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What is Hamlet about?. Centuries of debate T. S. Eliot: “ Certainly an artistic failure ”. Hamlet. Good play for anyone having trouble figuring things out. Good play for anyone who isn ’ t having trouble figuring things out--yet. Renaissance version.

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what is hamlet about

What is Hamlet about?

Centuries of debate

T. S. Eliot: “Certainly an artistic failure”

  • Good play for anyone having trouble figuring things out.
  • Good play for anyone who isn’t having trouble figuring things out--yet.
renaissance version
Renaissance version
  • It’s about a man called on to exact revenge for the murder of his father.
  • Problems:
    • The murderer is a king.
    • The source of the information is a ghost.
    • The revenge must be honorable.
    • There are spies everywhere.
what shakespeare adds
What Shakespeare Adds
  • Ophelia’s madness.
  • Hamlet’s questions, triggered by events
5 acts
5 Acts
  • 1. Beginning: Ghost orders revenge
  • 2. Rising action: Hamlet acts mad
  • 3. Climax: Hamlet does things (puts on a play, berates his mother, kills Polonius)
  • 4. Counterstroke: Events conspire against Hamlet while he sails to England (Fortinbras, Ophelia, Laertes)
  • 5. Resolution: Hamlet apologizes, kills king, dies.
hamlet s doubts
Hamlet’s doubts
  • Why should his mother remarry such an unattractive man?
  • What does the appearance of his father’s ghost mean?
  • Why has he lost his mirth?
  • Did his uncle kill his father?
  • Why doesn’t he kill his uncle right away?
  • Why do women behave the way they do?
oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt 1 2 129
Oh, that this too too sullied flesh would melt (1.2.129)
  • Upset by his mother’s remarriage to his nasty uncle, Hamlet contemplates suicide and sees the world as an “unweeded garden.”
what a piece of work is man how noble in reason how infinite in faculties 2 2 304
What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties (2.2.304)
  • Hamlet tells R & G that he is melancholy (depressed), does not exercise, the world seems diseased, however noble seem the heavens.
  • “Man delights not me--no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so”
    • The audience is not privileged in this play, where soliloquies merge with speeches.
oh what a rogue and peasant slave am i 2 2 55
Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! (2.2.55)

Hamlet berates himself for doing nothing, even when motivated by a ghost, in comparison to the player whose emotions run away with him due to nothing but a fiction.

So he plans the Mousetrap.

