(Complete Lesson III of our Year 12 Mod B Hamlet course) (PDF

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YEAR 12:
Lesson 3: Hamlet II
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Last week, we looked at the framework of Module B and related these expectations
to a brief overview of Hamlet. This lesson’s focus will be deconstructing the various
contextual influences upon the composition of the play, and relating these to the
main themes and issues explored.
Remember, because Module B is a critical analysis of one prescribed text, an upperrange essay will require a holistic analysis of the components of the text. This
means creating links in your analysis between the themes, textual evidence
(techniques and quotes), form and structure, context, and critical interpretations of
the play that have informed your own.
Textual Integrity
Your essay must demonstrate your understanding of textual integrity – the
coherence and unity of a text as a compilation of all its different elements. The HSC
Syllabus defines textual integrity as:
“The unity of a text; its coherent use of form and language to produce an
integrated whole in terms of meaning and value.”
What does this mean?
Unity: agreement, harmony, the way the text “fits together”
Coherent: clear, rational, consistent, reasonable, believable, relevant
Form: method, play, script, structure, construction
Language: language features, literary devices, dramatic techniques, style,
Integrated whole: believable, realistic, no inconsistencies in actions or
reactions, complete narrative, everything “fits” and makes sense
Meaning and value: ideas and their importance, worthiness of following the
development of each character, relevance of their actions and consequences,
merit, usefulness
Evaluating a text in terms of its textual integrity requires students to consider a
number of things:
Features and elements of Hamlet:
Language features, dramatic techniques, poetic devices
Form and structure
Hamlet’s soliloquys
Religious symbols and laws
Conflict of values within Elizabeth context
Supernatural element vs God – contrasting images and characters
Characterisation of major and minor characters
When all these elements are put together, they give the play:
Consistent and realistic/human characters
Believable events
Relevant and timeless themes and issues
Valid, interesting, controversial and ongoing appeal to different audiences,
directors and actors
Hamlet’s textual integrity is essentially what has led to its enduring relevance to
modern audiences because of the dramatic and language techniques that
Shakespeare used to make responders develop their own opinions, reactions and
conclusions about aspects of the human condition. The ambiguity at the core of
Hamlet, prompts us – the reader/audience – question the truth, thus contributing to
its lasting appeal. Your task in an essay response, is to identify and analyse all these
different elements that make up the entirety of the text.
How does Shakespeare create textual integrity in Hamlet?
Some points to consider:
Shakespeare had to retain the stock situation and basic characterisations as
Ur-Hamlet since they had become familiar to his audience. He did however
subvert elements of the rudimentary Kydian melodramatic tragedy of blood
into something more complex and sophisticated.
The textual integrity also extends to the five act structure of the play. Bradley
associated each act as serving a particular function in the development of the
tragedy: 1) a situation, 2) the rise and development of the conflict, 3) the
crisis, 4) the decline, 5) the catastrophe. Shakespearean tragedy offers a more
complex investigation of the medieval forms of the moral play and de
casibus tragedy, demonstrating the influence of Seneca’s stoicism and
Goddess Fortuna.
Aristotle defines the six qualitative elements of tragedy as: plot, character,
diction, reasoning, spectacle and song; the three objects are plot (mythos),
character (ethos) and reasoning (dianoia).
Mimesis as representation of humanity and catharsis as clarification of
human experience in Hamlet suggest Shakespeare’s adaptation of Aristotle’s
ideas and the dramatist’s great sympathy and admiration for Prince Hamlet in
that he is presented as a noble person faced with the almost impossible task
of ridding Denmark of its murderer and tyrant without tarnishing family
honor and personal integrity.
Here is a brief table of definitions for some words you may not have come across
before. A lot of the esoteric terms you will encounter in the Hamlet course will be in
relation to genre and style; words that are derived from philosophers and
playwrights. We will go into much more depth about elements of the revenge
tragedy genre in next week’s material.
