Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

How to study Shakespeare

2012-06-13 19.00.42

Ask your cat to help you.

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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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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 focus of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is on the following personalities, events and situations:

Personalities: Caesar; Brutus; Cassius; Antony; Calpurnia; Portia and Octavian.

Situations: the expanding Roman Empire; the failure of the triumvirate; the civil war resulting from Caesar’s death and the ultimate end of the Roman Republic.

Events: Antony offering Caesar the crown; the night of omens; Caesar’s assassination; and the battle at Philippi.

Julius Caesar is an essentially political play. An interesting approach to selecting related material would be to consider other political situations that have inspired conflicting perspectives (otherwise known as every political situation ever) and find some texts that portray different perspectives.

Good places to find texts include:

Texts can be articles, images, blog posts, news reports or even forum discussions (if they’re well written).  You can also usually find books, both non-fiction and fiction, about historical events and, if they were sufficiently interesting or significant, there may be a film. Here are some ideas to get you started searching (try to find something that interests you).

Personalities: Julia Gillard; Bill Clinton; Tony Blair; Margaret Thatcher; Idi Amin; Winston Churchill; Charles de Gaulle; Nelson Mandela.

Situations: The war in Iraq; the Suffragette movement; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Indonesian invasion of East Timor; the fall of the Ottoman empire; the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Events: The assassination of President Lincoln; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the coronation of Elizabeth I; the abdication of Edward VIII.

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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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Unlike the Area of Study, Module C and, to some extent, Module A—which are concept based—Module B, the Critical Study, is text based. By this I mean that rather being about an idea (belonging, conflicting perspectives, context or the role of humanity), Module B’s focus is on studying the core text. The Module B Syllabus Rubric says,

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity.

Each elective in this module requires close study of a single text to be chosen from a list of prescribed texts.

Students explore the ideas expressed in the text through analysing its construction, content and language. They examine how particular features of the text contribute to textual integrity. They research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations of the text. Students discuss and evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts. They extrapolate from this study of a particular text to explore questions of textual integrity and significance.

Students develop a range of imaginative, interpretive and analytical compositions that relate to the study of their specific text. These compositions may be realised in a variety of forms and media.

Let’s break it down.

Reception in a range of contexts: students need to acknowledge that different people read texts differently and that these differences arise from variations in world view. World view is a useful idea. It means exactly what it sounds like: it’s how someone sees the world. This is influenced by historical, social and cultural context. Think about how your text was received in its original context and how that is similar to or different from how it is read now.

Example: The idea of the Divine Right of Kings was very popular in Europe during Shakespeare’s time. This notion, that kings rule because God wants them to, could be one of the reasons that Hamlet hesitates to kill his uncle. To a modern audience this makes less sense (living as we do after the French and Russian revolutions) so we look for answers in Hamlet’s character or in his personal ethical code.

If your text is a more recent one, such as Cloud Street, it might be useful to think about different communities within our modern society. Examine the significance of the house in the novel for an Aboriginal Australian who was a member of the Stolen Generation or what the novel might mean to someone who is unfamiliar with that aspect of Australian history.

Textual integrity: this is a tricky concept and the BOS uses the term differently from the way my university lecturers used it. In Module B, textual integrity means the way in which the different elements of the text work together to form an integrated whole.

Example: The plot, characters and language in Hamlet all work to reinforce the theme of decay and corruption. The gothic atmosphere of Moor House is integral to understanding the plot and character motivations in Jane Eyre.

Significance: another one of those tricky words with too many meanings. An interesting way to think of it is that meaning is the message of the text as the author intended while significance is the meaning of the text to a reader. This ties together the previous two ideas. If the elements (plot, setting, character, theme and style) all work together to create a message, then the text has textual integrity. The way message is interpreted or received in a given context is its significance.

I recommend reading CS Lewis’s essay on Hamlet entitled The Prince or the Poem. It very cleverly explains the way in which subsequent generations have read Shakespeare’s play, and how each critic has seen their own ideals and values reflected in the play’s titular hero.

Attacking this module might mean doing a little a self reflection and engaging with the world. What are your values, how are they shaped by your context and how do they affect your own reading of the text? That last question is important because it is your own reading of the text that the markers want to read. Don’t read a bunch of criticism and regurgitate in the exam. Engage with the text and its world, engage with yourself and your own world, think about the connections between the two and then write about it.

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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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