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How to Use Hamlet For Everything

  • Why Hamlet Works for Everything (Almost)
    • 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
  • 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.

  • Intro 0:00
  • Lesson Overview 0:10
  • Why Hamlet Works for Everything (Almost) 1:16
    • Considered one of the greatest works of English literature
    • It's long enough to be broken down
    • Rich range of male and female characters
    • Variety of interpretations
    • Elements of many genres
    • It's public domain
  • Where to Find the Questions 3:18
  • 2011: Hamlet and the Search for Justice 4:18
    • “Life is a search for justice”
    • What are you being asked to analyze?
  • How to Answer 5:06
    • How does Hamlet understand justice?
    • Is his search for justice successful?
  • 2011B: Hamlet and the Illuminating Incident 7:10
    • A work of fiction uses the “illuminating incident“ as a ”magic casement”
    • What are you being asked to explain?
  • How to Answer 8:08
    • The play Hamlet puts on before Claudius
    • Literal summary and window into the soul
    • Focus on Claudius's prayer
  • 2009: Hamlet and the Symbol 9:40
    • The definition of a symbol
    • What are you being asked to focus on and analyze?
  • How to Answer 10:24
    • Yorick's skull
    • How does it function in the work?
    • What does it reveal about the characters or themes?
  • 2009B: Hamlet and the Social Issue 12:14
    • What are you being asked to do?
  • How to Answer 12:52
    • Uh-oh! Hamlet isn't very socially or politically conscious
    • Class conflict in the play
    • Gender in the play
  • How to Answer, cont. 14:02
    • What literary elements does Shakespeare use to explore this issue?
    • How does this contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole?
  • Don't Just Use Hamlet 16:37
    • How about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and racism?
    • Remember you are writing under a time limit
    • Don't use Hamlet if you haven't read it
  • The Ultimate Essay Secret 18:03