Critical Approaches to Hamlet
The way we interpret a piece of literature depends on the perspective we come from. Largely it is determined by the constructs or social, religious and cultural conditioning that have influenced our way of seeing the world and our way of thinking. To assume all people will interpret a text the same as we do is presumptuous, self-indulgent and parochial.
Traditional methods can also be called orthodox or dominant views while alternative ones can be variant, divergent, dissident, resistant or subversive views. There are no prescribed ideologies you need to consider, merely alternative ones. No approach has a monopoly on truth or absolute correctness.
What the syllabus actually says:
There is no mention of the ‘isms’ in the syllabus. They are not mandated.
Module B states:
This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity.
It demands close study of the text and also requires that students ‘research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations’. In doing so, they need to ‘evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts [and]… extrapolate from this study …to explore questions of textual integrity and significance.
The emphasis is on a critical reading, ie evaluating various readings ‘against their own and others’. The end point of the study is that students question the integrity of the text asking: how can a text be read differently in different times and by different people? What is it about the context of reception that influences meaning?
Hamlet is a rich, complex and problematic play. Of all Shakespeare’s plays it has generated the greatest amount of commentary and criticism. Fashions in criticism and scholarship come and go but Hamlet stays the same like Keat’s Grecian Urn “to tease us out of thought/ as doth eternity”. Some critics emphasise stagecraft and dramatic unities while others focus on language and textual analysis. For hundreds of years critics have mulled over the play and failed to find unanimous consensus. As Oscar Wilde says:
“The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it's dead for you.“
On almost every issue in the play, critics will have variant interpretations, opposing points of views, depending on where they are coming from.
Shakespeare’s plays are a rich minefield of layers and layers of meaning and we can often find recurring concerns developed in similar or differing ways. Variations upon a theme will reinforce the message. Motifs help to foster textual integrity. Hamlet is full of recurring references, allusions, images and language that provide a pattern of meaning, including Providence (are we the masters of our own identity?) Deception, Betrayal, Loyalty……
Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities. As John Bell states: “he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance....he didn’t have to believe anything. His great objectivity lead to ambivalence because life is ambiguous.
Even though the term existentialism had not surfaced in his time, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is pre-occupied with nature, human nature, the health of the state and the destiny of mankind. Mystery, riddle, enigma and metaphysical questions become the focus of a dialectical dialogue.
In some ways Hamlet is a Murder Mystery with Hamlet the righter of wrongs:
“Oh cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”
What you need to do is consider opposing points of view and then articulate what you think in a cogent clear manner. Good luck!
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