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HAMLET REVISION NOTES

CONTENT

Critics by Theme
Critics by Character
Quotes by Theme
Character Analysis by Theme

Context and Jacobean Times


- Supernatural (ghost)
- Attitudes towards women
- Afterlife & Suicide
- Revenge tragedy
- Sexuality

CRITICS BY THEME

MADNESS

Paul Jorgensen: Hamlet is the victim of a pathological grief that manifests itself in
his melancholy in Freudian terms as repressed rage diverted towards himself instead
of his enemies, and sees the movement of the play a leading to a resolution of this
perturbed state.

Anna K. Nardo: Hamlet’s madness derives from the impossibility of his situation;
forced to avenge his father without harming his mother or tainting his honour, he
escapes into insanity.

DUTY/HONOUR

Debbie Herz: Hamlet believes that his sense of duty was solely controlled by himself
Wilson: Hamlet did not live up to the duty a son has to his father.
Campbell: Honour ‘is instinctive and implicit in Hamlet’s nature.’
Terry:
♦ In ‘Hamlet’, the major characters ‘represent different stages in the evolution of
a changing code of honour’ marked by the Renaissance period.
♦ Horatio is ‘utterly loyal and obedient’ to Hamlet, and ‘represents the chivalric,
medieval concept of honour.’
♦ Claudius epitomises ‘the way in which a system of honour that is entirely
politicised can be perverted.’
♦ Hamlet appears ‘as a transitional character in the changing code of honour.’
His initial plan to kill Claudius is based on ‘family loyalty’, but to kill a King
and family member goes against the ‘honour of conscience.’
♦ However, Hamlet ‘retains his honour’ as he ‘exacts revenge for his father’s
murder only after Claudius’s treachery has been publicly revealed by both
Gertrude and Laertes.

1
POWER

Zdravko Planinc: Planinc asserts that the play focuses on three types of leaders, two
of whom are faulty. The late King Hamlet, he claims, indulged in acts of plunder after
success in battle. The current King Claudius is, among other things, a regicide. Only
Prince Hamlet, he contends, has the greatness of mind to become Plato’s
philosopher’-king.

CORRUPTION

Spurgeon: He claims that the distinctive atmosphere of the play is ‘partly due to the
number of images of sickness, disease’ and that ‘the idea of an ulcer or tumour, are
descriptive of the unwholesome condition of Denmark on a moral level.’

Wilson Knight:
♦ He sees Hamlet as ‘an ambassador of death; affecting other characters like a
‘blighting disease’.
♦ Hamlet is ‘inhuman’, ‘taking delight in cruelty’, ‘a poison’, ‘an elemental of
evil in the state of Denmark’.

DEATH

- Hamlet is a play about the survival of the individual in the face of death. ‘We
shall find more who have died within thirty or thirty-five years of age than
passed it,’ wrote a contemporary of Shakespeare.
- Every Shakespearean tragedy involves death almost as a matter of course, as part
of the form. But in ‘Hamlet’, death is the picture not the frame. It is the central
fact of life.

SUICIDE

This is the significance of the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy and its contemplation of
suicide. He talks of suicide like a connoisseur judging a good painting. He wants to
know, not it is morally justified, or useful, or pleasant, but whether it is ‘nobler in the
mind’, whether it is lofty and well shaped.

POLITICS

- The Prince, Hamlet, looks around him and sees little except injustice and tyranny,
‘The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office, and the
spurns’.
- Claudius calls the ordinary people ‘the distracted multitude’ and tells Laertes
that he has reason to fear them, that he cannot get rid of Hamlet because the
people love him.
- ‘Hamlet’ is unusual among Shakespeare’s play in that it has no stated ideal of
good government, no great vision of the social order that has been disrupted.
Claudius, the King, knows all about backhanders and bending the rules, ‘In the
corrupted currents of this world…Bays out the law.’

2
CRITICS BY CHARACTER

HAMLET

T.S. Elliot: Hamlet’s disgust is excessive. Gertrude’s behaviour is insufficient to


justify his emotional condemnation of her.
Goethe: Viewed Hamlet as a delicate and tender prince whose soul was unfit to meet
the demands for the actions laid upon it.

