‘Hamlet’ as Tragedy

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When writing about ‘Hamlet’ as part of a Literary Genre essay, you will need to explain why it is a Tragedy. It is not sufficient to say simply ‘because everyone dies’. Tragedy, in its classical sense, is more complicated than that. There are certain criteria that must be fulfilled before a play can be classed as a Tragedy.

1. Central Character a person of status

The tragic hero must be an exceptional being – a person of high degree or public importance. His actions and sufferings must be of an unusual kind. Hamlet is an important person. He is a prince, sone of the previous king. Claudius declares him to be the  next in line:

‘You are the most immediate to our throne’ (Act 1 Scene 2)

His position to the state is so important that he cannot marry whoever he likes:

‘his will is not is own . . . on his choice depends

The safety and the health of the whole state.’ (Laertes to Ophelia, Act 1 Scene 3)

2. The events of the play must be important and serious

This is obvious in ‘Hamlet’ – the fate of the state hangs in the balance. There can be comic relief, as with the many puns and the scene with the gravediggers. However, this does not diminish the overall mood of the play.

3. The Tragic Hero has a fatal flaw

In all Tragic Heroes, we see a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in one particular direction; a fatal tendency, interest or passion (Hamlet – procrastination, Othello – jealousy, Lear – pride, Macbeth – ambition). In the circumstance we see the hero placed, his tragic trait is fatal to him. He errs by action (Othello, Lear, Macbeth) or omission (Hamlet) and this error, joining with other causes, brings him to ruin. The Tragic Hero is genrally good and wins our sympathy. It is vital that he has greatness, so that in his error and downfall we are still aware of the possibilities of human nature. A Shakespearean tragedy is never totally depressing. At the end, we do not feel that man is a poor, mean creature. He may be wretched or awful, but he is never small.

Hamlet is well aware of his own shortcomings. He scorns himself for being ‘John-a-dreams’ (Act 2 Scene 2). He realises how ‘the stamp of one defect’ can bring a good person down (Act 1 Scene 4 line 21). However, Hamlet also fits the bill in terms of the hero having good qualities. He is brave (e.g. the solo attack on the pirate ship), and excellent swordsman (is winning when injured at the end), has broad interests (great interest in drama as shown by his conversation with the players) and he has the admiration of the general public (‘the great love the general gender bear him’ – Claudius Act 4 Scene 7 line 18).

4. Role of Fate

In some ancient tragedies the hero’s destruction is caused by Fate – forces outside the control of the hero, and so in a sense the hero can’t be blamed, isn’t responsible. However, in Shakespeare the hero makes choices that cause his downfall. Hamlet is conscious of the role of Fate in his life. He won’t allow his friends to keep him away from seeing the ghost: ‘My fate cries out (Act 1 Scene 4 line 83). Just before the sword fight he seems resigned to what fate has in store for him:

‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends

Rough-hew them how we will’ (Act 5 Scene 2 line 10)

and later ‘Let be’ (Act 5 Scene 2 c.217).

Yet fate doesn’t prevent him from killing Claudius when he had a chance (when Claudius seems to be praying) – he chose not to do it.

On the other hand, if he had been less resigned to Fate and more suspicious, he might not have bee tricked in the sword fight. Fate always seems to take a hand and restore stability – so we have Fortinbras set up to rule Denmark and presumable restore order. The state isn’t left leaderless.

5. Tragic Catharsis

The central impression is one of waste. It is an Aristotelian term used to describe the ‘pity and fear’ felt by the audience at the end of the play. These feelings are united with a profound sense of sadness and mystery in the face of such waste.

However, at the end, the restoration of stability provides a sense of safe relief. Also, the state has been purged of evil – justice is done, Claudius, the villain, is dead.

As Hamlet says himself to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ (Act 2 Scene 2).

‘How Many Miles’ table of contents

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‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ is written in a stream of consciousness format. The novel is presented as a series of memories that Alec has in the hours before his execution. Jennifer Johnston has not structured these memories into chapters as that is not the way we remember events from our lives – it would be unnatural.

However, for ease of study, we can refer to different episodes in the novel. Below I have listed 19 episodes and given their relevant page numbers.

