Beyond Shakespeare Hamlet Revision Course

We were thrilled with the A level revision course on Hamlet last week.

With parents commenting on how successful the evening was.

Parents testimonials included:

Chris found the seminar very good (actually ‘cool’ so high praise!). He thought Charlie was excellent and would be very interested in a follow up lesson in Hamlet.

We have added the notes of the evening revision course below. If you would like them as a PDF please do get in touch.

Bright Young Things – Beyond Shakespeare: Hamlet Revision Course, Wednesday 9 May 2018

The Difficulty is the Point

Hamlet is famed and feared for its sheer enigmatic force, a play that is still engaging new reading some 400 years after its first performance. The key to an understanding of the play is that is supposed to be difficult. In plays like Macbeth or Much Ado About Nothing he demonstrates that he is perfectly capable of making himself clearly understood when he wants to.

Shakespeare knew the human mind; and in its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place…He never wrote at random, or hit upon points of character and conduct by chance; and the smallest fragment of his mind not unfrequently gives a clue to a most perfect, regular and consistent whole. (Coleridge)

Moreover the matter goes deeper than this. Hamlet’s world is pre-eminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions, anguished, meditative, alarmed. There are questions that in this play, to an extent I think unparalleled in any other, mark the phrases and even the nuances of the action, helping to establish its peculiar baffled tone. There are other questions whose interrogations, innocent at first glance, are subsequently seen to have reached beyond their contexts and to point toward some pervasive inscrutability in Hamlet’s world as a whole. Such is that tense series of challenges with which the tragedy begins… And then there are the famous questions. In them the interrogations seems to point not only beyond the context but beyond the play, out of Hamlet’s predicament….Further, Hamlet’s world is a world of riddles. The hero’s own language is often riddling, as the critics have pointed out. When he puns, his puns have receding depths in them, like the one which constitutes his first speech: “ A little more than kin, and less than kind!” (1.2.65). His utterances in madness, even if wild and whirling, are simultaneously, as Polonious discovers, pregnant: “ Do you know me, my lord?” “Excellent well. You are a fishmonger” (2.2.173). Even the madness itself is riddling. How much is real. How much is feigned? What does it mean? (Maynard Mack)

The language is at the heart of it, and Shakespeare uses the literary technique of hendiadys (two through one) to induce a sort of verbal vertigo: ‘the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes’; ‘the gross and scope of my opinion’; this post-haste and romage in the land’; ‘the extravagant and erring spirit’; ‘the dead waste and middle of the night’; ‘the perfume and suppliance of a minute’; ‘the shot and danger of desire’; ‘the pales and forts of reason’ ; ‘the single and peculiar life’; ‘the book and volume of my brain’; ‘ this encompassment and drift of question’; ‘the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind’;’ the motive and cue for passion’; ‘the

hatch and the disclose’; ‘the teeth and forehead of our faults’; ‘the proof and bulwark against sense’; and so on.

All in all he used the technique a total of 66 times, far more than in any other play.


Three principal frames of reference for ghosts were known to the Elizabethans: Greek and Latin literature furnished precedents for wraiths returning from the dead to visit the living; Protestant doctrine did not deny the appearance of ghost, but typically regarded them as devils in masquerade; Roman Catholic doctrine also warned that many ghosts were devils, but at the same time maintained that others might be spirits of the dead temporarily returned from purgatory. (Roland Frye)

Horatio uses thou as opposed to the royal you when addressing the Ghost in i.i.128

Hamlet refers to the ghost in no uncertain terms in i.iv.39/40 – “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d”; this tension is again voiced by Hamlet in his soliloquy at the end of Act 2 “The spirit that I have seen/May be a devil; and the devil hath a power/ T’assume a pleasing shape” (ii.ii.596-598)

Catholics believed in the possibility of Purgatory, and the Ghost announces himself in those explicit terms when speaking to Hamlet: “ I am thy father’s spirit,/Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,/ And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,/ (i.v.10-14)

It is all very confusing, but it supposed to be confusing. Neither clearly an emissary of divine justice, nor of demonic cunning, nor of pagan shades, this ghost is and will remain a “questionable shape”. If it were not so, Hamlet’s task would have been simpler, and his struggles less profound.


There are two significant exceptions to Shakespeare’s unwillingness or inability to imagine a married couple in a relationship of sustained intimacy, but these are unnervingly strange: Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet and the Macbeths. These marriages are powerful, in their distinct ways, but they are also upsetting, even terrifying, in their glimpses of genuine intimacy. The villainous Claudius, fraudulent in almost everything he utters, speaks with oddly convincing tenderness about his feelings for his wife: “She’s so conjunctive to my life and soul” he tells Laertes, “That, as the star moves not but in his sphere, /I could not but by her” (4.7.14-16)

Their sexual activity is the thing that enervates Hamlet the most, and the play’s most striking imagery is sexually explicit: i.ii.156 – “ O, most wicked speed, to post/with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” is repeated later in Act 3, where Hamlet is denouncing his mother “Nay,

but to live/In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/ Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty!” (Iii.iv.92-95)

Mercenary guards, brought from abroad, were one of the most universally noted signs of the tyrant, and would have been among the simplest to dramatize on stage. The first entrance of Claudius attended by his “Switzers” – among the most notorious mercenaries of sixteenth-century Europe – would have aroused immediate suspicions of him. Claudius’ twice-stated recognition of Hamlet’s popularity – “he’s loved by the distracted multitude” and “the great love the general gender bear him” indicates the tyrant’s fear of being supplanted, however Claudius may disguise it by his aspersions on Hamlet.

