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AS and A Level: Hamlet
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Shakespeare and 'Hamlet' - some contextual knowledge to include in your response
- 1 Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest, most popular and most performed play.
- 2 There are several quartos and folios or editions which make it very difficult to date, but it is generally thought to have been written between 1599 and 1603.
- 3 Hamlet is classed as a tragedy and draws on many features of the revenge tragedy genre, which originated in catholic countries such as Italy and Spain – consider the portrayal of Old Hamlet in purgatory in Act 1.
- 4 Being set in Denmark and being written around the time of the reformation, Hamlet also embraces many protestant ethics, drawing on differing religious traditions and beliefs. Horatio’s rationalism perhaps counters the superstition attached to the ghost of Old Hamlet in Act 1.
'Hamlet' and revenge
- 1 Hamlet embraces many themes typical of tragedies contemporary to Shakespeare: treachery, murder, moral corruption, madness, incest, revenge. What evidence can we see of each of these in Hamlet?
- 2 Bacon referred to revenge as a ‘wild justice’ since the revenger figure was positioning himself with God in his desire to exact a justice which should only be ‘divine’. This creates the sense of a flawed protagonist, even an anti-hero, whose quest will ultimately fail. Can this view be applied to Hamlet himself?
- 3 Shakespeare subverts many of Aristotle’s notions of classical tragedy, most notably in his depiction of Hamlet himself. The play could be said to dwell on character far more than on action (consider Hamlet debating whether or not to kill the praying Claudius)
- 4 Hamlet’s duality and feigned madness has been viewed as problematic in terms of revenger tragedy codes – some critics see his ‘delay’ as a device by which to merely prolong the action of the play.
- 5 Hamlet can be compared to other more traditional revenger figures such as Laertes, whose impetuous action contrasts strongly with Hamlet’s own indecision and unwillingness to become corrupted by the society he seeks to purge.
Different readings of 'Hamlet'
- 1 Freudian interpretations suggest that Hamlet’s Oedipal desire for his mother prevents him from murdering Claudius, as Claudius has done what he secretly desired to do (i.e. killed his own father) and he is plagued by guilt/aligns himself too strongly with Claudius to act. Close analysis of the closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude is useful here, but avoid speculation without using the text!
- 2 Feminist theorists argue that Gertrude has no knowledge of Claudius’ actions and that there are many ambiguous moments in the play which are read as signs of her guilt. Can you find evidence of this?
- 3 Feminist critics argue that both Gertrude and Ophelia are entirely constructed by and according to the men, who use them as pawns and/or objectify them as sexual territory. Ophelia’s madness is caused by the abandonment of the three men who have controlled her identity: her father, brother and Hamlet.
- 4 Much of the play can be seen to comment on Elizabethan England – Polonius is thought to have been modelled on the Queen’s chief counsellor; the visiting theatre troupe is thought to have been a reference to a contemporary troupe which was forcing the Globe actors to go on tour.
- Marked by Teachers essays 24
The ?goodly king? so majestical? and his unanticipated death to Hamlet and the entirety of Denmark has Hamlet melancholic to the extreme of suicide, exposed through the first soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2. This soliloquy reveals Hamlet?s divided consciousness as whether to commit such an unholy act, with knowledge that it is sinful. Hamlet protests to himself about God?s ?cannon ?gainst self-slaughter?, leading to Shakespeare?s reference to King Hamlet as Hyperion, contrasted against ?my father?s brother? a satyr, by Hamlet himself to emphasise the psychological impact the hasty remarriage his mother had on Hamlet?s grieving over his father.
- Word count: 1922
immediately gives a sense of urgency and panic. Barnardo is challenging everyone who approaches. Francisco's words, 'tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart' gives a sense of death and illness. Then he Barnardo repeats himself when Horatio and Marcellus enter, saying 'Stand! Who's there?' This makes the reader or viewers of the play question why he is so anxious and alert. Not too long after, you find out that Barnardo is on alert because he is waiting to see a ghost, which he is sure he saw two times previously. He explains this to Horatio by saying, 'Sit down awhile, And let us once again assail your ears, That are so fortified against our story, What we two nights have seen.'