Referring to Thomas Kyd, an English playright in Shakespeare’s time.
His Kydian formula distinguished revenge tragedies from other types
of plays, using elements such as:
Fundamental motive for action being revenge, usually aided by
an accomplice
Vengeance-seeking ghost
Hesitation from avenger before committing to revenge as
Madness usually used as dramatic device
Machinations/intrigue used both by and against the avenger
Bloody action along with multiple deaths, usually including the
loss of innocent lives + accomplices on both sides killed
Villain is almost completely Machiavellian, characterized by
cunning scheming and unscrupulous methods
Minor characters usually left to deal with the chaotic situation at
the end of the play
De casibus
Termed from Boccaccio’s work De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (Examples
of Famous Men), de casibus tragedies are about men – usually royals who fall from great heights of happiness.
Seneca was a renowned Roman philosopher and dramatist. Many critics
saw Shakespeare as a new Seneca because of the prevalence of the
Senecan tragedy model in Shakespeare’s plays. There are three main
characteristics of a Senecan tragedy:
A division into five acts with choruses
A considerable retailing of ‘horrors’ and violence, usually, though
not always, acted off the stage and elaborately recounted
Imitation, representation
The purging or relieving of emotional tensions
Contextual Background: Shakespeare’s context
To effectively understand a text in its entirety, students must have extensive
knowledge about the composer’s context. This applies for every area of study in
English, but is especially important in Module B. Though not directly expressed in
the text, every element of context will have had some kind of impact on the content
of the text – historical events could have shaped the unfolding of the plot or the
political situation in the text, cultural context could have shaped character
stereotypes or biases, and personal context could have shaped character
interactions or developments.
Historical Context
In the late 16th century, England came under repeated threat of attack by both
internal and external bodies. England predominantly faced external threats from the
Holy Roman Empire as a result of Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome and
establish the English monarchy as head of the Church of England in 1533.
Mary I had reunited with Rome during her reign from 1553-1558, marrying the
Spaniard Philip II, which did not prove to be popular amongst the people. Elizabeth
I, on acceding to the throne, faced pressure to maintain the peace and protect the
throne. However, a woman during those times would have been considered as
inferior to men. Despite manipulating her image to show that she was a fit political
leader who was able to protect and lead the nation, she had to answer the question
of the succession – if she were to make an alliance of marriage with a European
prince, England would be lost. However, if she were to die childless, the threat of
further shifts in religion and an impending civil war also loomed. The question came
down to one of her political power or England’s safety.
She conducted herself as a stereotypical Petrarchan lover – the untouchable woman
of perfect beauty – a product of the deeply rooted misogyny within a patriarchal
system that denied her the political shrewdness and strength her authority
demanded. As she aged however, this representation as the sexually desirable
maiden became more difficult to manage.
How did this affect Hamlet?
The figure of Queen Gertrude as an aging, sexual monarch is presented as a
troubling figure for Hamlet. She maintains a position of political authority within
the court only through her marriage to Claudius after King Hamlet’s death, and
appears on-stage with Claudius in most court scenes, yet she has relatively little
lines in the play, spending much of it in silence despite the centrality of her role.
Whilst Oedipal readings of the Queen’s character largely focus on the effects of her
motherly role upon the exploration of Prince Hamlet’s psychology, what kind of a
political figure do you think she presents in the play? Think of the context – at a
time when an aging Queen still sat on the English throne, projecting a sexualized
image of herself in order to maintain political power, how can we interpret
Gertrude’s sexuality in relation to her position in the political court?
Oedipus complex: Freud’s psychoanalytical theory denoting the dynamic repression of a
child’s desire to sexually possess the parent of the opposite sex – in the context of
Hamlet, read Ernest Jones. Jones attributes Hamlet’s procrastination as a result of the
Oedipus complex: his hesitation in enacting revenge is a consequence of the
psychodynamic situation in which he finds himself, where on the one hand he despises
his fratricidal uncle, yet on the other, he unconsciously identifies with him for marrying
his mother and carrying out hamlet’s own unconscious wishes.