  • Episode 1 – pages 1 – 3
  • Episode 2 – pages 3 – 13
  • Episode 3 – pages 13 – 15
  • Episode 4 – pages 15 – 20
  • Episode 5 – pages 20 – 22
  • Episode 6 – pages 22 – 30
  • Episode 7 – pages 30 – 39
  • Episode 8 Part 1 – pages 39 – 49
  • Episode 8 Part 2 – pages 49 – 62
  • Episode 8 Part 3 – pages 62 – 70
  • Episode 9 – pages 70 – 93
  • Episode 10 – pages 93 – 97
  • Episode 11 – pages 97 – 105
  • Episode 12 – pages 105 – 112
  • Episode 13 – pages 112 – 121
  • Episode 14 – pages 121 – 124
  • Episode 15 – pages 124 – 126
  • Episode 16 – pages 126 – 132
  • Episode 17 – pages 133 – 149
  • Episode 18 – pages 149 – 156

Some quotes from ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’

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Here are some quotes from ‘How Many Miles’ that will be useful for your revision. They paint a bleak picture of life in the trenches and so can be used very well when answering a question on General Vision and Viewpoint. The imagery can be used when answering a question on Literary Genre. They are also a great example of descriptive writing.

‘We landed at Le Havre where, owing to intense confusion about transport, we had to camp for several days. The men complained constantly. The major created more rules. We were ordered not to eat pork when we got up near the front, as the pigs that remained alive, not many I may say, fed and grew temptingly fat on human flesh. English, French, German. The pig is no chauvinist, all races, are the same to the curly-tailed pig. The countryside was dismal. We were all permanently wet. Eventually we were packed into a train and then unpacked at Bailleul fairly late in the evening. It was still raining. We marched the last ten miles to West Outre that night along a road cobbled with stones larger than duck eggs and greasy with mud and horse dung. The centre of the road though pitted by the heavy traffic was paradise compared to the edges where we were forced to spend most of our time wading through mud above our ankles and spattered with filth with the constantly passing transport lorries. The men, of course, complained. Our base was, and has remained, a small derelict farm. A wall with a high metal gate shut us in from the road. There were two barns, one on each side of the yard, for the men, and a squat stone farmhouse where Major Glendinning, Bennet and myself, the N.C.O.s, and the orderlies set up house. In the distance we could hear the big guns, and now and then over to our right the sound of musketry fire, rather too close for total comfort. From time to time the ground shook under us and the few remaining windows would rattle in their frames. There was a wild-looking mongrel who padded his way from room to room searching for his masters and stole any food you took your eyes off for a moment. He was indifferent to either pats or blows from the men, his only interest left being survival.’

p. 73-74

 

‘It was beginning to rain. The wind was blowing straight in our faces and the drops were like a million needles almost puncturing the skin. We pulled up the collars of our coats and hunched ourselves in the saddles like Jerry in an effort to keep warm. A dead horse lying by the side of the lane, its body swollen by whatever chemical changes were going on inside it, was the only visible sign of violence. The noise of shelling folded and unfolded in the distance. The rhythmic beat of the horses’ hooves and the creaking of our saddles were the only noises that I was completely conscious of.’

p. 82

 

‘It would be pointless to say that I wasn’t frightened. Night and day the palms of my hands were sticky with sweat. It oozed constantly from the roots of my hair and lay in cold streaks on my forehead and neck. It wasn’t the thought of my death that made me sweat, there were moments in fact that to die would have been preferable than to continue to live. I was afraid that one day I might wake up and find that I had come to accept the grotesque obscenity of the way we lived. Bennett and I shared a dug-out. It was about six feet high and eight feet long. We slept in our flea bags on a pile of comparatively dry straw that rustled all night long as if armies of creatures were marching and counter-marching through it. Bennett had an enviable facility for sleeping at any time of the night or day. He would lie there on the rustling straw, eyes shut, mouth slightly open, looking like a tired, untroubled child. I lay down because I knew I could no longer stay on my feet. I knew I had a duty to rest, but I found great difficulty in sleeping, and when I did get to sleep I would be awakened what always seemed like a few moments later by nightmares. I sound sorry for myself. I was. I worked out a system for getting through the day which consisted in concentrating on my own petty discomforts and indispositions to the exclusion of everything else except the bare bones of duty. It was the art of not looking beyond the end of your nose, and, for what it was worth, it kept me going. I have always been prone to chilblains and at this stage had them burning away not only on my fingers and toes, but also up the backs of both legs where they had been rubbed raw by my boots. I allowed the pain to obsess me completely in the hope that this way I might become blind to everything else.’

p. 84-85

 

‘The bambardment had let up a little. The men had nothing to report. Jerry was on his own down at the furthest end of one of the trenches. The duckboarding had rotted away out there and he stood in about a foot and a half of water.’

