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AP English Literature Notes

Dan Parker
-29 November 2010

1 Hamlet
1.1 Background
- Hamlet is based on a norse legend first written down by Saxo Grammaticus in his book Gaesta
Danorum (Latin, “History of the Danes”) [1200]
- it was only translated to French by the time ok Shakespeare
- he may have been fluent, or have used another source
l: Ur-Hamlet by Thomas Kyd was another play about Hamlet written slightly earlier for the english
stage of which little is known

1.2 Revenge Tragedy

- made popular on the english stage by Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy
- usually a son’s revenge for his father’s death or a father’s revenge for his son’s death
- often a ghost helps
- common elements include:
- hero’s hesitation
- hero’s insanity
- contemplation of suicide
- able scheming villan
- philosophical solliquies
- sensational murder and bodies onstage
- “dynamics of revenge”:
- insult to injury of offense
- antagonist often strong but with a vulnerability
- delays, diversions occur to retard momentum of the play
- “some unforeseen development that nearly thwarts the scheme, but not quite”
- showdown with revenge occurring — or not
l: Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare [1591]

1.2.1 Senecan Revenge Tragedy

- revenge and retribution
- lots of murders and blood onstage
- satisfies period cravings for violence

1.3 “Incestuous Sheets”

- Hamlet often charges his mother and uncle with incest, which is rather bizarre as it did not happen
- however, some people believed that it was incest for a man to marry his brother’s widow
- the biblical basis for this comes from Mark 10.8

1.4 Class Discussions
- Elizabethan and Continental Tragedy were very different at this time
- Elizabethan tragedy was influenced heavily by Seneca

1.4.1 Questions we will discuss

1. Why does Hamlet delay? Why does he not take revenge earlier? This is the central critical
question of the play that has been focused on by critics down the ages.
2. Why is Hamlet so dominant? He has far more lines than any other character, even unusually
many for Shakespeare’s hero-centric tragedies.
3. Does Hamlet have an Oedipal Complex towards his mother?
4. There are changes in Shakespeare’s story from the original legend. What is the effect of there
changes? What is he trying to say with the play?
5. Any other factual questions about the play: Who did what for what reasons? How did the plot

1.4.2 Act 1, Scene I Discussion

- the play opens with a question: “Who’s there?”
- this is a question of identity
- the answer is one of loyalty — who belongs?
- finally the two guards, upon recognizing the other, trust each other
- Identity, Loyalty, and Trust are three of the central themes of the play

- notice that four characters are introduced at the very beginning in short succession
- any audience will be hopelessly confused by the barrage of names — exactly as Shakespeare
- we don’t get the usual coddling of introduction found in most play, or even most of his other
- the ghost is referred to as a “thing” (1.1.24), which is purposefully vague
- “what art thou that usurp’st this time of night?”
- irony draws attention to the description of a usurper, which is a motı̀f in the play
- the ghost:
- appears in full armor
e: warlike
- later appears in a dressing gown (according to the somewhat-unreliable Quarto 1)
- ghosts were thought to appear in the same clothes as they would have worn in that place in
- hence armor on the battlements and a dressing gown in the bedchamber is fitting
- takes away from the warlike image — a bit
- no one suggests to tell the actual king about the ghost
- when Horatio guesses the ghost’s motives (1.1.135-142) he guesses they are either good or
bad — no middle ground
- in line (1.1.143) Marcellus offers to attack the Ghost
- is it moral to attack a king, even after death?
- clearly the ethics are shaky
- at any rate, he later repents, and says “we do wrong to strike at it, being so majestical”
- Horatio then changes the tone in (1.1.153-161) discussing the coming of the dawn
- we are told that day > night → ghosts
- notice that the characters are trying to discover the identity of the ghost — unsuccessfully
- there are large problems with time in this scene
- they talk for a few minutes, yet the scene begins at midnight and ends at dawn
- this just doesn’t make sense

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