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Hamlet Essay, Research Paper

1. Claudius begins and ends the act by lying to Gertrude. Name FOUR other aspects of his character that are provable on the basis of what he says and does in this act. Is he still wracked with guilt, do you think? Just a brief note on how Claudius lies to begin. In Act Four, scene one, he tells Gertrude that he refrained from taking action against Hamlet because of his love for the Prince. In actual fact, we know from the King’s speeches at the end of III.i. and the opening of III.iii. that the King has been planning to send Hamlet away to England for some time. It seems likely that at this point, he decides that he wants the prince dead. In any case, the general tone of Claudius’ attitude towards Hamlet has been one of suspicion and dislike, certainly not love. At the end of the Act, in scene seven, he tells Gertrude “How much I had to do to calm his rage”. This is deceitful rather than an out and out lie, because what Claudius has done is to direct and control Laertes’ rage rather than calm it. Other things one might say about Claudius in this act are how callous and selfish he is in his reaction to Polonius’ death. The King shows no pity or sorrow at the death of his counsellor. Rather, his reaction is: “It had been so with us had we been there” (IV.i.). That is to say, he realises that Hamlet poses a direct physical threat to himself and must be disposed of immediately. A second, very obvious thing to say, is that Claudius’ treatment of Laertes shows what a brilliant manipulator he is. He expresses no anger towards the rebel; he gives him everything he wants (”Let him demand his fill” IV.v.) Once he has thus deflated Laertes’ rage, he begins to provoke it again in order to persuade him to take part in his plot to kill Hamlet through treachery in the fencing match. Before explaining the plan, he asks “Laertes, was your father

dear to you?”. Thirdly, we may notice that Claudius doesn’t mention his conscience once in this act. In Act Three, he desperately attempts to pray for the strength to repent his crimes. In Act Four, all of Claudius’ actions are villainous, suggesting that he has come to peace with the idea of being unrepentant. Lastly, a few more positive, more human features

become apparent. One might note Claudius’ apparent love of horse-riding which is communicated in his unnecessarily lengthy speech about the virtues of Lamord in IV.vii. Alternatively, his lengthy speech to Gertrude in IV.i. shows his genuine worry about his kingdom. Or, Claudius professes deeply-felt love for Gertrude when he explains his failure to punish Hamlet in IV.vii. It may be, however, that he is using this as an excuse and the (alleged) popularity of the prince is a more genuine reason.

2. Has Gertrude reformed after her confrontation with Hamlet in III.iv.? In Act Three, scene four, Gertrude promises Hamlet she will stop sleeping with Claudius. There are two things to look at here in order to try to assess whether she has

done this: Gertrude’s aside at the opening of Act Four, scene five and her behavior around Claudius. What she says at the start of Act Four, scene five is that every event seems like an omen that something dreadful is about to happen to her “sick soul”, which she defines as a sinful soul. This seems to suggest that, like her new husband, she knows she is sinful, but is

persisting in that sin. If she had reformed by this point, four scenes after having made her promise to Hamlet, she would presumably not be feeling so sinful. It is fairly difficult to draw any particular conclusions from the Queen’s behavior around Claudius. We see them alone together in Act Four, scene one and briefly in Act Four, scene five. In the first scene, she lies to Claudius in order to protect her son. She tells the King that Hamlet killed Polonius in a “mad fit”. The Queen is

apparently convinced of Hamlet’s sanity by the end of Act Three, scene four and so we might assume that by blaming Hamlet’s madness for his actions, she is trying to make her son seem less responsible for the murder. Similarly, she goes on to tell Claudius that Hamlet is now weeping over the body of Polonius. This is a very unlikely turn of affairs given the Prince’s attitude at the end of the closet scene (”I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room”). Again, she seems to be trying to

make her son’s actions less reprehensible. What she doesn’t do in this scene is say anything to Claudius about their relationship, nor does she anywhere else in this act. When they are alone together in scene five, between Ophelia’s exit and Laertes’ arrival, only the King speaks. When Laertes threatens to kill Claudius, Gertrude apparently holds him back bodily. (The King says “Let him go, Gertrude…”). This does not seem to me to be the actions of a woman who has told her husband that their relationship has to finish forever and should never have started. Gertrude’s tragedy is that she loves both Claudius and Hamlet, who obviously hate each other. She feels guilty about her second marriage, but loves Claudius too

much to end it.

