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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.
Hamlet has a very bleak outlook on life at the beginning of the play. He is very emotional about his father?s death and feels as though his mother and uncle?s marriage is ?less than kind?(1.2.67). Hamlet finds the death of his father very personal and is greatly bothered by the fact that everyone is faking their sadness instead of mourning properly. Furthermore, not only are others not mourning, Gertrude and Claudius have the audacity to tell Hamlet to stop mourning as ?all that lives must die?(1.2.74). This is the first issue that leads Hamlet to debate if suicide would ?resolve?(1.2.134)
- Word count: 2911
Not only is the question of ?who?s there?? preparing the mood for the arrival of the ghost, but it also demonstrates that the people of Denmark do not seem confident in carrying out their allocated roles, suggesting an atmosphere of mistrust. In a few broken un-rhythmic blank verse line, Shakespeare brilliantly establishes the tone of uncertainty and apprehension, and he maintains this tone throughout the play. The tense exchange between Barnardo and Francisco: ?Have you had a quiet guard?? with the fearfully quiet pause, arouses suspicion of what they are so fearful of, it is presented in such a manner that even they themselves are unwilling to admit the circumstance that they have been placed.
- Word count: 907
Do you think that Hamlets hesitation can be seen as a tragic flaw or is Shakespeares presentation of his character more complex?
?From this time forth my thoughts be b****y?, the word ?b****y? implies that Hamlet understands he has not yet stabbed the king. Whilst expressing this anger however he continues to evade the task of revenge; discussing how he should kill his uncle but does not, he is naturally inclined to think rather than act and this hesitancy causes his fall. To highlight the impact of Hamlet?s hesitation, Shakespeare includes heroic characters that emphasise this as a tragic flaw. Young Fortinbras is seen in Act 4 Scene 4 marching to Poland to fight for honour which brings to light Hamlet?s idealistic manner and shows that tragedy is inevitable.
- Word count: 1277
Hamlet views death from a medieval perspective, as a physical liberation from the ?mortal coil?. Shakespeare symbolises the doubt of the Renaissance man questioning the validity of their own values, and their religious assumptions of life through ?the undiscovered country, from whose bourn/no travellers return...?, Hamlet is questioning the presence of an afterlife and thus questioning the presence of a divine being, he geographically transcends heaven reducing it to the levels of mortality. Shakespeare applies a metaphor of the ?undiscovered country? to emphasise its uncertainty causing Hamlet to avert action.
- Word count: 3023
However, throughout the play, it can be seen that their intentions are never sincere. From the news of Hamlet?s insanity, they were called to Denmark by Claudius and Gertrude. The King and Queen wanted to discover the root of Hamlet?s madness, and so they wanted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, because since they are childhood friends, Claudius and Gertrude assume they know Hamlet well. In Act 2 Scene 2 when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first appear in the play, it is obvious that they would much rather please the King than stick up for their old friend.
- Word count: 1622