speak the speech i pray you as i pronounced it trippingly on the tongue 3 2 1
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it, trippingly on the tongue (3.2.1)
  • Hamlet instructs the actors
  • Relevant to theme of play (words, appearances, exposure of Claudius) but not to Hamlet’s state of mind (not a soliloquy)
tis now the very witching time of night 3 2 387
‘Tis now the very witching time of night (3.2.387)
  • Hamlet is in the mood for murder (having exposed Claudius’s guilt) when on the way to his mother.
how all occasions do inform against me 4 4 33
How all occasions do inform against me (4.4.33)
  • Just as he was moved by the player to berate himself, Hamlet is moved by Fortinbras to take action, even for nothing.
  • Yet he meditates on the difference between men and beasts (unsaid: sense of right and wrong, which makes the play so powerful)
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dusty of Alexander (5.1.204)
  • Hamlet raises issue that too much thinking is bad for anyone.
  • Hamlet, like the play, strangely finds consolation in the grave-yard, not more melancholy.
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come . . . The readiness is all (5.2.217)
  • Beautiful, but ironic, since Hamlet seems very unready to face the king’s threat.
  • As philosophy, this sounds consoling but fatalistic. A dangerous combination.
  • Hamlet’s tragedy: he tries to accept the world, and it kills him.
19th century romantic version
19th Century Romantic Version
  • It’s about a man who lacks the opportunity to be great.
  • Problems:
    • Elsinore is a pit.
    • How can anyone measure up to Napoleon?
    • Reason cannot stir the spirit, only depress it.
a c bradley shakespearean tragedy
A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy
  • Hamlet is melancholic, incapable of acting not because he is depressed, but because he is disgusted and does not care.
  • Counter-argument:
    • Hamlet also has extraordinary energy at times.
    • How does this differ from the “speculative genius” of Schlegel and Coleridge?
g wilson knight the wheel of fire
G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire
  • Uses William James’Variety of Religious Experience to explore why life seems to have lost its significance to Hamlet.
    • His soul is sicker than events allow; his actions are cruel.
    • He is bereft of intuitive faith, or love, or purpose, by which we must live if we are to remain sane,so he dwells on foul appearances of sex, decay of flesh, deceit of beauty.
saxo grammaticus c 1200 historical danica book 3
Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1200), Historical Danica, book 3
  • Story of a hero who assumes madness or stupidity for purpose of revenge. His father kills King of Norway in single combat. His enemies send a courtesan to seduce him, but he rapes her (the ur-Ophelia). He goes to England, wins the king’s daughter there, returns and kills usurper in a sword exchange. Saxo has fratricide, incest, king’s love of drink. Tone is more brutal: Amleth boils the Polonius figure and feeds him to the pigs. He is vigorous (burns down the palace) but somewhat melancholic.
classical tragedy
Classical Tragedy
  • It’s about a man whose admirable intelligence leads him through a sequence of decisive, moral actions that, due to circumstances he cannot control or reasonably foresee, unfortunately kill him.
  • Counter-argument:
    • Most of his actions are mean.
olivier version
Olivier Version
  • The play is about a man who cannot make up his mind.
  • Problem:
    • Oedipal longing for mother and jealousy of the man married to her.
    • Emotion clouds reason.
feminist hamlet
Feminist Hamlet
  • This is a play about a woman who has no control over her life, goes mad, and kills herself.
  • Her problems:
    • Overbearing father, jerk for a boyfriend,hothouse existence, no female companionship or understanding, ignorance about the facts of life.
  • Modern versions make her angry
    • p. 631 for Helena Bonham Carter in Mel Gibson version
post modern theory
Post-Modern Theory
  • This is a play about the inability of language to tell a coherent story.
  • Problem:
    • Words are just marks on a page or vibrations in the air, referring only to other words, because there is no other reality.
      • “What’s the matter, mother?” (pun on mater/matter, mother)
      • “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”
    • Gertrude describes Ophelia’s watery death, but no one saw it.
professor ross s view
Professor Ross’s view
  • This is a play about not knowing, or being certain, how to behave.
    • Customs seem to determine what is right and wrong, not the other way around.
    • Hamlet wonders about Purgatory, mourning, dating, fencing, remarriage, succession, action, acting, drinking, custom itself, believing a ghost.
    • See Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead for film approach to these issues.
zeffirelli theory
Zeffirelli Theory
  • This is a play about a man who reminds one of Mel Gibson’s “mad max.”
  • Problem:
    • How can a man remain a hero in a world of random violence?
zeffirelli alterations
Zeffirelli alterations
  • Zeffirelli (Mel Gibson version) and Olivier leave out Fortinbras, reducing the political dimension of the play, and leave out the long speeches.
  • Branagh, whose version uses the complete text, adds scenes to maintain interest in the long speeches by the ambassador and the player (on Priam’s death)
almereyda version
Almereyda version
  • A play about a man whose intentions are thwarted by impersonal forces like an uncurious mother, and a ruthless uncle, and corporate capitalism (symbolized by New York high rise money):
how other characters view hamlet
How Other Characters View Hamlet
  • Polonius: Hamlet has gone mad from frustrated love.
  • Claudius: Either his father’s death upsets him, or Hamlet is cunning and stirs up trouble.
  • Laertes: Hamlet has insulted his family and deserves to die.
  • Horatio: Friend Ophelia: Model courtier/man
  • Fortinbras: Hamlet was a good soldier.
disease and death imagery
Disease and death imagery
  • Francisco: “Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart” (1.1.10)
  • Horatio: “I’ll cross it, though it blast me” (1.1.130)
  • Horatio: “It is a mote to trouble the mind’s eye” (1.1.116: the war preparations and ghost)
  • Gertrude: “All that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity” (1.2.72)
disease imagery
Disease imagery
  • Hamlet: The world

