Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

Images of Disease in Hamlet – Jamie Tuohy

Took 20 mins out of exam study to make some quick notes for all you Leaving Certers worried about the tricky question of ‘disease in Hamlet’:
  • There are a considerable number of images of sickness and disease in Hamlet describing the unwholesome condition of Denmark morally.
  • This image of the Danish court dominates the play.
  • Associated with this are images of poison and decay.
  • All these related images form a powerful, imaginative pattern, contributing to the mood and atmosphere of the play and reinforce its central themes.
  • The Ghost’s description of Old Hamlet’s murder is presented in language associated with disease (poison).
  • The murder is not enacted but we are very aware of the distasteful nature of the crime. The poison used by Claudius is a ‘leprous distillment’ which causes disease, and a ‘vile and loathesome crust’ of scabs to cover the body of its victim.
  • The corruption of Denmark and its people is seen as insidious poisoning.
  • Marcellus says “there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”. 
  • Poisoning is not just something described by the Ghost and featured in the imagery – it recurs in the Dumb-Show and is the means by which all the major characters die/
  • The imagery of corruption, sickness and decay, is often a reflection of Hamlet’s darker moods, as for example, in his first soliloquy, with its emphasis on the ‘sullied flesh’ and on the world as an ‘unweeded garden’ infested with all things ‘rank and ‘gross’.
  • He regards his mother’s sin as a ‘blister’ on the ‘fair forehead of an innocent love’. 
  • He sees Claudius as a ‘mildewed ear’ – blasting his ‘wholesome brother’.
  • He tells Gertrude that if she refuses to face up to her guilt, she will be like somebody trying to find a cure for an ulcer and by covering it with useless ointment, while “rank corruption mining all within/infects unseen”.
  • He compares the war between Norway and Poland to a kind of tumour, which grows out of too much wealth and he thinks of his decision to spare the life of a praying Claudius and his mother’s part i it, as the ultimate sources of the poison and rottenness which threaten the well-being of Denmark.
  • On the other hand, Claudius thinks that Hamlet is the source of Denmark’s decay.
  • After the death of Polonius, he compares his lateness in having Hamlet locked up, to “a foul disease”, who permits it to undermine his life. “Diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved or not at all”.
  • He says to Laertes of Hamlet’s return “but to the quick of the ulcer/Hamlet comes back”.
  • As well as emphasising the imaginative effect of imagery of sickness, disease and poisoning, we should include other influences which help to counterbalance the sense of decay and corruption induced by the reflections of Claudius and Hamlet.
  • The atmosphere of the play is not entirely one of gloom an ugliness.
  • Hamlet is a rich and varied play, encompassing many moods and many contrasting strands of imagery.
  • Against the morbid atmosphere evoked by numerous reference to rottenness and corruption, exists the lyrical beauty of Hamlet’s description of the morning dressed in a russet mantle, Marcellus’ splendid lines on Christmas tide, the associations of grandeur and magnificence called up by Hamlet’s ample classical imagery and Gertrude’s delicate and elegiacal account of Ophelia’s death. 


Good Luck,


Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Poetry

Achieving top marks in Leaving Cert Poetry: how to do it

Ah, Leaving Cert poetry – the bane of most Irish students’ Leaving Cert experience. The idea of having to know thirty plus poems for a 50 mark question in an exam can be enough to induce terror into the mind of even the most cool and collected class genius. So many students are tempted to cut corners, but trust me – cutting corners will undoubtedly lead to bumping into obstacles! As attractive as it may seem to rely on apparently sound and reliable predictions – a prediction, by its very nature would find it near impossible to be either ‘sound’ or ‘reliable’ – just asked the class of 2001, when nearly the very same poets came up two years in a row! Okay, maybe you can get away with learning only five of the eight prescribed poets, but if this is your chosen method, there’s a very good chance you could be left with only one poet to answer on, as you won’t have studied the other three. Teachers generally cover five to six poets in class, so it’s ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to know each one of these poets inside out! Here are a few tips to ensure you hit the nail on the head:

  • Take a poet a night for a week and write down the titles of all their poems. Under each poem, write a line or two about what is being said in the poem and how it is communicated i.e. through metaphor, personification, hyperbole etc..


Frost expresses the harsh realities of every day life – communicated through a tragic farmyard accident involving a young boy.

Techniques: Onomatopoeia, imagery……..

