Tag Archives: Hamlet

Hamlet in Howth

I’m a big fan of Alan Stanford’s podcasts Hamlet in Howth.

They’re an excellent way of revising the play – but make sure you stay focused by taking notes as you listen.

Here’s the link: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/drama/hamletinhowthall.html

Delay or procrastination?

Perhaps the single most debated question about Hamlet is “why does it take him so long to avenge his father’s murder?” For some, his delay is baffling and despite feeling sympathy for Hamlet as he struggles with his suicidal despair, they nonetheless view him ultimately as a procrastinator. According to this interpretation, Hamlet knows what he must do put puts it off – for a variety of complex reasons.

Perhaps the best way for you to fully grasp the concept of procrastination is to watch this youtube video by charlieissocoollike:


There is a whole other school of thought out there however (and this is the camp I fall into).

  • Some people believe that it is not at all clear to Hamlet what he must do because he cannot trust the ghost’s word.
  • Once it becomes absolutely clear to him that Claudius is without doubt guilty, Hamlet only delays further with very good reason: to establish the extent of his mother’s guilt and to save her soul.
  • From this point on, circumstances (primarily his accidental murder of Polonius) lead to a further delay which cannot and should not be construed as ‘procrastination’ (deliberately putting off something unpleasant). 
  • Despite his exile he does everything in his power to return to Denmark so that he can do his duty and avenge his father’s death. Upon his return he proclaims “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth“.
  • The one scene which appears unquestionably like procrastination (imho) is the gravedigger’s scene where his morbid fixation on death resurfaces and he appears to have absolutely no sense of urgency about killing Claudius.  
  • However, once he learns of Ophelia’s death he becomes almost serene in the knowledge that avenging his father’s murder is his inevitable destiny “If it be now, tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now….the readiness is all“. His moral qualms have transformed into a sure and certain belief that he will be doing God’s work if he kills the usurper Claudius “is’t not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned to let this canker of our nature come in further evil?”  

Despite Hamlet’s own confusion “I do not know why yet I live to say this thing’s to do“, we can conclude that six highly complex interwoven factors lead Hamlet to delay. They are:

1. Hamlet’s personality – he is a deep thinker, a sensitive individual not a man of action. For proof, look to his soliloquies. His aversion to the task he must perform (to kill another human being) is almost immediately evident when he laments “The time is out of joint, o cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right“.

2. His religious beliefs – our first impressions of him are that he’s a very moral individual. He denounces his mother’s sinful actions (“o most wicked speed to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets“) yet despite being suicidal, he does not kill himself because he fears divine retribution (that he’ll burn in hell forever). These same beliefs make him question the reliability of the ghost (“the spirit that I have seen may be the devil and perhaps, abuses me to damn me“).

3. Claudius’ power as God’s representative on earth and Hamlet’s position as heir to the throne – Hamlet cannot and will not openly challenge Claudius (“It is not nor it cannot come to good but break my heart for I must hold my tongue“) until he is certain that Claudius is guilty (“I’ll have grounds more relative than this. The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King“). Hamlet is a cautious and sensible individual – he knows that if he kills Claudius and it turns out that Claudius was innocent, Hamlet will have committed a crime against God and against Denmark (regicide); he will have thrown his kingdom into turmoil unnecessarily; and he will have deprived his mother of the man she loves (see below).

4. His love for his mother (despite what he sees as her betrayal) – after the Mousetrap, Hamlet is certain of Claudius’ guilt (“I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound“) but rather than immediately seek him out to kill him, he decides to confront his mother first. I think he wants to find out the extent of her guilt, and he wants to give her a chance to “confess [herself] to heaven, repent what’s past, avoid what is to come“. This desire to save her soul is surely an admirable reason to further delay his revenge!

5. His determination to obtain justice (rather than simply get revenge) for his father. This is evident in the Prayer Scene. Remember, Hamlet comes upon Claudius by accident rather than design while on the way to his mother’s chamber. This is the best opportunity he is ever likely to have to kill Claudius (who is completely unarmed and unprotected). However, he wants to ensure that Claudius is properly punished, that his “soul may be as damned and black as hell whereto he goes“.  If he kills him while Claudius is praying this would be “hire and salary not revenge” because Claudius would lose his life but gain an eternity in heaven (or so Hamlet believes!).

