“It is because Hamlet is eternally human that the play retains its lasting hold on our sympathies. We are all potential Hamlets.”
Your Module B essay will need to show how the textual unity of Hamlet establishes its canonical status – how its themes, form and language create a unified whole that has lasting significance. You will also need to demonstrate how meaning and value has been derived from the text over a wide range of contexts and individual interpretations, including your own. Practically speaking, your essay will need to make a particular argument about how the unity of Hamlet guarantees its canonical status. That will be your thesis statement. Then you will need three of four smaller ideas to form topic sentences with. What that means is that you need to develop four or five major ideas about the text. In this first of two articles on Module B: Hamlet, we will provide you with some foundational ideas, from which you can develop your own list.
“Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression.”
First, you need to consider how the overall form of Hamlet as a tragedy establishes its textual integrity (If you are unsure what textual integrity is, you must read our Essential Guide to Textual Integrity). Tragedy sees the protagonist at odds with external or internal forces – external forces including fate, fortune, gods and circumstances and internal forces being the protagonist’s own error or frailty. Hamlet is unique in that it sees the protagonist at odds with both. Consistent with a revenge tragedy, Hamlet is engaged in a battle with circumstance when he is tasked with avenging the murder of his father and restoring order to The Great Chain of Being. At the same time, Hamlet engages in what is known as a psychomachy, or a battle of the soul, which involves an internal struggle between the virtues and vices of man.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the following Tragic Conventions. Does Shakespeare incorporate all of them into Hamlet? The answer is central to the concerns of Module B. On the one hand, satisfying the conventions might be one way Hamlet achieves textual integrity. On the other hand, subverting these expectations might be a way of creating a singular and unique text, thereby achieving canonical status.
|Hamartia||The tragic flaw or error in judgment from which mistaken action comes about|
|Anagnorisis||The moment of comprehension or recognition where the protagonist comes to understand his place in the scheme of things.|
|Peripete||The reversal of action or intention.|
|Nemesis||Retribution or punishment for wrongdoing especially meted out to the protagonist of a tragedy for his hamartia.|
|Pathos||The emotionally moving quality of a literary work that elicits feelings of pity and fear in the audience.|
|Catharsis||The purging or sweeping away of the pity and fear aroused by the tragic action.|
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, written between 1599 and 1601 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. By considering the value systems and social hierarchies of Shakespeare’s context we can better understand the meaning of Hamlet. The most important concept to understand is The Great Chain of Being.
To the audience of Elizabethan England, The Great Chain of Being was the natural order of all things. With God at the apex, the monarch was viewed as His voice on Earth. Consider then what the significance of Claudius killing his king and brother would have been for Shakespeare’s audience. Naturally, the act of fratricide was seen as an abomination against God, but even more so to kill the monarch would have been seen as equivalent to deicide.
Like many Elizabethan tragedies, Hamlet drew inspiration from ancient Roman Senecan tragedies. Writers found that Senecan devices such as revenge plots, ghosts, adultery, incest, murder, suicide and insanity appealed to bloodthirsty Elizabethan audiences. However, in pioneering the romantic tragedy, Shakespeare largely disregarded the unities and implemented his own, including:
Again, in your essay it is worth considering how Shakespeare’s creative reworking of classical precedents yields an innovative, singular text, and how this in turn confirms the lasting value of Hamlet.
“Hamlet […] provided a dramatic example of inaction in a world that summoned men to duty and resolute action.”
-R. A. Foakes
Hamlet as a tragic hero particularly defied convention. Often tragedies set up their protagonist as violent and hubristic, hubris being excessive pride that causes the protagonist to ignore a divine warning or to break moral law. Hamlet’s fatal flaw is more complex. He is an intellectual, a Renaissance man, and many consider Hamlet to be Shakespeare’s ode to the scholar. Returning to the notion of the psychomachy, Hamlet can be seen as a man struggling with the human dualities of “godlike reason” and “bestial oblivion” (4.4). In failing to remain a man of reason, succumbing to the morally ambiguous call to action in the name of revenge, one can argue Hamlet is Shakespeare’s condemnation of the Elizabethan male ideal. This is most evident in Shakespeare’s use of character foils.
“The hero of one plot, Hamlet is in effect the villain of the other, casting an inescapable doubt upon his heroic role […] This paradox suggests the essential duality of human nature, which is both noble and wicked.” Charles Boyce
Characterisation is the way an author presents their characters. A foil is a secondary character whose comparative qualities draw attention to those of the protagonist. There is a pattern in Shakespeare’s use of character foils in Hamlet, which draws attention to the duality of human nature and the extremes of the human condition. There are three main characters Shakespeare uses as foils to Hamlet:
Claudius is the villain of the play, yet he is compared irrevocably to Hamlet. Both are intellectuals who experience internal conflicts of passion and reason. Claudius in his representation of man succumbing to his vices foreshadows the fate of Hamlet. Claudius can be seen as the divine warning against operating in extremes that Hamlet failed to ignore.
