HAMLET William Shakespeare
WHY STUDY SHAKESPEARE?
Shakespeare said it first! Influence
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO
HAMLET Hamlet is a play that has fascinated audiences and readers since it was first written in around 1601-1604
The play centers around Hamlet’s decision whether or not to avenge the murder of his father, the King of Denmark. This weight of this decision drives all the other action and relationships in the play. Hamlet is part of an old tradition of revenge plays, and is based on an old oral legend about Amleth, a prince whose father was killed by his uncle, who then married his mother. Amleth pretends to be mad, while plotting how to avenge his father’s death, and eventually is able to kill his uncle.
WHO AND WHAT IS
HAMLET? Critics have read this character as A tragic figure whose flaw is an unwillingness to act A representative of the human psyche (most famously Freud and Jung) A modern individual fighting against the “old ways” of seeing and being in the world Shakespeare took the basic plotline and created 5 stories in one! Family Drama – An uncle has married the wife of his brother. Love Story – Young love is forced apart by circumstance Madness – A young prince may or may not have gone mad. Revenge Play – death, murder, suicide, ghosts! Political Thriller– Who should have the throne?
HAMLET AS POP CULTURE
ON THE LINE
i. It is important to have a good relationship with your parents. ii. Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend is difficult. iii. Adultery is always wrong. iv. Ghosts are real. v. Revenge is appropriate. vi. Murder is always wrong. vii. There is such a thing as a "perfect" family. viii. There is no way to know if a person is truly "crazy."
All of these issues are in the play Hamlet!
Revenge Action/Inaction Corruption and Decay Appearance vs. Reality
WHILE WE READ ACT I. I. . . .
What kind of atmosphere is Shakespeare trying to create here? Why do you think the ghost does not speak? Why do you think Shakespeare introduced Fortinbras so early in the play?
ACT 1, SCENE 1
Group 1: 1.1.22-80 Group 2: 1.1.91-124 Group 3: 1.1.138-180
Students should read their group's assigned text aloud.
Groups should then analyze the situation from a news reporter's point of view. They should identify those questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how; and they should find answers to those questions that are as clear as possible—and rooted in the text. Some of the answers—particularly to "why?"—may be ambiguous. Students must find their answers in Shakespeare's language, not in speculation.
Students should write up their findings as if they were composing a major article for the front page of a newspaper. They must include specific quotations from the play. For example, they may quote any of the characters as if they had actually interviewed them as witnesses. Each group should give its article a title that will create interest and attract readers.
WHY DOESN’T HAMLET JUST DO IT ALREADY?
It is a question that has been asked for centuries: after hearing of his father’s murder from the visiting Ghost, why doesn’t Hamlet immediately kill Claudius in revenge? There were many beliefs about the nature of spirits that would have shaped the ideas Shakespeare’s audience held towards the Ghost in Hamlet. Protestants believed that there was no such thing as Purgatory and that, once humans passed from life to death, they went immediately to heaven or hell, never to leave again. Therefore, since a ghost could not be human, it could only be a good or evil spirit – an angel or, more likely, a demon who takes on human qualities in order to tempt the living. While Catholics would have agreed that true spirits of the departed could not come back to earth by their own free will, they did believe that such a miracle could occur if God willed it to be so. In that rare case, the consequences would be great not to heed the message the spirit brought. The only other option was that the ‘ghost’ was merely a hallucination of an unstable mind. With all of these factors to consider, Hamlet’s uncertainty seems a little more reasonable.
HAMLET AND THE GHOST. WATERCOLOR, 1802, BY HENRY FUSELI
If you saw a ghost who looked like someone you knew, and it told you of important news to act on, would you go through with it?
ACT I QUESTIONS
1. In his soliloquy, what are Hamlet’s reasons for objecting to his mother’s remarriage? 2. What advice does Laertes give to Ophelia as he says farewell to her prior to his departure for Paris? 3. What does Polonius instruct Ophelia to do regarding Hamlet? 4. What does the apparition tell Hamlet? 5. What two-part oath does Hamlet extract from his companions following the encounter with the Ghost?
ACT II QUESTIONS
1. Why is Ophelia so upset when she speaks with her father? 2. What task does Claudius assign to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? 3. What do Claudius and Gertrude conclude after hearing Polonius read the letter from Hamlet to Ophelia? 4. What does Hamlet make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confess? 5. What is the significance of the speech which Hamlet requests from the actor, taken from the story of the Trojan War?
