‘To be or not to be: that is the question.’ (Hamlet, III:i, 1) Every year, thousands of students sit down to analyse Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which begs another question: is it still possible to say anything new about Shakespeare? If so, where and how does one begin? Read on for answers and five tips to become a successful Shakespeare scholar.
When Juliet leans over the balcony and calls out for Romeo, she knows exactly what she’s looking for in life, and, lo and behold, who steps out of the shadows moments later but her ardent suitor. The same conviction applies when studying Shakespeare: be purposeful and know what you are looking for. It is far more effective to skim through Act Three Scene One of Romeo and Juliet looking for evidence that masculinity is destructive than it is to flick through the fight scene hoping that ‘a good quotation’ will leap off the page. And for those that are stuck on what to look for, a quick brainstorm of your topic’s connotations will give you lots of ideas to focus on e.g. masculinity: destructive, dominant, physical, violent, dangerous, corrupt.
Polonius’ last piece of advice to his son Laertes comes across as a piece of New Age Wisdom, ‘Be true to yourself.’ It’s a familiar phrase often found on an Instagram meme against a sunset backdrop. Try writing the Shakespearean expression in your own words and you’ll hopefully get something along the lines of: the most important thing in life is to be honest with yourself. If you can write a quotation in your own words you’ve passed the litmus test for studying Shakespeare and can highlight this passage for further thought. However, if you’re not clear about the literal meaning of the quotation you’ve chosen then it is not the one for you. The average Shakespeare play contains twenty-thousand words – so there are plenty more to choose from.
Or so Polonius (again) remarked to himself when attempting to follow Hamlet’s confusing train of thought. This remark holds true to anyone attempting to construct a line of argument. It is only Hamlet’s reference points that allow Polonius to follow his convoluted and abstract discourse. Be supportive: it is the most effective way to develop structure in your essay. Once you have found the quotation that presents masculinity as a destructive force in Romeo and Juliet, widen the search. As a rule, you should be able to find at least two other quotations in the same scene and three quotations from other scenes which also signify the ruinous nature of manhood. Now examine these quotations together: which ones best support each other? Are there any interesting contradictions? Here, perhaps, is the method that builds your line of argument.
. . . and one man in his time plays many parts.’ There is no greater reminder from Shakespeare on how to study his works. In every play, each character appears before the audience to speak, move, and interact in differing ways at different times. Be active and focus on the drama of the scene. When Lady Macbeth sleepwalks (Macbeth, V:i) what do we see and hear her doing on stage? Talking to herself, pacing up and down, wringing her hands, holding a candle, reaching for Macbeth. Think about these actions in the context of her character and the plot. How will the audience react when they see this on stage? How has Lady Macbeth’s behaviour changed? Answering these types of questions allow you to analyse the drama of the play, because, as Shakespeare aptly wrote, ‘The play’s the thing’ and well we should remember that (Hamlet, II:ii, 603-605).
Shakespeare’s plays have been continuously studied for the last five hundred years because there are still new things to be said about them. As society evolves, the ideas and themes of his plays hold fresh relevance. You may be sitting down with thousands of other students to study the representation of humanity in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, but you can be explorative in what you say. It is up to you to take this opportunity to make creative and critical connections. Perhaps you want to examine Hamlet’s speech in the context of religion; perhaps you’re more interested in studying the link between personal anxiety and political turmoil; perhaps there’s simply a moment with Hamlet later in the play which provides an interesting contrast. Remember that the connections you make are what give you ownership of the play and your response its individuality. If these ideas are well supported, the examiner will reward you generously for your initiative.
Therefore, while there is no question about studying Shakespeare, we can make decisions on what kind of Shakespeare scholar we want to be. It is important to be scholars that know what we’re looking for and clearly understand the quotations we’re using; scholars who support our ideas throughout the text, and really focus on its drama; but above all, scholars interested in the play’s ideas, searching for our own connections. If we can be those things, then to paraphrase the great playwright one last time, ‘all difficulties (become) easy when they are known,’ (Measure for Measure, IV:ii, 200-201).