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“A Critical History of Hamlet”. By Kayla Allen, Bryant Kauffman, and Mairead Murphy. The Open-Ended Opportunities Presented with Hamlet. Taking Shakespeare’s Hamlet and creatively reinterpreting it by: - onstage performances -paintings -poetry -film

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A critical history of hamlet

“A Critical History of Hamlet”

By Kayla Allen, Bryant Kauffman, and Mairead Murphy

The open ended opportunities presented with hamlet
The Open-Ended Opportunities Presented with Hamlet

  • Taking Shakespeare’s Hamlet and creatively reinterpreting it by:

    - onstage performances




  • Understanding the critical history and background not only of the work itself but also the culture of the author.

Praise and criticism within the first folio
Praise and Criticism within the First Folio

-The First Folio was the introduction to the play that included many important writers tributes to Shakespeare.

  • In the First Folio, Shakespeare:

  • Used art and genius (Ben Johnson)

  • Was compared to classical and contemporary dramatists.

    - His work rose above culture and historical periods and is still great even for today’s audience.


  • Ben Johnson claims that Hamlet was very “natural”

    (the nature of humanity, who we are as people, and the characteristics of our personality that defines who we are.)

    -Ben Johnson also criticized, saying that Shakespeare never scribbled out his work. Johnson says that crossing out shows “hard work and stylistic revision.”

Criticism of hamlet in the 17 th and 18 th centuries
Criticism of Hamlet in the 17th and 18th Centuries

  • Hamlet praised for “heroism” (Betterton)

  • Hamlet was able to expose ordinary human emotions through intensified circumstance. (Betterton)

  • Hamlet praised for “variety” (Johnson)

  • Hamlet lamented for “inconsistency” (Gentleman)

  • Hamlet was “irresolute” meaning he couldn’t make up his mind. (Boswell)

  • Hamlet wanted “strength of mind” (Boswell)


  • Hamlet is seen as sensitive; the “Age of Sensibility” (Mackenzie, Goethe)

  • Shift from the plot to character

  • Romantics shift from focus of Hamlet as entertainment to thought provoking and discovery of self.

  • Hamlet’s “intellectual power” is emphasized; the old view of the overly contemplative Hamlet is reborn. (Coleridge)

  • Hamlet delays in his actions because he thinks too much and contemplates what he does. (Coleridge)


  • Hamlet’s intellect and philosophical questions inspired reader’s to “ponder the great questions of human existance.” (Coleridge-Schlegel)

  • Hamlet takes his own problems and generalizes it to all of humanity. (Hazlitt)

19 th century responses to hamlet
19th Century Responses to Hamlet

  • Hamlet’s Romantic persona:




  • Famous questions asked about the play:

    -Why does Hamlet delay?

    - Hamlet suffered from a deep “abnormal and morbid melancholy” that prevented him from acting. (Shakespearean Tragedy, Bradley)


  • Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy is significant because it summed up the views of the 18th century and prepared an arguing ground for the 20th century.-

The freudian response
The Freudian Response

  • Freud first uses Hamlet in his own psychoanalysis and in his book The Interpretation of Dreams.

  • “Uses Hamlet as a figure for dreams themselves, the very medium through which he believes he can gain access to the unconscious.” (Freud)

  • Freud says that Hamlet behaved the way we often do in dreams, so by studying Hamlet, we can learn more about dreams. (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams 480-481)

  • Freud differentiates between Oedipus the King and Hamlet.

Freud continued
Freud Continued….

  • Freud differentiates between Oedipus the King and Hamlet:

    -Hamlet is more repressed than Oedipus because civilization has become more repressed.

  • Freud believes that a real event inspired Shakespeare to create the character of Hamlet.

  • According to Freud, Shakespeare felt an unconscious connection to Hamlet because he experienced similar things.

    -Hamlet is not acting and taking revenge for his father’s death because he considered taking the same action against his father. Hamlet felt an unconscious sexual affection for his mother. (Freud)


  • Some people believe that Freud used Hamlet’s melancholy as the basis for his diagnosis for melancholy in his own patients.

  • Freud and Bradley focus on Hamlet’s madness was very similar to that of the 16th and 17th centuries.

