In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot, teaches you How to Use Hamlet for (Almost) Everything. Youll learn why Hamlet is a great text to use to just about any essay and where to find the questions use in this lesson. Rebekah uses Hamlet and The Search for Justice, Hamlet and the Illuminating Incident, Hamlet and the Symbol, and Hamlet and the Social Justice Issuse to teach different ways of tackling essay prompts. The lesson concludes with when you shouldnt use Hamlet and then the Ultimate Essay Secret.
It’s widely considered one of the greatest works of English literature, so it’s unassailable.
It’s long enough to be broken down into pieces in a variety of ways.
It has a rich range of male and female characters of different social classes and ethnicities (well, pretty rich for Elizabethan England).
It’s been performed in a ridiculously wide variety of interpretations (including female Hamlets, real and fake ghosts, all manner of different places and times), any of which is at least somewhat supported by the text.
It has elements of many genres—tragedy, comedy, horror, fantasy, etc.
It’s in the public domain and widely available.
Where to Find the Questions
The questions in this lesson are taken from the College Board website’s store of released free-response questions.
Three of the four questions worked well with Hamlet; the fourth was harder, and on the real test I might have chosen a different work of literature, but I made Hamlet work anyway as if I hadn’t prepared anything else.
2011: Hamlet and the Search for Justice
The 2011 open essay question cites a quote by William Styron that “life is a search for justice” and asks you to choose a character from a novel or play who responds in some significant way to justice or injustice.
You are asked to analyze:
The character’s understanding of justice
The degree to which the search is successful
The significance of this search to the work as a whole
How to Answer
The most obvious character to write about here is Hamlet himself. He’s asked to avenge his father’s murder—that’s at least partly about justice, right?
How does he understand justice? Look at his soliloquy about his mother’s marriage and his speech to her after he kills Polonius. Look at how he reacts to the ghost’s tale of murder. Look at his attempts to kill Claudius. An eye for an eye! (Look at Laertes, too!)
Is his search for justice successful? Well, Claudius does die, but whether that’s truly just is dependent on whether you believe the ghost is really Old Hamlet and really telling the truth. You can play this either way.
Hamlet’s search for justice keeps the whole play moving, and results in the deaths of most of its characters.
2011B: Hamlet and the Illuminating Incident
The 2011 Form B open essay question cites a quote by Edith Wharton about how a work of fiction uses the “illuminating incident” as a “magic casement” or window into the work’s inner meaning. It asks you to choose a work with an illuminating incident.
You are asked to explain:
The nature of the episode
How it opens a window onto the work’s meaning
You are asked to avoid summary.
How to Answer
There are lots of illuminating incidents in Hamlet, but the first one that came to my mind was the play Hamlet puts on before Claudius, showing the murder of old King Hamlet.
The play not only strikes at Claudius’ guilt, but provokes the scene in which Hamlet nearly kills Claudius at prayer. Thus the incident provides both a literal summary of events (we actually see old Hamlet’s murder) and a window into the souls of Hamlet and Claudius.
An essay on this incident might focus on Claudius’ s prayer (followed by his line about how he can’t actually pray) and Hamlet’s mixed desire to kill and hatred of the fact that the act would send Claudius to heaven.
2009: Hamlet and the Symbol
The 2009 open essay question defines a symbol as “an object, action, or event that represents something or that creates a range of associations beyond itself” and notes that it can “express an idea, clarify meaning, or enlarge literal meaning.”
You are asked to focus on a symbol from a novel or play and analyze:
How that symbol functions in the work
What it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole
How to Answer
The first symbol that came to mind here was Yorick’s skull. It’s such a powerful symbol that the image of a young man in black looking at a skull has come to symbolize all of Shakespeare’s canon.
How does it function in the work? It gives Hamlet an opportunity to express his thoughts about mortality and impermanence and foreshadows the deaths at the end of the play, to name just two functions.
What does it reveal about the characters or themes? Well, it shows us that Hamlet is obsessed with death, that everyone in the play (actually, all of humanity) will eventually die, that artifice does us no good, and that Hamlet’s real or feigned madness is fast approaching its inevitable conclusion.
2009B: Hamlet and the Social Issue
The 2009 Form B open essay question states that many works of literature deal with political and social issues and asks you to choose a work of literature that does so.
You are asked to :
Analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue
Explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole
How to Answer
Uh-oh! Hamlet isn’t a very socially or politically conscious play. But don’t despair! Shakespeare was a genius.
If you think long enough, you might come up with the idea of class conflict—as shown in Hamlet’s banter with the gravedigger and the actors, for example, or Ophelia’s warning from Laertes that dating Hamlet is above her social station. That will work for a short essay.
You might also write about Shakespeare’s treatment of gender (Gertrude’s sexuality, Ophelia’s innocence) or political infighting (hello, Claudius), but we’ll go with class because it’s the first thing I thought of.
What literary elements does Shakespeare use to explore this issue? Well, irony is a big one—look at all that ironic dialogue with the gravedigger, or the way Hamlet gives unnecessary instructions to the actors. Allusion is big, too—all those allusive sex jokes Hamlet makes to Ophelia in the play scene. He’s really taking advantage of the fact that she can’t call him out! There are some critics who think Horatio is low-class, too.
about something being “rotten in the state of Denmark”? While a bad king is on the throne, the whole universe is out of joint, and that includes class violations. Shakespeare’s exploration of class plays into his exploration of morality and death.
Don’t Just Use Hamlet
This lesson is designed to demonstrate how any sufficiently rich work of literature can be adapted to a variety of essay topics.
However, as we’ve seen, Hamlet doesn’t work equally well for every subject. It was a real stretch to apply it to an essay about social and political issues!
Prepare a backup work (or two) in case you get a topic that doesn’t apply well to your primary work. How much easier would that last essay have been if I’d used The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and racism?
Remember that you are writing under a time limit. You need to think fast and work faster. The more literature you have in your bag of tricks, the better you’ll do.
Don’t use Hamlet if you haven’t actually read it (duh)!
The Ultimate Essay Secret
Be confident in your writing—no matter what you’re writing about!
How to Use Hamlet For Everything
Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.
This book includes five full length practice exams with all questions answered and explained. It includes a review of test topics covering details test takers need to know, such as poetry,prose fiction, and drama. It also includes sample student essays with critiques of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as a detailed glossary defining 175 literary and rhetorical terms.
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New ed edition
This book is a reprint of the Shakespeare Head Press edition, and it presents all the plays in chronological order in which they were written in an easy to read format. It also includes Shakespeare's Sonnets, as well as his longer poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Grammarly is the world's leading software suite for perfecting written English. It checks for more than 250 types of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, enhances vocabulary usage, and suggests citations.