Also typical of the tyrant is Claudius’ choice of advisors such as Polonious, Rosencratz and Guildenstern: the conception could be traced as far back as Aristotle that the “tyrant has his humble companions who flatter him”

The marriage of brothers and sisters-in-law had been branded shameful over hundreds of years of moral teaching since Old Testament times, and was prohibited both in England and on the Continent. It was only in 1907, some three hundred years after the appearance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that the last of such laws were repealed by British parliament. (Roland Frye)

Prequel novel by John Updike is important to mention -Gertrude and Claudius. Updike envisions a far more complicated and considerably sadder Gertrude, married against her will to a man much older than she.


Horatio/ Hamlet interchange at the beginning of i.iv shows that even Horatio, in some ways the moral centre of the play (and it’s only survivor from the action’s start) is also in his own way not as he ‘seems’ – why would he feign ignorance over his native drinking customs?

Hamlet : The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse/Keeps wassail, and the swag;ring up-spring reels,/ And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,/The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out/The triumph of his pledge

Horatio: Is it a custom?

Hamlet: Ay, marry is’t,/ But to my mind, though I am native here/ And to the manner born, it is a custom/ More honour’d in the breach than the observance.


In 1600, in an England of four million, London and its immediate environs held a population of roughly two hundred thousand. If, on any given day, two plays were staged in playhouses that held as many as two to three thousand spectators each, it’s likely that with theatres even half-full, as many as three thousand or so Londoners were attending a play. Over the

course of a week – conservatively assuming five days of performance each week – fifteen thousand Londoners paid to see a play. Obviously, some never went at all, or rarely, while others – including young and generally well-to-do law students at the Inns of Court – made up for that, seeing dozens of plays a year; it’s likely that over a third of London’s adult population saw a play every month. (James Shapiro)

If playgoers missed the point, it would have been underscored for them a final time as they filed out the new theatre. On the sign the Chamberlain’s Men displayed outside the Globe was a reminder: ‘Totus mundus agit histrionem’ – We are all players.

Rhodri Lewis, ‘Hamlet, Then and Now’

Why study Shakespeare? In answer to this question, we commonly hear variations on two basic themes. First, Shakespeare’s particularity. No other author gives us such a clear picture of the historical moment in which he or she lived; no other author writes as well or as skillfully; no other author depicts in such detail so many facets of the human condition; no other author has been read, performed, or discussed so widely; no other author is more responsible for what, in one of the more breathless expressions of New Haven transcendentalism, has been described as the invention of the human. Second, Shakespeare’s universality. He is, we are told, for and of all time: the culmination of what went before him; a prefiguration of what came, and continues to come, after him. His writings can therefore be mined for gems that will help to illuminate present-day discourses including those of politics, religion, gender, race, disability, law, colonialism, cognitive psychology, human-animal relations, economics, and – at the quack end of the market – leadership for corporate executives.

Some of these approaches do a brilliant job of helping us to understand what Shakespeare wrote and why he wrote it. Others less so. In my new book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, I wanted to try something different. Rather than using Shakespeare as a medium through which to discuss history, philosophy, politics, the nature of genius, or some other subject, I wanted give Shakespeare’s words priority over the uses to which they can be put. Not by studying him in isolation (only to read Shakespeare isn’t even to read Shakespeare), but by seeing what happens when different forms of historical, intellectual, artistic,

literary-poetic, theoretical, theatrical, social, cultural, and political discourse are put to work in examining how a particular Shakespearean play functions. As my title suggests, I chose Hamlet. In part, this was because Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s richest and most demanding dramatic creation. But I was also drawn to it because of its critical history.

Hamlet criticism has for a long time taken the form of a literary Rorschach test, in which the play is an inkblot onto which scholars, critics, actors, and directors (not unlike Polonius seeing different shapes in the clouds) project their favorite theories, methodologies, or ideologies. There need be nothing wrong with this provided the critic remains aware of what he or she doing. Too often, however, students of Hamlet have sought to remake the play in the image of the parts of it that most cohere with their own preoccupations. In

Stephen Booth’s aptly irreverant phrase, there has been a tendency “to indulge a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something.”

In seeking to make sense of a famous play whose famous author was neither frustrated nor inarticulate, and in trying to treat Shakespeare as neither unique nor somehow universal, I was surprised to find myself coming up with an answer to a version of the question I with which I begin above. Why study Shakespeare in in the mid- to late-2010s? Because he offers us an unflinchingly brilliant guide to the predicaments in which we find ourselves in Trumpland and on Brexit Island. Not by prophesying the likes of Farage, Bannon, and Donald

J. Trump (it’s true: reality is stranger than fiction), but by enabling us to experience a world in which the prevalent senses of moral order (political, ethical, personal) bear only the most superficial relation to lived experience.