Religious Context
Shakespeare’s life spanned both Elizabethan and Jacobean England; a dynamic
period of change, expansion, exploration and enlightenment.
England during Elizabethan times was embroiled in major religious conflict (The
Reformation) between the two most powerful theological forces of the time in
Europe – Catholicism and Protestantism. The main essence of this conflict came
down to the hierarchy and salvation of Catholicism, against the interpretation and
predestination of Protestantism. In Hamlet, however, Shakespeare mixes the two
religions – at one moment, the play is Catholic and medieval, and in the next, it is
logical and Protestant, making interpretation difficult. We’ll look at the thematic
implications of this later on, but the main point to draw for now is how uncertainty
permeates every layer of the play.
How exactly did the Elizabethan period influence Shakespeare’s ideas?
One of the central concepts inherited by Shakespeare and explored in Hamlet, is the
notion of the Great Chain of Being – a notion that every existing thing in the
universe had its own ‘place’ in a divinely planned hierarchal order that went
something like this:
The ladder of intellect
Within these ranks, there was universal interdependence, implicit in the doctrine of
‘correspondences’, which held that different segments of the chain reflected other
segments. For instance, Renaissance thinkers viewed a human being as a
microcosm that reflected the structure of the world as a whole, the macrocosm.
Accordingly, there was thus a strong believe in order, and this is manifested in
Hamlet whereby Shakespeare warns against, criticizes even, the improper succession
of monarchs (supreme level of humankind), which will give rise to chaos and
Another contextually influenced ideology was the idea of the wheel of fortune,
derived from the Medieval concept of fortune, personified as Dame Fortune – a
blindfolded woman who turned a wheel at her whim. Men were stationed at various
placed on the wheel – the top of the wheel represented the best fortune, being
under the wheel, the worst. However, the wheel could turn suddenly and the man on
top could suddenly be under the wheel without warning.
Cultural Context
As was common during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Shakespeare
heavily borrowed ideas from other literary sources when composing his plays. The
origins and influences of Hamlet point to several possibilities, including a 12th
century Latin history of Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus, and a work of prose named
Histoires Tragiques, written by French writer François de Belleforest.
By modifying these original materials however, Shakespeare was able to transform
rather unremarkable stories and produce a revenge tragedy that resonated with the
most fundamental themes and concerns of the Renaissance – an expansive cultural
phenomenon originating from 15th century Italy. Renaissance scholars were
intrigued and motivated by a political ideal called humanitas – the idea that
humanity’s capabilities and virtues should be studied to the furthest extent. These
ideas formed the foundations of Renaissance humanism, which generated new
interest in understanding the human experience, in light of the potential scope of
human understanding. The humanists aimed to cultivate reason, so that they could
better understand how to act.
In the next few centuries however, as the Renaissance spread to other countries, the
humanist movement developed a more skeptical ideology that stressed the
limitations of human understanding. Humanists such as Michel de Montaigne saw
the world of experience to be full of appearances, where human beings would never
be able to discover the ‘realities’ that lay behind these appearances. This is the
world in which the characters of Hamlet are placed, to demonstrate these concerns:
the difficulties of finding truth within others – guilt/innocence, motivations,
feelings, sanity.
Thematic Concerns
‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love,
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.’
- The Ghost, Act I Scene V
Being a revenge tragedy, revenge is of course the most predominant thematic
concern explored in Hamlet – it not only embodies all of the typical characteristics
and conventions of its genre, it also deals with concurrent revenge plots; all of
which involve a son seeking vengeance for the death of his father. However, the play
isn’t about the successful vengeance at the end of the day – Hamlet’s ultimate
revenge for his father’s murder is depicted in a few lines during Act V. The
resolution of each quest for revenge, rather, seeks to highlight the very inadequacy
of revenge through exploring Hamlet’s inner struggles to take action. His inability to
act is expounded by his foil characters; Fortinbras and Laertes, whose clear
perceptions of filial duty and honour contract Hamlet as the Renaissance man
driven by humanist values.
