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Themes in Hamlet

I know quite a few students are apprehensive about Paper 2 due to the breadth of themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I have had students ask me how they can possibly prepare effectively when they could be asked anything about the play. Although it’s true that Hamlet is a complex text, it’s not infinite. Most of the themes overlap or are linked in some way. In the exam, if you take the time to really read the question, you should be able to relate the themes therein (assuming it’s a theme-based question, and there’s absolutely NO guarantee of that) to your own well developed and relatively broad reading of the play. Here’s an example of how I organised a long list of themes:

Themes in Hamlet

There are two other approaches that I think would also work well.

1. Associations. Organise a list of themes into a list of synonyms/related terms. E.G.

Patriarchy Sovreignty Kingship Politics
Propiety Piety Faith Confession
Loyalty Honour Duty Revenge

You can see from these three examples how this activity will move you from broad themes to more specifics and through a spectrum of connotations; for example, loyalty is a largely positive term and revenge a mostly negative one but they are related through the concepts of honour and duty.

2. Binary oppositions. Organise a list of themes into a list of opposites. E.G.

Action / Delay
Privacy / Surveillance
Reason / Faith
Order / Disorder
Honour / Betrayal

You might notice that not all the themes in these lists are in the mindmap above, which brings me to another important point. You need to have developed your own interpretation of the play in order to be successful in Module B, and that includes having decided which themes you think are significant.

I should also mention that my initial approach to this task involved writing each theme on a post-it note and arranging and then rearranging them on my desk. Try it.

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If you haven’t found it yet, go check out Brainpickings, particularly, for those of you studying Hamlet, this article about Kurt Vonnegut and the shape of stories, which contains an interesting summary and evaluation of the play. Brainpickings can also help you to find unique related texts and give you interesting insights into genre, ways of thinking, and creative writing.

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I’ve been reading about the idea of the flipped classroom, where the traditional lecture-style elements of lessons are assigned for homework (students watch videos) and homework tasks such as answering questions, are completed in class. This appeals to me for a couple of reasons: students can absorb lectures at their own pace, they can rewind, pause or fast forward the videos, depending their own prior knowledge and interest; the flipped model also frees up class time for one-on-one interaction, hands on activities, group collaboration, and, for an HSC English classroom, exam practice.

For students wanting expand their understanding of this most rich and ambiguous of texts, or teachers wanting to explore flipping some elements, here are some of the best video resources (that I’ve found) on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

One of the most useful videos I have ever come across for helping students to understand the essential themes and enduring resonance of Hamlet is Hamlet: A Critical Guide, featuring Professors Stanley Wells and Russell Jackson.

Harold Bloom is one of the most influential literary critics alive today. Any student approaching Module B with any seriousness must have come across his name. His 40 minute lecture for Yale University begins, “There is no god but god and his name is William Shakespeare,”  which proclaims at least one perspective on the enduring nature of Hamlet.

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Here is how I would approach Paper 2:

Tactic Time (mins) Count Down Clock
Reading Time
Read the questions for Modules A, B, and C. Make sure you check that you read the correct questionfor your elective/text. 5 2h
Writing Time
Annotate the question for Module A and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is CONTEXT. 5 1h55m
Write your Module A essay. 35 1h20m
Annotate the question for Module B and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is RECEPTION. 5 1h15m
Write your Module B essay. 35 40m
Annotate the question for Module C and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is REPRESENTATION. 5 35m
Write your Module C essay. 35 0

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Module B is the most traditional of the Advanced English modules. It’s the one where you study the text and look at different interpretations. The key idea here is how the text has been received in different contexts. I suggest organising your summary like this:

Key Idea or Theme

  • quote + technique + explanation
  • note on how this theme has been interpreted in different contexts

Example from Hamlet

Political Corruption

  • “unweeded garden” – metaphor (extended metaphor) – Hamlet feels that the world is decaying due to the political corruption in the Danish court
  • Elizabethan audience: king embodies state – corrupted state = Claudius’ guilt
  • Modern audience: blase attitude to political corruption due to pervasive cynicism.

Example from Cloudstreet

Fate

  • “the knife never lies” – personification – reinforces the role of superstition in Lester Lamb’s life
  • Can be inspire empathy or pity in the audience, depending on differing values

Five or six major themes with three or four quotes/techniques for each and you should have what you need to start writing practice responses. If you find yourself short on ideas for a response, go back to your summary and add more detail.

