Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

The use of the soliloquy in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by Jamie Tuohy

If there is any justice in the world, the people setting the English Leaving Cert exam this year should put a soliloquy question on the paper for the Hamlet question. If I were doing the Leaving Cert this year, this would be one of the essays I would be concentrating on, because:

  • This is an essay that basically prepares you for EVERY OTHER QUESTION.
  • If you’re asked to write about theme, you’ll be talking about how it is conveyed and that is through the characters and through WHAT THEY SAY.
  • The soliloquy essay is one in which you talk about all the different aspects of the play – you’ll be talking about the role of women, Hamlet’s procrastination and Claudius’ deceit.
  • I ALSO PREDICT THERE WILL BE SOMETHING ABOUT DECEPTION on this year’s paper and this essay is a perfect example of deception – it is only through the soliloquies that we really see who the characters are, namely Hamlet and Claudius. They are the ultimate deceivers and it is only through their soliloquies that we can understand their motivations.
  • Hopefully, you can see how important this question is, and it would be an absolute dream if it came up this year – it’s a question that gives you the scope to talk about anything you want – within reason of course!
  • When tackling this essay, QUOTES ARE ESSENTIAL (as always). This essay requires you to know your stuff and relevant quotes are imperative!

The following question will discuss the function of the soliloquy within the play and I want to re-emphasise as always, that this isn’t something you should just learn off or plagiarise! It’s a sample essay I’ve written to a question and it’s obviously not going to fit the exact question that will come up! Happy reading!

Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to reveal fascinating insights into his characters in Hamlet.

Discuss with reference to the text.

“To be or not to be, that is the question”

These are words spoken by the titular character of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet from what is undoubtedly the most famous soliloquy in English literature. Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to reveal fascinating insights into his characters and in doing so; we gain an understanding as to the motivations behind their actions. Not only do the soliloquies offer us an insight into the characters of the play, (namely Hamlet, himself and Claudius) but they are highly dramatic and give the plot momentum and thus propel the action to new and exciting levels. Hamlet’s and Claudius’ soliloquies also expose key themes within the play and create a sense of dramatic irony, as we are aware of the motivations behind their actions, but the other characters of the play are not. Hamlet and Claudius are well matched adversaries who are set up in direct opposition to each other and it is through their soliloquies that we become omniscient and discover their intentions towards each other.

Hamlet’s opening soliloquy is in Act 1, Scene 2 and it is an extremely telling and revealing speech; as he wishes that “this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”. We see a deeply depressed and saddened Hamlet – a young man who is grieving for the father he has lost, but also expressing his disgust towards his mother to “post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets”. He says “so excellent a king that was to this Hyperion to a satyr”. His love for his father is perceptible through his words of praise for him, but his disdain towards Claudius is something that is also evident. He refuses to be associated with Claudius and is keep to dispel any notions of similarity between them, saying “no more like my father than I to Hercules”. It is interesting to note that at this juncture in the play, Hamlet has no idea that Claudius murdered his father, but yet, he still despises him. Through this soliloquy, we see how Hamlet’s father’s death has had a terrible effect on him and as an audience, we can forgive his generalisations of women and sweeping statements when he says things like “frailty thy name is woman”. Immediately, Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as a noble and loyal son who is powerless and must “hold” his “tongue” and therefore, we tend to take Hamlet’s side and sympathise with him.

Hamlet’s hamartia is his constant procrastination, yet we would not be aware of the velocity of his vacillation from action to inertia if it were not for his soliloquies. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet’s self-directed harangue not only expresses his annoyance at himself for not acting sooner, but it also develops the plot and provides us with a dramatic irony. He asks himself “am I a coward?” and says:

“O what a rogue and peasant slave am I….but I am pigeon liver’d and lack gall to make oppression bitter, or ere this I should have fatted all the region kites with this slave’s offal”.

These lines display Hamlet’s true inner conflict – he is on a quest to avenge his father’s death and kill Claudius, but he hesitates on carrying out this cold and callous act because he condemns himself as a “coward”, even through he has “the motive and the cue for passion”. However, it is this self-condemnation that spurs Hamlet to action and heightens his hatred of Claudius – he finally vows vengeance, saying “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”. Hamlet declares his intention to stage The Mousetrap, in which he hopes to expose Claudius as the murderer. This allows for dramatic irony, as we are now aware of Hamlet’s intentions towards Claudius, but Claudius himself is oblivious.

