A guide and sample-responses to ways of exploring "HAMLET"
CONTEXTUAL… PHILOSOPICAL AND THEORETICAL…
ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVES… or… DIFFERENT WAYS OF
* Virginia Woolfe – “integrity”
In art we recognise something like truth, an accurate representation
of life as we have known it, but in such terms as teach us to
understand such contexts more fully and deeply.
* It has the potential to awaken a consciousness of the relationship
between the self and the world. Bodhichitta – “noble or awakened
Elizabethan audiences would feel resonances with their own world:
• England, like Denmark was a troubled country. In 1588 England had
defeated the Spanish armada
• England was unstable and dangerously insecure as it is nearing the
end of the reign of Elizabeth I. Claudius speaks of sorrows coming
‘not in single spies, but in battalions’
• Claudius’ murder of Old Hamlet was a political assassination to
achieve political power.
• The use of devious Machiavellian methods and spies to maintain
• Shakespeare seems to completely accept and be dominated by the
conservative conception of order, an Orthodox doctrine – the great
chain of being
• Hamlet is often perceived as a philosophical character, expounding ideas
that are now described as relativist, existentialist, and sceptical
• Hamlet reflects the contemporary scepticism that prevailed in
Renaissance humanism. Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man”
echoes many of Montaigne’s (Michel de) ideas. Montaigne was a strong
supporter of humanism. He believed in God but declined to speculate
about His nature
• Montaigne exhibited a quite modern cultural relativism, recognising that
laws, morals and religions of the various cultures, while often quite
different, may be equally valid.
• Relativism – people have different points of view
depending on their historical or cultural contexts eg
• “That’s true for you but not for me.”
• “You can’t judge other cultures by the standards of your
• Moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical
propositions do not reflect universal moral truths i.e. there
is no concrete right or wrong. Cultural boundaries and
individual contexts influence moral and ethical decisions.
Existentialism, Nihilism & Scepticism
• Existentialism asserts meaninglessness in life but goes on
to assert that it’s the responsibility of the individual to give
one’s life meaning
• Nihilism asserts meaningless in life. Nothing is meaningful –
nothing can be controlled. Nothing can be planned or
calculated. Life is nothing – so just let it happen. Life is
pointless and values are worthless.
• Scepticism loosely means a questioning attitude or some
degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken
• Scepticism is accepting, rejecting or suspending judgement
that requires new information to be well supported by
argument or evidence.
• Humanism is a philosophy of life inspired by humanity and guided by
reason. It provides the basis for a fulfilling and ethical life without
religion. Humanists make sense of the world using reason,
experience and shared human values.
• Humanism is a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centred on human
interests or values; a philosophy that rejects supernaturalism and
stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-
realisation through reason (Merriam webster dictionary)
Features of Revenge Tragedy
The revenge tragedy play is a form of tragedy which was extremely popular in the Elizabethan
era. It includes;
• A secret murder, usually of a benign ruler by a bad one
• A ghostly visitation of the murder victim to a younger kinsman, generally a son
• A period of disguise, intrigue, or plotting, in which the murderer and the avenger scheme
against each other, with a slowly rising body count
• A descent into either real or feigned madness by the avenger
• An eruption of general violence at the end, which (in the Renaissance) is often accomplished
by means of a feigned masque ore festivity
• A catastrophe that generally decimates the dramatic personae including the avenger
• Personal revenge was forbidden both by the state and the church so Hamlet was trapped in a
dilemma. There could be no justice from the state, because the murderer himself was now
king. To take personal revenge meant eternal damnation
The play focuses on character, rather than action (this is the reverse of the norm). It is through the
soliloquies, not the action, that the audience learns Hamlet’s motives and thoughts.
• There is no strong subplot, all plot-forks directly connect to the main vein of Hamlet’s personal
reflections and his struggle for revenge
• The play is full of seeming discontinuities and irregularities of action.
• It contains a favourite Shakespearian device, a play within a play which takes up the heart of
• Conventional 5 Acts – the scenes provide contrast between courtly and humble life, and tragedy
• The 1st Act gives us nearly all the elements necessary to drive the plot. The 2nd Act
accelerates the action until the formidable explosions of the 3rd Act, which leads to the
tragic denouement of the 5th Act.
• It shows time passing eg. The prompt actions of Fortinbras is contrasted with the prolonged
inactivity of Hamlet
Seven soliloquies – are centred on the most important existential themes:
the emptiness of existence, suicide, death, suffering, action, a fear of death which puts off the
most momentous decisions, the fear of the beyond, the degradation of the flesh, the triumph of
• Virtue, the pride and hypocrisy of human beings, and the difficulty of acting
under the weight of a thought ‘which makes cowards of us all’.
• The density of Hamlet’s thoughts is extraordinary. The language is beautiful
and not a word is wasted. His soliloquies are pieces of pure poetry, written in
blank verse, sustained by a rhythm not smooth, not rugged, by a fast or a
slow pace, offering us surprises in every line.
