Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

Last minute Hamlet advice – Jamie Tuohy

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Hamlet

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. Just like its titular character, Hamlet is a play that is multi-faceted and rarely straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it has to be hard to comprehend.

Here are some pointers for you to expand on in your essays:

 

The Role of Women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

 

  • Open your essay with a quote. This grabs the reader’s attention and immediately shows your engagement with the question and knowledge of the play.
  • “Frailty thy name is woman”. These are words spoken by the titular character of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that highlight the role of women within this tragedy.
  • Women are characterised as weak and subservient and as obedient and acquiescent.
  • Gertrude and Ophelia play a passive role in the play’s proceedings, but are crucial to exposing the play’s central themes and the titular character’s misogyny.

 

 GERTRUDE:

  • Gertrude is living in the shadow of two kings and in this sense; she is wholly dependent on men.
  • Claudius describes her as the “imperial jointress to this war like state”. However she does little to prove this.
  • She is too weak to challenge Claudius and her role as the Queen of Denmark is constantly undermined and overshadowed by his dominance.
  • Gertrude portrays the fickleness of women. There are suggestions she had a relationship with Claudius, even when Old Hamlet was still alive. According to the Ghost, Claudius “won by shameful lust, the heart of my most seeming virtuous queen”.
  • Women are characterised in a one dimensional manner – they cannot live without a man and constantly need one in their lives. Gertrude’s “o’er hasty marriage” to Claudius exemplifies this.
  • As a queen, Gertrude is ineffectual and as a mother, she is insensitive and blind to her son’s distress.
  • Gertrude cannot understand why Hamlet persists with his melancholic demeanour and agrees with Claudius when he says “tis unmanly grief”. Gertrude lets her own opinion of Hamlet’s mental state be influenced by Claudius.
  • However, Gertrude’s redeeming feature is her propensity for goodness.
  • None of Gertrude’s actions are premeditated, so it seems rather fitting that she dies drinking from the poison chalice – completely unaware of what is in it.
  • Through her death, Gertrude highlights the position of women within this tragedy – completely obedient and totally oblivious to the corruption around them.

 

OPHELIA:

  • Ophelia, like Gertrude is a woman who is led and controlled by the men in her life. She is described by her brother Laertes as “a sweet sister and a kind maid”. Ophelia’s primary role is to showcase Hamlet’s warped view of women.
  • Out of all the characters in the play, she is the one who cast in the most one dimensional manner.
  • Ophelia has the potential to be a tragic heroine, to overcome her father’s control and gain Hamlet’s love, but due to her submission and conformity, she is merely tragic.
  • Shakespeare uses Ophelia to portray the fickleness of women.
  • As Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia is extremely obedient. When he tells her not to speak to Hamlet anymore, she obliges, saying “I shall obey my lord”.
  • Ophelia resigns to the fact that Hamlet is “subject to her birth”, simply because her brother Laertes told her. She accepts these ‘truths’ because she is too weak to challenge male authority.
  • There are recurring tones of misogyny throughout the play and Ophelia’s acquiescence; combined with Hamlet’s maltreatment of her showcases this.
  • He uses guttural language when speaking to her, saying “get thee to a nunnery, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?” This is a grossly offensive remark to the “sweet and innocent Ophelia”, but she simply agrees to do as Hamlet tells her, possessing no strength of character to stand her ground.
  • It is notable that Gertrude – a woman announces Ophelia’s death, elucidating women’s ability to empathise with each other.
  • Ophelia kills herself because of the men in her life – her father is dead and her love for Hamlet is unrequited. She cannot function without a man and therefore, is driven to insanity.
  • Gertrude’s elegiacal speech on Ophelia’s death highlights the frailty of women and portrays the poignancy of her death. “Sweets for the sweet”, she says, as she places flowers on Ophelia’s coffin.
  • Ophelia’s association with nature – the flowers, the willow tree in the lake, all display “a young maiden” who was pure, virtuous and fatally innocent.

