Read this Band 6 Hamlet essay to clarify your understanding of the Prince of Denmark.
There are various ways to prepare your study notes for exams. Some students write up a list of themes and accompanying quotations, while others, perhaps the majority, write an essay and adapt it to the question on the day. You will probably have heard that it is important to write an essay with relatively general ideas. The reason for this as that the Module B: Hamlet question will require you to bend your ideas to fit a specific argument. If your ideas are already highly specified, it will be difficult to adapt to the question. It follows, then, that you should keep your ideas broad in your essay. The essay below is a model example of this kind of prepared ‘generic’ essay – an essay which could be adapted to a broad range of questions.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents an accessible and universal protagonist who surpasses the conventions of Aristotelian tragedy to embody the struggle of the human condition. The human condition is fuelled by the discrepancy between humankind’s desire and its circumstances. Hamlet provides a unique introspection into the destructive consequences of internal struggle on international politics as the “high strung dreamer” (E.K. Chambers) forfeits his father’s kingdom. Shakespeare’s dramatic meditation on power and leadership employs dramatic techniques and form to demonstrate that neither romantic idealism or barbarity are desirable in our leaders.
Hamlet’s frustration derives from his inability to reconcile living in an imperfect world and the dichotomous nature of mankind. The duality of humanity exists in our nature to be both good and evil. This is evident in Shakespeare’s adoption of the revenge tragedy genre, whereby Hamlet plays villain and hero in equal measure. In the Aristotelian tradition, as the play progresses this conflicted hero undertakes actions he once found repulsive. Shakespeare achieves this through character doubling, pairing Hamlet and Claudius, Hamlet and Laertes, and Hamlet and Fortinbras as foils. Hamlet and Claudius are bound by blood and distrust. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 2 embodies the struggle between rational thought and emotional action, Hamlet is torn between proving the guilt of his uncle and revenging his father. Hamlet’s simile that he is “A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak, / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause” (2.2) demonstrates his struggle between the moral need for proof and the filial desire for vengeance. Hence, Claudius is irrevocably compared to Hamlet as a man undergoing similar internal conflict. He is “a man to double business bound, / I stand in pause” (3.3) who tries to hold onto the spoils of his fratricide while struggling with guilt. Laertes is the foil to Hamlet the filial avenger. Laerte’s assertions that “I’ll be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father” (4.5) and will “cut his throat I’th’church.” (4.7) are impassioned outbursts that parallel Hamlet’s eventual and irrevocable passion. Filial obligations, per the old medieval social conventions Laertes and Fortinbras follow, demand that revenge supersede all rules and other concerns. Hamlet’s dialogue demonstrates his struggle to reconcile these beliefs with his humanist nature that argue revenge and violence only lead to further bloodshed. This is epitomised by his repetitive outburst: “bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” (2.2). Hamlet finds it easier to speak and perform vengeance than to raise a sword and act. The consequence of Hamlet’s indecision is embodied structurally: the first three acts are long and drawn out as Hamlet wrestles with his filial obligation; the final two acts as he struggles to cope with the ramifications of an impetuous and flawed decision occur with inexorable and rapid momentum. Thus, Hamlet is metonymic for the flawed human race – son of a godlike father and an incestuous mother – “our sometime sister, now our queen” (1.2). Ultimately, these doubling techniques represent Hamlet’s plight as they reveal the intrinsic dualism of the human condition.
Hamlet’s humanist idealism amounts to a psychoneurotic state of ‘Weltschmerz,’ he resents existence and equates evil with humanity’s existence. Individuals suffering psychoneurosis seek an outlet for their blocked frustrations. This is exemplified in Hamlet’s demand that Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery!” and his interrogative accusation, “Why wouldst thou be a / breeder of sinners?” (3.1). Hamlet hints at the cause of his anguish in the apostrophe, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (1.2), transferring his anger at his mother onto his beloved. ‘Weltschmertz,’ the sense of melancholy and despondency present in Hamlet’s internal conflict between expectation and desire, manifests itself in his perception that the state, and thus the world, is an “unweeded garden” (1.2), a metaphoric fallen Eden. Shakespeare employs Denmark to serve as a macrocosm, “the model of nature and human frailty” (Wilfred Guerin). So, when Hamlet describes the state as “stale, flat and unprofitable” and “rank and gross in nature” (1.2), he employs listing and disease imagery to critique political and moral corruption whilst embodying the external form of Hamlet’s internal struggle. Hamlet’s frequent paradoxes – “what is this quintessence of dust?”, “Man delights not me – no, nor woman either” (2.2) – convey his disillusion with mankind and his obsession with integrity. From his first scene, Hamlet struggles between thoughts of “self slaughter” (1.2) and his desire to not be frozen into inaction. Hamlet’s hatred of his own humanity is shown in the extended metaphor that “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt!” (1.2). Inevitably, Hamlet’s idealism results in disenchantment and his final antagonistic attitude to himself and the world.
The play’s central humanist concerns transcend the exoticism of its setting. Shakespeare’s contemporary theatre-goers would likely not have been familiar with the machinations of Denmark’s elected monarchy; thus, the extradiegetic principles of Hamlet are independent of any temporal or geographical stance. R.A. Foalkes has argued that the character of Hamlet is the “projection of the artist or intellectual who felt out of place in a world of philistinism.” I believe, though, that it is simply the case that Hamlet suffers from the paralysis of will caused by a mind too complex and sensitive to tolerate the realities of an imperfect world. Hamlet makes this clear in his aphorism, “thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (3.1). Hamlet’s eventual conversion to “rash and bloody” barbarism is represented as ineffective, achieving only a “blunted purpose” (3.4) as his death cedes Denmark to Norway and undoes his father’s conquests. Hamlet’s hamartia is his inability to reconcile man’s dual nature of passion and reason. This is typified in his final soliloquy in Act 4 Scene 4. Here, Hamlet considers the impending conflict between Norway and Denmark to be “for an eggshell” and worries that it will send twenty thousand men “to their graves like beds” (4.4) (a slaughter his own death heroically avoids). It is ironic that Hamlet concludes with the decisive rhyming couplet, “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (4.4). Despite understanding the importance of “god-like reason”, Hamlet determines to follow Fortinbras metaphorically and “find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake”. In Hamlet’s maxim “Let be” (5.2), the audience is made aware of his admirable qualities, both potential and manifest, and noble acceptance of his flawed humanity generating the tragic pathos Aristotle argued was integral to tragedy. Hamlet‘s tragedy is that his definitive and positive action occurs too late, acting as a cautionary tale for audiences, and leaders, to balance their inner forces.
Hamlet leaves us with many questions. For example, why is Fortinbras, a man so corrupt with passion he allows “the imminent death of twenty thousand men” for land “which is not tomb enough and continent / to hide the slain” (4.4) appointed by Hamlet to be king? But who else? Hamlet the humanist, as his failures demonstrate, is too indecisive for leadership. Instead, as the play asserts consistently, history is doomed to repeat itself. Thus, Hamlet represents the curse and consequences of humanity’s dualism: the inability to learn from past mistakes in the struggle between reason and passion and resolve itself to new courses of action.
If you missed Part 1 of this study guide read: HSC English Module B Study Guide: Hamlet Part 1