. . . is an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely” (1.2.133)

disease imagery1
Disease imagery
  • Laertes (advising Ophelia not to yield to Hamlet’s “unmastered importunity”):

The canker galls the infants of the spring

Too often before their buttons be disclosed,

And in the morn and liquid dew of youth

Contagious blastments are most imminent”


disease imagery2
Disease imagery

So, oft it chances in particular men,

That for some vicious mole of nature in them,

As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,

Since nature cannot choose his origin--

By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,

Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,

Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens

The form of plausive manners, that these men,

Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,

Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--

Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,

As infinite as man may undergo--

Shall in the general censure take corruption

From that particular fault: the dram of eale

Doth all the noble substance of a doubt

To his own scandal. (1.4.24)

disease imagery3
Disease imagery
  • Ghost (believing Hamlet will be interested in his tale of Purgatory):

And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed

That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,

Wouldst thou not stir in this. (1.5.33)

disease imagery4
Disease imagery
  • Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
  • With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
  • And in the porches of my ear did pour
  • The leprous distillment, whose effect
  • Holds such an enmity with blood of man
  • That swift as quicksilver it courses through
  • The natural gates and alleys of the body,
  • And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
  • And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
  • The thin and wholesome blood. (1.5.71)
disease imagery5
Disease imagery

Hamlet (after the ghost charges him to murder):

The time is out of joint. Oh, cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!


disease imagery6
Disease imagery
  • According to Polonius, after Ophelia was forbidden to see Hamlet, he

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,

Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,

Thence to a lightness, and by this declension

Into the madness wherein now he raves,

And we all mourn for. (2.2.147)

disease imagery7
Disease imagery
  • Hamlet mocking Polonius (2.2.184)

Hamlet: For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion--Have you a daughter?

Polonius.: I have, my lord.

Hamlet: Let her not walk in the sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to it.

disease imagery8
Disease imagery
  • The “words, words, words” (cf. Dracula) that Hamlet tells Polonius he is reading (2.2.197):

Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams.

disease imagery9
Disease imagery
  • Hamlet, perhaps toying with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (2.2.296):

I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

disease imagery10
Disease imagery
  • Claudius, during one of several attacks of conscience that tells us the ghost was correct (3.3.37)

Oh,my offense is rank! It smells to heaven.

disease imagery11
Disease imagery
  • Hamlet berates his mother for remarrying 3.4.65-72):

Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear,

Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?

Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed

And batten on this moor? Ha, have you eyes?

You cannot call it love, for at your age

The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,

And waits upon the judgment, and what judgment

Would step from this to this?

disease imagery12
Disease imagery

King Claudius blames himself that Hamlet killed Polonius (4.1.18):

It will be laid to us, whose providence

Should have kept short, restrained, and out of haunt

This mad young man. But so much was our love,

We would not understand what was most fit,

But, like the owner of a foul disease,

To keep it from divulging, let it feed

Even on the pith of life? Where is he gone?

disease imagery13
Disease imagery
  • Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England, since he can’t execute him at home, as Hamlet is too popular:

Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are relieved, / Or not at all (4.3.10).

john barton playing shakespeare pp 106 127
John Barton, Playing Shakespeare, pp. 106-127
  • How to play long speeches, called “soliloquies” when the actor addresses the audience?
  • Anwer:
    • Don’t play emotion or talk to yourself.
    • Tell a story.
    • Persuade the audience of something