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Shakespeare: Hamlet



Prof. John McRae – Nottingham University


English Literature

  • About this Course
  • About this Lecturer

About this Course

In this fifteen-part course, Professor John McRae (University of Nottingham) explores Shakespeare’s Hamlet, focusing in particular on Hamlet’s development from “a rogue and peasant slave” to the perfect (“most royal”) king. We begin in the first module with a brief introduction to Shakespeare’s life and career, his sources for Hamlet and the intellectual climate in which the play was written, and the idea that Shakespeare structured the play around the numbers three and seven. After that, in the second module, we introduce the concept of soliloquies and meditations. In the third module, we consider Fortinbras’ claim at the end of the play that Hamlet “was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov’d most royal”, before turning in the fourth module to consider the three components of the perfect king according to Renaissance thought.

In the fifth module, we trace events from the beginning of the play to Hamlet’s vow to avenge his father’s death, before turning in the sixth module to consider Renaissance ideas of the perfectly balanced mind.

In the seventh module, we think about the arrival of the players and Hamlet’s mediations of truth and representation, before turning in the eighth module to look in more detail at probably the most famous soliloquy in the history of theatre: “To be, or not to be?”

In the ninth module, we provide an in-depth reading of Ophelia’s soliloquy, which incorporates many of the ideas that we have already encountered, before moving on in the tenth module to consider three meditations and Hamlet’s growing status as an ‘actor’, i.e. someone who acts, rather than someone who is acted upon.

In the eleventh module, we think about revenge and the figure of the revenger, before turning in the twelfth module to two more soliloquies: that of Claudius (4.3.56-66) in which he outlines his plan to have Hamlet murdered in England, and Hamlet’s long final soliloquy (4.4.31-65) in which he castigates himself for taking so long to enact his revenge.

In the thirteenth module, we focus on Hamlet’s encounter with the pirates and his ‘sea-change’ before he return to Denmark, before turning in the fourteenth module to his three encounters with death – first Yorick’s, then Ophelia’s, and finally his own – and how this demonstrates his possession of the three fundamental attributes of the perfect king. Finally, in the fifteenth module, we trace events to the end of the play, focusing in particular on the brief moment in the play in which Hamlet confirms his status as the perfect king by demonstrating his balance of past, present and future.

Note: We use the Arden edition of the play. Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in either the text and/or line numbers.

The Seven Soliloquies and Seven Meditations:
S1: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” (1.2.129-58)
M1: “The King doth wake tonight and take his rouse” (1.4.8-38)
S2: “O all you host of heaven, O earth – what else?” (1.5.92-112)
M2: “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth” (2.2.259-276)
S3: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (2.2.485-540)
S4: “To be or not to be – that is the question” (3.1.55-89)
M3: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…” (3.2.1-34)
M4: “Nay, do not think I flatter … In censure of his seeming” (3.2.52-83)
M5: “Why, look you now how unworthy a thing you make of me … you cannot play upon me” (3.2.355-63)
S5: “’Tis now the very witching time of night” (3.2.378-89)
S6: “Now might I do it pat” (3.3.73-96)
S7: “How all occasions do inform against me” (4.4.31-65)
M6: “Alas poor Yorick” (5.1.174-185)
M7: “Not a whit. We defy augury” (5.2.197-202)

About the Lecturer

John McRae is Special Professor of Language in Literature Studies and Teaching Associate in the School of English at Nottingham University, and holds Visiting Professorships in China, Malaysia, Spain and the USA. He is co-author of The Routledge History of Literature in English with Ron Carter, and also wrote The Language of Poetry, Literature with a Small 'l' and the first critical edition of Teleny by Oscar Wilde and others.