p. 89

Past exam questions on General Vision and Viewpoint

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2014

‘The extent to which a reader can relate an aspect of a text to his or her experience of life, helps to shape an understanding of the general vision and viewpoint of that text.’
Discuss this view in relation to your study of one text on your comparative course. [30]
With reference to the text you referred to in 1 (a) above and at least one other text from your comparative course, compare how two other aspects of the texts (excluding the aspect discussed in 1(a) above) influenced your understanding of the general vision and viewpoint of those texts. [40]

or

‘Significant events in texts and the impact they have on readers often help to clarify the general vision and viewpoint of those texts.’
With reference to three texts on your comparative course, compare the ways in which at least one significant event in each text, and its impact on you, helped to clarify the general vision and viewpoint of these texts. [70]

2012

‘The general vision and viewpoint of a text can be shaped by the reader’s attitude to a central character.’
Compare the extent to which your attitude to a central character helped shape your understanding of the general vision and viewpoint of at least two texts on your comparative course. [70]

or

‘Various aspects of texts can provoke a range of emotional responses in readers which aid the construction of the general vision and viewpoint.’
With reference to one text on your comparative course, what aspects of the text shaped your emotional response and helped you to construct the general vision and viewpoint of that text? [30]
With reference to two other texts on your comparative course, compare the aspects of these texts that shaped your emotional response and helped you to construct the general vision and viewpoint of these texts. [40]

2010

”The general vision and viewpoint of a text can be determined by the success or failure of a central character in his / her efforts to achieve fulfilment.’
In the light of the above statement, compare the general vision and viewpoint in at least two texts you have studied in your comparative course. [70]

or

How did you come to your understanding of the general vision and viewpoint in any one of the texts you read as part of your comparative course? [30]
Write a comparison between two other texts on your course in the light of your understanding of the general vision and viewpoint in those texts. [40]

2007

‘A reader’s understanding of the general vision and viewpoint in influenced by key moments in the text.’
Choose a key moment from one of your chosen texts and show how it influenced your understanding of the general vision and viewpoint. [30]
With reference to two other chosen texts compare the way in which key moments influence your understanding of the general vision and viewpoint of those texts. [40]

or

‘The general vision and viewpoint is shaped by the reader’s feeling of optimism or pessimism in reading the text.’
In light of the above statement, compare the general vision and viewpoint in at least two texts you have studied in your comparative course. [70]

2005

‘Each text we read presents us with an outlook on life that may be bright or dark, or a combination of brightness and darkness.’
In light of the above statement, compare the general vision and viewpoint in at least two texts you have studied in your comparative course. [70]

or

With reference to one of the texts you have studied in your comparative course, write a note on the general vision and viewpoint in the text and on how it is communicated to the reader. [30]
Compare the general vision and viewpoint in two other texts on your comparative course. Support the comparisons you make by reference to the texts. [40]

2003

‘The general vision and viewpoint of texts can be quite similar or very different.’
In the light of the above statement, compare the general vision and viewpoint in at least two texts on your comparative course. [70]

or

What did you enjoy about the exploration of the general vision and viewpoint in any one of the texts you read as part of your comparative study? Support your answer by reference to the text. [30]
Write a short comparison between two other texts from your course in the light of your answer to part (a) above. Support the comparisons you make by reference to the texts. [40]

Some common abstract nouns

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Some positve abstract nouns:

happiness, amusement, beauty, joy, faith, hope, success, pleasure, peace, wonder, love, wisdom, sanity, mirth, affection, courage, music, patience, tolerance, justice, freedom, liberty, equality, dream, laughter, ambition, companionship, truth . . .

Some negative abstract nouns:

pain, disease, agony, misery, suffering, fear, sorrow, terror, hate, worry, anxiety, despair, grief, shortcoming, bitterness, envy, spite, jealousy, ugliness, adversity, thirst, frustration, anger, loathing, hatred, evil, nightmare . . .

Are there any more?

Some common collective nouns

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a herd of cows

a herd of elephants

a herd of deer

a flock of sheep

a flock of birds

an army of soldiers

a regiment of soldiers

a hive of bees

a swarm of bees

a host of locusts

a collection of stamps

a throng of merrymakers

a gaggle of geese

a shoal of fish

a band of robbers

a pride of lions

a library of books

a brood of chicks

a crew of sailors

a constellation of stars

a pack of wolves

a pack of cards

a batch of loaves

a flight of stairs

a flight of finches

a fleet of ships

a fleet of cars

a crowd of people

an exaltation of larks

a school of whales

a mass of people

a bunch of grapes

a bunch of flowers

a colony of ants

a team of players

a gang of thieves

a gang of workmen

a litter of kittens

a litter of puppies

a tribe of monkeys

a tribe of people

Are there any more?

