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Week 6: Hamlet I

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Anne Jamison

on 17 October 2014

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Transcript of Week 6: Hamlet I

Morality, Gender, and Autonomy

1. Context and Plot
2. Hamlet's Character and Dilemma
3. Female Sexuality and Ophelia
Historical Context

English Renaissance (late 15th - early 17th century) marked by a climate of
A time of significant religious, economic, and political changes in England which are reflected in the disciplines of literature, philosophy, and science;
Protestant Reformation
(Judeo-Christian perspective)
; beginnings of modern capitalism; technological advancement
(maritime navigation; invention of the printing press in 1455)
England governed by a monarchy;
Ben Jonson,

Christopher Marlowe, and
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Preliminary sketch of the second Globe Theatre, c. 1638
The Globe Theatre (1599-1642)
Richard Burbage (1567-1619)
The Globe Theatre (1997 - present)
The Lord Chamberlain's men/The King's Men
Theatre Playing Company
Laurence Olivier (1907-1989)
Richard Burton
Sarah Bernhardt
Asta Nielson
Mel Gibson
Ethan Hawke
Kenneth Branagh
Jude Law
David Tennant
Angela Winkler
the Protestant Danish Royal Court in Elsinore; set during the 'Rule of the Danes', after Denmark's invasion of England, approximately 1017, and before the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Setting and Plot
'The long tradition which has seen
as the inaugural work of the modern period has been blind to the historical moment in which the play situates itself. But it has also ignored the play's own preoccupation with the process of history, the alternations of state that punctuate world history, as one kingdom gives way to another in what might be called a premodern imperial schema that assumes the eventual fall of all kingdoms and their final subsumption by the apocalyptic kingdom-to-come. Set within the fifty-year period in which Britain fell first to the Danes and then to the Normans, the play alludes to the most famous imperial falls of ancient history.'

Margreta de Grazia, 'Empires of World History', rptd. in William Shakespeare,
, ed. Robert S. Miola (London: Norton, 2011), p. 343.
The play begins on the battlements of the royal castle in Elsinore and we quickly learn that Prince Hamlet has returned from university to Elsinore to mourn the death of his father, the former King.

Hamlet has been home for somewhere between 2 and 4 months at the start of the play and is depressed and grieving at the loss of his father, but also angry and disgusted at the hasty re-marriage of his mother, Queen Gertrude, to his uncle, now King Claudius.

Hamlet meets the ghost of his father on the battlements of the castle and the ghost reveals that his death was unnatural and that he was murdered by his brother, Claudius. He commands Hamlet, as his son and rightful heir to the throne, to enact his revenge on Claudius.

This sets the stage for the rest of the play's action: from this point onwards, we see Hamlet debate with himself what the right or moral course of action is. To kill, or not to kill, his Uncle. We also witness Hamlet attempting to verify the truth of the ghost's story. This is why he stages a play for the King and Queen which replicates Claudius' murder in order to see Claudius' reaction. It is also why he pretends to go mad.
The 'problem' in Elsinore
Plague in Thebes (Sophocles'
Oedipus Tyrannus

Death of King Hamlet;
Threat of war with Norway;
Appearance of the Ghost.

Death of King Hamlet:

'KING: Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame.'
(Act 1, Scene 2, l. 19-20, Norton pp. 11-12)

'HAMLET: This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though performed at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.'
(Act 1, Scene 4, l. 17-22, Norton p. 25)

Threat of war with Norway:

'KING: ... to this warlike state'
(Act 1, Scene 2, l. 9, Norton p. 11)

'HORATIO: [Fortinbras means to] recover of us, by strong hand
... those foresaid lands
So by his father lost. And this, I take it,
Is the main motivation of our preparations,
The source of this our watch ...'
(Act 1, Scene 1, l04-108, Norton p. 8)

Appearance of the Ghost:

'HORATIO: This bodes some strange eruption to our state.'
(Act 1, Scene 1, l. 71, Norton p. 7)

'HAMLET: My father's spirit in arms? All is not well;
I doubt some foul play.'
(Act 1, Scene 3, l. 254, Norton p. 19)

'MARCELLUS: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.'
(Act 1, Scene 5, l. 90, Norton p. 27)
Kenneth Branagh (1996)
Hamlet's Dilemma
1. The veracity of the ghost's story

'HAMLET: Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com'st ins such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.'
(Act 1, Scene 4, l. 39-44, Norton p. 26)

'HAMLET: The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T'assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds/More relative than this.'
(Act 3, Scene 1, l. 519-525, Norton p. 55)

'HAMLET: If his [Claudius] occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen.'
(Act 3, Scene 2, l. 73-5, Norton p. 63)

2. The morality of revenge

'HAMLET: To be or not to be - that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.'
(Act 3, Scene 1, l. 57-61, Norton p. 57)

What is the moral course of action?
Hamlet's Effeminacy
3. Hamlet: Am I a coward? (Act 2, Scene 2, l. 492, Norton p. 54)

'HAMLET: Why, what an ass am I. This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion. Fie upon't, Foh!'
(Act 3, Scene 1, l. 503-08, Norton p. 54)

'KING: 'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father,
But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course,
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief.
Fie, 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd.
We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe and think of us
As of a father. For, let the world take note,
You are the most immediate to our throne'
(Act 1, Scene 2, l. 87-103, Norton p. 14)

Emotional, Melancholy, Irrational = 'unmanly'
John Everett Millais
Ophelia (1851-2)
Female Sexuality
Ophelia and Autonomy
The Female Body