3. In what ways does Hamlet appear to change during this act? Hamlet appears physically in three scenes in Act Four

(ii, iii and iv) and appears to us through letters in scenes six and seven. Hamlet’s appearances in scenes one and two show the Prince behaving much as he did in Acts Two and Three. He is maintaining his act of madness and insulting everyone he meets. I would suggest that he is quite a bit more insulting to the King than on any previous occasion. In scene three, he tells the King to send a messenger to see if Polonius is in heaven. If he isn’t there, Hamlet tells Claudius, “seek him i’th’other place yourself”, effectively telling the King to “go to hell”. By this point, after the play-within-the-play, the King

knows that Hamlet knows about the murder. Hamlet knows that the King knows he knows about the murder. Neither of them can see much point in even pretending to be amicable any more. In scene four, Hamlet reflects upon Fortinbras and his army. They are going to war over a tiny, worthless patch of land. Hamlet knows he has much better reasons to go to war. He wonders about what it is that has been holding him back and resolves that from this point forward his thoughts must be “bloody”. This is Hamlet’s last soliloquy in the play, and these final words tell us why. Hamlet has resolved to give up reflection, feeling it has only led to cowardly conclusions. In Hamlet’s letters, we see some proof that he has become more decisive and even rash. He writes to Horatio to tell him that he has boarded a pirate ship single-handed, been captured and has made a deal for them to deliver him back to Denmark. This miraculous escape from Claudius’ plot to have Hamlet killed by the King of England stretches the audience’s credulity a bit. It is hard to see Hamlet doing this. It is a bit of a disappointment that we don’t see it on stage. We know that Shakespeare had to get Hamlet back to Denmark somehow in order for the plot to be resolved. He also wanted to show this new daredevil side to Hamlet. Nonetheless, it isn’t a very wonderful piece of plotting. Hamlet’s final appearance in the Act is in scene seven through the device of a letter to the King. I read the tone of this letter as taunting and sarcastic. Expressions like “High and mighty” and “your kingly eyes” seem overly-respectful, leading me to view them as jibes. This letter may therefore be read as reinforcing Hamlet’s brand-new rash and openly rebellious character.

4. When Laertes speaks in this act, he often uses hyperbolic (over-exaggerated) expressions. What might this imply about him? A few examples of this trait are: That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard… (IV.v.118) He means “any part of me that can calm down following my father’s murder makes me a completely unfeeling and unnatural son”. Laertes is quite a contrast to Hamlet in his pursuit of revenge. The Prince knows he is very calm with regard to his revenge. This is the subject of his third soliloquy (”O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” II.ii.501). I think this is part of Shakespeare’s reason for having Laertes in the play. He shows us the damaging, immoral consequences of the single-minded pursuit of revenge. Such is Laertes’ thirst for Hamlet’s blood that he is more than happy to resort to dishonorable means to achieve his aim. [I will] Repaste [my father's friends] with my blood. IV.v.147) He means that, like a pelican (according to Elizabethans), he will open up his chest in order to nourish his father’s friends with his own blood. If I was a

friend of Polonius, I don’t think I would particularly welcome this gesture. Of course, Laertes doesn’t mean this literally. He means that he feels very warmly towards the friends of his father. It is this that makes Laertes seem insincere. He says things in the most grotesque and exaggerated way, and we know he doesn’t really mean them. He is behaving in the way

that he thinks a revenging son ought to act. O heat dry up my brains, tears seven times salt / Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye! (IV.v.156) This is very similar to the previous example. On seeing Ophelia’s madness, he says that he wishes his anger would cause his brain to dry up and kill him. Then he says that he wants his tears to increase in saltiness to such an extent that they burn out his eyes. We know he really want this to happen because he is also that he’s desperate for revenge. What he’s doing is trying to communicate to the others the strength of his anger and sorrow. He may well feel angry and sorrowful, but he is putting on an act to make sure everyone else knows about it.

