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William Shakespeare

34. William Shakespeare. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Shakespeare’s England. At the time of Shakespeare, England was a small nation by modern standards, with a population of about five million.

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William Shakespeare

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  1. 34 William Shakespeare Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

  2. Shakespeare’s England • At the time of Shakespeare, England was a small nation by modern standards, with a population of about five million. • The English Renaissance was in full bloom. The arts and sciences flourished, and increased contact with other nations led to new styles of living, new fashions, new art forms (the sonnet), and a broader vocabulary (which Shakespeare eagerly appropriated). • England was mostly rural. Agriculture was the chief means of livelihood. Mining and timber were expanding industries. A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey by Joris Hoefnagel (ca. 1569)

  3. Shakespeare’s Englandcontinued … • New domestic comforts included chimneys, metal dishes, carpets, windows, beds, and pillows. • Travel within England was slow because of poor roads and dangerous because of highway robbers. • The heart of London stretched for a couple of miles at most. • The city had trees, gardens, and meadows. London Bridge was a fashionable thoroughfare with shops festively decorated for certain occasions. But London Bridge also displayed the heads of executed traitors. • City houses were small and crowded, and the streets narrow and filthy.

  4. Shakespeare’s Englandcontinued … • Epidemics and plagues resulted from the unsanitary conditions. • England was a proud nation that had begun to forge a strong national identity. • The English took pride in their nation’s overseas exploration and empire expansion. Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world from 1577-1581, and the English founded its first permanent colony in America with Jamestown in 1607. • Ireland was declared a kingdom under English rule in 1541, but was more a source of trouble than of economic strength.

  5. Queen Elizabeth • Elizabethan England takes its name from Queen Elizabeth, who lived from 1533-1603, reigning from 1558-1603. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who was executed three years after Elizabeth’s birth. • Elizabeth’s reign was generally marked by peace, economic prosperity, and social advancement. • Despite her success, the age was openly skeptical about a woman’s ability and right to rule. • The Babington Conspiracy of 1586 refers to a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Mary, Queen of Scots, was involved and executed when the plot was uncovered. The “Darnley Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth 1 (ca. 1575)

  6. Queen Elizabeth continued… • Elizabeth was a skilled diplomat who dealt effectively with foreign governments, factions at home, and Parliament. • Elizabeth never married. Marriage would have upset the delicate political relationships she maintained with one foreign or domestic group or another. • She was a patron of the arts and several poems have been credited to her. • Elizabeth was succeeded by James I (reigned until 1625). A far less successful monarch, he was not a good diplomat as he resisted compromise. He was out of touch with the English people, and his reign helped widen the gap between crown and Parliament that led to the Civil War.

  7. The Globe Theatre • The theatre was so important and influential to the Elizabethans that Queen Elizabeth found it necessary to censor plays. Shakespeare avoided the controversial political issues of the day. • The Globe Theatre opened on the south bank of the Thames River in 1599. Shakespeare was a minor shareholder in the theatre and many of his greatest plays premiered at the Globe. • The Globe could accommodate an audience of perhaps 3,000, including 800 groundlings, who paid a penny to stand on the ground surrounding the stage. • More prosperous spectators sat in one of the three stories nearly encircling the stage.

  8. Globe Theatre continued … • The stage projected out into the audience, creating more intimacy between actors and audience than on Greek stages. Like the Greek amphitheaters, the stage was open to the sky. • The Globe had a fairly versatile stage, containing a balcony, several doors for convenient entrances and exits, a curtained alcove, and a stage floor trapdoor. Costumes were often elaborate. • All parts were played by men or young boys. Women were not allowed to appear on stage until after the English Restoration in 1660. • In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, sparks from a stage cannon set the thatched roof on fire. The theatre burned to the ground in less than two hours. There were no deaths. The theatre was quickly rebuilt with a tiled roof. The theatre functioned successfully until 1642 when the Puritans rose to power and closed all theatres. The Globe was demolished to make room for tenements in 1644.

  9. William Shakespeare • William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. His father was a successful merchant and fairly prominent member of the community who later fell on hard times. • The young Shakespeare attended local schools, where he learned some Latin and a little Greek. • In late 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than he. They had three children together. • Shakespeare spent most of his working life, some twenty-five years, in London, as one of a troupe of players called Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was an actor and the company’s principal playwright. • Apparently a political conservative, he seemed to enjoy London, but never surrendered his roots in the countryside. In 1597, Shakespeare purchased New Place, a fine house in Stratford-upon-Avon – a sign that he had prospered in his career.