- Word count: 1128
'Who's there?' - and 'Quiet guard' - these statements imply a foreboding. Immediately the audience is captivated, particularly when one associates midnight with evil. The statements: 'Tis now struck twelve' and 'Bitter cold' further add to the dramatic mood that is being created. Francisco's admission: 'I am sick at heart' has a negative connotation, suggesting feelings of uneasiness. Bernardo's reply: ' Bid them make haste ' - he is obviously scared of something. A reference to loyalty to the Sovereign follows, 'Friends to this ground' and 'Liegemen to the Dane'- here Shakespeare uses a manipulative technique to address the importance of remaining patriotic - an aspect of life everyone can identify with.
- Word count: 1416
Horatio says of the ghost, "...it started like a guilty thing/ Upon a fearful summons" This simile implies that the ghost is still facing judgement, and this introduces the idea of purgatory. It is believed by Catholics that when a person dies, they either go to heaven, h**l or are in judgement in purgatory. The ghost further hints this idea to Hamlet when he says, "Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature/ Are burnt and purged away."
- Word count: 1519
Polonius has sometimes been presented as an essentially comic character and sometimes as a more sinister figure. What critical and dramatic issues are raised by the character of Polonius?4 star(s)
Polonius has traditionally been played as a sinister character, with exaggerations on his spying and sneaking around castles, as is portrayed in Franco Zeffirelli's version, though many productions in the 20th Century have instead portrayed him as older and more bumbling to bring a comic element to the play. There are two sides of Polonius shown in Act 1 Scene 3 and Act 2 Scene 1. These focus on his relationships with Ophelia and Laertes, and to me portray him as foolish again, though not unintelligent.
- Word count: 2178
Hamlet, who has been brought up with absolute notions of good and evil, is susceptible to these religious references, 'o all you host of heaven! O earth! And shall I couple h**l?' It is ironic that the ghost refers to his own torment, trapped in purgatory, in order to demonstrate to Hamlet the injustice of the situation, yet this serves only to warn Hamlet of the possible consequences of revenge. Instead of enraging him, Hamlet is now wary of acting rashly or without proof as it could place him in a similar situation to his father.
- Word count: 2345
Explore Shakespeare's presentation of Claudius. Does he have any redeeming qualities, or is he merely a "damned, smiling villain"?4 star(s)
Shakespeare presents the image of Claudius being a "damned, smiling villain" through Hamlet. As Hamlet may be mad, we cannot be sure whether his judgement can be trusted. A madman's view may not be credible, and Shakespeare always leaves an element of doubt over all his characters. We do not know if Hamlet really is mad, and therefore his view of Claudius is biased and unreliable. This essay will consider how Claudius is presented by Shakespeare and analyse his actions to form an opinion of whether or not he is a "damned, smiling villain".
- Word count: 1922
actions that a man might play, But I have that within which passes show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I.ii.84-6) Hamlet cannot forget his father, even when all those around him have resumed their merry lives, content to offer the occasional pacifying words of wisdom. The queen, considering she has lost a husband, offers up the rather awkward "Thou know'st tis common, all that lives must die/Passing through nature to eternity" (I.ii.71-2), Hamlet's antly, by the cold-hearted actions of his mother, who married her brother-in-law within a month of her husband's death.
- Word count: 2396
Explore the way Shakespeare presents the relationships between Hamlet and his Mother, Gertrude, making particular reference to Act III Scene. IV4 star(s)
The location is the Queen's closet, her quarter or bedroom. Hamlet has no sense of territory, and is rude, humiliating and hurtful, and this shows how disrespectful he is to his mother, already so early in the scene. The point that Hamlet has little respect for his mother is proven by the first few lines between them: Hamlet: "Now, mother, what's the matter?" Gertrude: "Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended". Hamlet: "Mother, you have my father much offended". The queen referrers to the offended "father" as Claudius, but Hamlet slyly, and rather mockingly corrects her that his biological father
- Word count: 2713