5. Why has Ophelia gone mad? How might this be proven? We don’t see or hear about Ophelia between Act Three,

scene two and Act Four, scene five. In the interim, she has become insane. As I suggested in my sample answers about Act Three, there are signs there that Ophelia is not unlikely to lose her mind. (Go here for that answer). I will confine myself here to what Ophelia’s songs can tell us about her state of mind and to what Ophelia’s madness adds to our understanding of madness in the play. We are told that Ophelia is mad by the unnamed gentleman at the opening of scene five. He says she speaks much of her father and then: Her speech is nothing, Yet the unshap?d use of it doth move hearers to collection. They yawn at it, And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts… (IV.v.7-10) This means “Ophelia’s speech is meaningless, but this chaotic state makes those who hear it try to make sense of it. They are amazed by her speech and make the words fit their own interpretation”. This statement seems to be crucial to understanding how madness is presented in this play. When Hamlet and Ophelia are thought to be insane, their observers try to interpret the reasons for their insanity. The reasons they come up with always reflect the preoccupations of the observers. In the case of Hamlet, Claudius thinks he has a hidden secret (III.i.158) since he himself has a hidden secret. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think that Hamlet’s ambition is the cause of his madness since they themselves are ambitious. Similarly with Ophelia, Laertes thinks she is trying to tell him to take revenge for her father (IV.v.168), a course he has already decided on. In “Hamlet”, madness is a mirror. Our interpretations of Ophelia’s madness are therefore put under question by the play. Are we seeing what is really there or are we projecting our own expectations onto her? Nonetheless, I set the question, so I ought to

attempt to answer it. I am only going to deal with her songs as they are probably the most striking and interpretable aspect of her madness. Ophelia sings three songs to the Queen in IV.v., and two more later in the scene after her brother’s arrival. The first (”How should I your true love know…”) is about an absent lover. The second (which might be a continuation of the first) begins “He is dead and gone lady”. The third “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day” is the story of how a young girl is duped into sleeping with a man who promises to marry her and doesn’t. Applying the first two songs to Ophelia’s history doesn’t take much ingenuity. She has an absent lover and a dead dad. The third, more bawdy, song is a little trickier. Hamlet has not been unfaithful to Ophelia, in fact the opposite is more true. Yes, he’s unpleasant to her, but she’s the one

who participates in a plot to trick the other. It is possible that Ophelia’s madness transposes the sexes of the characters and that the song is about her infidelity. It is also possible that Ophelia is mourning her own virginity. Or that her delirium releases the sexuality which has till this point been pent up by the demands of propriety and decorum. We don’t know enough to make a definite choice. The next song, after Ophelia hands out the flowers, is apparently part of a popular series of “Bonny Robin” songs which were about lovers and unfaithfulness. The final song (”And will a not come again”) is about the death of an older man. It is not implausible, on the basis of these five songs, to assume that Ophelia’s madness was caused by the death of her father, her loss of Hamlet and her guilt about her infidelity to him.

6. What does the Queen’s speech about Ophelia’s drowning suggest about her madness and the reasons her death? One aspect of this speech may seem a little bizarre. If the Queen knows all this, how come she was unable to save Ophelia?

There are at least three possible explanations. First, the Queen doesn’t know all this. She knows that Ophelia has drowned but wants to make it sound nice in order to break the news gently to Laertes, so she adds all the stuff about flowers and singing. Second, the Queen knows that Ophelia didn’t drown like this, but rather committed suicide, as the gravediggers and the priest are to suggest in Act Five. She doesn’t want to tell Laertes this and also wants Ophelia to receive a Christian burial rather than be treated as a suicide. Or, third, Shakespeare intended that the Queen to be acting as a storyteller here rather than as herself. She steps out of role for a minute to relate things that couldn’t be shown on the Elizabethan stage.

Any of these are acceptable answers to this puzzle. I tend to think the third explanation is best. Ophelia is (sort of) killed by a willow tree, also known as a “weeping willow”. Therefore, the line suggests that Ophelia died of grief. Note that the brook is described as a “weeping brook”. As she floats downstream, Ophelia is described as “like a creature native and indued / Unto that element”. That is, like a creature that belongs in the water. I would say that this is not only about her

passivity in the water, but also because of her excessive grief. When Laertes says that she has had “too much of”, he probably means that she has had too much grief, rather than that her lungs are full of water. Another thing to note are the plants. Ophelia is associated with flowers throughout the play. She’s an “infant of the spring” in I.ii. Laertes calls her a “rose of May” in IV.v. where she also hands out flowers to the court. At her funeral, Laertes imagines violets springing

from her grave. Ophelia may be viewed as “flower-like” because of her innocence, beauty, youth and fragility. Here, though, the flowers are weeds: crow-flowers, nettles, long-purples and daisies. Perhaps a symbol of decline or of her corruption by the Danish court.