  10. Shakespeare’s Life continued … • By most counts, Shakespeare wrote some 37 plays between 1591 and 1611. • His poetry includes long narrative poems, such as “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” and 154 sonnets. • Shakespeare retired to New Place in 1611 and died on April 23, 1616. • Contemporaries, like Ben Jonson wrote about him with extravagant praise and contemporary critic Harold Bloom calls Shakespeare “the supreme genius” (Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds 11). “He’s the rain forest of our language … in fact … the first user of thousands of words … and he is one of the great creators of beauty. … You can’t solve … the pain of life. But you can set beauty against it and maybe endure it.” — Ralph Williams, University of Michigan

  11. Ben Jonson on Shakespeare “… Soul of the age!The applause! delight! the wonder of our stage!My SHAKESPEARE rise! I will not lodge thee byChaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lieA little further, to make thee a room:Thou art a monument without a tomb,And art alive still while thy book doth liveAnd we have wits to read, and praise to give. … But stay, I see thee in the hemisphereAdvanced, and made a constellation there!Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rageOr influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage,Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night,And despairs day, but for thy volume's light.” — from “To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare”

  12. Harold Bloom on Shakespeare Shakespeare is “the supreme genius … who at the least changed our ways of presenting human nature, if not human nature itself. … Shakespeare’s language is primary to his art … he employed more than twenty-one thousand separate words. … He invented … about eighteen hundred coinages, many of them now in common use. [The great French dramatist] Racine used two thousand words, not many more than Shakespeare coined. … The true Shakespearean difference, the uniqueness of his genius, is elsewhere, in his universality, in the persuasive illusion (is it illusion?) that he has peopled a world, remarkably like what we take to be our own, with men, women, and children preternaturally natural. … Is there another dramatist who excelled equally at comedy and tragedy? We have no comedies by Sophocles, or tragedies by Aristophanes.”

  13. Shakespeare’s Endurance • In short, Shakespeare endures because of his masterful use of words, his insight into the human mind and human action, and his ability to explore and reveal the complexities and paradoxes inherent in the human condition. • Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies are generally considered to be King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet (written c. 1600 and for which Shakespeare used several sources).

  14. Hamlet • Hamlet, the most famous play in English literature, continues to fascinate and challenge both readers and audiences. • In Hamlet, Shakespeare has given us perhaps his richest and most complex tragic hero. Actors have long craved to play Hamlet to prove their depth, resourcefulness, and skill. • Famous actors who have played Hamlet onstage or onscreen include John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Nicol Williamson, Ben Kingsley, Maximilian Schell, Sarah Bernhardt, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Sam Waterston, Ethan Hawke, and Jude Law. Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in film (1948)

  15. “Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet probably holds the most interest for an actor. Because one of the things it’s about is acting and pretending to be what you’re not. It’s a play that very much inhabits the world of the imagination: the world of what if, the world of finding out who you are, what you are, where you are in relation to other people and to the universe.” ─ Derek Jacobi, actor and director

  16. Hamlet continued… • At play’s beginning, Hamlet is an untested college student and a prince who returns home for his father’s funeral and his mother’s remarriage. • Through the course of the play, his movement to the heroic is not swift nor is it always smooth and direct. He is far more reflective and hesitant than Oedipus and Othello, who are both more action-oriented. • But Hamlet is younger and far less experienced than either Oedipus or Othello when their plays open. By the play’s conclusion, however, Hamlet proves himself as not just a mature man but as a hero as he challenges King Claudius and risks his life for the sake of Denmark and a rightful King.

  17. Hamlet continued … • As a maturing and unproven young man, Hamlet must deal with grief, an unaware mother, a ghost, a corrupt court, manipulated but well-intentioned friends, love, sycophantic courtiers, despair, and emotional pain. • As a result, Hamlet can be introspective, melancholy, sensitive, cruel, courageous, indecisive, impetuous, intelligent, deliberate, cynical, witty, suicidal, playful, warm, vain, self-indulgent, and gracious. Yet he is always a convincing character. • Hamlet is as full-blooded a character as ever created. He is very much a young, confused man in search of himself and the truth.