ACT III QUESTIONS
1. What is the plot of the Dumb Show the Players present? What is the significance of the play’s title, “The Mousetrap”? 2. What does Hamlet mean, as he prepares to visit his mother, when he says, “O heart, lose not thy nature”? 3. What task does the king trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with? 4. What is ironic about Hamlet’s failure to kill Claudius while the King is kneeling in prayer? 5. What is Hamlet’s reaction when he realizes he has killed Polonius rather than Claudius, whom he had presumed to be the one hiding behind the curtain?
A soliloquy from the Latin solus ("alone") and loqui ("to speak") — is a speech that one gives to oneself . In the video, Osherow (the director) calls them “secrets,” which are shared by the audience. Soliloquies are "real-time" events that characters are working out with the audience. It is a dramatic technique used to reveal inner thoughts and feelings, and thus, revealing the character of the speaker. “There is a dialogue going on within nearly every speech. Within that dialogue thoughts are moving at different rates, lines are moving with varying emphases, vowels and consonants are adding textures . . . It is as if the character proposes his theme, the argument. He then sets about replying to the initial statement, and continues to argue it through in different blocks of thought until the end” (Berry, 128).
The teacher will assign your group one of Hamlet’s Soliloquys. Do a read-around of the speech. The first time, students should read until they hit a full stop (period, question mark, colon, or exclamation mark). Then change reader. Do a second read. This time, each student should read until he or she thinks there is a change in direction of a thought. Do a third read in which each student should have a turn reading the soliloquy aloud to his or her group. This will allow each student to get very comfortable with the speech.
5. Remember: “There is a dialogue going on within nearly every speech. Within that dialogue thoughts are moving at different rates, lines are moving with varying emphases, vowels and consonants are adding textures . . . It is as if the character proposes his theme, the argument. He then sets about replying to the initial statement, and continues to argue it through in different blocks of thought until the end” (Berry, 128). 6. Underline what your group thinks is the “theme” or “thesis” phrase or line of the speech. 7. Work through the speech highlighting thought units -- what Berry calls “blocks of thought” -- in alternating colors. 8. Sometimes a single idea can be carried over several lines; at other times, it could change in one line. 9. Each student chooses a different color highlighter. 10. Spread out around the room and plant yourselves in different places. 11. One student from a different soliloquy group should then come to the center of the room.
9. The groups should start reading the soliloquy from their perches around the room. When a line begins, the silent student at the center should turn toward the voice, and walk in that direction. When the next voice picks up, the student should change direction and walk towards that voice. This should continue throughout the soliloquy.
1. Does Hamlet know what he is going to say, or does he discover it “in the moment”?
2. Did the soliloquy respond to the “theme” or “thesis” of the speech? 3. How does Hamlet’s soliloquy “move” -- that is, are the thoughts and lines smooth or choppy? What might the form of Hamlet’s speech suggest about his state of mind?
EXPLORING THE SILENT SCENE
One of the most famous stage directions that Shakespeare leaves us is the silent scene in Hamlet’s play-within-a-play. Exploring this story is a great way to physically engage students in Hamlet. Break the class into groups of four to five students each. Give each group a piece of paper that contains the stage directions to the silent scene in 3.2.145-156. Instruct groups to work together to tell the story as dramatically as possible, using their whole bodies. Every student must participate, and there is no narrator. After ample rehearsal time, reassemble everyone to perform their pieces for each other. It is helpful to play dramatic music (such as tango) as the students rehearse and perform their silent scenes. After all groups have performed, discuss the successful uses of visual storytelling in each piece and what each group’s work highlighted about the story.
ACT IV QUESTIONS
1. What is Claudius’ response when Gertrude tells him that Hamlet has murdered Polonius? 2. What reasons does Claudius give Laertes for not taking action against Hamlet, who, Claudius says, “Pursued [his] life”? 3. Why does Claudius plan to poison the drink, in addition to poisoning the rapier tip which Laertes will wield?
WHEN OPHELIA GOES MAD, WHY DOES SHE OBSESS OVER FLOWERS?
Shakespeare often mentions plants and flowers for their symbolic meaning, which an Elizabethan audience would have understood. Today, flowers are often given to loved ones to show affection, such as red roses for love. But in Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the flowers that Ophelia gives away to indicate her disturbed state and hidden feelings.