6. Circumstances (including his accidental murder of Polonius, his exile and Ophelia’s death). After deciding not to kill Claudius in the prayer scene, we the audience think Hamlet will probably take the next possible opportunity to kill Claudius -as long as Claudius is not in a state of grace (i.e. is doing something moraly wrong). And he does! Unfortunately his impulsive rage leads him to accidentally kill the wrong man. We know without doubt that he thought he was killing Claudius when he says “thou wretched rash intruding fool, I took thee for thy better“. As a consequence of this deed, Hamlet is now seen (understandably) as a very real threat to Claudius and is exiled to England. We suspect he will find it very difficult to find himself in a room alone with Claudius again because the King will ensure from now on that he is guarded and protected from harm.

The other obvious reason is that without the delay there is no play!!! So it’s a plot device as much as anything else.

When approaching this issue, don’t get bogged down in the difference between ‘procrastination’ and ‘justifiable delay’. No matter which way you swing it, Hamlet does not avenge his father’s murder until the final scene of the play and it is his delay, combined with Claudius’ evil machinations, and Hamlet’s impulsive rage, which leads to the unnecessary deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Leartes, Gertrude and of course Hamlet himself.

Perhaps the most valuable thing to do is to establish clearly why he delays at each stage and then to examine how this effects your feelings towards him. The ebb and flow of sympathy and frustration we feel towards him as a central character is largely created in our recognition of what it is he must do and our understanding of why he doesn’t do it. This conflict – this paradox – is what makes the play and the character so complex and so intriguing. This situation and his personality create the fascination this man of inaction has exerted for generations over successive audiences spanning 400 years.

Hamlet – answer the Q

Here’s an example of how you can (and must!)


Don’t just parrot back the question at the end of each paragraph (although that is still better than ignoring the question completely!) and expect to do well. Everything you say should relate back to the question you were asked. This essay is of very little value to you (except to the extent that it helps you to understand the character of Hamlet a little better) because when the question comes up it won’t be phrased like this. So I am NOT suggesting you memorise this answer – that would be a complete waste of your time and would go against everything I believe in. Instead I want to you look at how everything I discuss relates directly to the question asked. I also want you to see how important it is to have a structure on your essay, so that each paragraph deals with a different idea – this will prevent you from just waffling on and will show the examiner that you are in control and know what you want to say. All of the bold/underlined words are the places where I have either used the exact words from the question or a synonym – but I’m not just parroting back the question, I’m providing supporting evidence and examples from the play to explain why I (mostly) agree with the statement.

Horror & disgust at his mother’s behaviour & a spreading & deepening of that horror & disgust to include all life dominates Hamlet’s soul


There is no doubt that Hamlet is horrified and disgusted by his mother’s “o’er hasty” and “incestuous” remarriage to his uncle Claudius. However, it must be acknowledged that Hamlet’s soul is also full of grief for the father he loved so dearly. Furthermore his suicidal disillusionment with life itself is evident from his very first appearance in the play. Once Hamlet discovers that his father was actually murdered by Claudius his horror deepens. His sense that he cannot trust anyone spreads to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and Ophelia until Hamlet reaches a point where his soul is utterly dominated by a deep disgust for everyone in his life (except Horatio), & for life itself.

Paragraph 1 (a) = MOTHER

At the beginning of the play Hamlet’s deep horror and disgust springs from the fact that his mother’s remarriage came so soon after his father’s death “A beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer”. This seems a betrayal of their life together “frailty thy name is woman” and proof for Hamlet that she must never have truly loved his father. He also sees her new relationship as incestuous “o most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets”. His soul is further tortured because he must stay silent despite his disapproval as society demanded absolute obedience to the King & Queen “it is not nor it cannot come to good but break my heart for I must hold my tongue”.

 Paragraph 1 (b) = GRIEF & DESPAIR

However, Hamlet’s soul is not dominated purely by horror & disgust – he is also genuinely grieving the death of his father & hero “he was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again”. Hamlet cannot understand why everyone else is so eager to move on “I have that within which passes show; these but the trappings & the suits of woe”. He reveals a suicidal despair in his very first soliloquy, wishing that God had not “fixed his cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter”. This disillusionment with life itself certainly spreads and deepens as the play unfolds.

Paragraph 2 = CLAUDIUS

The appearance of the ghost confirms Hamlet’s earlier suspicions (“I doubt some foul play”) and his dislike of Claudius “a little more than kin and less than kind” transforms into absolute hatred and disgust o villain, villain, smiling damned villain”. He also begins to suspect his mother of involvement in the crime, evident when he refers to her in scathing terms: “o most pernicious woman”. From this moment on his soul is torn between rage (“haste me to know it that I may…sweep to my revenge”) and despair (“the time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”) as he feels the terrible weight of responsibility to avenge his father’s death battling with his dislike of physical violence and his fear that the ghost is an impostor (“The spirit that I have seen may be a devil… & perhaps… abuses me to damn me”). Thus we see horror, disgust and despair are the dominant emotions in Hamlet’s soul.