The futility of revenge is explored through the quests of Hamlet, Laertes and
Fortinbras – as we’ve already discussed, these three characters seek revenge in very
different ways (differing as much as the ultimate outcome), but what they all serve
to highlight is that revenge only begets more revenge in a heedless cycle that stops
only when someone has the courage to put an end to it.
Laertes embarks upon the simple crusade of killing the person responsible for
killing his father, Polonius. This is the purest form of revenge, and as such, reflects a
certain kind of perverted nobility that may at first glance, present Laertes to be a
mirror of Hamlet. Hamlet’s revenge, upon which he bases his entire existence,
however, cuts deeper – he does not merely wish to kill Claudius, he wants his soul to
be eternally damned.
Hamlet possesses an unabiding loathing to confront and kill Claudius in cold blood,
yet his indecision markedly contrasts the lust for quick and depraved violence that
Laertes seeks. Laertes’ drive for revenge is not tempered with the desire for eternal
retribution – he represents the notion that revenge is a never-ending cycle:
‘To this point I stand, / That both the world, I give to negligence, / Let come what
comes; only I’ll be reveng’d / Most throughly for my father. That both the worlds I
give to negligence’
-Laertes, Act IV, Scene V
Fortinbras on the other hand, seeks revenge for his father’s death in the manner of
recapturing the lands lost by his father to Hamlet’s father; this act of vengeance
adding a political dimension to the theme of revenge. He seeks to retain an
dimensionally insignificant patch of land, dedicating himself to the history of the
land wars and other conflicts that existed for no other reason than to right personal
wrongs that had been committed.
Indeed, all three acts of revenge highlight how revenge is ultimately a pointless
endeavour that serves to create an unceasing cycle of vengeance. Hamlet's brooding
over the morality of the act of revenge stands apart from that of the other two men
because he represents the coming of a more enlightened age. Cold-blooded murder
of the type that Laertes seeks is not acceptable to Hamlet; indeed he also seeks
everlasting punishment. The revenge of Fortinbras is engendered by the desire to
regain a lost land of little consequence, pointing to the theme of how revenge can be
enacted for the most illogical of reasons.
Scenes to focus on: (this is by no means an exhaustive list, merely some relevant ones
to give you ideas and start you off).
Act I Scene V: Hamlet promises the ghost of his father that he will avenge his
murder, but laments the responsibility that he now bears.
Act II Scene II: Hamlet curses his own passivity, berating the fact that the
player in the troupe was able to summon a depth of feeling and expression
whilst he himself was unable to take action upon his own powerful motives.
Act III Scene III: Hamlet comes across Claudius in prayer, hesitating to kill the
King when he is penitent.
Act III Scene IV: Hamlet is visited by the ghost and reminded of the fact that
he has not yet taken action.
Act IV Scene IV: Hamlet finds a renewed strength after his encounter with
Fortinbras, as he marvels that people kill over trivial gains, and resolves that
his thoughts from then on will be more ‘bloody’.
Act IV Scene V: Laertes takes a more decisive approach to revenge, in stark
contrast to Hamlet’s reflectiveness.
Act V Scene II: Claudius’s plot results in the death of most of the major
characters. Hamlet finally enacts revenge before he dies.
Questions for discussion:
Why does Hamlet procrastinate time and time again in avenging his father’s
murder? Does he actually want to take revenge?
How do Hamlet’s attitudes toward revenge differ from those of Laertes or
How, if at all, do Hamlet’s attitudes toward revenge develop or change
throughout the play? Do his actions match up with what he says about
Appearance and Reality
‘O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!’
- Hamlet, Act I Scene V
‘Appearance versus reality’ is another common theme that students often think of
when conducting their own analysis of the play, and it’s likely to be one of the top
themes that online study guides talk about. We’ll be looking at this theme very
loosely, and later on, we’ll examine exactly why you shouldn’t talk about the
concern of ‘appearance versus reality’ verbatim in an essay response.
