Here is a link to the excellent ShowMe series on ‘Hamlet’ made by St. Columba’s College English. They are an excellent examination of some moments in the play and will contribute to your understanding of the play as a whole.
Hamlet is direct and honest with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act 4 Scene 2. After the death of Polonius they question the Prince about the body, claiming they want to ensure a proper burial. Hamlet gives them nothing, knowing that Claudius has sent them. He calls them a sponge:
‘Ay, sir, that soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the King best service in the end: he keeps them, like an ape an apple in the corner of his jaw; first mouthed, to be last swallowed: when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again.’
Rosencrantz claims to not understand what Hamlet is saying and Hamlet replies:
‘I am glad of it: a knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear.’ He believes that Rosencrantz is too stupid to understand sarcasm.
Later in this Act, Claudius dispatches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with Hamlet.
Images of sickness and disease abound.
The ghastly visible effects which the poison had on Old Hamlet:
‘And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.’ (1.5.71-73)
References to sickness and disease apply sometimes to individuals and sometimes to humankind in general, and somtimes to the state of Denmark or the whole world. But whomever they refer to, they profoundly influence the general vision and viewpoint of the play.
Gertrude speaks of her ‘sick soul’ (4.5.17); Laertes refers to ‘sickness in my heart’ and how ‘The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclosed’. Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that his ‘wit’s diseased’ and uses an image of disease to berate and warn his mother in her relations with the current King. He implores her not to console herself with the belief that the apparition of her dead husband is due to her son’s madness. That self-deception will have a fatal moral effect:
‘Lay not that flattering unction to your soul . . .
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whiles rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen.’ (3.4.145-149)
The King justifies his decision to send his step-son to England by means of a medical metaphor:
‘Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved
Or not at all.’ (4.3.9-11)
For Claudius, the cure is to send Hamlet to England: ‘For like the hectic in my blood he rages / And thou must cure me . . .’ (4.3.64-65)
Claudius then sums up the danger presented to himself by Hamlet’s unexpected return through yet another sickness image:
‘But to the quick of the ulcer,
Hamlet comes back.’ (4.7.123-124)
All these images of sickness, disease and rottenness make referece to and symbolise the corruption that is at the heart of the state, and the associated evil in humankind that has caused this corruption to occur.
Hamlet describes to Horatio the ease with which subversion can occur, and how human nature can be infected or corrupted by a very small blemish:
‘. . . that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect . . .
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace . . .
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.’ (1.4.30-36)
According to Hamlet, Claudius is ‘the canker of our nature’.
These questions are designed to help you form your own opinions about the General Vision and Viewpoint of ‘Hamlet’ in order that you can compare and contrast this text with ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ and ‘Inside I’m Dancing’.
- What does the opening scene convey to you?
- Assess the strength of relationships in this play.
- ‘In this play there are examples of hopelessness and defeat.’ Do you agree with this statement?
- Are there any hopeful moments in ‘Hamlet’?
- What does the closing scene tell us about life?
- What is your opinion of the ending of this text?
- Is the closing scene inevitable?
- What is important to Hamlet? What are his values?
- What is the quality of the parent-child relationships in this play?
- How much freedom to choose does Hamlet have? Is he the master of his own destiny?
- Has Hamlet learned anything throughout the play?
- What is the darkest moment in this play, in your opinion?
- Are there any moments of light and hope?
- Can people be trusted in Elsinore?
- What is your first impression of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia?
- How does their relationship progress?
- Is the presentation of life in this play realistic? Explain your answer.
- What does this play have to say about humanity?
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).
- The soldiers arre convinced that the ghost they have seen is real; they are expecting it to appear again and so the audience is prepared to accept the sight of the ghost.
- There is a state of unrest in Denmark. There are war-like preparations, ‘post-haste and romage in the land’.
- Hamlet suspects foul play even before he meets the ghost.
- We learn of Hamlet’s courtship of Ophelia. According to Polonius, Ophelia has been ‘most free and bounteous’ with her time and, according to Ophelia, Hamlet has ‘made many tenders of his affection’.
- By the end of Act 1, Hamlet is already struggling between his impulse to avenge his father’s death and his reluctance ‘to set it right’.