Fortinbras parallels both Hamlet and Laertes in the role of filial avenger. However, as one who operates in the realm of extreme passion, and who disregards reason – “Exposing what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death and danger dare, / Even for an eggshell” (4.4) – his character acts as an immediate contrast with Hamlet. Hamlet’s downfall comes when he uses Fortinbras, believing him to be the ideal man and son, as motivation to carry out his revenge. The ending of Hamlet is all the more tragic then, as Fortinbras is appointed King of Denmark. What do you think Shakespeare was implying by this sentiment? Is history doomed to repeat itself?
This is Laertes’ early advice to his sister Ophelia, to be weary of the corruptible nature of passion. However, as a reasonable man unable to place passion correctly, Laertes mirrors Hamlet’s tragic flaw and sacrifices reason in the name of a morally ambiguous call to arms, “I am satisfied in nature, / Whose motive in this case should stir me most / To my revenge. But in terms of my honor / I stand aloof and will no reconcilement” (5.2). Both characters operate in extremes and ultimately fail because of it. Develop your argument further by working out how this pattern of character foils unifies the text.
Hamlet opens with a question: “Who’s there?” (1.1). Immediately we are introduced to the theme of uncertainty of appearance versus reality that pervades the Kingdom of Denmark. With Claudius’ false ascension to the throne, the natural order of things has been shaken. And as the country takes on the characteristics of the leader, imagery of corruption and contagion become a motif throughout Hamlet:
In fact, Shakespeare makes clear the connection between Claudius’ corrupt throne manifesting in nature with the following call and response: Hamlet remarks of Denmark, “‘Tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2). Later, Claudius echoes this sentiment: “Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder” (3.3). The biblical allusion of “the primal eldest curse” refers to Cain and Abel, the story of man’s first murder and a similar act of fratricide. This is not the first biblical allusion applied to Claudius that alludes to the corruptible state of man. In Act 1, Scene 5 the metaphor “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (1.5) reminds us of Adam and Eve – the story of man’s first sin.
“In a world pervaded by decay, the process of natural renewal has come to seem grotesque and disgusting.”
Hamlet, a man aware of the disparity between appearance and reality in Denmark, sees his world and those that inhabit it as deceitful and corrupt. At first we see him develop an obsession with honesty:
Eventually, Hamlet transfers this obsession along with his resentment of life and abhorrence of human evil onto sex, the act or procreation, and women, whom as child bearers he sees as the perpetuators of this sin:
One of the main reasons Hamlet has remained relevant to audiences for over 400 years is the universality and timelessness of its anthropocentric values. Hamlet’s existential struggle between faith and reason in the face of death is an aspect of the human condition we all can relate to. The exploration of the universal of death approaches ontological concerns.
We see Hamlet question the nature of man and human existence:
Struggle to come to terms with death:
And feel at the mercy of his faith:
“Hamlet was suffering from the traumas of mortality: the searing pain of his father’s death, a troubled recognition of his mother’s sexuality, a sickening awareness of the vulnerability and corruptibility of the flesh.”
– Stephen Greenblatt
Hamlet’s struggle with death pushes him towards ontological reflection, which is embodied in the most famous soliloquy of the play, known by its first line: “To be, or not to be – that is the question” (3.1). Here Hamlet is no longer concerned with appearance and reality or other epistemological questions. His thoughts have moved to being and nothingness, and the meaning of being – the subject of ontology. The fact that Hamlet deals with this most fundamental branch of philosophy confirms its universal significance. If you read through Hamlet’s first few soliloquies, you’ll notice how frequently Shakespeare uses caesuras (interrupting modifiers) and dense-lexical chains to create a sense of real train of thought. The form of shows us the ruminations of Hamlet’s mind as he approaches these higher order questions.
The play follows Hamlet on an arc in which he finds peace with his own mortality as an intrinsic part of his humanity. Death, for Hamlet, establishes the meaning of existence. But before he can come to terms with death, he must first confront it. This is most obviously demonstrated in The Gravedigger Scene, Act 5, Scene 1. It is in this scene, coming face-to-face (quite literally!) with death, that Hamlet finds comfort in the juxtaposition of his late court jester Yorick, “A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (5.1) and Alexander the Great, two men who share nothing but the commonality of death: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust” (5.1). Death has its rightful place in the natural order of things, as Hamlet has a rightful place in the Great Chain of Being. With this resolve, Hamlet finds trust in God, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2) and accepts his line in the Danish Throne with his maxim: “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” (5.1).
In the end, Hamlet responds to his initial question with an answer: “Let be” (5.2). Note how Shakespeare decided not to write this final sentiment in a soliloquy, meant for Hamlet’s own benefit. It is a message spoken aloud, for everyone to hear.
We hope the ideas in this article have provided you with inspiration for forming your own ideas. We recommend you develop these by researching them, re-reading Hamlet, and writing some practice essays. When you’ve done that, read HSC English Module B Study Guide: Hamlet Part 2 [Free Exemplar Essay] which is a model essay on the text.
Read the next part of this study guide: HSC English Module B Study Guide: Hamlet Part 2 [Free Exemplar Essay]
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