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How to Master Hamlet

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a name that is often met with dread by HSC students. Being one of the most iconic texts in the Western canon, and also the most complex in its sheer breadth of ideas, it is certainly a big ask for students to be able to condense it into a brief 40 minute essay written under exam conditions. But you can do it!

First things first: you are not alone if you find you are struggling to make sense of the text as a whole. Hamlet is an enigma. TS Eliot called it “the Mona Lisa of literature”. Many voices resound from it, and every generation has been able to interpret something new – this is why it is an enduring text. Its themes range from revenge, to kingship and politics, to religious salvation. Simply put, you cannot talk about it all in one essay. The HSC Advanced English syllabus for Module B requires students to “engage with and develop an informed personal understanding” of their text. You must read it through and develop an argument based on what personally resonated with you. Original, even daring perspectives, provided they are backed with convincing evidence, inevitably perform better than the reworded-study-guide-essay. Whether you believe that Hamlet is an idiot or a brilliant tragic hero fallen victim to his circumstances, argue it out to death. In a pool of tens of thousands of HSC papers, each only marginally different from the next, essays with personal conviction are breaths of fresh air for markers.

Two important aspects stand out from the syllabus. Firstly, it states that students “explore how context influences…how the text has been received and valued”. Notwithstanding its particular perplexity, you must remember that Hamlet, like all texts, is a product of the author’s context and time. The revenge tragedy genre, for example, was not new at the turn of the 17th century, but Shakespeare fleshed it out with unprecedented psychological realism. Neither did the problem of Claudius’ kingship arise out of a vacuum – Shakespeare himself lived in a time of political unrest. If you reject all the Elizabethan ideas present, you will find that Hamlet would not be half the text it is. Moral of the story: context is very important. The syllabus also invites you to consider your own context in your interpretation of the play, allowing possibility for ideas like feminism and postmodernism to influence your reading. Fun stuff!

Lastly, the syllabus mentions something called “textual integrity”. Do not be intimidated by how academic that sounds – you know what it is already. It is simply how cohesive and unified the play is as a whole, achieved through effective use of techniques, the structure of the play, and overarching themes and imagery. Since Module B is a critical study, you are expected to perform a close analysis of the text, looking at individual techniques such as the use of repugnant olfactory imagery to communicate moral corruption. It is a fascinating process with a text like Hamlet, I assure you. Just don’t fall into the trap of simply identifying examples and not linking it to your overall thesis. Remember to evaluate it in light of your argument.

All the best, and don’t be afraid!

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