For the purposes of deconstructing the themes however, there are a number of other
issues that fall under this broad category:
Corruption and deception
Hamlet depicts a sordid political world where deception has almost become a
necessary part of life, and political ‘spin’ gives one the required edge. Political
corruption by means of lies and deceit is one of the main factors behind the
unfolding of the play’s events – lies are covered up, and façades are put on. We’re
constantly reminded of the decay in Elsinore: ‘something is rotten in the State of
Denmark’, states Marcellus in Act I Scene IV, and throughout the play, we begin to
trace a progression of corruption that leads to disease and death – mainly through
Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet.
Claudius is the centre of evil in both the play’s plot as well as the kingdom of
Elsinore, his unpunished crime of regicide corrupting the very kingdom he now
rules. He murders his own brother to claim the throne from the old King. He secretly
colludes with Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to try and bring about
his execution. He plots with Laertes to poison Hamlet. All these evil deeds that have
carried him to the throne also pollute the people around him, causing chaos, sorrow
and death, where the ambiguities of his verisimilitude create confusion about what
is real and what is false.
Claudius’s political corruption isn’t the only element of the text that showcases the
binaries of appearances and reality however. His deceit is also evident through the
façades that he puts on – the appearance of a quintessential statesman concealing
his crime and dual nature through carefully balanced appearances. In the coming
lessons, we’ll be closely analysing his speech – you’ll notice that this duplicity is
reinforced by the language that he uses, full of paradoxes and incongruous imagery.
After Claudius, Polonius is perhaps the most obviously corrupt character in Hamlet,
indeed, his is corruption begins long before the commencement of the play. He
appears to be comic relief; a long-winded old fool, yet from this emerges a
personality that is first dominating in his instructions to his son (‘These few precepts
in thy memory / Look thou character’) and curtness to his daughter (‘Affection? Pooh! /
You speak like a green girl / Unsifted in such perilous circumstance’). However, the
progression of his corruption is further revealed to us as he becomes meddling and
subversive, setting spies on his own son, and finally irredeemably and ultimately
corrupt, as he plots against Hamlet. His death can be seen as a precursor to the
audience, signifying the ultimate fate of the characters exhibiting signs of
Even Hamlet himself is guilty of deception – he strives to separate his noble
qualities that we’ve seen throughout the play from the treachery in which he has
been entangled, yet he too has become corrupted in becoming the focus of the
ancient revenger’s dilemma. He puts on an ‘antic disposition’, feigning madness,
murders five people and causes the suicide of one. Any further action that he takes
will be morally dubious; not taking revenge and ignoring his filial duty will reduce
him and make him unfit for rule by his own standards, yet taking revenge will do the
From the destiny these three characters combined, the ‘disease’ of corruption leads
only to fatal consequences. Hamlet and Polonius’ emotions clouded their judgment,
leading them to their own deaths. Those who had killed others in the play were each
motivated by the stagnant disease that infected them.
Scenes to focus on:
Act I Scene II: King Claudius and Queen Gertrude urge Hamlet to raise his spirits;
alone on stage he expresses his outrage at his mother's speedy remarriage to
his uncle.
Act I Scene V: The ghost of King Hamlet tells his son how he was murdered by
Act III Scene II: The performance of the Mousetrap appears to reveal Claudius's
Act III Scene IV: Hamlet confronts his mother about her disloyalty and kills
Polonius accidentally, thinking he was Claudius.
Act IV Scene III: Claudius sends orders to England that Hamlet be executed.
Act IV Scene V: Laertes, furious at the death of his father and his sister's madness,
swears vengeance against Hamlet.
Act V Scene II: Claudius's plotting results in the death of most of the major
characters. Fortinbras, returning in triumph from Poland, will assume the throne
of Denmark.
