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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

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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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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