1. A past exam question reads: ‘The action of the play begins to break down after act three’. Discuss. Why might you agree on the basis of act four? Points one might include in this answer are: Short Scenes: Most of the play is made up of

long, set-piece scenes, centred around a particular character. In Act Four, we get seven brief scenes. is likely to make the audience uneasy and feel that the action is moving around very swiftly. Hamlet’s Absence: Obviously Hamlet is the main character in the play, but for the second half of the Act, he’s gone away. We have lost the main focus of the action. Subplots: Again, most of the action so far has been directly related to Hamlet’s quest. In this act, that quest is postponed and new plot lines centred around Laertes and Ophelia are introduced. Minor Characters: Similarly, six new characters suddenly appear: the Captain and Fortinbras, the gentleman, the messenger, the attendant and the sailor. Characters such as Horatio, Ophelia and Laertes, who have had relatively minor roles until now, are suddenly given scenes in which they are “centre stage”. Shakespeare seems to want to increase the pace of the play, to give an indication that the danger to the central characters has increased. He also wants to reintroduce Fortinbras and let us see him in person so that we are not too surprised by his arrival at the end. He also wants to begin to explore revenge more widely through the introduction of Laertes’ mission and to begin preparation for the final catastrophe.

Themes and Imagery

1. Where is disease imagery used in this act? Find FOUR examples. How is the meaning of this imagery made explicit? There are quite a number of disease images in this act. Perhaps this reflects the “spread” of corruption and the intensification of the action. They include: Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are relieved, / Or not at all. (Claudius, IV.iii) …like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must me. (Claudius, IV.iii) This is th’impostume of much wealth and peace. (Hamlet, IV.iv) To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is… (Gertrude, IV.v) …wants not buzzers to infect his ear / With pestilent speeches… (Claudius, IV.v) It warms the very sickness in my heart… (Laertes, IV.vii) But to the quick of th’ulcer… (Claudius, IV.vii) I’ll touch my point / With this contagion… (Laertes, IV.vii) The Queen’s line, “To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is” makes it very clear that the disease imagery in the play is an image of sinfulness. Often, it particularly refers to treachery, and here, Laertes’ line, “It warms the very sickness in my heart”, is very useful.

2. What do scenes five and seven suggest about what commitment to taking revenge does to people? Laertes used to be a “noble youth” (V.i.). On his return from France, he has turned into a maniac. He is willing to “dare damnation” and he will cast aside all sense of tradition and loyalty to the king. He is happy to kill Claudius in cold blood on the basis of rumours.

Lastly, Laertes is very willing to use treacherous means to kill Hamlet. Revenge is presented very ironically in the play. Prompted by the demands of honour and loyalty, revengers become treacherous and dishonourable. It is Laertes’ single-minded devotion to his task that leads him to abandon all sense of morality and to his destruction.

3. Nonetheless, in what ways might Hamlet appear to be (morally) better than (a) Fortinbras and (b) Laertes?

(a) Act Four, scene four reintroduces Fortinbras to the audience. He is on his way to the borders of Poland to fight over a “little patch of ground” that has no economic worth. This is likely to lead to the deaths of two thousand men. In his soliloquy which follows, Hamlet reflects (rightly) that he has got considerably better reasons to go to war and is only risking his own life. He envies Fortinbras’ daring, but despises his callous sacrifice of the soldiers for a “trick of fame”.

(b) Hamlet, unlike Laertes, is not willing to “daredamnation” in the pursuit of his revenge. Hamlet is terrified of damnation and only manages to kill Claudius when he is satisfied that it is “perfect conscience” (V.ii). He also commits his revenge publicly in full view of the court, rather than trying to arrange an “accident” for his enemy.

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