Hamlet’s horror and disgust spreads and deepens to his old school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who appear at court on Claudius’ orders. Hamlet suspects they are spying on him and they admit “My lord, we were sent for”. Hamlet initially trusts them enough to confide “I am but mad north north west” but as the action unfolds he become increasingly frustrated with their interference (“do you think I am easier to be played upon than a pipe?”). Ultimately when Hamlet discovers the letters they carry to England contain orders for his execution, he inserts their names instead so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “put to sudden death no shriving time allowed”. Thus this relationship illustrates how Hamlet’s initial horror and disgust with his mother spreads to other characters. By the end of the play he has such disregard for all life that he sends them to their deaths without a single pang of guilt, proclaiming “they are not near my conscience”.

Paragraph 4 = OPHELIA

Hamlet similarly loses faith in Ophelia when she abruptly breaks off all contact between them (on her father’s orders). He longs to confide in her – “he raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk” but because of his mother’s behaviour he no longer trusts women, remarking “wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them … God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another”. He is horrified and disgusted that she so willingly accepted her father’s insulting assessment of his character (that he was motivated purely by lust not love) and mocks her eagerness to protect her virginity “get thee to a nunnery”. It appears he has lost all respect for women as a result of his mother’s behaviour and Ophelia’s rejection.

 Paragraph 5 = HATES SELF & LIFE

Hamlet not only loses faith in those around him, however, he is also filled with a deep self-loathing o what a rogue and peasant slave am I” and in his most famous soliloquy reveals his desire to dieto be or not to be, that is th question, whether it is 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”. Hamlet’s horror and disgust has spread to existence itself but he retains his respect for God and his fear of punishment stops him from killing himself “for in that sleep of death what dreams may come… thus conscience doth make cowards of us all”.

 Paragraph 6(a) = STILL LOVES Gertrude & Ophelia

However, Hamlet’s horror and disgust at his mother’s behaviour does not diminish his love for her. He begs her to ask God’s forgiveness so she can save her immortal soul “confess yourself to heaven, repent what’s past, avoid what is to come”. Similarly, although hurt by Ophelia’s ‘betrayal’ he undoubtedly loved her and is deeply upset by the suggestion that he may be partially responsible for her death “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum”.


Hamlet undoubtedly shows absolute disregard for life when he accidentally murders Polonius (“I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room”) but he thought he was killing Claudius and now believes he is doing God’s work “for this same lord I do repent but heaven hath pleased it so that I must be their scourge and minister”. In the graveyard scene Hamlet reflects on death as the only certainty in life, the only factor which places a King and a beggar on the same level yet in the final scenes of the play Hamlet’s soul is no longer filled with horror and despair but rather with a belief and acceptance that what will be will be “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will”. Thus when he finally kills Claudius, Hamlet feels justified in making him drink from the cup he himself filled with poison as Claudius fittingly becomes the victim of his own evil schemes. Hamlet nonetheless retains some respect for the lives of others – he exchanges forgiveness with Laertes & his final deed is to save Horatio’s life “give me the cup, let go” & to give Fortinbras his ‘dying voice’ as the next King of Denmark.


In many ways it is almost inevitable that the play depicts a man whose soul is filled with horror and disgust. What human being caught up in this horrific series of events would not react similarly? Let us list for a moment the events he endures: his father’s death, his mother’s hasty & incestuous remarriage, the revelation that the new King – his uncle Claudius  – murdered his father, further betrayals by Ophelia and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, a wasted opportunity to get revenge during the prayer scene, the accidental murder of Polonius followed swiftly by exile to England, Ophelia’s death and funeral; and the plot against him by Claudius & Laertes (which ultimately leaves every major character in the play dead). In these circumstances it is astounding that Hamlet  retains any faith at all in God and in divine justice. Yes his soul is filled with horror and disgust but he also ultimately reveals his deep love for Gertrude and Ophelia and profound empathy for Laertes, Horatio and Fortinbras. Thus he deserves the tribute paid to him by Horatio “Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” and death seems a blessed release for this tortured soul.

