"To be or not to be”: Close Reading Hamlet’s Soliloquy

TM3 - To Be or Not To Be image.jpg


Greg Wyatt's garden sculpture inspired by Hamlet.

Photo Credit: 
Julie Ainsworth

Author: Carol Moran Petrallia, retired, taught English language arts classes at Columbia High School, South Orange/Maplewood School District, Maplewood, NJ

Editor: Greta Brasgalla, Folger National Teacher Corps and Curriculum Specialist at El Dorado High School, El Paso, TX

Common Core Anchor Standards: R.4, R.6, R.8, SL.3, W.1, W.9

Text: Hamlet, 3.1

Lesson Overview

Students will analyze Hamlet’s soliloquy in 3.1 by completing a close reading which will focus on word meaning and etymology.

Students will analyze two film versions of the soliloquy and track actor choices throughout using two column note-taking.

Students will write an argument analysis on the soliloquy.

Time: Three 45-minute class periods


  • Folger edition of Hamlet
  • Print or online dictionaries that include etymology information
  • Two different film versions of Hamlet's soliloquy
  • Chart paper, note cards, or post it notes
  • Word Study List handout

What To Do

Day One 

  1. Have a large copy of the soliloquy posted by copying the text and pasting it onto a large chart tablet. This will be the whole class close reading copy.
  2. Hand out copies of Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be," 3.1.64-98. Have students highlight/underline unfamiliar words/phrases. Let students know that this soliloquy introduces and explains Hamlet's decisions and actions in Act 3 and will serve as a reference point as they continue to read.
  3. Have students read the soliloquy aloud by "reading around the room" with each student reading a line and stopping at a punctuation mark or end punctuation mark. Encourage students to read and listen to Hamlet's description without being concerned if they don't understand every word/phrase.
  4. Ask students to highlight/underline words/phrases that are descriptive and have students identify the descriptive words they chose and why they did so.
  5. Hand out copies of the Word Study List. Assign students to work in pairs or small groups and complete the word study. Students should be encouraged to use the Folger notes whenever possible. Have students note the words' etymologies and to make observations about why they may be interesting and/or important to their meaning.
  6. Groups will place their word study notes onto the large class copy using post-its, sentence strips, or markers. Encourage the use of different colors as they highlight tone, character, or motivation.
  7. Whole class share: encourage groups to explain their notations on the whole class poster. Have students write other group notes onto their personal copy.

Day Two

  1. In preparing to view the films, discuss which parts of the soliloquy may be the most important to focus on as the actor performs.
  2. Students will watch each performance twice. Once without taking notes, the second while taking notes.
  3. Students will use a two column format to trace the soliloquy as it is read. Notes for performance one on left, performance two on right.

Day Three

As a class, discuss their reactions to the performances. Go through the soliloquy line by line and get reactions from students on each actor’s performance of this section. Note if any lines were cut; did it matter? Add any insights to your whole group close reading. You now have a completed close reading of the soliloquy for students to use on a written response.


Students will write an essay in which they trace Hamlet’s arguments throughout the soliloquy. How does Hamlet think through his question? What excuses does he use? What are his fears? What are his options? What resolution does he come to? How does Shakespeare use imagery, diction, and meter to enhance Hamlet’s decision making process?