• They are in effect the hidden plot of the play because , if one puts them side
by side, one notices that the character of Hamlet goes through a development
which, in substance, is nothing other than the history of human thinking from
the Renaissance to the existentialism of the 20th century.
Act 1, sc2, 129 – 158 (sullied flesh)
Act 1, sc 5, 92 – 112 (host of heaven)
Act 2, sc 2, 501 – 558 (what a rogue)
Act 3, sc 1, 56 – 89 (to be)
Act 3, sc 2, 351 – 360 (witching time of night)
Act 3, sc 3, 73 – 95 (goes to heaven)
Act 4, sc 4, 32 - 66 (all occasions)
Four of the seven deserve special attention
• The first soliloquy is an outraged man who, disgusted by his
‘sullied flesh’, can see no outcome to his disgust other than
• Hamlet’s attitude is different in ‘to be, or not to be’. He asks
himself about death beyond religious considerations; the
nature of his dilemma has changed.
The other two soliloquies reveal the passionate nature of
• In Act 2, sc2, Hamlet is enraged, furious and rude. he lays himself totally
bare but he is no fool. Recovering his spirits he devises a plan which will
lead the king to betray himself. Shakespeare stamps Hamlet’s language
with relentless changes in tone, the peaks of rage inter-cut with short
moments of profound depression or of incredulous questioning.
• In Act 4, sc4 Hamlet, on the edge of despair, asks himself why he, when
he has so many reasons, cannot stir himself to action, why he can’t carry
out the necessary act of vengeance
(see notes from www.ulg.ac.be/libnet/germa/hamleteng.htm)
Much of the play’s language is courtly, elaborate, witty discourse
Hamlet is the most skilled of all at rhetoric. He uses highly developed metaphors,
anaphora (repetition of words/phrases throughout a text), puns, hyperbole, verse,
soliloquy, dialogue, apostrophe. (REMEMBER! YOU NEVER “LIST” TECHNIQUES
IN LONG-RESPONSE WRITING & ANALYSIS PARAGRAPHS)
• Puns are used to express his true thoughts while simultaneously concealing them eg.
“nunnery” remarks to Ophelia as nunnery is Elizabethan slang for brothel. Many of
Polonius’s speeches also cannot be fully understood until one untangles the puns
• Bombastic language full of hyperbole recalls traditional revenge tragedy eg. ‘Now I
could drink hot blood’
• Verse mingles with prose/dialogue/soliloquy – this change in language embodies
the changing emotional climate of the play and the characters
• ‘O what a peasant slave’ moves from self-condemnation, amazement, anger, agonised self-
accusation, impassioned fury, mocking and criticism, deep reflection and determination
Claudius’high status is reinforced by using the royal “we”/”us”.
Anaphora, apostrophe and metaphor combine to resonate with
Greek political speeches develop the Revenge Tragedy structure
and implies a highly-civilised tone in Claudius and the
• Symbolic Imagery – hunting, war, corruption/sickness, evil, rank, worms,
maggots etc Social corruption is implied in symbolic images of inner
• Anaphora and apostrophe (or allusion) – add force to argument, enrich
atmosphere, amplify meaning
To some Hamlet reiterates a social archetype of masculinity:
• Hamlet transforms his grief and the sense of human vulnerability it
provokes in him into rage and vengeance.
• From a Freudian perspective, when women are the focus in discussions of
Hamlet, they are seen in the Oedipal sense as figures of male anxiety.
But this is only one perspective?
• Another perspective is to understand Hamlet, as well as the other
characters of the play, in ethical terms – that is, as figures of community
• Who could have made different choices.
• Who then decides when violence is appropriate?
• Does the play help us in imagining alternatives to the violence represented
in the play and which forms its resolution?
• What is the purpose of a world in which violence is the inevitable end?
• Is it one we wish to celebrate?
What do you think about this perspective?
Ophelia - “raiseasighsopiteousandprofound/thatitdidseemtoshatterallhisbulk/
Andendhisbeing” (2.1, 93-94)
• The Hamlet in these lines (name and explain the textual devices??) appears to possess a deep sense of
grief and the human vulnerability it illuminates. Unlike the rage into which he metamorphoses his grief,
such feeling draws him toward others, for only in shared vulnerability is comfort. He is a figure of grief
and loss, as are other important characters such as Ophelia, Gertrude and Polonius. Ophelia turns inward,
her inability to resolve the contradictions that structure her sense of what love entails resulting in
insanity. Hamlet turns outward, attacking the living signs of his own vulnerability in others. Both are
figures of deep despair.
• Does Shakespeare make clear Hamlet’s desire for a world where the strength of relationship, of love
and compassion, rather than the power to dominate, secures the meaning of our existence…?
• Shakespeare is exploring the vulnerability and fragility of the human psyche through the characterisation
of the protagonist. Shakespeare invites responders to investigate the propensity of humans to be
undermined by despair and melancholy, and to recognise the debilitating effects of these.