  18. Hamlet’s Delay • Why does Hamlet take so long to avenge his father’s murder? • Hamlet has several reasons for his delay: • He is not sure that the ghost is his father’s (2.2). • He needs confirmation of Claudius’s guilt (The Mousetrap, 2.2). • He does not kill Claudius at prayer as his soul will ascend to heaven (3.3). • Hamlet’s depression over his father’s death and mother’s quick remarriage has immobilized him, as depression will often do. • His own nature, which tends to be cautious and non-violent. • How plausible is each of these reasons? • The 1948 film version, starring Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, begins with the following statement: “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” Is this statement fair to Hamlet?

  19. Hamlet and Insanity • The question of Hamlet’s sanity has long been debated. Does he just pretend to be insane? Do the pretense and the pressure truly drive him temporarily insane? • Consider the following scenes: Ophelia’s report of Hamlet’s behavior to her father (2.1.78-102); Hamlet’s conversation with Polonius (2.2.172-218); his interaction with Ophelia (3.1, 3.2); his behavior immediately after The Mousetrap (3.2); his seeing a ghost that the Queen doesn’t see (3.4); his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; his actions in the graveyard with Laertes (5.2). • He does warn us that he will feign madness (1.5. 179-89; 3.2.89), and he is never insane with Horatio or in his soliloquies. • Does he pretend madness as a protective device, one that would give him license to speak boldly? Remember, he is very interested in acting and the stage – see his discussion with the players (2.2).

  20. Hamlet’s Development • Hamlet’s self-development can be charted through his soliloquies and speeches. • Hamlet’s first soliloquy (“O, that this too sullied …,” 1.2.129) is marked by passion, specifically melancholy, anger, and disgust, as his emotions spill out uncontrolled with an excessiveness that is self-indulgent and self-pitying, displaying a kind of teenage angst. • In the theatre’s most famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be” (3.1.57), Hamlet is philosophical, but broodingly self-centered and indecisive.

  21. Hamlet’s Development continued… By Act 4, Hamlet is more outward looking, still philosophical but committed to action, action requiring great courage and resolute – see his soliloquy, “How all occasions do inform against me,” 4.4.33. To see Hamlet’s development, juxtapose the first line of the soliloquy, “To be or not to be: that is the question,” with the last line of the soliloquy in 4.4, which ends, “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” In Act 5, Hamlet’s speeches can still be quite emotional as when he leaps into Ophelia’s grave and proclaims his love (5.1), but throughout Act 5 Hamlet is more in control of his emotions; he is more philosophical, more concerned with Denmark and others than himself and his personal concerns which dominate his first soliloquy (1.2.129). In fact, as he dies he announces his support for Fortinbras to assume the throne (5.2.355). These final words reveal a selfless prince more concerned with state than self.

  22. Hamlet as Tragic Hero 1. The traditional tragic hero must be extraordinary in rank and deed – “of high estate,” “great reputation and prosperity.” Hamlet is a prince who rises to the level of tragic hero as he challenges the corrupt King Claudius and risks his life for the sake of Denmark and a rightful king. Certainly, he is different from Oedipus and Othello who have accomplished much by the beginnings of their plays. 2. A Tragic Flaw – “Hamartia” A tragic flaw is the personality trait or fated mistake that leads to a tragic hero’s downfall. Does Hamlet have a glaring tragic flaw, or is it his whole character that causes him to rise and then fall? 3. Outside elements cooperate in the hero’s fall. There are several elements that contribute to his downfall. First and foremost, is Claudius. Others, however, play a role: Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes, and just about all characters with the exception of Horatio and Fortinbras.

  23. The Tragic Hero continued … 4. Recognition – “Anagnorisis” Hamlet experiences recognition or “anagnorisis,” as he not only learns the specific truth about his father’s death, Claudius’s corruption, and Denmark’s corruption, but he also learns about himself and the complex nature of the world itself. • Willingness to Suffer Hamlet is willing to die for Denmark, and accepts death graciously as he forgives Laertes, praises Fortinbras, and asks Horatio to tell his story.