CLAUDIUS

Bertram Joseph: He defined the term ‘hypocrisy’ in relation to Claudius,


maintaining that Elizabethans viewed it as a particularly serious character flaw.
Wilson Knight: He questioned whether Claudius was truly a treacherous villain by
referring to the image of him at prayer. This illustrates his guilt and remorse and
therefore shows he is not a complete villain.

GERTRUDE

Kenneth Muir calls her a ‘moral defective’. Gertrude becomes the emotional focus
of the guilt that taints the state of Denmark.
Smith: He sees Gertrude as ‘a vain, self-satisfied woman of strong physical and
sexual appetites.’

POLONIUS

Catharine R. Stimpson: ‘a foolish meddler’, his downfall is a result of


‘overconfidence about his schemes and his mastery of manipulative tactics.’
‘…a doddering old fool’
Elizabeth Oakes: Polonius represents the typical figures of ‘wise old man, fool and
scapegoat.’ Although the figure of a ‘wise old man’ he ‘inverts the figure’ by being
overly concerned with his social position.

QUOTES BY THEME

Madness:
‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.’
‘This is the very coinage of your brain’
‘Mad as the sea and wind’
‘In his lawless fit’
‘But like the owner of a foul disease’

Duty/Honour:
‘But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour’s at the stake.’
‘My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.’

Power:
‘Both to my God, and my gracious King’
‘…gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name.’
‘Revenge should have no bounds.’

3
Corruption:
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’
‘vile and loathsome crust’
‘But like the owner of a foul disease’ – Claudius about Hamlet
‘Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.’ – Horatio about Ophelia
‘…this canker of our nature’ – A knowing prophesy contrasting with Hamlet’s belief
that the fight will be a minor event.

Family:
‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’
‘Hyperion to a satyr’
‘To give the world assurance of a man’ – Hamlet describes his father
‘Let me wring your heart’ – Hamlet to Gertrude

Loyalty:
‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’
‘As kill a king, and marry with his brother.’

Death:
‘O what a rash and bloody deed is this!’ (Polonius)
‘Safely stowed’
‘Drowned’ (Ophelia)
‘…The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England, / For like the hectic in my blood he
rages, / And thou must cure me. Till I know ‘tis done, / Howe’er my haps, my joys
were ne’er begun.’

Suicide:
‘His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’
‘To be or not to be’
‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’

Imprisonment:
‘Denmark’s a prison.’

Victim:
‘I was the more deceived’ – Ophelia.
‘I did repel his letters’

Love:
‘I did love you once.’ – Hamlet
‘…The queen his mother / Lives almost by his looks’
‘I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, /
Make up my sum’

Revenge:
‘O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.’
‘To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil, / conscience and grace to the
profoundest pit!’
‘My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.’

4
‘I will speak daggers to her but use none.’
‘My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.’
‘…are you like a painting of a sorrow, A face without a heart?’ [Claudius to Laertes]

Deception/Betrayal:
‘To put an antic disposition on’
‘O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!’

Politics:
‘To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil, / conscience and grace to the
profoundest pit!’

Women:
‘We know what we are, but know what we maybe’
‘O most pernicious woman!’
‘Get thee to a nunnery, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?’

Men:
‘By cock, they are to blame!’

CHARACTERS ANALYSIS BY THEME

HAMLET:
Revenge/Duty/Honour/Family for his father
Appearance of Madness – ‘antic disposition’
Death
Suicide
Deception
Uncertainty – ‘Am I a coward?’
‘Let me be cruel’.

CLAUDIUS
Power
Betrayal
Deception/Betrayal – ‘What, frightened with false fire!’

GERTRUDE:
Love
Lack of Loyalty to her husband  The Ghost alleges, with disgust, that Gertrude
whom he loved and honoured in accordance wit his marriage vows had already been
seduced before his death by his brother. Lust had led her astray, ‘Though lewdness
court it in a shape of heaven…Will sate itself in a celestial bed.’
Guilt is like a growing disease that festers, threatening to break into chaos – ‘So full
of artless jealousy is guilt, / It spills itself in fearing to be split.’