- Hamlet does not reappear until the middle of the second scene. His absence creates an impression of inactivity.
- We see how world-weary Hamlet has become from his description of his disposition to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
- Hamlet despises ‘tedious old fools’ like Polonius, just as he despises Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their hypocrisy.
- Hamlet is full of anguish over his mother’s lack of grief at his father’s death.
- By the end of Act 2, Hamlet has thought of a plan to entrap the king and prove his guilt.
- In Scene 1 we have a direct admisssion of guilt from Claudius.
- The perfect opportunity for Hamlet to turn his resolution into action is provide in Scene 3. Hamlet’s failure to seize the opportunity marks the turning point of the play.
- Hamlet strikes blindly at the figure behind the arras but in doing so he proves that he is capable of action.
- The killing of Polonius is to have very important consequences in the subsequent development of the plot.
- Although the ghost is not seen by Gertrude this does not necessarily mean that he is intended as a figment of Hamlet’s imagination. The Elizabethans accepted that a ghost could be visible to some and not to others.
- There is a sense of greater speed of action in the sequence of very short scenes in Act 4.
- Hamlet submits to the king’s plan to send him to England so he is not yet ready for action.
- Hamlet’s encounter with Fortinbras is extremely important as it provides him with a new incentive for action.
- The lack of cause in Fortinbras’ fight emphasises the very real cause for revenge which Hamlet has.
- Theere is a feeling of discontent in Denmark: ‘the people muddied / Thick and unwholesome in their thought and whisper, / For good Polonius’ death’.
- Laertes is now in the same position as Hamlet – if he does not avenge his father’s death he is not a loyal son.
- The alliance of Laertes with the King is a significant element in the plot as the King can now use Laertes to kill Hamlet.
- The tension of the previous act is momentarily broken as the grave-diggers indulge in jokes about their trade. Yet underlying the humour is the constant awareness of death.
- Ophelia’s death is part of Hamlet’s tragedy. It is the consequence of his failure to kill Claudius.
- Hamlet fights with skill an courage and in the end does not hesitate to do what he knows to be justified.
- Before he dies Hamlet settles the matter of the succession so that Denmark may flourish once more as a land of law and order.
Hamlet is fully aware of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s reasons for being in Elsinore and so he treats them with contempt and derision. He knows they are mere pawns of the king and so in his dealings with them he uses his ‘antic disposition’ at will. When, after staging The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet manages to prove the Ghost’s story true, he is quick to attack them for trying to ‘play upon me’ and ‘pluck out the heart of my mystery’. The images Hamlet uses to expose the reality of these two men is very fitting. He calls them sponges ‘that soaks up the king’s countenance, his rewards, and his authorities’.
Claudius continues to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern further in Act 3 Scene 3 when he decides to send them to England with his nephew. Cladius’s concerns over Hamlet’s increased madness is growing and so he wants to put ‘fetters’ on it. Hamlet’s so-called friends are only too eager to comply:
‘We will haste us.’
Act 3 Scene 2 is the scene where The Murder of Gonzago is performed for the court and it highlights Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship further. Horatio is portrayed as a man worthy of Hamlet’s trust and respect. He is a very good listener and a man who observes things silently. It is clear that Hamlet finds it easy to confide in him and that he respects his friend’s opinion. Horatio is used in this play as a man whom Hamlet finds distinctly different in many ways from himself. In the following speech, Hamlet is carried away by his praise for Horatio:
‘Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal’d thee for herself; for thou has been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and bless’d are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well comingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.’
Perhaps there is a suggestion in this speech that Hamlet is lamenting a lack of virtue in himself. It would appear that, in this Danish court of false seeming and role playing, Horatio is the only authentic figure who is true to himself: a man of utmost integrity and virtue.
It is at this point in Act 3 Scene 2 that Hamlet asks a favour of his friend. He wants Horatio to help him observe Claudius’s reactions to The Murder of Gonzago. Hamlet trusts Horatio more than he trusts himself:
‘There is a play to-night before the King;
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father’s death:
I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy. Give him heedful note:
For mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgements join
In censure of his seeming.’
