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Harvard University

Shakespeare's Hamlet: The Ghost

Harvard University via edX


In the first act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet , the Ghost of the dead King of Denmark appears to his son, setting off a chain of events that culminates in the play’s notoriously bloody finale. But how would this mysterious figure have been understood in Shakespeare’s time?

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt guides learners through an exploration of the Ghost’s uncanny theatrical power and the historical contexts from which the character emerged. You will be introduced to the narrative sources of Hamlet, the religious convictions that shaped how Renaissance England understood the afterlife, and how the Ghost would have thrilled and challenged its original audience. By focusing on the Ghost, you will see how the play grapples with issues like death, mourning, remembrance, and the power of theatre.

Through short video lectures, readings from the play as well as later works by Coleridge and Joyce, and conversations with experts, you will develop critical tools with which to "unlock" the play's possible meanings.

If you're reading Hamlet for the first time, this course is a great introduction. If you're reading it for the hundredth time, it is the perfect chance to revisit and refresh your "take" on Shakespeare's greatest tragedy.


Part 1: Spirit? Apparition? Illusion?

In Part 1, we read Acts 1-2, analyzing how Shakespeare introduces the mysterious figure of the Ghost and builds up to Hamlet's encounter with it.

By the end of this unit, you will be able to:

  • Examine how Shakespeare sets the stage for Hamlet through the Ghost's dramatic appearance in the opening of the play
  • Situate the Ghost in the play's broader themes, motifs, and patterns of language
  • Discuss how Shakespeare builds on source materials, the work of other playwrights, and his own earlier plays in creating Hamlet
  • Assess different interpretations of what the Ghost "is," as well as how these interpretations are borne out in performance

Part 2: Imagining the Afterlife

In Part 2, we continue our reading with Acts 3-4 and look closely at the religious controversies following the Protestant Reformation.

By the end of this unit, you will be able to:

  • Interpret Hamlet in the context of the English Reformation, evaluating its complicated legacy on institutional practices and individual beliefs
  • Examine the religious controversy of Purgatory during Shakespeare’s time as well as its significance for the Ghost and Hamlet
  • Discuss the relationship between rituals such as prayer, last rites, communion, and the purchase of indulgences with the theater
  • Apply historical and anthropological methods to Hamlet, considering what it says about death in its own time and throughout time

Part 3: The Theater of Mourning

As we finish reading the play, we weigh the idea that the play is "about" revenge with the idea that it is "about" remembrance.

By the end of this unit, you will be able to:

  • Use primary source documents to understand ideas of death and mourning in the early modern period
  • Discuss how Shakespeare built upon the theatricality of mourning rituals to make Hamlet meaningful for its first audiences
  • Weigh the emphasis on revenge in the play with that on remembrance, which resonates with religious belief and practice
  • Assess different viewpoints on how Hamlet is universal and particular, depending on the context

**Part 4: TheTexts of _Hamlet

_ In Part 4, we turn to the earliest printed texts of the play, situating them in a broader understanding of early modern print and manuscript production. _

_**By the end of this unit, you will be able to:

  • Use primary documents to understand the mechanics of early modern print and manuscript culture
  • Analyze how different early texts of Hamlet shape how we understand and interpret the play
  • Connect Hamlet 's meditations on death and remembrance to the "life" of the play itself
  • Consider Hamlet 's impact on other texts through the examples of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Dogg's Hamlet

Taught by

Stephen Greenblatt


5.0 rating, based on 5 Class Central reviews

4.4 rating at edX based on 13 ratings

Start your review of Shakespeare's Hamlet: The Ghost

  • I've completed this course, even though I didn't think I would. The material is engaging, but somehow there's too few of it, and a bit more would be nice. The exercises are discussion-forum based, and rely on self-report, while the final essay is peer-reviewed. However, I've learned a lot, especially about interesting cultural and religious background, and that was the reason I stuck with this course. The instructor has a nice teaching style, and it's difficult to talk about literature outside the classroom discussion, but the questions were nicely composed in order to motivate similar discussion online. It was a good course, and a nice break from technical stuff for me. :)
  • Anonymous
    Professor Greenblatt has an incredible wealth of knowledge, of not only Shakespeare's plays, but of Shakespeare himself, and the life and times in which he existed. Learning more about the environment that the playwright lived in, helped to enhance my appreciation of the play.
  • Anonymous
    Imparted by one of the best specialists in Shakespeare nowadays, the only thing I could say against the course is that the difficulty to pass it is too low, I would have liked more difficulty in order to get the final diploma. For the rest, a very interesting course in one of my favorite topics.
  • Amazing!!!!
    I am in love in this course. I have learned so much about English literature and about mid century literature, i have fallaen in love in this
  • Adam F Cook

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