Posts Tagged ‘Module B’

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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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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Essay planning in an exam situation can be tricky. You need to ensure that your essay answers the whole question; however, you’re also pretty pressed for time. In the HSC, taking five minutes to plan is worth it and the first part of your planning time should be spent breaking down the question. Here are some examples of how breaking down the question can give you an essay plan.

2009 Area of Study: Belonging, Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson and The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

“Understanding nourishes belonging … a lack of understanding prevents it.”

Demonstrate how your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing represent this interpretation of belonging.

Break down

  • Understanding nourishes belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I died for beauty’ finds belonging through a shared understanding of art (shown through the metalepsis of truth and beauty).
    • The bilbies in The Rabbits understand and therefore belong within their landscape (shown through their shape, which echoes the natural swirls of the setting).
  • A lack of understanding prevents belonging
    • The persona in ‘What Mystery Pervades a Well!’ is alienated from her surroundings through a lack of understanding (alternative: gender distance due to mutual lack of understanding).
    • The bilbies and the rabbits are unable to co-exist harmoniously due to language and cultural differences that prevent understanding.
  • A lack of understanding can lead to a different type of belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I had been hungry all the years’ fails to grasp the attraction of belonging to a community but finds a different type of belonging with nature.
    • Rather than learning to belong in a landscape they don’t understand, the Rabbits reshape the landscape and commodify it to belong to them.

2010 Module A: Texts in Time, Frankenstein and Blade Runner

Analyse how Frankenstein and Blade Runner imaginatively portray individuals who challenge the established values of their time.

Break down:

  • What are the “established values” of the times?
    • Industrialisation (progress and ownership) and Enlightenment (rationality) versus Romanticism (spirituality and Nature) and Morality (compassion and kindness).
    •  Capitalism (commodification and profit) and Technological advancement (pushing boundaries) versus Environmentalism (nature and conservation) and Ethics (humaneness).
  • Which “individuals” are “challenging” them? How and why?
    • Victor Frankenstein challenges traditional morality by usurping the role of god as creator, he does this because of hubris.
    • Eldon Tyrell challenges ideas of conservation and ethics by creating disposable genetically engineered “replicant” slaves, he does this for profit.
  • What are the consequences of these challenges?
    • For Victor the consequences are personal, the death of his family, friends, and himself.
    • For Tyrell the consequences are global, the destruction of the natural world, as well as personal.

2010 Module B: Critical Study of Texts, Hamlet

‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to engage audiences through its dramatic treatment of struggle and disillusionment.’

In the light of your critical study, does this statement resonate with your own interpretation of Hamlet?

Break down

  • Who struggles? What with?
    • Hamlet struggles with the task of revenge laid on him by the ghost because of the conflict between his duty and his personal ethics.
    • Ophelia also struggles with the conflict between her role as a daughter and a sister (and the contextual expectations of woman) and her feelings for Hamlet.
    • Modern audiences continue to relate to this struggle because the conflict between family obligation and personal beliefs is a universal human concern.
  • Who is disillusioned? What with?
    • Hamlet is disillusioned with what he sees as a corrupt world; the corrupt court of Denmark is a microcosm of this.
    • Political and moral corruption are ongoing concerns that resonate with a modern audience.
  • What is the ultimate consequence of this struggle and disillusionment?
    • Tragedy.

Asking a few brief questions to draw out the key ideas in the question is a worthwhile use of your precious exam time if it means answering the whole question with a sustained, structured response.


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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


  • “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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The rubric for this module is, I think, the shortest for any English module in the HSC. It reads:

This module requires students to engage in detailed analysis of a text. It develops students’ understanding of how the ideas, forms and language of a text interact within the text and may affect those responding to it

Although brief, this paragraph has a lot of ideas packed into it. Here are the key ones:

Ideas: this refers to the themes and message of a text. One way we’ve discussed it in class is the “big ideas” of the text.

Forms: this is the type and structure of a text; for example, whether it’s a poem, a novel, or a play and then how it is put together within its text type.

Language: this refers to the word choices and techniques used by the composer.

Then we need to work out how these interact and how the mix of ideas, form, and language affect responders. (Psst, you’re the responder but so are the people for whom the text was originally composed).

Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is written in sonnet form (form). Sonnets are usually about love so Owen’s ideas about war (ideas), expressed using violent imagery (language), are made even more confronting (affect on responders) for his readers.

Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, uses first person narration (language) and chapters labelled using prime numbers (form) to highlight the protagonist’s Asperger’s affected worldview (ideas). This invites the reader to empathise with him (affect on responders).

Being able to bring these three elements–ideas, form and language–together and analyse the affect on the responder, is not easy. But if you can get on top of it before the dreaded Trials, you should be able to nail this module.

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The Standard Module B: Close Study of Text Rubric reads:

This module requires students to engage in detailed analysis of a text. It develops students’ understanding of how the ideas, forms and language of a text interact within the text and may affect those responding to it.