  • When discussing the work of a poet, try not to focus on the biography. You are being asked to write about the poem – not the life of the poet. So many students lose marks because they talk about Emily Dickison’s mental problems, or endlessly recall the hardships of Robert Frost’s life. It’s great if you know it, BUT IT IS IRRELEVANT TO THE QUESTION AND WILL PROBABLY LOSE YOU MARKS. Stick to the question  – which is about poetry, not the poet!
  • Remember that all the questions are essentially a personal response, even though few questions will explicitly state so. It is really important that YOU GIVE YOUR OPINION AS TO WHAT YOU THOUGHT OF THE POEM and how it affected YOU!
  • P.Q.E: Point, Quote, Explain. This is the basic formula that every student should be adhering to when answering a question. Make your point, find your evidence in the poem and then explain what you have written, stating your own opinion as well. It’s no good saying “this poem is a poem of sadness, written in a trochaic tetrameter” and leaving it at that. You may think it makes you sound ‘all intellectual and the like’ but the examiner is just going to write ‘so what?’ You need to back up your argument and offer some opinion as to why you think it’s a valid point for your essay.

Eg: POINT: “The Tuft of Flowers” is a beautiful poem which examines the fellowship of man. It reads like a narrative and contains a plethora of memorable line and arresting images. QUOTE: The poem opens with Frost saying “I went to turn the grass after one who had mowed it in the dew before sun”. EXPLAIN: Immediately, Frost creates that familiar sense of detachment and loneliness which pervades his poetry.

  • OPEN YOUR ESSAY WITH A QUOTE! This doesn’t just apply to poetry, but to all essays you will write! Opening with a quote not only immediately shows off your knowledge of the poem to the examiner, but it also instantly engages the reader.

My next post will be a sample essay on Robert Frost’s poetry, have fun studying!

Good Luck,


Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Hamlet

The role of women within Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” – by Jamie Tuohy.

Discuss the role of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In your response, make reference to and quote from the play to support your answers.

 Before I answer this question, I’m just going to give some pointers on how to tackle it and some useful techniques to employ to ensure that the examiner can put nothing on your exam paper but 60/60 and a lovely A1!

  • Before you tackle this question, the first thing you should do is get a highlighter and highlight or underline the key words in the question. What is being asked here? We are being asked to discuss THE ROLE OF WOMEN in Hamlet; so therefore, it’s important not to confuse this with the PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN. Of course, they overlap, but to get 60/60, you have to be precise and ATTEND TO THE QUESTION THROUGHOUT your answer. Therefore, ask yourself: what is the role of women? Okay, they’re portrayed as weak and fickle, but that isn’t their role is it? NO, IT’S NOT! Yes, they are weak and fickle, but Shakespeare uses these qualities to highlight the main themes in the play and they also act as catalysts to the main plot and THIS IS THEIR ROLE WITHIN THE PLAY.
  • In my last post, I told you how to tackle any Hamlet question (just to refresh your minds, I said to write down each character’s traits and then compare and contrast that character with all the other characters in the play). IF YOU DID THIS, then you will see that this question is no problem to you. This bullet point is simply to re-emphasize how handy it is to do that.
  • You’ve underlined, you know all the information, you’re ready to dive straight into the question aren’t you? CALM DOWN A SECOND. The best thing you can do is to take 5 minutes and MAKE A PLAN. Your teacher undoubtedly told you this, but I can’t stress enough how important they are. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle of your essay with nothing to write, do you? Make a plan and say “right, what is this question asking me? Role of women – okay, no bother.” Write down what you’re going to discuss in each paragraph – it makes everything so much more fluid as well. Students think that making a plan is a waste of time, but I know for a fact that it is the opposite. You only have 60 minutes to do this question, so when you start writing, you can’t afford to be sitting around and vacillating over what to write. MAKE A PLAN!!


And here is my answer to the above question – finally! I will discuss the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia and purely for the purpose of clarity, I will discuss them separately:

“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 characterized as weak and submissive and as obedient and acquiescent. There are only two female characters in this play – Gertrude; the Queen, and Ophelia; Hamlet’s love interest. Both ladies play a passive role in the play’s action, but they are extremely important in exposing the play’s themes – in particular Hamlet’s misogyny.

Gertrude impresses us a woman who is wholly dependent on men. She lives in the shadow of two kings. Her first husband – Old Hamlet was murdered and yet “within a month”, she married her brother-in-law, Claudius. Claudius and Gertrude make an unlikely couple to an audience aware of the former’s deceit. It would appear that their marriage is procured for convenience rather than love. Gertrude is completely unaware that the man she married is the murderer of her first husband. It has been suggested that Gertrude only married Claudius for the good of the state. One would therefore think that she is an apt queen – even Claudius says that she is “the imperial jointress to this war like state”. However, Gertrude does little to prove this statement. She is too weak to challenge Claudius and is most certainly not his equal. Gertrude’s role as the Queen of Denmark is overshadowed and undermines by Claudius’ deceit and treachery.