To anyone glancing at my book, this claim might seem counter-intuitive. Its staple is Shakespeare’s engagement with, and ultimate repudiation of, the body of learning and civic-educational doctrine that we think of as renaissance humanism. Historical scholarship doesn’t get much more historically-minded than this. And yet it is Shakespeare’s determination to explore the limitations of the humanistic worldview that draws Hamlet into the nearest dialog with our own age.

In the figures of Claudius and Polonius, Shakespeare makes plain his conviction that humanistic ideals are hollowed out, bankrupt: the usurper and his consigliere mouth the platitudes of personal, familial, and political conviction, but do so only in order advance their own interests. So it is that Hamlet sets himself against the culture of “seeming” in all its particulars. He has, he claims, no more interest in performing so the roles that the court offers him than in affirming normative “truths” about the nature of human existence. He fights against the insidious conventionality of his uncle’s regime, and although he is therefore constrained to die within the action of the play, he lives on outside it as an avatar of personal and philosophical integrity.

And yet, when we read the play in the light of humanist tradition, a very different picture emerges; one in which the comfortingly familiar account of Hamlet is comprehensively upended. Viewed from here, Hamlet appears no less superficial – no less bound to “seeming” and self-interest – than Claudius, Polonius, and their cohort of hangers-on. Even his most soaringly eloquent speeches emerge as a patchwork of quotations and misquotations that twist and appropriate the techniques of humanist rhetoric; their purpose is not to search for the truth, but to present Hamlet with a series of self-images that

conform with his elevated sense of self-regard. Likewise, his masquerades as a poet, a historian, a philosopher, a stage director, a lover, and a theologian have few claims to coherence, but Hamlet doesn’t care. Through them, he gets at once to distract his attention from the dynamics of his inner life – specifically, from his inability to feel committed to the act of revenge urged by his father’s ghost – and to enjoy a safe vantage from which to judge the behavior of others in and around Elsinore. The irony is that the harder he tries to separate himself from the culture in which he has been educated and through which he thinks, the more it becomes clear that his fate is bound up with those on stage around him. His failures of communication and understanding themselves inadvertently express the cultural assumptions he disdains; more importantly, they ensure the obliteration both of his family and of the politically autonomous Danish state that his family had sought to protect.

Shakespeare’s drama in general – and his Hamlet in particular – do an extraordinary job of holding up the mirror to a world characterized by illusion, pretense, and self-delusion. They show us that as we try to detach ourselves from the cultures within which we are obliged to exist, we seek to obscure the ways in which we have helped bring these cultures into being

– to say nothing of the ways in which our attempts at self-detachment serve to make things worse. This lesson is no more comfortable in 2017 than it was at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Literary Terms

Genre – type or class of literature (poem, play, novel, article…)

Historical Context – Hamlet was written during the Renaissance period (the ‘rebirth’ in French).

Blank Verse – Used extensively throughout the play, especially by Hamlet, Polonius and Claudius. It is unrhymed poetry – a very disciplined verse from in that each line is an iambic pentameter (a ten syllable line with five stresses). It is close to the rhythm of speech, but stylised enough in its regularity to be quite distinct from speech or prose.

Act and scene – A play is traditionally divided into acts and scenes. Most plays have five acts (like Hamlet) though from the nineteenth century onwards most dramatists opt for three or two acts.

Character – The people in a play are referred to as characters. We assess them on the basis of what they say and do, and what the other characters say about them. This is important: we must avoid loose conjecture and base everything we say on the evidence of the text. We only really understand the characters, however, when we relate them to the broader themes of the play.

Hero – Hamlet is the hero of the play and also the protagonist. Villain – Opposing him is Claudius, the antagonist.

Dramatic Structure – All plays have the same basic structure of exposition, complication, and resolution. The exposition stage prepares the ground by showing us some sort of change taking place in the characters’ lives or the social order. In the central stage of the play the dramatist develops the complication that arises from this change as the characters seek to come to terms with the problems that have developed so that a sense of disorder prevails. In the resolution, however, as the play reaches its ending, order is established or the characters at least come to terms with the new situation that has developed. This is the basic structure of nearly all plays, including Hamlet.

Elizabethan and Jacobean drama – this refers to plays written under the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-25). Shakespeare lived through and wrote his plays through both reigns, yet as Hamlet was written at some time between 1599-1602 (we know not when exactly) we define it as Elizabethan. Shakespeare wasn’t the only brilliant playwright operating at the time – there was also Kyd, Marlowe, Jonson and Webster.

Revenge Tragedy – This is where the protagonist looks to avenge a son or father’s murder; set against the background of disorder in society at large. Hamlet falls squarely into this category: indeed, Shakespeare took a lot of inspiration from the play from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587)

Tragedy: The simplest definition of tragedy is that it is a play with the death of the main character. This is opposed to a comedy which ends in the marriage of the main character(s)