 

The Importance of the Soliloquy:

This question was one of the expected questions for last year and didn’t appear, but I wouldn’t rule it out for this year. The reason I decided to include this question as opposed to another one is because it’s all encompassing. This question lends itself to exposing the themes of deception, revenge, corruption, filial duty, loyalty and is also one that can deals with Hamlet’s and Claudius’ characters.

For this question, Hamlet and Claudius are the two best characters to write about, partly because their soliloquys are often spoken about each other and partly because they speak some of the most famous lines in English literature. I chose four soliloquys by Hamlet and two by Claudius. I never worried about logistics or ratios – this is English, not maths and Hamlet has more memorable speeches anyway!

 

HAMLET:

  • Act 1, Scene 2: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”
    • This is an extremely telling and revealing soliloquy, as we see a deeply depressed and saddened Hamlet, as he is grieving for the loss of his father, but also expressing his disgust towards his mother to “post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets”.
    • This speech portrays Hamlet’s love for his late father and his anger and hatred towards Claudius – even before he knows that he is the murderer of his father.
    • We see Hamlet as powerless, as he must “hold his tongue” and therefore, we sympathise with him and forgive his misogynistic generalisation of women.
    • He is ultimately motivated by filial duty.

 

  • Act 2, Scene 2: “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I?”
    • 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.
    • 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 though he has “the motive and the cue for passion”.
  • Act 3, Scene 1: “To be or not to be?”
    • Hamlet is a thinker and philosopher, rather than a man of action.
    • 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 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?
    • 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.

 

  • Act 3, Scene 3: “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying…”
    • He has evidence that Claudius is the killer, but cannot do so, because he believes that Claudius is praying and will be sent to heaven if he is killed mid-prayer.
    • In terms of dramatic function, this soliloquy allows us to delve into Hamlet’s mind and see that he is motivated by revenge, but he is also guided by his morals and his conscience.
    • It also exemplifies Hamlet’s procrastination and portrays his constant vacillation from action to inertia.

 

CLAUDIUS:

  • Act 3, Scene 3: “O! My offence is rank and smells to heaven…”
    • This speech portrays Claudius as a villain with a conscience.
    • 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 his most important soliloquy, as it presents Claudius in a three-dimensional manner. He isn’t the cold-hearted villain we thought he was, as he knows that he will always be “struggling to be free”.
    • It also provides dramatic irony. We know that Claudius isn’t praying, but Hamlet does not.
  • Act 4, Scene 3: “The present death of Hamlet, do it England…”
    • Once again, we see Shakespeare creating dramatic irony as we are informed of Claudius’ intentions towards the unsuspecting Hamlet.
    • Claudius sees Hamlet as a “desperate disease” and recognises him as a threat to the state, but more importantly his crown.
    • It also shows us that Claudius isn’t the noble king he would like everyone to think he is – he is ruthless and callous and willing to commit even more grievous acts to remain in power.

 

What Worked For Me:

  • I had a few tricks for gaining top marks in any Hamlet question and one of them was to read any relevant speeches or soliloquys and then explain them to myself out loud, as if I were teaching them to a class. Admittedly, this drove my family mad, as each night I would just speak to myself in the Bard’s language. However, you will be amazed how much information you will retain from reciting quotations out loud. It will also allow you to use quotes that aren’t obvious and not the usual ones that all students use. Adopting the broody demeanour and sullen gaze of the Danish prince, while whaling “to be or not to be”, is of course, optional.

 

  • I mentioned how important characters are when it comes to Hamlet and I had a handy method for being prepared for any question on the text. Take a character each night for a week and write down all their traits, then compare them to all the other major characters of the play. For example, tonight, take Hamlet and write down all his characteristics and then compare and contrast him with Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and Ophelia. By the time you’ve all the characters done at the end of the week, you’ll be sorted for any question.

 

  • I always tried to have a piece of information that not many other students would have and this involved a little bit of secondary reading, which is good practice for college! A great point for Hamlet is the “Oedipal Complex”, developed by the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He argued that Hamlet delays in killing Claudius because Claudius has acted out Hamlet’s subconscious desire to kill his father and marry his mother. Knowing this doesn’t mean you should give a psychoanalytic reading of the text, but it’s a great additional point for talking about Hamlet’s character or his relationship with Gertrude.
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