 

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We tend to see Hamlet as the melancholy prince, the grieving son who must avenge his father’s murder, the antic player and procrastinator. But what was he like before his father’s death?

Consider the following passages from the play:

Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’observed of all observers, quite, quite, down,
And I of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the hony of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovreign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy.

Ophelia. III.I.143-154

He’s loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgement, but their eyes.

Claudius. IV.III.3-4

Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal.

Fortinbras. V.II.374-377

Hamlet was, in the estimation of his lover, his enemy and his rival, a true Renaissance man. He was a soldier, a scholar, a courtier, a poet and a prince. It is in the destruction of this life that the tragedy of the play lies.

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I know it’s a bit lazy to do a post of links but a) I really am trying to keep to my two posts a week commitment and b) these are really useful resources.

AC Bradley Answers Your Questions About Hamlet

Ever wondered why Hamlet delays? Or how old he really is? Have your questions answered by one of the great Shakespearean scholars of the Twentieth Century.

In Search of the Perfect Hamlet

This is a survey style article from the Times Literary Supplement on stage and screen interpretations of Hamlet. A good way to get the interpretative juices flowing. It also includes links to videos of Hamlet’s famous soliliquies as performed by a variety of actors.

To Cut or Not Cut Hamlet: There’s the Rub

This article, again from the TLS, is an insight into the challenge facing directors. Hamlet, if performed in totalis, is four hours long, an unattractive prospect for modern audience *cough* reception in different contexts *cough*  so what should be cut?

Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem

This lecture by CS Lewis, of Narnia fame, is an interesting discussion of different critical approaches to Hamlet.

Happy Reading!

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Shakespeare’s plays are just that: plays, and there is nothing more likely to put a student off the Bard than a bored, expressionless read through in class, by their peers. I first experienced Shakespeare at the age of 9 when my parents took me to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne. Two years later I saw Romeo and Juliet performed in the same venue. As firsts go, this was, of course, ideal. It was also expensive and logistically challenging. Fortunately most people can access high quality performances of most of Shakespeare’s plays through film. Although not as immediate as a stage performance, a film version gives students a sense of meaning and movement in the play that is missing from a monotonal, sedentary reading.

There are more than 70 film versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, making it one of the most filmed stories ever. Finding a good one to help you understand the plot, characters and language of the play is therefore a challenging task. Here’s my top five:

5. Gamlet directed by Grigori Kozintsev and starring Innokenti Smoktunovsky, 1964. Nobody does tragedy quite as well as the Russians. I suspect the gothic setting of this very cinematic version influenced our number 1.

4. The Bad Sleep Well directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, 1960. From Kurosawa we might expect a sweeping samurai epic but The Bad Sleep Well is actually a fast paced corporate drama set in post war Japan. Probably more useful for a study of changing context in an Extension course.

3. Hamlet, directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Ethan Hawke, 2000. If you liked Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet then this is the Hamlet for you. Transposed to 21st Century New York, Hamlet is a disillusioned film student, struggling to come to terms with the death of his Wall Street Executive father. My favourite thing about this film is that it explains why the guards went to Horatio when they first saw the ghost. They are security guards at Denmark Corp. and one of them is Horatio’s girlfriend.

2. Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant, 2009. This is a filmed version for television of a stage production that played on the West End in 2008/2009. The most interesting interpretative point in this production was the casting of Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and the Ghost. Ponder the implications of that.

1. Hamlet, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, 1996.  This is the Mecca of Hamlet films. Unlike other directors, who cut and rearranged lines, characters, and whole scenes to make this huge play palatable to modern audiences, Branagh tackled the whole lot. As a result, the film is four hours long, but well worth the time. Elsinore Castle  is nineteenth-century Russian inspired palace trapped in a seemingly eternal Winter. The performances from Branagh, Kate Winslet, Derek Jacoby, and Richard Briers are outstanding.

Final note: a film (or stage) version of a play is not the play itself. That’s what your text is for. A film is an interpretation of the text, just the same as a critical essay interprets. Do not make the mistake of conflating Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Branagh’s or Kurosawa’s in your responses.

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