Shakespeare uses Gertrude to show the fickleness of women. There are suggestions that Gertrude and Claudius had a relationship even when Old Hamlet was still alive. In his soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his disdain towards his mother “to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets”. This is said even before the Ghost appears and when the Ghost of Old Hamlet does appear, he confirms this – saying that Claudius “won by lustful sin, the heart of my most seeming virtuous queen”. These words not only highlight the fickleness and shallowness of Gertrude, but they are also important in expressing Hamlet’s and possibly Shakespeare’s misogyny. Women are characterized 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.

Gertrude’s passivity in action is what allows her to be dominated and controlled by the men in her life, but she is also somewhat ignorant and oblivious to her surroundings. According to Hamlet, she played the part of the grieving widow well – “she followed my poor father’s body, like Niobe, all tears”. However, because she got over her husband’s death so soon, she also expects Hamlet to do the same. As a queen, Gertrude is ineffectual and as a mother, she is insensitive and blind to her son’s distress. She asks Hamlet; “why seems it so particular with thee?” to which he replies “seems madam, nay it is, I know not seems”. 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. This displays her inability to think for herself. She is led by Claudius and shows no independent thought.

Gertrude’s role as a loving mother to Hamlet is therefore; warped. It would appear that she puts her own pleasures before Hamlet’s welfare. However, Gertrude’s redeeming feature is her propensity for goodness. She is by no means calculating – unlike her husband and indeed her son. None of Gertrude’s actions are premeditated, so it seems rather fitting that she dies drinking from the poison chalice – completely unaware of that 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, 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. However, to an audience, Ophelia is a completely innocent and obedient young woman. Out of al 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”. Her inexperience and inability to defend herself is evident when Laertes tells her that Hamlet is “subject to his birth” and for that reason alone, she could never be with Hamlet. Ophelia resigns and accepts these harsh ‘truths’ because she is simply too weak to stand up to any man, or challenge their authority. She, like Gertrude, is constantly undermined and controlled by then men of the play.

There are recurring tones of misogyny throughout the play and Ophelia’s acquiescence; combined with Hamlet’s maltreatment of her showcases this. Hamlet’s innuendos are lost on Ophelia, who passes them off as innocuous remarks, for she knows that she cannot possibly rebuke a king. In saying that, it leaves us wondering whether or not she may simply just be confused by Hamlet’s sudden change of character. He uses guttural language when speaking her, saying “get thee to a nunnery, whey 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. She possesses no strength of character to stand her ground and instead, Ophelia plays a passive and obedient role.

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 women of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are characterised as weak and ineffectual. They submit to their male counterparts and are led by them. Both Ophelia and Gertrude are fiercely obedient, as they are controlled by the men in their lives. They play passive roles in the play, but are key to exposing the titular character’s distorted view of a woman.


There is is! All done! Just one last word before I go, there’s no point in handing up this essay to your teacher if he/she gives you this question – it might be the easy option, but it’s not going to do you any favours. I wrote this to give an example of the kind of structure and content you will need in your essay to get an A1. Of course, take some ideas from it, but I’ve said before, learning anything off by heart APART FROM QUOTIONS is a waste of time!

Happy studying and good luck,


Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012

Leaving Certificate English 2012: How to achieve top marks.

Leaving Cert EnglishStress. Pressure. Study. Grinds. Notes. More notes. Too many notes. These are just some of the words that are synonymous with the dreaded Leaving Cert. Indeed, it can seem like an unachievable task but to exploit the battered old cliché – ‘you really do get out of it, what you put in’. In this post, I’m just going to give some general tips on exam technique and timing and in my next posts, I’m going to focus on specific areas of Leaving Cert English.

Traditionally, English is viewed as one of the most difficult subjects on the Leaving Cert, but it doesn’t have to be!! Your teachers have probably told you that ‘if you put in the work, you’ll be fine’ and guess what? It’s true! The key to getting an A1 in English in the Leaving Cert doesn’t reside in the student’s ability to write like Shakespeare, but in their preparation! Writing from experience, the most important thing about doing the English exam is TIMING, TIMING, TIMING!