  24. Hamlet as Traditional Tragedy • Restoration– Traditional tragedy follows a pattern of upheaval and restoration. As the play opens, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). The court, led by a corrupt King and a clueless Queen, is comprised of sycophants. By the end of the play, Hamlet has lost his life but has rid the court of its corruption and installed an honest king on the throne. • Poetry – The traditional language of tragedy is poetry, which establishes an exalted atmosphere and expresses the heights and depths of human emotion and action more completely. See, for example, one of Hamlet’s soliloquy. • Catharsis– The emotional renewal created by an audience’s feelings of pity and terror for a tragic hero, resulting in the recognition that the hero’s tragic fate was just and that his acceptance of that fate makes the tragedy complete.

  25. Setting • The action takes place in the King and Queen’s palace, the seat of power and the center of corruption, a visual illustrating that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90) and that the future of the state is in jeopardy. • The play is set in multiple rooms of the palace, many of which are small spaces and private enclosures, where the characters hope their moral corruption and duplicity can be hidden and kept private – a very different setting from the palace steps of Oedipus the King. • The play’s first scene is set on a platform before the castle. Here is where the ghost will be received. The implication is that moral leadership must come from without. This foreshadows what happens at the conclusion of the tragedy when Fortinbras, a Norwegian, enters the castle to begin Denmark’s regeneration.

  26. King Claudius • Claudius wastes his talents in his selfish desire for power. He is a murderer, manipulator, and coward. Seemingly incapable of love, he watches his wife drink poison rather than reveal himself. Although he tells Laertes that Hamlet is a murderer, he will not imprison the Prince, he says, because of his love for the Queen and the love of the common people for the Prince. • Claudius does feel guilt, as evident by his action • during The Mousetrap, his prayer, and thoughts: • “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;/ It • hath the primal eldest curse upon’t” (3.3.37-72). • Does Claudius’s expression of guilt encourage • your sympathy? • While Claudius’s villainy and malice are clear, • he cannot rival conscienceless Iago (Othello) for • absolute evilness.

  27. Laertes and Fortinbras • Both Laertes and Fortinbras serve as foils to Hamlet (a foil is a minor character who, through contrast, underscores distinctive characteristics of the protagonist). • When Laertes councils Ophelia about her involvement with Hamlet, he seems justifiably cautious and even wise. But when he hears of his father’s death, he seeks revenge. He becomes a man of action, but one who is imprudent, who is too easily influenced by Claudius. Hamlet contrasts with Laertes by being far more prudent and slow in his revenge-seeking. • Similarly, Fortinbras is another man of action out to revenge his father’s death and loss of land. Although his speeches are confident and noble, we can question whether his actions are too swift. He risks lives for “a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name” (4.4.19-20). Still, at the end of the play, Fortinbras becomes a symbol of regeneration and order, meant to inform the audience that Denmark’s restoration is underway.

  28. Polonius • Polonius is a political creature unconcerned with • truth, morality, or love. Above all else, he is • concerned with preserving his place at court. To • that end, he will flatter, eavesdrop, and lie, and • hopefully see his daughter marry Hamlet. • Polonius knows his position in the palace relies on • being useful and agreeable. He avoids • contradicting Hamlet on even the most insignificant • of topics (3.2.373-85). • A very practical man, Polonius delivers very sensible and often quoted advice to his son Laertes (1.3.58-81, which includes “to thine own self be true”). Consider how and from whom these lines should be delivered. Are they from a man who believes he is passing on valuable information, a wealth of wisdom acquired over a lifetime? Are they delivered by a cowardly, pathetic creature always motivated by self-preservation? A shrewd and selfish politician? A small-minded courtier, comic in his large opinion of himself? Or by a loving father concerned about his son?

  29. Horatio Horatio serves several functions: ─ Horatio, whom Hamlet admires, is a confidant of Hamlet, providing Shakespeare a way to reveal Hamlet’s thoughts and plans in dialogue. Hamlet, for instance, tells Horatio about his intention with the play (3.2). ─ He helps bring out the play’s exposition. He hears of the King’s carousing and asks, “Is it a custom?” (1.4.13). Hamlet’s response helps reveal Claudius’s ignoble nature. In addition, he explains the cause of Denmark’s military preparations (1.1.83-129). ─ He is a truly virtuous character, whose genuine love for Hamlet contributes in raising the audience’s esteem for the Prince. Claudius no doubt recognizes Horatio’s intelligence and integrity and, although Horatio would serve his plotting, the King does not attempt to involve him. ─ Horatio will serve Hamlet, Fortinbras, and the kingdom by providing a history of recent events which will report all that has unfolded and thus help Fortinbras restore a kingdom to decency, avoid civil unrest, and establish Hamlet as a paragon of absolute integrity and “noble heart” (5.2.361; see 374-97).