Past exam questions on Literary Genre

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2012

‘Authors make use of a variety of techniques to shape memorable characters.’ Identify and compare the techniques used to shape one or more memorable characters in at least two of your texts you have encountered on your comparative course. [70]

or

(a) With reference to one text on your comparative course, discuss the author’s use of setting (or settings) as an effective feature of good story telling. [30]

(b) With reference to two other texts on your comparative course, compare how the wuthors use settings as an effective feature of good story telling. [40]

2010

‘The unexpected is essential to the craft of story-telling.’ Compare how authors of the comparative texts you have studied used the unexpected in their texts. You may confine your answer to key moments in the texts. [70]

or

‘Aspects of narrative contribute to your response to a text.’

(a) With reference to one of your chosen texts, identify at least two aspects of narrative and discuss how those aspects contributed to your reponse to that text. [30]

(b) With reference to two other texts compare how aspects of narrative contributed to your response to these texts. In answer to question (b) you may use the aspects of narrative discussed in (a) above or any other aspects of narrative. [40]

 

2008

‘A good text will have moments of great emotional power.’

(a) With reference to a key moment in one of your texts show how this emotional power was created. [30]

(b) Take key moments from the other two texts from your comparative course and compare the way in which the emotional power of these scenes was created. [40]

or

‘The creation of memorable characters is part of the art of good story-telling.’ Write an essay comparing the ways in which memorable characters were created and contributed to your enjoyment of the stories in the texts you have studied for your comparative course. It will be sufficient to refer to the creation of one character from each of your chosen texts. [70]

 

2005

Write a talk to be given to Leaving Certificate students in which you explain the term Literary Genre and show them how to compare the telling of stories in at least two texts from the comparative course. [70]

or

‘Powerful images and incidents are features of all good story-telling.’

(a) Show how this statement applies to one of the texts on your comparative course. [30]

(b) Compare the way in which powerful images and incidents are features of the story-telling in two other texts on your comparative course. Support the comparisons you make by reference to the texts. [40]

 

2004

‘Literary Genre is the way in which a story is told.’ Choose at lease two of the texts you have studied as part of your comparative course and, in the light of your understanding of the term Literary Genre, write a comparative essay about the ways in which their stories are told. Support the comparisons you make by reference to the texts. [70]

or

‘Texts tell their stories differently.’

(a) Compare two of the texts you have studied in your comparative coure in the light of the above statement. [40]

(b) Write a short comparative commentary on a third text from your comparative study in the light of your answer to question (a) above. [30]

 

2001

Write an essay on one or more of the aspects of Literary Genre (the way texts tell their stories) which you found most interesting in the texts you studied in your comparative course. Your essay should make clear comparisons between the texts you choose to write about. [70]

or

‘No two texts are exactly the same in the manner they tell their stories.’

(a) Compare two of the texts you have studied in your comparative course in the light of the above statement. Support the comparisons you make by reference to the texts. [40]

(b) Write a short comparative commentary on a third text from your comparative study in the light of your discussion in part (a) above. [30]

Simon Lelic’s top 10 lawyers in fiction

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Novelist Simon Lelic compiled the following list of literary lawyers for The Guardian newspaper:

  1. Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee. Heroically decent, Atticus is the lawyer you would want on your side.
  2. Matthew Shardlake in ‘Dissolution’ by CJ Sansom. A melancholic hunchback with a heart, Shardlake is a terrific guide to the seedy politics of the 16th century.
  3. Sandy Stern in ‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turrow. Ruby Sabich is the main protagonist, but Sandy Stern is the star of the show. His cigar habit means he doesn’t come cheap, but he’d be worth every cent.
  4. Sergeant of the Lawe in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer. He is prudent, wise and knowlegeable to the point of self-importance. He uses all of his lawyerly tricks to invoke sympathy for the heroine of his tale.
  5. Dr Gonzo in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. His legal skills are questionable, probably blunted by the contents of the trunk of his car.
  6. Sydney Carton in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens. A young, self-pitying but brilliant lawyer, unlucky nevertheless in life and love. His redemption in Dickens’ tale is complete when he takes his former client’s place on the guillotine, declaring ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’ One of the great last lines.
  7. Tom Hagen in ‘The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo. A ‘family’ lawyer, who has only one client. Tom is the man you call, even if your problem isn’t exactly . . . legal. An all-round fixer and consigliere, who only shows his limitations when it’s ‘time to go to the mattresses’.
  8. Mitch McDeere in ‘The Firm’ by John Grisham. Callow and loaded with debt, Mitch is seduced by the promise of more money than he can imagine. His decision to join Bendini, Lambert & Locke, however, almost costs him his life. Ultimately he proves himself as being more capable than even his employers had hoped.
  9. George Edalji in ‘Arthur and George’ by Julian Barnes. A lawyer accused, this time, and championed by a writer: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle no less. George is a Birmingham solicitor, content in hardworking obscurity until he is swept to national prominence – and infamy – by The Great Wyrley Outrages. His story reads like a thriller, all the more gripping because it is based on real events.
  10. Herr Huld in ‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka. A man with ‘a considerable reputation as a defending counsel and a poor man’s lawyer’, according to Joseph K’s uncle. In reality, Herr Huld is pompous, verbose and, from K’s point of view, worse than useless. Huld is ostensibly on K’s side, but turns out to be very much part of the nightmare. The advocate, to finish on, you wouldn’t want to end up with.