The key words are:

detailed analysis – this goes beyond the “describe” that is often the key to Standard English modules. This requires making links between “ideas”, “forms”, and “language”. In other words, how does the composer use the textual form and language to convey ideas to an audience? To do this, you will need to know your text really well.

ideas – this is another word for theme or message. What is the text about, in a general way? What is the composer trying to achieve? For example, Wilfred Owen’s poems are “about” war but his message is a warning to future generations to avoid war’s horrors.

forms – it is important to acknowledge and understand the effect of text type. The Curious Incident is a novel and needs to be read differently from Cosi, which is a play or Into the Wild which is a non-fiction text. Each textual form has its own conventions and techniques, which convey its message.

language – this is not just the composer’s choice of words. It also refers to the techniques, or language tricks, if you like, used in the text. While Owen employs graphic imagery and biblical allusion to reinforce the severity of his message, Haddon uses the rather stilted first person narrative to convey the confusion of his protagonist.

responding – audiences (I prefer this term to “responders”, which is a bit clunky) are affected in different ways by texts. This module asks you to consider how an audience would respond to the way in which composers use textual form and language to convey a message. The best way to begin attacking this part is by keeping a reading journal as you study or revise: what is your personal response to the text?

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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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Students often complain that they don’t know how to study for English. The following example shows how to approach a speech from Shakespeare but also works for poetry, articles or novel extracts.

Step One: Annotate

Select a passage from your core text. Photocopy it from your book or cut and paste from online into a word document (or, if you’re like me, just write on your book–as long as it’s not a library book). Make notes directly onto the text regarding key themes and techniques. Also write down any questions you have.

Example: Annotated Prologue from Romeo and Juliet

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,                “fair” = beautiful & also just
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,          Contrast: ancient and new
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.      Pun on “civil”
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes           Alliteration
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows           Words to do with “fate”
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,                      eye rhyme
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.       addresses the audience

Part Two: Personal Response

Compose a personal response of 250-300 words to the passage you have annotated. Questions to ask yourself could include:

  • Which emotions are expressed in this passage? How does reading it make me feel?
  • What does the passage suggest about what happens next in the play? Does it refer to earlier scenes?
  • Are there any particularly powerful images in this passage?
  • What does the passage reveal about character? Does it reinforce or challenge my view of various characters and their relationships?

Example: Personal Response to the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet

This prologue is a very clear introduction to the play. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s sonnets in its structure, rhythm and rhyme. Sonnets are also usually about love so I think this will be a play about love. It introduces a story that will be sad but perhaps will also have a moral.

I like the contrast between the setting, “fair Verona” and the action, “mutiny.” I also like the paradox “civil blood.” It’s like saying “polite violence.” I wonder what the “ancient grudge” is and if it will be explained in the play?

The adjectives “star-cross’d” and “misadventured” and “death-mark’d” suggest that there will be something in the play about the role of fate or destiny. I don’t believe in fate; I wonder if that will affect whether or not I enjoy the play. Maybe not because I don’t believe in fairies but I really liked A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The main characters are described here as being “lovers” but a few lines later they are referred to as “children.” Is this supposed to imply that they are very young or is it just to show the relationship with their parents?

I had to read the last part a few times before it made sense. It seems to imply that the death of Romeo and Juliet is the only way to show their parents the consequences of feuding. I think that losing a child is too harsh a punishment. Shakespeare seems to spoil the story by putting it all in the prologue. I think perhaps that shows that his language and characters are more important that his plots.

The last part of the prologue is addressed to the audience. I like this because it shows that it is a play with interaction between the audience and the stage.

Words: 299

Part Three: Analytical Response

Compose an analytical response of 350-400 words to the passage you have annotated. It needs to have a clear structure and purpose. Your ideas must be supported by quotes from the text. You should be using formal, precise and technical language. See example below.

Example: Analysis of the Prologue from Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a play about love, but also violence. The prologue introduces the setting and the characters and summarises the action of the play. In Elizabethan England a prologue was often needed to call attention to the beginning of the play, much the way lighting is used today in theatres and cinemas. This prologue is structured like a Shakespearean sonnet, with three quatrains and a couplet. The use of the sonnet form reinforces the theme of love.

In the first quatrain, Shakespeare introduces the setting of the play. Verona is a “fair” city plagued with violence. An “ancient grudge”—the cause of which is not mentioned—has erupted in “new mutiny” between two important families. The pun on the word “civil”—which can mean both urban and polite—reinforces the contrast between the setting and the action.

In the second quatrain, Shakespeare introduces his characters, Romeo and Juliet and their parents. The alliteration of “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes” is powerful and highlights the tragedy that is to occur. “Fatal” can mean both caused by fate and ending in death. It is their destiny to die but also to bring peace to Verona. The lovers are “star-cross’d” and “with their death bury their parents’ strife.”

In the third quatrain, the plot of the play is summarised again. The role of fate is reinforced with the use of the adjective “death-mark’d” to describe the love of Romeo and Juliet for each other. Shakespeare also emphasises the youth of the two lovers by using the word “children” to describe them rather than the word “offspring,” which would have worked with the earlier phrase “fatal loins.” This quatrain repeats the key points of the second one, reinforcing the themes of love and violence and the role of fate.

The final couplet is addressed to the audience, asking us to be “patient” as we listen to this tragic tale unfold. It acknowledges that the prologue has left out some key information, “what here shall miss,” but that this will be addressed in the play, “our toil shall strive to mend.” The use of the word “mend” reminds the audience that although the play is a violent tragedy, that it ends with peace.

Words: 377

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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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