When Hamlet has successfully caught ‘the conscience of the king’, we see how Horatio is used to mirror Hamlet’s excited and ecstatic responses:
Hamlet: ‘O good Horatio! I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?’
Horatio: ‘Very well, my lord.’
Hamlet: ‘Upon the talk of the poisoning?’
Horatio: ‘I did very well note him.’
The friendship demonstrated by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is in sharp contrast to that demonstrated by Horatio.
We first meet these two characters in Act 2 Scene 2 as they have been summoned by Claudius to court in order that they may spy on Hamlet.
‘I entreat you both,
That, being of you young days brought up with him,
And since so neighbour’d to his youth and humour,
That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court
Some little time; so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather,
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus,
That, open’d, lies within our remedy.’
Their fawning response suggests that their loyalty lies with Claudius rather than with Hamlet. Their relationship with their friend is now defined by dishonesty, deception and duplicity.
‘But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent,
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded.’
Hamlet’s exclamation when he first sees Rosencrantz and Guildenstern certainly seems to be joyful:
‘My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern? Ah Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do ye both?’
He engages in witty banter with them regarding Fortune and the misery of his existence. However, Hamlet sees through them and he questions their motives for being at Elsinore. Rosencrantz blatantly lies to Hamlet and states that their purpose is ‘To visit you, my lord; no other occasion.’ Even in the early stages of his madness, the Prince of Denmark sees through them and interrogates them further:
‘Were you not sent for? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me: come, come; nay speak.’
Guildenstern attempts to evade the question: ‘What should we say, my lord?’. But Hamlet will have none of it:
‘You were sent for; and there is a kind of confession in your looks which your modesties have not craft enough to colour: I know the good King and Queen have sent for you.’
Rosencrantz continues the evasion: ‘To what end, my lord?’
But Hamlet persists:
‘That you must teach me. But let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for or no!’
It is only after conferring together in an aside that Guildenstern finally admits the truth:
‘My lord, we were sent for.’
Are there any examples from ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ or ‘Inside I’m Dancing’ of friendship that is dishonest or has an ulterior motive?
In Act 1 Scene 1 Horatio and Marcellus join Bernardo on the battlement of Elsinore so that they may witness the ghost if he reappears. When the ghost leaves without having spoken to any of the men there, Horatio declares:
‘and by my advice
Let us impart what we have seen tonight
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
his spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Do you consent we shall acquaint him with it,
As needful in our loves, fitting our duty?’
Horatio is clearly bound by duty and his friendship with Hamlet to tell him exactly what he has seen.
Horatio gets the opportunity to give this news to his friend in Act 1 Scene 2. Hamlet tells the former that he sees his father ‘in my mind’s eye’. When Horatio tells him that he has seen Old Hamlet ‘yesternight’, Hamlet is surely shocked: ‘The King, my father!’
Horatio, like a good friend, wants Hamlet to calm down and he tells him:
‘Season your admiration for a while
With an attent ear, till I may deliver,
Upon the witness of these gentlemen
This marvel to you.’
They discuss the events together with Marcellus; and Hamlet carefully questions his friend about every detail. Horatio patiently replies and they decide to go back to the battlements together that night – ‘Perchance ‘twill walk again’.
We meet Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus on the battlements once again in Act 1 Scene 4. We can see Horatio’s true concern for his friend as the ghost beckons Hamlet away:
‘What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? Think of it;
They very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.’
Hamlet will not heed the advice given to him and tells Horatio and Marcellus to ‘Unhand me, gentlemen.’ He even insists ‘I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me’.
Being faithful friends of Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus follow him. In the final scene of Act 1, Horatio tries to comfort Hamlet who is filled with ‘wild and whirling words’ after speaking with his father. Hamlet asks that Horatio and Marcellus keep his confidence when he tells them:
‘Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times, seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber’d thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As, ‘Well, well, we know’, or, ‘We could, an if we would’,
Or, ‘If we list to speak’, or, ‘There be, an if they might’,
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you,
His true friends can be trusted at this difficult time in Hamlet’s life.
Now, if this tells us a little about friendship in Hamlet, we still need to connect this to ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ and ‘Inside I’m Dancing’. What key moments in these two texts illustrate friends who can be trusted and relied upon? Try to use some linking phrases in your comments.