GENERIC MODULE B HAMLET ESSAY
Note to Students on Generic Essays
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.
Module B: Hamlet Essay
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
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© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content
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Here is an example of a band 6 Hamlet essay. You may notice some imperfections as you read it, but remember that you are not expected to write a ‘perfect’ essay during the exam. As you read it, consider whether you think it contains a clear thesis and directly answers the question.
2012 HSC Question:
An inherent tension between confrontation and resolution is revealed through characterisation in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
To what extent does your interpretation align with this view?
A philosophical rendering of the everyday leads to a tension between reflection and action. In Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy play Hamlet, this is highlighted through the characterisation of Hamlet himself, and his engagement with the philosophical and academic concerns of Elizabethan England through his interactions with Horatio. By drawing on elements of this, and contrasting them with contextual concerns about religion and spirituality, Hamlet is constructed as a deeply meditative play, which finds itself continuously delayed and stunted in its attempts to reach fruition.
The use of delay to create a play which happens outside of ‘reality’ and thus remains internalised and wrought with anaphasia is most evident in the characterisation of Hamlet. Hamlet’s diction is littered with binary oppositions, such as in his opening line “a little more than kin and less than kind”, indicating that he inhabits and speaks within a space where the constant state of flux has rendered ideas without opposition unpalatable. Hamlet’s inability to speak without binary oppositions is directly related to his inability to act, and this is shown in his soliloquy, “to be or not to be, that is the question”, where the binary oppositions of existence and selfhood are placed in the sphere of movement, only to cause further inaction, adding to the overall delay of the play. It is this delay in the action which causes Act 5 Scene 2 to erupt with such bloodshed, as shown through the repetitious stage directions: “He dies”, and “dies” are repeated four times in the scene. And yet, even in the single scene of action in this play, these deaths, too, are delayed.
Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet all speak between receiving their final wounds and dying, indicating that it is the loss of speech, rather than loss of life, that is the most crucial part of mankind, and will be lost in death. In addition to this, despite the question of whether or not to kill Claudius functioning within the play as a metaphor for the question of whether or not existence is worthwhile, it is Claudius who is the last to die (barring Hamlet), delaying resolution even in a moment of confrontation. This delay and its cause has been widely attributed to the Elizabethan guilt complex, and obsession with “the functions of conscience and especially its morbid preoccupation with past sins and omissions” (Reed, 1958). By obsessing over the dangers of inaction, Hamlet creates further delay for himself, ultimately halting any action or resolution that the play could come to.
See also: Literary Techniques – Techniques for Analysing a Written Text.
The power of academic and philosophical engagement with issues of morality and political structure is an undeniable force in the conclusion of Hamlet. The relationship between Hamlet and Horatio is one of academic engagement, as shown through Horatio’s continual allusions to the rendering of Caesar’s death in the Shakespearian version of the story, which was written concurrently with Hamlet, such as in his description of the ghost’s appearance “in the most high and palmy state of Rome/a little ere the mightiest Julius fell”. This dialogue with history and politics is emphasised through the vehicle of this friendship, and, in using this, Shakespeare questions the virility of the Danish political system and the role of the monarchy. This parallel between Rome after the assassination of Caesar and the rapidly-declining political system of Denmark is furthered by Horatio’s return to this metaphor in the final scene “I am more antique Roman than a Dane”. Through this juxtaposition the audience is forced to call into question Hamlet’s role in the Julius Caesar parallel, creating yet another layer of separation between Hamlet and the audience.
It is in Hamlet’s conversations with Horatio that his philosophical musings are most prominent, and through this we can see Horatio as an agent both of Hamlet’s conscience, and of the play’s delay. In John Quincy Adam’s analysis of the play, he points at the friendship between Hamlet and Horatio as being crucial to the development of Hamlet’s moral code which is only the result of “a mind cultivated by the learning acquirable at a university, combining intelligence and sensibility” (Adams, 1839). By characterising Horatio as the intellectual force within the play, and subsequently the source of socio-political commentary, Shakespeare adds to the moral and cultural instability of the play in a manner which results in further delay of confrontation or resolution.
Fatalism plays an important role in understanding the tension between action and inaction in Hamlet. From the appearance of the ghost, Hamlet’s course of action is inevitable within the tropes of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy and the Greek tragedy roots that it is drawn from. However, he resists this role by delaying taking action, and as a result, the play can be read as being in perpetual tension between the restoration of natural order and the resistance of that restoration.
The apostrophe of “out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune!” shows Hamlet’s resistance of what he perceives to be the only path available to him. In Act 5 Scene 2, when Hamlet finally takes action, he begins to refer to himself in the third person, a bizarre subversion of a play which previously obsessed with the use of “I”. This switching of mode of speech indicates that it is only though the abandonment of his self-identity, and thus moral code, that he is able to complete the actions which divine providence demands of him. This is supported by Dwery’s reading of the play’s resolution, where he argues that “Hamlet recognizes the inevitability of death, accepting his father’s death and recognising his own unavoidable fate.” (Dwery, 2004) By understanding the contextual concerns with the nature and role of fate and divinity in the everyday, a deeper understanding of the character of Hamlet emerges.
The tension between action and inaction in Hamlet stem from the contextual role of fate, which forces Hamlet into a position where he repeatedly delays himself, until his self-identity is erased, and he performs the actions which fate requires of him. My interpretation of the delay highlights the contribution of socio-political forces to the delay, and ultimately the tension which permeates the play, which is depicted through the characterisation of Hamlet and Horatio.
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© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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