To read the full article go to:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/04/simon-lelic-top-10-lawyers-fiction

Alec and Jerry’s friendship

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The beginning:

  • Friendship is a new and exciting experience for the lonely Alec – ‘looking back it all seems so idyllic’.
  • Up until the point he meets Jerry, Alec’s life is lonely, isolated and restricted.
  • Jerry and Alec bond by swimming together, horse-riding and through Queen Maeve.

Obstacles:

  • The social class barrier proves to be an obstacle in the way of their friendship. Alec’s mother disapproves of the friendship and she takes him to Europe for four months in an attempt to make him forget about Jerry. However this does not have its desired effect.
  • The war: Major Glendinning is also opposed to their friendship on the basis of social class. (p. 131)
  • Bennett, Alec’s friend, is curious about the origins of their friendship. He asks ‘How so?’ when he hears of their friendship. This shows that it was quite unusual for different classes to mix.

Acts of friendship:

  • Jerry shows his concern for Alec when he rubs his sore feet. He helps him take his boots off and massages his feet. This is an intimate act which shows their closeness and trust for each other. (p.122)
  • Alec asks the Major if Jerry can leave the army temporarily in order to search for his missing father. The major has already shown a dislike for Alec and has warned him about being in any way connected to Jerry. Therefore this act is brave of Alec and shows how much he wants to help his friend.
  • When Jerry returns after the search for his father, he knows he is in trouble because he left without permission. Immediately he goes to Alec for help. He listens to Alec’s advice. He decides to trust Alec and stay to face his punishment. Alec says he will speak for Jerry; he will try to persuade the Major not to punish Jerry too harshly. (p. 143)
  • The final point that shows their true friendship is Alec’s act to end Jerry’s life. Alec doesn’t want his friend to die a humiliating and harrowing death in front of a firing squad. By killing Jerry himself he prevents this. He doesn’t think of himself or the conseqences; he simply thinks of is friend. Perhaps he thinks his life is meaningless without Jerry anyway? (p.154-155)

Many thanks to Miss Ryan for her help with these notes!

Relationship between Alec and Alicia in ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’

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Alec finds his mother to be very cold and unemotional. He tells us that he always felt alone, even with his parents: ‘even with them, I was alone’ (p.6).

What evidence is there to show they did not have a good relationship?

  • At the very beginning of the novel Alec writes that he loves ‘no living person’. He will not write to his parents to inform them of the situation: ‘Time enough for others to do that when it is all over.’  He feels sympathy for how his father will react to the knowlege but he says that his ‘heart doesn’t bleed for her’.
  • P. 23-25: His mother forbids him from seeing Jerry.
  • P. 25: Alicia takes Alec away to Europe for four months in an attempt to make him forget Jerry. Alec does not want to go but she makes him. She is not thinking about what her son wants or needs. Instead she is thinking of herself.
  • P. 39-40: Alicia wants him to go to war. WHY? She wants to separate him from Frederick, with whom he has grown closer. She is jealous of this relationship. She wants to be able to tell people that she has an officer son in the war. She can no longer live as a family unit. Each reason shows what a selfish character Alicia is.
  • P. 46-47: She tells Alec that Frederick is not his real father. This is malicious and cruel.
  • P. 64: Alec is repelled even by the touch of his mother and he strongly tells us that he ‘hated her’.
  • P. 109: While at war, he writes a letter to his mother describing the table he is sitting at. This shows that he has no concern for her and that he has nothing of importance to tell her.