Questions for discussion:
Hamlet craves honesty in a world where everyone around him seems to be
practicing deceit or manipulation. Does he himself avoid deception? Is he a
What does Hamlet think of “seeming”? Why is he so disgusted by the deceit
that goes on around him?
How do the different characters in the play engage in some kind of deception
or deceit? What are their motivations? Are there any characters that avoid
deception completely?
Polonius gives the wise words of advice: ‘To thine own self be true’ – does he
follow his own advice?
‘I am but mad north-north-west:
when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’
- Hamlet, Act II Scene II
Does Hamlet truly go mad or is the madness all an act of obfuscating insanity?
Indeed, his behaviour starts out as being an ‘antic disposition’, but no doubt, his
mental state deteriorates over the course of the play – does he end up being insane?
The difficulty in answering this dilemma of Hamlet’s sanity lies in the uncertainty
that foregrounds every aspect of the play – our uncertainty about Hamlet’s mental
state aptly reflects the general ambiguity and doubt within the play.
Hamlet begins by feigning madness in the hope of being able to study Claudius’s
behaviour without arousing suspicion (however ironically, this leads him to be more
closely watched than ever). This façade of madness contributes to the play’s
exploration of acting and ‘seeming’, and lies much in line with the façades put on by
Claudius, as discussed above. Hamlet’s madness also has the effect of alienating
himself, as he distances himself from Ophelia and drives her mad as well.
Ophelia’s madness however, is by no means a deception. Her madness parallels
Hamlet’s in some aspects: both have lost their fathers and apparently been spurned
by a loved one, however the crucial difference is that Ophelia doesn’t possess the
intellectual capacity to understand the corruption in the world around her. Her
madness serves predominantly to highlight the effects of a chaotic and disorderly
world on a pure and innocent soul, or perhaps, through a feminist reading, the
pressure faced by woman in a male-dominated society.
Scenes to focus on:
Act I Scene III: Polonius instructs Ophelia to disassociate herself from Hamlet
who he insists does not love her whatever he says.
Act II Scene I: Ophelia, distraught, tells her father of Hamlet's recent bizarre
behaviour and Polonius speculates that Hamlet is mad with love.
Act II Scene II: Polonius tells Gertrude and Claudius of Hamlet's strange
behaviour and they agree to watch him secretly. Polonius talks with Hamlet who
appears to be mad. Later in the scene Hamlet concocts his plan to trick the king
with the Mousetrap scene, performed by the travelling players.
Act III Scene I: In the 'nunnery scene' Ophelia is bewildered by Hamlet's
contradictory assertions and his anger and mourns the 'noble mind' that has been
Questions for discussion:
What does Hamlet mean when he says he’s going to put on an ‘antic
disposition’? What purpose does he think it will serve?
Is there any textual evidence in the play that Hamlet legitimately does
descend into madness?
Is there a marked difference in the madness of Hamlet and Ophelia? Compare
their behaviour and speech.
What causes Ophelia’s madness? What purpose does it serve in the play?
‘To be or not to be?’
- Hamlet, Act III Scene I
Like the ‘theme’ of appearance versus reality, ‘uncertainty’ isn’t really a specific
thematic concern that’s explored in Hamlet, but more so a general characteristic of
the play that encompasses a number of issues. We’ve already seen an immense lack
of certainty in the themes explored above – Hamlet’s not sure whether or not, and
when to take revenge, we’re not sure about Hamlet’s mental state, and the
statesmen of Elsinore aren’t sure about each others’ intentions.
Can we have certain knowledge about ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or
is it really a misleading fiend? Does the ghost have reliable knowledge about its own
death, or is the ghost itself deluded? How can we know for certain the facts about a
crime that has no witnesses? Can Hamlet know the state of Claudius’s soul by
watching his behaviour? If so, can he know the facts of what Claudius did by
observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state of
Hamlet’s mind by observing his behaviour and listening to his speech? Can we know
whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we
know anything about the afterlife? These are the questions Hamlet poses.