'LAERTES: His [Hamlet] greatness weighed, his will is not his own.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his own choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state
Then weight what loss you honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity.'
(Act 1, Scene 3, l. 19-31, Norton p. 20)

'POLONIUS: Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly.
(Act 1, Scene 3, l. 104-06, Norton p. 23)

'OPHELIA: I shall obey, my lord.'
(Act 1, Scene 3, l. 135, Norton p. 24)

1. Ophelia is treated by her brother and father as someone who cannot make her own rational decisions;
2. they coerce her to ignore Hamlet's advances and later use her to try and figure out what is wrong with Hamlet;
3. they also treat her simply as a sexual creature whose value lies only in her purity and as someone who is to be traded in the marriage market.
'HAMLET: O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourned longer! - married with my uncle,
My father's brother
Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. Oh, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!'
(Act 1, Scene 2, l. 150-158, Norton p. 16)

'GHOST: So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.'
(Act 1, Scene 5, l. 55-57, Norton p. 29)
Women are defined in terms of the female body, female sexuality, and social ideas about female purity.
'For most critics of Shakespeare, Ophelia has been an insignificant minor character in the play, touching in her weakness and madness but chiefly interesting, of course, in what she tells us about Hamlet.'

Elaine Showalter, 'Representing Ophelia', rptd. in William Shakespeare,
, ed. Robert S. Miola (London: Norton, 2011), p. 282.
1. How much agency or autonomy does Ophelia have?

2. How culpable or morally responsible is Hamlet for Ophelia's death?
Lecture Learning Objectives

1. Context and Plot:

Name one of the recurring literary devices of Elizabethan revenge drama.

2. Hamlet's Character and Dilemma:

Explain one reason for Hamlet's delay in taking action against his uncle, and back up with evidence from the play.

3. Ophelia and Female Sexuality:

Explain one way in which Ophelia seems to have less autonomy than the other male characters in
, and back up with evidence from the play.
430 BC
Ancient History
Middle Ages/Medieval Period
Ancient Greece:
Oedipus Tyrannus
(430 BC)
Ancient Greece:
Plato 'Euthyphro' (380BC) and 'Crito' (360BC)
Weeks 2 and 3
Weeks 4 and 5
Modern History
European Renaissance:
Weeks 6 and 7
European Enlightenment/Early Romanticism:
Rousseau's 'Fifth Walk' in
Reveries of a Solitary Walker
(1782); and Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' (1798)
Weeks 8 and 10
Late Romanticism/Early Victorian:
Pride and Prejudice
Weeks 11 and 12
Woolf's 'The Mark on the Wall' (1917); 'A Room of One's Own' (1926); and 'A Woman's College from Outside' (1929)
Weeks 13 and 14
Early Modern History
Texts and Traditions: Timeline
play is concerned with its historical moment;

play is preoccupied with imperial history and the rise and decline of the nation or royal kingdom.
Shakespeare's Hamlet was influenced by Thomas Kyd's
The Spanish Tragedy

Recurring literary devices:

1. central character takes justice into their own hands and takes revenge on an often formidable opponent, e.g. Claudius, King of Denmark, or someone who equally cannot be brought to justice by legal means because they rule the country in question, or are close to the ruler;

2. the ghost;

3. the play within a play;

4. final atrocity and the death of the protagonist.
Other significant characters and events...?
Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes
Fortinbras and the Captain
Horatio, Barnardo, Francisco, Marcellus
Ophelia is Polonius' daughter and sister to Laertes, she is also in love with Hamlet and Hamlet has been courting her prior to the start of the play;

Polonius is a councillor/adviser to King Claudius;

Laertes is Polonius' son and sister to Ophelia; at the start of the play we see him return to France to resume his studies after having spent time in Denmark to mark the coronation of the new King; later in the play, we witness him attempt to kill Hamlet in revenge for Hamlet's murder of his father, Polonius;

Both Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia against Hamlet's affectionate advances.
Fortinbras is Prince of Norway and, with his army and Captain, he is advancing on Denmark to reclaim lost Norwegian lands;

Fortinbras' father, the former King of Norway, lost the lands and his life to Hamlet's father, Fortinbras' uncle now rules Norway;

Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is thus enacting revenge for his father's death.
Horatio is Hamlet's friend and fellow student;

Barnardo, Francisco, and Marcellus are royal guards or 'sentinels';

It is because of the rumoured threat of invasion that the guards are on the battlements at the start of the play, they then summon Hamlet to investigate the strange ghost that they have seen.
Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy
2. Hamlet's Character and Dilemma:

Explain one reason for Hamlet's delay in taking action against his uncle, and back up with evidence from the play.
Things are not right in the state of Denmark and Hamlet is singled out as the person that must put them right.

'HAMLET: The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.'
(Act 1, Scene, 5, l. 195-96, Norton p. 33)
According to Claudius, Hamlet's behaviour goes against Hamlet's father, and nature, and reason, and to the state of Denmark. It is couched in terms of 'unmanliness'.
The king's death has left the state/nation in disarray.
Under King Claudius' reign, the state/nation is becoming morally degenerate.
The state/nation is on the verge of war with Norway.
The appearance of the former king's ghost acts as a symbol for all that is wrong in Elsinore.
3. Ophelia and Female Sexuality:

Explain one way in which Ophelia seems to have less autonomy than the other male characters in
, and back up with evidence from the play.
Both Hamlet and the ghost view Gertrude's relationship with Claudius purely in sexual terms and Gertrude is depicted as both irrational and animalistic in terms of her assumed sexual desires. Neither character considers that Gertrude may have had little choice in her hasty second marriage.
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