Tips for Hamlet

[youtube_sc url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0CqUTmwKiM#!]
“I am having real trouble getting my ideas in order in Hamlet answers and writing strong opening and closing paragraphs…any advice that could help me please :)”
I’ve just received this email and I figure I might as well share my reply with all of you, as this is a common problem I come across. Often students know Act 1 of their Shakespearean play so well that they write over two pages on it. And then cram all of Act 2, 3, 4 and 5 into a page and a half. Not really a good idea.
So here is the reply I sent:
Hi _____,

Well first off, you are not alone. Mastering the skill of writing good introductions and conclusions is very difficult. It’s made worse by the fear of knowing that you MUST ENGAGE fully with the question – so you can have an idea of what you want to say in general if a question comes up on a particular theme or character but you cannot know exactly what words you’ll use until you see the question asked.
Last year for example lots of students were prepared for a question on the theme of revenge but they had to change their ‘prepared’ answer significantly because the question that came up asked to you discuss revenge and justice together. If they just wrote what they’d prepared and ignored the question they didn’t do very well.
Anyway, if you click here http://leavingcertenglish.net/2011/04/hamlet-plot/ you can download a couple of sample paragraphs on specific Hamlet questions.
Also if you follow the rules here http://leavingcertenglish.net/2011/12/introductions-conclusions/ but apply them to the play instead of the poetry you should get a clear sense of what actually goes into an introduction and a conclusion.
If you want to get your ideas in order write down this checklist when brainstorming ideas. It doesn’t work for some questions (e.g. specific question on Ophelia or a question on soliloquies) but for most questions on Hamlet, general theme questions or open questions on the entire play it might come in handy.
10 most important ‘checkpoints’ in Hamlet
1. Court scene
2. Ghost scene
3. Nunnery scene
4. Player’s play
5. Prayer scene
6. Closet scene
7. Ophelia’s madness
8. Laertes return / manipulation by Claudius
9. Graveyard scene
10. Final scene
Hope that helps!

Hamlet’s soliloquies

I don’t propose to offer a lengthy discussion of every soliloquy in the play. You can do that yourself. Or google it!

Rather, I’d like you to consider the following:

There are 7 soliloquies delivered by Hamlet and one by Claudius.

The purpose of the soliloquies is to reveal more about the thoughts, feelings, personality and mindset of the central character(s).

In the case of Hamlet, without the soliloquies, his behavior would make absolutely no sense. His father has been murdered and then reappears in the form of a ghost, ordering him to get revenge, restore order to the Kingdom and claim what is rightfully his – the throne. So if we weren’t aware of the moral and emotional turmoil going on inside his heart and soul, if we didn’t know that his mind was a constant battleground, we would not sit through this play. In fact we would probably boo at the central character and possibly even start taunting him for his inaction and cowardice.

Bearing all of this in mind, in the case of each soliloquy you could do the following:

CONTEXTUALISE – when is it delivered? What happens immediately beforehand? Does this prompt the ‘outburst’ of the soliloquy?

ANALYSE – what exactly is revealed from what the character says in each soliloquy? In the case of Hamlet we see that he is

(a) highly self-critical (this links in to the idea that he is a very self-aware tragic hero – unlike Lear, Hamlet is aware of his fatal flaw from the outset)

(b) morally aware (this links in to the idea that he is a very noble person whose delay is partially due to his desire to ‘do the right thing’ (he double-checks that Claudius is actually guilty) and partially due to his profound sense that violence is wrong (even if he would be obeying a powerful code of honor and revenge when engaging in this violence).

(c) deeply philosophical (his tendency to over-think things leads to his suicidal depression and also contributes to his inaction. One benefit emerges, however, in the beauty of the language created by Shakespeare to consider some of the greatest moral, spiritual and philosophical ideas known to humankind. Without these soliloquies the world would be a lesser place. And I mean that sincerely).


Can you identify the effect of Hamlet’s soliloquies on the audience? Most obviously, they allow us to identify him as the ‘hero’ of the play. Secondly they give us an insight into his thoughts and thus allow us to understand him on a deep level – otherwise we’d just be shouting ‘get on with it’ at the stage and possibly throwing things too! Finally, they allow us to sympathize with his plight, even to emphatise on some levels – yes I know none of us have ever had to avenge our father’s murder and kill our Uncle for shagging our mother, but we can emphatise with the idea of feeling obliged, even compelled to do something but being unable to muster up the will to actually do it (generally speaking that might be washing dishes, doing homework or breaking up with someone. Not quite as dramatic as what poor Hamlet is going through).