Perhaps the reason why Hamlet delays in exacting revenge us simply because he is a thinker and a philosopher, rather than a man of action? In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet offers us many insights into the meaning of life, as he questions the validity of it. We see an extremely philosophical Hamlet as he asks “to be or not to be?” In his most famous soliloquy, Hamlet ruminates on whether death is preferable to life. He says:

“To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream, ay there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause”.

Hamlet feels that in death, we are free from the troubles of life and wonders if it is better to “take arms against a sea of troubles” or to live a life miserably. It is important to note that Hamlet does not directly relate this soliloquy to his own cause, but instead uses inclusive pronouns like “we” and “us” and the indefinite “who”. This allows the audience to be a part of the play and even though Hamlet’s mental nadir is evident through his soliloquy – he is speaking on behalf of everyone who is torn and faces a similar dilemma. He asks “who would bear the whips and scorns of time?” or “who would grunt and sweat under a wear life?” Hamlet offers us the answer, saying it is “the dread of something after death” and thus “conscience doth make cowards of us all”. He tells us that even though death may be preferable to life, we are restricted from action by fear and moral judgement. Perhaps this is the explanation for why Hamlet cannot kill Claudius? He ruminates too much “o’er the issue” and deep down feels that murder is a callous and cold act. This is an extremely important soliloquy, as it develops the character of Hamlet and gives us an insight into the numerous facets of his complex mind.

This reflective nature and procrastination is also evident in Hamlet in the Prayer Scene. He says “now might I do it pat, now he is praying”. This soliloquy underlines Hamlet’s dilemma and exemplifies his constant vacillation. He now has concrete proof that Claudius killed his father, as he admits it, but Hamlet refuses to kill him and offers us excuses as to why. He says:

“Am I reveng’d to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and season’d for his passage? No”.

Hamlet feels that he cannot kill Claudius because he is praying and will therefore go to heaven. In terms of dramatic function, this soliloquy gives us the opportunity to delve further into the mind of Hamlet – we see that he is motivated by revenge, but he is guided by his morals and his conscience.

However, the great irony is that Claudius isn’t praying – he is merely admitting his offence. Like Hamlet’s, Claudius’ soliloquies give us an insight into his true character. It is only through his soliloquies that we see the real Claudius. In the same scene (the Prayer Scene), Claudius says:

“O! My offence is rank and smells to heaven,

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,

A brother’s murder! Pray can I not, though inclination be as sharp as will”.

The speech portrays Claudius as a villain with a conscience – he is duly aware of the enormity of his offence. He wants to pray for forgiveness for his “most unnatural crime”, but he is unwilling to give up the merits of his anomalous act – namely “my crown” and “my queen”. This is Claudius’ most important soliloquy because it presents him in a three dimensional manner – he is not the cold hearted villain we though he was – Claudius knows that he will always be “struggling to be free”.

The dramatic irony a soliloquy creates can be seen in Act 4, Scene 3, when through his soliloquy, Claudius informs us of his intentions towards the unsuspecting Hamlet. Claudius is aware that Hamlet poses a threat to his crown and recognises the fact that he needs to deal with is, describing Hamlet as a “desperate disease”. He arranges for Hamlet to be sent toEnglandto be killed, saying: “the present death of Hamlet. Do itEngland. Like the hectic in my blood he rages.” Aside from creating a dramatic irony, this soliloquy also exposes the true Claudius. He is most certainly not the noble king he would like us to believe he is. Claudius is ruthless and callous to the bitter end.

Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to reveal fascinating insights into his characters in Hamlet. Both Hamlet and Claudius are evenly matched adversaries and are both shrewd and unscrupulous, albeit to different degrees. The soliloquies express the motivations behind their actions and allow the audience to gain an understanding as to why they behave as they do. The soliloquies engage the audience in the drama, as we are parties to deceptions which the other characters themselves are unaware of. Shakespeare’s use of soliloquies in Hamlet acquiesces our desire “to pluck the heart of Hamlet’s mystery” and indeed expose the “treacherous, lecherous, kindles villain” that is Claudius.

_____________________________________________________________________

And there you go! This is a dream essay title to get as you have the scope to talk about a huge range of things. This is one of my favourite Hamlet essays and is also probably one of my best! It’s a 60/60 essay, so I hope it can help you guys!!

Good Luck,

Jamie.

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2 thoughts on “The use of the soliloquy in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” by Jamie Tuohy

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