The only way to master this, is to sit down at home and do an exam paper from start to finish in exam conditions. This is an excellent method to finding out where you need to focus your attention and the more questions you do, the more efficient you will become with your time. Another thing I would encourage  is not to wait for your teacher to assign you that Hamlet question; go and do it yourself and hand it up to your teacher to be marked! The more essays you can do and get marked, the better. With Hamlet, or whatever other single text you’re doing, remember it’s worth 60 marks so it take up a huge chunk of Paper 2’s marks! It’s so important to be prepared for any question that will come up! Try and prepare general essays on all the major characters and themes. I say ‘general’ because you don’t want to have to learn off 10 Hamlet essays word for word, do you?! Aside from this being a ridiculous waste of time, it could cost you dearly in the exam! You could have learned off a beautiful A1 essay about how Claudius is in a constant battle with Hamlet and end up using it to describe his relationship with Gertrude. It sounds silly, but it could so easily happen! If you’ve learned things off by heart, you’re more inclined to WANT to use it and this could be dangerous because you can’t apply the information you have to the question. You don’t even have to write essays on the major characters – bullet points are fantastic! Also, when you are doing these essays at home, remember that for 60 marks, you should spend 60 minutes on it AND NO MORE, EVEN IF THAT MEANS LEAVING A QUESTION UNFINISHED. BE BRUTAL – A MARK A MINUTE!!! (This seems ridiculous, but it works. After an hour’s work on Hamlet, you’ll have received most of the marks and you don’t want to spend more time on it and end up not finishing the exam).

Without doubt, the most speculated on aspect of the English paper and possibly the ENTIRE LEAVING CERT, is ‘the poets’….who is predicted this year?! DO NOT RELY ON PREDICTIONS! If you’re a geek like me, you’ll go ahead and study all eight and know each poem backwards, but this really isn’t necessary! Your teacher will probably have done at least five poets with you, and this is plenty. When you have all your poems done, get a huge sheet of card and write down the name of each poet with their poems underneath. This is a clever little trick for remembering who has written what, and I would also recommend learning at least one quote from each poem. The quotes don’t have to be perfectly transcribed! So many students see this whole quote learning business as an insurmountable mountain, but it doesn’t have to be! Take a poet a night, take five of their poems and just think about what is being said. Make sure you understand the poem because then learning a quote is simple.

Lastly, and possibly something that should have been said first is DON’T FORGET ABOUT PAPER 1! Paper 1 in English is legendarily ignored by students! It’s seen as a paper that you can’t study for, so there’s no point in doing anything for it. WRONG!!! While, okay, you technically can’t study for it, you can ensure you get top marks in English by preparing for it! The only way to do this is to do the comprehensions and part Bs over and over again! I, myself did this and saw a massive improvement from Christmas up until the mocks. Those little hard questions suddenly become accessible! The odd ones about style become repetitive! But this will only happen if you PREPARE and do past exam papers. REMEMBER: You are doing this exam for YOURSELF, so the effort you put in is all for you and not for the teacher! As a student, I know it is so easy to think that the teacher gives you two essays a weekend as punishment – but it really is to ensure you are well prepared! It’s not going to make a difference to your English teacher how you do! Be proactive and be willing to go that extra mile and anyway, this kind of self directed work will prepare you for college!

When it comes to the composition, so many students forget that THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION IN YOUR LEAVING CERT ENGLISH PAPER!! This question is worth a whopping 100 marks and if it’s an A1 you’re looking for, it’s imperative that you do well in this question. For me, I love creative writing, so I always chose the short story option, but you should obviously do whatever suits you best! I would try all the options eg short story, article, speech, or a talk before choosing which one I’m strongest at! The short story is a wonderful option because you can essentially have the bones of your story in your head and manipulate it to fit any title or include any given lines. However, like the comparative question, I wouldn’t advise anyone to write a short story and learn it off word for word. I had five short stories ready for my leaving cert and I was lucky because I got to use my favourite one but I had to manipulate it greatly to make it suit the title. Ironically, you can afford to be unoriginal here, have a few stories prepared and be able to change them if needs be! Like I’ve said before, just prepare a general outline of a plot.

English is a wonderful subject but it’s often seen as one of the more difficult ones to get a top grade in. English is possibly the most subjective exam you will do! Your hilarious joke in that essay might seem offensive to an examiner, so be weary of your audience. You can achieve an A1 in English without using long verbose sentences, and a lot of the time these can be pompous – simple is always better! When reading a question, be aware that it’s only a little suggestion to inspire you to write –  you know all the information and this wonderful question will help give these thoughts a sense of cohesion. If you’re positive about the exam, stop and think about what is being asked and use your logic as well as your creativity, you should have no problems and will do extremely well!

Over the next few weeks, I’ll take the topics (drama, comparative, poetry etc.) and give specific tips about them and sample essays and guidelines.

Good Luck,