Hamlet is renowned for being one of the greatest tragedies in English literature and is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, but it is also one of his most complex pieces. To a lover of English, Hamlet is a dream – a play that’s filled with endless possibilities for exploration, but for a Leaving Cert English student who isn’t a fan of the vacillating Danish prince, the thought of tacking this play can fill you with dread. Just like its titular character, “Hamlet” is a play that is multi-faceted and rarely straightforward. However, this doesn’t mean that it has to be difficult to understand. As I’ve said before, the key to achieving 60/60 in the ‘Hamlet question’ is all about preparation and timing. Students panic so much about this question because it’s apparently so unpredictable, but if you flick through the exam papers, you will see that the questions are extremely repetitive and based either on theme or characters – they’re just phrased differently.
You’ll all be familiar with the types of questions that appear for Hamlet, but here are just some of them:
“The struggle between Hamlet and Claudius is a fascinating one”. (2001)
“In your opinion, what is the appeal of the play “Hamlet” to a twenty first century audience?” (2005)
“Discuss the role of women in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. In your response, make reference to and quote from the play to support your answer”. (My predicted question for this year).
“Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to reveal fascinating insights into his characters in Hamlet”. Discuss. (If there’s ANY justice in the world, this should be up this year).
“Revenge and justice are finely balanced themes in Hamlet. (2011).
“Claudius can be seen as both a heartless villain and a character with some redeeming qualities in the play Hamlet.” (2011).
Okay, now all these questions seem completely different, don’t they? How on earth can I prepare myself enough to ensure I can answer any question that the examiner throws at me? HAVE NO FEAR: LISTEN UP. We can see that all of these questions are either based on character or theme. Even 2011’s question about theme overlaps with 2001’s question about Hamlet and Claudius. The key to mastering any one of these questions lays simply in you being able to write about characters, and nothing more. After all, how are the themes of revenge and justice revealed in the play? THE THEMESAREREVEALED THROUGH THE CHARACTERS.
Even the soliloquy question is a character question, because you’re going to be talking about Hamlet’s and Claudius’ soliloquies and writing about how they display the motivations behind the character’s actions. So, we can see that the general outline of the Hamlet and Claudius question from 2001 can easily be manipulated to fit a soliloquy or theme question and indeed 2005’s dream question about the lasting appeal of Hamlet, is a perfect chance to use this essay too. The appeal of Hamlet could lay in the ‘fascinating relationship between Hamlet and Claudius!
This all sounds very well and good doesn’t it? But it’s not exactly helping by just stating these facts – you need to have all these points prepared for when you sit the exam and trying to learn 8 or 9 essays off my heart is going to kill you, right? Well, DON’T EVEN TRY TO!!!! The following tip will hopefully be the answer to all your Hamlet woes.
I discussed the importance of character and I cannot stress this highly enough. What I recommend is to take a character a night for a week and write down all their traits and then take that character and compare or contrast him/her to all the other characters in the play. This will only take 20 minutes a night and by the end of the week, you’ll have all the major characters done and their relationships sorted! Then, when you’re looking back over them, you’ll notice how the themes are communicated by the different characters and their respective relationships within the play.
Let’s try one with the character of CLAUDIUS. (This is brief and rough around the edges – it’s just to give you an idea. Of course, you’ll be able to develop the points further and add to them).
When we are first introduced to him, he impresses us as a TACTFUL and DIPLOMATIC leader. He balances affairs of state with his marriage to Gertrude, while leadingDenmark through the mourning of his brother’s death – the former king, Old Hamlet.
He appears as if he has all the potential to be a GOOD KING and possesses the necessary leadership qualities for a king.
As the play progresses, we see Claudius in a different light – he is a SYCOPHANT and a USURPER.
He is capable of BESTIAL DEPRAVITY, FRATRICIDE and REGICIDE.
Everything he does is for self gain and he is a SLAVE TO HIS OWN AMBITIONS.
He is the CONSUMMATE VILLAIN – one who hides behind a mask of nobility and regal grandeur.
CLAUDIUS AND HAMLET:
Our hatred for Claudius is largely coloured by HAMLET’S DISDAIN FOR HIM.
Claudius is SYCOHPHANTIC towards Hamlet – addressing him as “our chiefest courtier, our cousin and his son”. He also says “you are the most immediate to our thrown”, displaying his desire to acquiesce and appease the Danish prince.
Hamlet describes his “uncle father” as a “SMILING DAMNED, VILLAIN”.
Their relationship is fascinating because THEY’RE NOT THAT DIFFERENT. BOTH MEN TREAT WOMEN IN A SIMILARLY INHUMANE WAY. The duality in Hamlet’s character is evident in his treatment of Gertrude and Ophelia. Claudius refers to Gertrude as the “imperial jointress to our state” but his actions towards her suggest otherwise.
We tend to side with Hamlet and forgive him, because we know that behind it all, he is motivated by a sense of FILIAL DUTY, while Claudius ONLY CARES ABOUT HIMSELF.
CLAUDIUS AND GERTRUDE:
Their relationship is described as “INCESTUAL”. Gertrude appears as a woman who is WHOLLY DEPENDENT ON MEN. She lives in the shadow of two kings – her first husband was murdered and “yet within a month”, she married her brother-in-law, Claudius.
They make an UNLIKELY COUPLE to an audience aware of Claudius’ deceit, but it would appear that their marriage is procured from convenience rather than love.
If Claudius is the consummate villain, then Gertrude is the EPITOME OF FICKLENESS. There are recurring suggestions that Claudius and Gertrude has a relationship even when Old Hamlet was alive. (The Ghost tells us that Claudius “won my shameful lust, the heart of my most SEEMING VIRTTOUS QUEEN”).
Claudius DOMINATES Gertrude. She cannot understand why Hamlet persists with his melancholic demeanour and agrees with Claudius when he says ‘tis unmanly grief’. She lets her own opinions be influenced by Claudius.
Throughout the play, she is AN OBEDIENT WIFE to Claudius. Therefore, it’s quite ironic, that when she dies, she does say, by disobeying his lacklustre order not to drink the poison chalice – possibly in a tragic effort to assert her independence.
These are just very quick and general notes but I would suggest you do this with each character.
TONIGHT: Take Claudius and compare/contrast him to Hamlet, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia.
Tomorrow: Take Hamlet and do the same thing and so on….
You should be able to see that from these very brief points, we could tackle most of the questions from earlier. The Hamlet and Claudius relationship one would be a doddle, the character of Claudius would be LOVELY, and even the ‘role of women’ is covered here because the women in this play are so obedient to the men in their lives that an essay on the role/portrayal of women essentially becomes one about how and why they are dominated by the male characters of the play. Just imagine how much information you would have, if you did this for all the characters?! Trust me, this works!!! I did it and it makes everything so much easier!! My next post will probably be a sample essay, based on one of these questions.