In 4.5, Ophelia gives rosemary (“for remembrance”) and pansies (“for thoughts”) to Laertes in remembrance of their murdered father. More controversial flowers such as fennel (false flattery, deceit or frailty) and
columbine (folly) are given to the King and Queen for their perceived offenses to Ophelia’s family. The violets that wither away with her father’s death symbolize her loss of faithfulness. And the rue that Ophelia gives to Queen Gertrude and keeps for herself indicates a shared sorrow. There is no indication in the text as to whom the daisy (for innocence) is given. Who do you think Ophelia gives the daisy to and why?
THE GRAVE DIGGER SCENE
What does this scene reveal about Hamlet?
3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
Why is there debate surrounding the nature of Ophelia’s funeral? What cause does Laertes ascribe to Ophelia’s madness, which led to her death? What prompts Hamlet’s outburst at Ophelia’s graveside? What order did Claudius’ letter, carried by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, convey to the English regarding Hamlet’s fate? How does Hamlet justify his counterfeit command that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be murdered by the English? In his apology to Laertes, what does Hamlet mean when he says, “I have shot my arrow o’er the house and hurt my brother”? Who will ascend to power as the new King of Denmark?
Codes of conduct in Hamlet are defined by religion (suicide, purgatory, prayer, heaven and hell) and an aristocratic code of conduct that demands revenge if family honour has been stained/tarnished (Hamlet getting revenge for his father’s murder, Laertes, Fortinbras). Hamlet, because of his intelligence and propensity towards thinking and examining everything, realizes that the “Codes” are inconsistent/contradictory. For example, religion tells us that killing is wrong, but revenge is acceptable to honour someone who is murdered. Thus, Hamlet is endangering his own soul if he goes through with the revenge. He is between a “rock and a hard place” so to speak. Through Hamlet, Shakespeare is communicating his ideas about how the concept of justice is a confused and complicated matter. What is the difference between revenge and justice? Is one more moral than the other? Does the act of revenge irrevocably change an individual?
Is action always virtuous? Is is possible to take action in a world where nothing is ever certain (i.e. morally black and white)
Hamlet can’t bring himself to take the revenge that society is demanding. He is consistently losing his momentum towards action because of his questioning and thinking nature (many examples of this such as not killing Claudius while he is praying, several of his speeches in which he chides himself for being a coward ect…). He seems able to act when he doesn’t have time to think (Polonius), but his actions have a negative result. On the other hand, other characters have no trouble acting (ex. Gertrude marries Claudius, Laertes wants to avenge Polonius). It is interesting to see that none of their actions have positive results either… Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be saying that either action or inaction is better. The characters cannot seem to win no matter what they do. In this respect, I would say the play is cynical.
CORRUPTION AND DECAY
In Medieval times, people believed that the health of a nation was connected to the legitimacy of the king. Therefore, under Claudius, there is lots of images of decay and rot. Even the soldiers at the beginning of the play sense it, although they are not aware that Claudius has killed old king Hamlet. It is like the poison used to kill old king Hamlet has spread through Denmark. One critic I read suggested that Hamlet is most comfortable with things that are dead (he reveres his dad, claims to love Ophelia once she is dead and handles Yorick’s skull with care). He seems disgusted with life. He constantly uses images of rot and decay to describe life, his mother’s remarriage, worms feeding on a corpse ect… Death is the one, true reality.
APPEARANCE VS. REALITY
Hamlet is obsessed with what is real and what is not. Hamlet’s fatal flaw isn’t that he is wrong to see uncertainty in everything, but that he is right (everything is uncertain). The characters are spying and plotting in order to try and figure out what the other characters are thinking (as opposed to what they “appear/pretend” to think. This is the essence of the human condition: we can never really be sure whether other people are truthful or not. We are one way on the outside and another way on the inside. Is deceit a fundamental part of the way society functions? Is life a series of “parts” that we “act” in order to get by? Is there a “truth” under all the appearances in our lives?
Drama where the central character/s suffer disaster/great misfortune In many tragedies, downfall results from: Fate Character flaw/Fatal flaw Combination of the two
WHAT IS A TRAGIC HERO?
The tragic hero is a man of noble stature. He is not an ordinary man, but a man with outstanding quality and greatness about him. His own destruction is for a greater cause or principle.
COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF A TRAGIC HERO:
1. Usually of noble birth 2. He possesses a tragic flaw that eventually leads to his downfall. 3. The audience must feel pity and fear for this character. 4. He is doomed from the start; he bears no responsibility for possessing his flaw, but bears responsibility for his actions.
*To what extent is Hamlet a tragic hero?*
*What is his fatal flaw?*