Uncertainty is something that permeates every element of the play both textually
and contextually (drawing upon the hierarchal instability of Shakespeare’s time),
and it’s something that’s well worth being well acquainted with in your studies,
because you’ll be able to adapt your knowledge to most questions that come your
way in exams.
Let’s look at three distinct themes that reflect the central notion of uncertainty:
how to act, morality, and death. Note how most of these themes can be loosely
phrased in terms of binary opposites: action v. inaction, value systems of Medieval
Europe v. Renaissance philosophy, and of course, life v. death. By deconstructing
each of these dichotomies, we can effectively reconcile the tensions that
Shakespeare explores in Hamlet and deduce what exactly it is behind this ubiquity of
Complexities of action
Hamlet is a play where acting, façades, playing and ‘seeming’ all play a major role.
From Shakespeare’s discussion of the many possibilities and complications inherent
in the notion of acting, such as identity, the roles we’re expected to play in society,
to even providing a moral judgment on how women should act, Hamlet is imbued
with questions about the stark truths of the human condition and our relationships
with others through our actions. More importantly, the possibility of taking
reasonable, effective and purposeful action is questioned – the complexities of
action draw in not only rational considerations such as the need for certainty (which
ironically creates more uncertainty of decision), but also by emotional, ethical and
psychological factors.
Look at Hamlet himself, who appears to distrust the idea that it’s possible to act in
such a way. When he does act, he prefers to do it impulsively, blindly, recklessly,
and violently. We’ve looked at his ruminations in revenge already, but what other
factors shape his inner turmoil and oscillation between action and inaction? One
minute, Hamlet’s desire for action is deeply-rooted in his dedication to Claudius’
revenge (refer to the ‘All you host of heaven’ soliloquy), yet his psychological
fluctuations later lead to self-berating and vacillation as he realizes he’s ‘prompted
to my revenge by heaven and hell’. Note again, the dichotomy of heaven and hell
that foregrounds every other dichotomy that’s been explored in the play.
We’ll be looking into specifics of Hamlet’s inner psyche in later weeks, but keep in
mind the buzzwords weltanschauung and weltschmerz, as well as Nietzsche’s
Dionysian man. These will be explained in much more detail as we progress
through the course.
Uncertainty of value systems
Hamlet dramatizes the spiritual uncertainty and religious anxieties of 16th century
Europe: the effects of the Protestant Reformation on Christian ideas about mortality
and the afterlife, as well as other conflicting philosophical ideas. It also seems to be
in basic conflict with itself – how can a play about murder, suicide and revenge
square with Christian notions of acceptance, Providence and forgiveness? This is the
uncertainty that Hamlet encounters in the play, and perhaps one of the reasons
behind his lengthy procrastination.
Not only was there religious uncertainty in the text and its context, this uncertainty
is also fortified by the play’s humanist search for meaning between the conflicting
value systems of medieval Europe and Renaissance philosophy. We’ve talked a lot
about the humanists – and this is exactly what’s driving Hamlet’s moral scruples
and cyclical reasoning. He doesn’t just want to return to blissful ignorance, he
sincerely believes in a sense of humanist subjectivity (‘nothing is good or bad, but
thinking makes it so’). This is the kind of ethical relativism that stands at odds not
only with his religious values, but also his uncertainty in enacting retribution, as
Hamlet is trapped between the filial obligation of an inherently medieval value
system, versus that of a Christian moral code. The latter is what leads to his
uncertainty and hesitation in murdering Claudius at the chapel, as discussed above,
as the question for him becomes: do I want to become like the murderer I am to
Questions for discussion:
What does Hamlet mean when he says ‘we defy augury’? (Act V Scene II, 37)
How “Christian” is this play? Is there one clear religious influence that is
more dominant throughout the play?