  30. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are victims of the court’s corruption. At Claudius’s request, they have traveled to Denmark to help their friend Hamlet break his melancholy mood. They try to take Hamlet to England where they will present him and a letter to the King, who will follow Claudius’s request to execute Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, do not know the contents of the letter. • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sincerely want to help their friend. By serving the King, they believe they are serving Hamlet as well. When Hamlet discovers the plot, he arranges for Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s executions. Hamlet feels no guilt over their deaths, believing they should not have come between “mighty opposites” (5.2.62). By getting Hamlet out of Denmark, they lay the foundation for his dramatic return in Act 5. • In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Tom Stoppard develops the story of this unfortunate pair.

  31. Women in the Play • The kingdom of Denmark is dominated by men. Indeed, Gertrude and Ophelia are the only two women characters in the play with speaking parts – over twenty male characters speak! • The men dominate the political and domestic dramas. Claudius uses Gertrude to gain power, and Polonius tries to use Ophelia to solidify his position in the court. Polonius exposes Ophelia to Hamlet’s abuse, which results in her madness. Both women are abused, and seem to possess little power or inclination to defend themselves. • Hamlet is directed by his father’s ghost to take revenge on Claudius, not his mother (1.5), which implies her powerlessness. The ghost appears to remind Hamlet of this during the son’s rough treatment of his mother in her bedroom (3.4). • Hamlet seems to speak for those in power or those who seek increased power when he says, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.146), a characterization Gertrude and Ophelia live up to, no doubt, because of the chauvinistic nature of this court’s culture.

  32. Christianity • Shakespeare fills Hamlet with a strong Christian underpinning. Consider, among others, the following images and lines: ─ The ghost is from purgatory (1.5.10-25). ─ Claudius implores the angels for help as he prays in his private chapel (3.3). ─ Hamlet tells Ophelia that all men have original sin (1.2.132). ─ Hamlet does not commit suicide because it’s against God’s canon (1.2.132) ─ Hamlet evokes “O all you host of heaven” at the beginning of the play (1.5.93), and at the end he asks heaven to forgive Laertes (5.2.334). • Consider Maynard Mack’s statement: “Throughout the play, the idea of Denmark as a possible type of the fallen garden is kept before us” (Killing the King).

  33. Graveyard Scene (5.1) • The tone of the graveyard scene is at first darkly humorous with the banter of the two clowns and then Hamlet’s examination of skulls, including Yorick’s skull and Hamlet’s reference to Alexander the Great. • The tone shifts, however, during Hamlet’s consideration of Yorick. Hamlet becomes eulogistic, sincerely mournful, and respectful of Yorick’s memory. • The tone becomes more sorrowful and passionate with the entrance of Ophelia’s corpse, even melodramatic with Laertes display of grief, and finally antagonistic as Hamlet comes forward to mock Laertes. • This penultimate scene reminds the audience of many of the play’s themes: life’s vicissitudes, life’s brevity, death as the great equalizer, human folly and vanity, flattery, violence, revenge, love, and false displays.

  34. For Further Consideration • Compare Hamlet as a tragic figure with Othello or Oedipus. • Any staging of Hamlet requires careful attention. How would you stage the appearance of the ghost, The Mousetrap, and the graveyard scene? Consider especially the use of lighting and the positioning of the characters. • Identify two scenes in which the characters’ speeches shift between verse and prose. Explain the significance of these shifts. (Try, for example, the scene with Hamlet and the players, 2.2.)

  35. For Further Consideration continued… There are several film versions of Hamlet readily available. Select three versions of the same soliloquy. Discuss the differences, focusing on the actor’s and director’s choices. What makes the three Hamlets very different characters? What parts of Hamlet’s personality does each actor emphasize? Does Hamlet have an Oedipus Complex? Discuss how his mother’s marriage separates him from her, his reference to the marriage as incest, and his anxiety about sex (tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunn’ry” and tells her “we will have no more marriage,” 3.1). You might see how directors make use of this possibility. Olivier’s Hamlet gives his mother an extended kiss, and Gibson’s Hamlet demonstrates the possibility in the confrontation between mother and son in the bedchamber.

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