POLONIUS
‘I am sorry that with better heed and judgement / I had not quoted him. I feared he did
but trifle / And meant to wreck thee’.

5
Despite being a harsh father, ‘Pooh, you speak like a green girl’, he at times shows
genuine concern for his children, and perhaps he places strict rules for Ophelia
because he is protective over her.

Power/Politics
Family – his children

LAERTES
Revenge –
Family
Victim

OPHELIA
Victim – O heavenly powers, restore him!’ She is shocked at how Hamlet is treating
her. She feels betrayed, ‘I was the more deceived’ when Hamlet says he never loved
her.
Love
Imprisonment

HORATIO
Loyalty

FORTINBRAS
Power – ‘patch of land’

GHOST
‘Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast’ – describes Claudius
‘…have the power/ So to seduce – won to his shameful lust’
‘...most seeming-virtuous Queen’ – describes Gertrude

OTHER QUOTES

‘Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,


Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked, or charitable’ – Hamlet immediately addresses the ghost,
doubting whether it is a good or evil spirit. [Paradoxical and contradictory language]

Biblical Imagery:
Hamlet makes a vow to follow the spirit’s injunction to ‘remember him’ and to
avenge him, ‘And thy commandment all alone shall live/ Within the book and
volume of my brain’.

Hamlet and Pyrrhus both have avenging hearts, however Pyrrhus has no hesitation in
accomplishing his revenge, where as Hamlet shows inner conflict. Hamlet wonders at
the contrast between the player’s fake emption for Hecuba and his own inability to
revenge.

The parents are solemnly arranging to spy on what may be an intimate conversation
between their adult son and daughter. Is there really any serious justification for this,
or is it just another symptom of the moral sickness that has invaded the castle?

6
Hamlet does not fully intend to follow the Ghost’s instructions concerning his mother
– ‘I will speak daggers to her, but use none’ – he finds a way around it, does not
kill her, but makes her repent.

Claudius does feel guilty. His guilt makes him incapable of praying in Act 3, Scene 3,
‘Though inclination be as sharp as will. / My stronger guilt defeats my strong
intent’.
‘O my offence is rank, it smells to heaven’ – despite being aware of his mistake and
feeling remorse, Claudius cannot be pardoned as he still enjoys all he gained from
fratricide, and he cannot repent.

GOOD QUOTES: Act 3, Scene 4 – Hamlet telling Gertrude off


- Eyes without feeling
- Ears without hands or eyes
- …but a sickly part of one true sense
- O shame, where is thy blush?
- Mildewed ear, honeying, and making love / Over the nasty sty
- Matron’s bones
- Stewed in corruption
- Confess yourself to heaven
- Repent what’s past
- Repetition of ‘virtue’

CRITIC Sean McEvoy: The language also conveys a powerful sense of disgust at
the idea of his mother being sexually active, especially with Claudius.’

CONTEXT

Hamlet’s character can be designed as a melancholy hero who needs to take revenge
but hesitates. This is a typical feature of a revenge tragedy play of the Jacobean
period.

The play has many traits that define it as a revenge tragedy for example, a person
being murdered, a play within a play, a ghost, madness, physical horror such as
poisoning and then there is the gore of multiple murders at the end of the play.

In Shakespeare’s time, the belief in the presence and power of the supernatural was
deep. Customs were formed by it and behaviour was dictated by it. They carried
charms, dreaded walking under ladders, or spilling salt.
The ghost fulfils all the demands of Elizabethan beliefs – it comes for the purpose of
revenge. It is an excellent example of the skill with which Shakespeare had in forming
his supernatural character with Elizabethan beliefs.

Ophelia has many pressures on her, despite her submissiveness due to her being a
female. She is strong-willed. The pressures placed on her include her Father’s
decision to forbid her relationship with Hamlet, marriage, Laertes, society concerning
her love to Hamlet.

7
Hamlet is sometimes seen by critics as a ‘Renaissance Man’ and this comes out in
Ophelia’s speech about him, in which she describes him as he used to be before being
overtaken by the tragic events in the play. ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’
(Act 3, Scene1)
The Renaissance man is a term to describe a kind of ideal of man who excels in a
wide range of fields.

The ghost fulfils all the demands