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Revenge tragedies were popular in Elizabethan theatre for their violent action and on-stage spectacle of bloody justice. Hamlet uses a medieval Danish revenge story as a framework to comment on the internal ambiguity of the revenge tragedy as a genre, questioning whether murder is acceptable (particularly the murder of a king, in the context of a society in which the ruler was seen to rule through a ‘divine right’) and how the cycle of violence can end when every murder has to be answered by another.
The narrative of Hamlet is dominated by Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras, three men seeking revenge for the death of their families. Using soliloquies, which provide an externalised insight of the internal thoughts of a character for the audience, Hamlet discusses whether he should revenge his father, yet each of the play’s acts of violence (often upon the innocent characters rather than the guilty) inspire more. Hamlet’s murder of Polonius cause the suicide of Ophelia and inspires Laertes to try and kill Hamlet; Laertes’ arrangement of the poisoned sword and drink at the fencing match kills Claudius and Gertrude as well as Hamlet. Revenge in Hamlet is shown to be disruptive to society, and the motif of disease throughout is used to comment on the ‘rotten state’ of Denmark corrupted by violence. Only through the final deaths of the play can order then be re-established by Fortinbras.see more
Violence is an integral theme in Macbeth - indeed, the word ‘blood’ occurs forty-two times throughout the play. The action of the play is a cyclical one; a traitor to the crown is vanquished, those who violate the social codes of rule die violently, and a benevolent king is restored. The question remains however, whether the play considers violence as unnatural and related to the Gothic transgressive, or whether it is acceptable – or even praised – in particular social spaces.
The act of violence given the most weight in the play is the murder of Duncan. Like classical Greek tragedy, his death is off-stage, which strikes us as potentially reserved for a play which features the brutal on-stage murder of a child. However, witnessing the murder through the panicked and visceral dialogue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – Duncan’s body with its ‘gash’d stabs [that] look’d like a breach in nature’ – allows the play to focus more intently on the psychological effect on the main characters, and frames the regicide of Duncan as an act that is too horrific to be seen, only horrifically imagined. Written sometime after the Gunpowder Plot against James I in 1605, the play places the divine right of kings as sacred and integral to the well-being of the nation. The actions of the Macbeths in turn corrupt Scotland, turning the sky dark and animals cannibalistic, and this corruption doesn’t stop at nature. Donalbain claims that ‘the near in blood, the nearer bloody’ – while this comment contextually refers to the dangers posed to the king’s heirs, it can also be seen as a comment on how the nearer to violence people are, the more likely they are corrupted by it. Macbeth’s murder of Duncan leads to the murder of Banquo, Lady MacDuff, her Son and Young Siward, his blood-lust only cut short by his own death.
Yet, in regards to this, there is much violence in the play that is not framed so negatively. Both Macbeth and Banquo originally win their glories in battle, the ‘worthy’ Macbeth ‘smoked with bloody execution’, and the death of Young Siward is considered honourable. The cyclical narrative of the play – battles begetting battles – could imply that the world is naturally violent, but that violence becomes unnatural when it is associated with the transgressive – Macbeth’s association with the barely-human supernatural and Lady Macbeth’s part in the action, going against expected female gender roles.see more