specific examples, discuss the ways in which Hamlet’s interaction with those individual characters shows that Hamlet is more deeply affected than other characters by the events he experiences.

Suggested answer: In Act 3, Scene 4, the Ghost appears to Prince Hamlet in Gertrude’s chamber. The scene, of course, is the play’s most obvious example of Hamlet’s being more deeply affected than other characters by event and circumstance. He alone sees the Ghost at this point; Gertrude can see nothing of the Ghost at all. The difference in their ability to see is a clear statement from Shakespeare that the bonds of family – expressed as grief over King Hamlet’s death, and shock and disgust over Gertrude’s quick remarriage – are particularly emotional for the Prince, especially as compared to Gertrude. Similarly, earlier in Act 3, at Scene 1, more is going on for Hamlet in his verbal exchange with Ophelia than the surface of their conversation suggests. Though Ophelia, of course, here is rather a witting pawn for the investigation of Hamlet being conducted by Claudius and Polonius, still she understands her talk with Hamlet as being only about the specifics of their relationship. For Hamlet, the discussion is an investigation of his own into Ophelia’s honesty and, more significantly, a statement on the trustiworthiness of women in general. Finally, he turns to a taunting explanation of his own falseness – “I loved you not” -- and the fallen nature of man. Ophelia experiences the attraction she shares with Hamlet as love; Hamlet, if he ever did love Ophelia in return, now experiences their relationship as an arena for jousting with the notion of the fickle, unknowable “other,” including himself.

Question: Using direct quotations, trace the development of Othello’s response to Iago’s suggestions from disbelief to certainty of Desdemona’s infidelity. What does the process indicate about Othello’s state of mind?

Suggested answer: In a space of only sixty-three lines, in listening to Iago’s insinuations about Desdemona and Cassio, Othello moves from disbelief to certainty and back again. Here’s the progression: first, he says his spirits are dashed “not a jot” (3.3.222); then he is “not _much_ mov’d” (3.3.231, emphasis added); next, with only a little more prompting, he laments, “Why did I marry?”; and, finally, upon a bit of thinking, he pronounces, “I’ll not believe ’t.” Granted Iago is a skillful manipulator, but the ease with which he twists Othello suggests the Moor is emotionally ripe for the treatment to begin with.

Question: Using direct quotations, trace the development of Lear’s extended metaphor of returning from madness as waking from a death-like sleep.

Suggested answer: In King Lear, between 4.7.46 and 4.7.87, Shakespeare helps the audience “walk through” Lear’s resurfacing from madness into reality, a new place for Lear, where the king acknowledges equality and fellowship with other people. Here’s the progression: first, at line 46, Lear speaks of coming “out o’ the grave”: he is back from figurative death, the self-imposed separation from his only truly loving daughter. Struggling to recognize Cordelia as she ministers to him, he refers at lines 56-7 to pricking himself with a pin, as if to be sure he is not sleeping. He has moved from the stillness of death to a lighter dream sleep. Next, just as a person newly awake tries to recall a dream, Lear wonders at the logistics of the existence he has led during his madness: “All the skill I have / Remembers not these garments, nor I know not / Where I did lodge last night” (lines 68-70). Then, the light dawns, at lines 76-7: ‘your sisters / Have, as I do remember, done me wrong,” the king tells Cordelia. But, not to worry. Lear has been changed significantly by his madness: “The great rage, / . . . is kill’d in him,” the doctor points out (lines 80-1), and the king, though no less noble, is now also humble enough to ask forgiveness meaningfully, at line 87, of the daughter he treated so roughly.