  • In the 16th and 17th centuries, the madness was represented much more violent than in more recent times.

  • People wanted to see the play purely to witness the insanity of Hamlet.

Oliver s film
Oliver’s Film

  • Oliver’ film incorporates the Freud-Jones theory in his 1947 version of the play. Those elements were:

    -erotic treatment of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude.

    -attribution of Hamlet’s delay to an implicit comparison between himself and Claudius.

    -brought out sexual tensions between Gertrude and Hamlet. (casting gertrude to 27, and Hamlet 40)

    -Oliver’s Hamlet is: romantic, sublime, intellectually brilliant, and courageous but ultimately isolated.

    (Susanne L. Wolford, 193)

20 th century responses to hamlet
20th Century Responses to Hamlet

  • “Much of the twentieth-century Hamlet criticism can be understood as an effort to “disengage the play from its Romantic associations and reach an independent assessment” (Hunter 31)

  • Eliot deems Hamlet as an aesthetic failure. (aesthetic means nature, culture, art, beauty)

  • Eliot does not think that Gertrude was “evil” enough to cause Hamlet such anger and frustration.

  • He criticized the lack of causes for the emotions of Hamlet.

  • Eliot believes basically that Hamlet overreacted to everything. If Gertrude had in fact been “so bad” than Hamlet would have been a success.


  • Dover Wilson claims to have found proof of an affair between Gertrude and Claudius before the death of the king, therefore making Gertrude sexually impure, and giving Hamlet reason to be angry. Wilson deems play a success.

  • Rose believes that “sexual femininity” becomes the scapegoat of the play.

Arguing with bradley
Arguing with Bradley

  • Play rose out of Elizabethan sources

  • Insisted on putting Hamlet back into the play, and to study the play again as a whole, not just as Hamlet the character.

  • Look at symbolism of the play as a whole, not just as the characters separately.

  • Knights and Knight attributed to these views.

Knights and knight
Knights and Knight

  • L.C. Knights argues against psychological criticism

  • He claims that critics can’t imagine a character from the play to answer questions that the play doesn’t answer in order to understand a character better.

  • G. Wilson Knight argues that we should pay more attention to themes and images in order to put Hamlet back in his own dramatic environment.

  • Knight emphasized reading Hamlet as reading a long poem.

Mid 20 th century responses
Mid-20th Century Responses

  • “By the 1950s, critical interest had shifted toward the poetic and the metaphysical, toward the mysteriousness of life and toward a focus on mortality.

  • Mack believes that Hamlet was made up of riddles.

  • He believes that Hamlet had an interrogative attitude and was constantly asking questions.

  • Hamlet always seemed “anguished and alarmed.” (Mack)


  • Shift from emphasis on a Romantic Hamlet to a “philosophical meditation on death itself.”

  • Knight says that mortality is the play’s real focus and Hamlet himself is a death bringer.

  • Believes Hamlet “infected” the kingdom with his “diseased consciousness.”

  • Knight believes Hamlet’s sarcasm and negation are his own poison.

  • Hamlet is the source of his own disease.

Hamlet the bad guy
Hamlet the Bad Guy

  • Mallarme said that Hamlet is “a killer who kills without concern, and even if he does not do the killing-people die. The black presence of this doubter causes this poison, of which all the characters die.”

  • Hamlet “scatters death like a universal plague” (Mark Van Doren)

The play within the play
The Play within the Play

  • Hamlet also carried criticism about “theatricality” or metatheatrical self-consciousness (theater about theater)

  • The play put on by the travelers and Hamlet’s speech to them are seen as “touchstones for interpretation”

The traditions
The Traditions

  • Psychological”

    -focuses on Hamlet’s disgust toward women, especially as sexual beings.

  • Historical Criticism:

    -“effort to try to discover what the Elizabethan issues in the play were. (Moral, religious questions about revenge, fate, and free will.

  • Performance criticism:

    - “treats the play not as material for interpretation but as a work of art that has its own separate, powerful, and primary existence on the stage.”

The end
The End

“Hamlet will continue to puzzle and possess the minds of future generations, who can make the play their own only by in turn taking critical possession of it. ‘Remember me!’ says the play, and we will not forget.

Susanne L. Wofford