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AP English Literature Notes

Dan Parker
12 December 2010

1 Hamlet In-Class Discussion


1.1 Ophelia
- Hamlet accuses Polonius of using his daughter by way of the biblical allusion to “Jephthat” (2.2.398)
- oftentimes the initial reaction to Ophelia is that she is:
- weak
- sheltered
- innocent
- used by the men around her: father, brother, Hamlet
→ sympathy and slight contempt in the eyes of the modern reader

1.1.1 Act 1, Scene 3


allusion: Laertes is named after Odysseus’ father who was one of the Argonauts and, in some
versions of the Odyssey was resurrected from the dead by Athena to help depose the suitors
(usurpers)
- Laertes is very bossy to Ophelia
- (1.3.12) is confusing: what is Ophelia’s tone? deferential? rereading leads to many ways it might
be said
- Laertes talks about the moon
ca: since everything insane, bad, etc happens at night
→ Hamlet ≡ moon =⇒ changing
paraphrase: “don’t date a state instead of a man” (1.3.19-21)
- then Polonius comes in
- “here my father comes” (1.3.53, Laertes)
→ father-son motı̀f strengthened
→ father-daughter, not so much
- Polonius gives a long speech on how to live well
- a deeper readings shows that in fact he is not the bumbling fool he appears, but actually quite
intelligent and shrewdly political
- some of the speech is clichè, some is Machievellian
- test the loyalty of your friends
- see who has proven themselves to you
paraphrase: “if you get into a fight, make sure you win”
- notice how valuable Polonius is to Claudius
- pretends to be rather a fool and yes-man

1
- really is much deeper and subtler than that
- Laertes recognizes all this
→ believes he has a place waiting for him high in the government
→ makes demands of the world
- consider Ophelia in light of all this
- would Polonius really pass up the chance to make his daughter the Queen?
- in Polonius’ speech to Ophelia the real criticism is not htat she’s seeing Hamlet, but that she’s
actually fallen in love with him
ca: if she’s in love with Hamlet, then her personal feelings get in the way of political scheming
paraphrase: “but he loves me back”
- consider line (1.3.104)
- either crushed or doubtful
- or pretending so her dad shuts up like any kid getting shouted at by their parents
- or somewhere in between?
- is she playing her dad’s political games and realizing she miscalculated?
- Polonius seems to believe that either:
- she’s conspiring with him or,
- she’s a baby
- he is also concerned for his reputation
- his play on “fashion” is mocking and slightly rude, showing that whatever they may or may not
be conspiring, they are not in it together
→ therefore the plausible options are:
1. she’s a baby
2. they have different secret plans
- consider lines (1.3.113-114)
- Hamlet and Ophelia are probably secretly engaged
- dad believes it’s a trap made especially for her “springs to catch woodcocks” (1.3.115)
- i.e., Hamlet came up with a clever plan to make Ophelia care for him, but not owe anything
in return while she believe he does and it is perfectly suited to her
- think about this: Ophelia is Hamlet’s closest friend in the castle
- and she knows what he’s going through with his father’s death and mother’s “o’er hasty” re-
marriage
- yet she accepts her fathers commands and stays away from him completely
- how should that make Hamlet feel towards her?

1.2 Hamlet’s Voice


- he uses word and wits as a shield — and a sword
- repeating himself — as distraction? — is he self-coaching, trying to persuade himself?
- cryptic
- talks down and is purposefully contemptuous
- talks to Horatio as an equal
- despite all this, he is one of the most honest characters in the play
- alone of everyone, he talks with candor
- he also seems to be the most feeling person in the play

2
→ if he has the ‘most to shield, he needs the sharpest weapon’
- scholarly background
e: essentially, he is an intellectual

1.3 Hamlet and Existentialism


- the To be or not to be speech:
- rather incongruous with the rest of his speeches
- certainly existential themes
- ‘he’s pulling himself towards confronting something fearful and difficult to contemplate’
- other places:
- “what a rogue and peasant slave am I”
→ not in control of his own fate
- “Denmark is a prison”
- Act 4, Scene 4: soliliquey at end; “what i a man. . . but to sleep and feed?”
- (almost the same as in Ulysses)
- Hamlet is almost completely ambiguous
- there is not a single thing that he is not divided on
- half-in love
- half-decided to kill his uncle
- half-acting in self-interest only
- half-everything

1.4 Gertrude
- Act 1, Scene 2: Claudius’ speech
- full of paradoxes
→ indicates complexity of the situation in his mind
- lines 14-15: Gertrude “freely” went along with the marriage
- publicly mentions that she was his sister
- line 64: “my cousin Hamlet, and my son”
- why does he bring this up again? ģuilty conscience? ţrying to connect with Hamlet?

1.5 The Garden of Eden Motı̀f in Hamlet


- oh, so we have an evil snake in a garden
- an orchard, even
- with a tempting women
- obviously this represents the Garden of Eden
- religious idea: god keeps track of every little thing in life
- the “fall of a sparrow” even (quote from the bible)
→ vengeance is god’s business, not man’s
→ Hamlet should stand back and let heaven take care of things
- note that the ghost does note subscribe to this; he talks in terms of “crimes” not sins

3
- we have the motı̀f of the usurper again
- god installs monarchs so for a man to install himself is nearly heresy
- notice the historical background of the Elizabethan era with some conflict of reason and religion as
well as older norse ideas of honor, etc
- what is the ‘natural order’ ?
- how does the ‘natural order’ relate to god?
- things that upset the natural order (e.g. usurpation) are offenses to god, perhaps
- notice that Hamlet himself did not suspect murder before the ghost told him
- notice also that before Hamlet knows it was he only uncle who murdered his father he’s ‘out for blood’
- Gertrude ≡ Eve, a temptress
- is Gertrude conscious of this?
- if so, then more evidence that she is the motive in Claudius’ mind for the murder
critical question: what did Gertrude know and when did she know it?
- Claudius ≡ snake
- according to Old Hamlet
→ Old Hamlet ≡ innocent Adam-type figure
- does Claudius corrupt Gertrude or visa versa?
- it seems that they had an ongoing affair even before the death of Old Hamlet
- not certain that she was in on the murder
- the scene in her bedrooms leaves us to believe that she wasn’t

1.6 Acting Interpretations


- the three main interpretations are:
1. crazy, raving Hamlet
2. weepy, angsty Hamlet
3. cold, cynical, withdrawn Hamlet
- usually actors only do one of these at a time
- really good actors can do more at a time
- in the movies we watched, some of the other things the actor/director can focus on are:
- Hamlet’s relationship with his mother and a possible Oedipal complex
- Hamlet’s confusion about his sexuality (Is he gay? Does he love Horatio instead of Ophelia?)

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