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Exploring Hamlet: Using the Lens of Literary Criticism

Guide to support Shakespeare Literary Criticism Essay

Exploring Hamlet: Using the Lens of Literary Criticism to Examine a Pivotal Text

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of the most examined pieces of literature in the canon. As the Arden introduction points out, by the 1990s, 400 pieces of literary criticism of Hamlet were appearing PER YEAR.  In light of this fact, what can we possibly add to the discussion? Perhaps the best way to access this text is to use some of this literary criticism to help inform our reaction to the play. Surely, as unique 21st century readers, we have our own way of accessing this 16th century text. With a little guidance and reading, with research and planning, we can find our own way to speak not only to the text itself but to the literary critics who have paved the way before us. 

Our goal: To write a literary essay that puts forth a thesis on some aspect of Hamlet, as seen through the lens of one tradition of criticism.

Literary Critical Traditions, Defined:

Freudian: Freudian literary criticism uses the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud to look at a work through the psychological status of the author or a character. This construction inevitably includes a discussion of the id, ego, and superego, in addition to consideration of Oedipal and Electra complexes.  Think about an essay about the workings of the subconscious or about the mother/son and father/daughter relationships.

Feminist: Feminist criticism focuses on how literature displays the workings of the patriarchy and in some ways actually reinforces male-dominated concepts of the world. Think about an essay that would look at the power and rebellion of female characters in the play.

Formalism: Formalism treats each piece of literature as its own entity, divorced from a connection to history or the social forces that may have influenced its creation. Formalists include New Critics who never stray from the text itself in examination. Think about an essay that would focus on words and the way words are used in the play.

Marxist: Marxist criticism looks at literature as a reflection of class and economics, regarding particularly how capitalism exerts its influence on characters and events in the world of the text.  Think about an essay that would look at the role of class or the economy in the play.

New Historicism: New Historicism can, crudely, be regarded as the opposite of Formalism. New Historicists think we can ONLY understand texts by looking at history and society that formed their creation. Think about an essay considering the role of history or historical views of mental illness or marriage.

Reader-Response Criticism: Reader-Response critics contend that we can only understand any text in relation to ourselves or in relation to what the writing DOES to the reader. Think about an essay where the role of the reader (or viewer in this case) is the focus.

Mythological/Jungian: Mythological Criticism views literature through the lens of myth, with archetypes (hero, villain, scapegoat), classic plot structures (journey, quest, loss of innocence) and symbolism (typically of nature) permeating the text. Think about an essay that would look at Hamlet as an archetypal hero or examine symbolism in the play.

Steps in the Process Addressed in this LibGuide:

  1. RESEARCH. Find valuable texts that inform your thinking. Consider the above schools of criticism. Your search may include recent texts from journals or older material. 

  2. READ. Spend time diving into critical writing. Choose one text that draws a particular response from you. You may agree with it or disagree with it; either response can be meaningful and lead you to draw interesting conclusions.

Some Important Points:

  • You’ll be using MLA format and will produce a Works Cited page.

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