Why are the castle guards afraid of the Ghost? Where does it claim to come
How do Hamlet’s ideas about religion, spirituality or philosophy shape the
way he sees and reacts to the world? Do his ideas ever change throughout the
Mysteries surrounding death
There seems to be a very fine line between life and death in Hamlet – one of
Hamlet’s main concerns is mortality, and the fact that the living world is made of so
much death and decay. He becomes obsessed with this idea of death in the
aftermath of his father’s murder, and his intensifies along with his interactions with
the ghost, which lead to his ponderings about the spiritual aftermath of death. As
the play progresses, the public rites which mark the passage between life and death
collapse completely as Hamlet addresses physical remainders of the dead with the
same sense of intimacy (he talks to dead Polonius with the same sarcastic tone, and
recreates a vision of Yorrick with warmth and humanity). All these elements foster a
sense of liminal uncertainty as the living and dead mingle with a startling proximity.
The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly
contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in such a chaotic,
meaningless world. His grief and misery leads him to frequently long for death to
end his suffering, yet uncertainty plagues him even in these thoughts as he fears
eternal suffering in hell if he commits suicide (which is prohibited by Christianity).
Scenes to focus on:
Act I Scene I: Marcellus and Bernardo tell Horatio that they have seen the ghost of
old Hamlet. Horatio is skeptical until the ghost appears.
Act I Scene IV: Horatio, Marcellus and Hamlet meet the ghost. Hamlet is unsure
whether this is truly his father or an evil spirit, but insists that either way it
cannot harm his immortal soul.
Act III Scene I: Hamlet debates the question of whether suicide is an effective
solution to the pain he is experiencing: the difficulty is that we do not know what
to expect in an afterlife.
Act V Scene I: Hamlet talks with the gravediggers and considers that even great
men become dust.
Questions for discussion:
What is so fascinating about death, in Hamlet’s eyes? Do other characters
have any significant perspectives about death?
What are the different ways in which characters die in the play?
Does Hamlet contemplate suicide at all? If so, what is the cause of these
thoughts? When does he dwell on them?
What counterarguments for suicide does Hamlet provide through the play?
Do these evolve or change in any way as the play progresses?
Showing depth when it comes to themes
Earlier on in the lesson, we flagged the importance of presenting thematic concerns
or focal points as concise, yet erudite insights into the play as opposed to a vague
one-word descriptor. The easiest way of explaining this would be to take the classic
example of Romeo and Juliet – what’s the first ‘theme’ that pops into mind? Love.
The issue however, is that in an essay, you can’t present one of your focal areas as
being merely ‘love’ – what exactly is it about love that you want to focus on? Bear in
mind, this will depend entirely on what you’re trying to prove in your thesis. Give
more depth; the forcefulness of love, perhaps, or the violent consequences of explosive
Similarly, higher range marks for Hamlet responses will generally explore the same
central thematic concerns and issues, but presented in a more refined and
sophisticated manner. It could be what angle or perspective you employ when
analysing an issue, or it could be something as simple as the way you phrase it.
When you’re introducing a paragraph in your topic sentence, it’s much more
effective to talk about humanity’s ontological quest to ascertain truth, as
opposed to referring to truth vs. lies, or even the conflation between appearance
and reality as a better way of phrasing appearance vs. reality.
(TLDR; Just don’t use the word ‘vs.’ when presenting a focal point)
This approach also holds true for when you’re developing your paragraph – be aware
of what you’re written. Instead of saying that Claudius is evil, talk about his
Machiavellian tendencies. Instead of talking about façades and deception, refer to
the ambivalence of mankind. Students all get better at it with practice, but you’ll
be surprised how much of a difference it makes when you consciously try and
address these issues while you’re writing your essay!
Of course this isn’t the only way depth of analysis is achieved – throughout the
course we’ll be looking at other ways you can present a holistic analysis of the text
in response to any given question, including incorporation of secondary sources
such as critics, etc. On face value however, pedantic vocabulary choice will go far
when it comes to putting the marker in a good mindset. Compile a list of potential
focal points to have handy when you’re doing your practice essays!