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English 366B: Sample Explications


Here are some extracts from explications, both from Hamlet (so I'm not giving anything away!). They are reproduced "as is," and are not perfect (who is?) but you can get some sense from them of the importance of 1ooking carefully at the language and "unpacking" it carefully. Thanks to the students who made these passages available. I have chosen some opening passages, some paragraphs from the middle that offere a coherent sense of development, and some concluding passages.

I should point out that these explications were written later in the course than the one you are asked to do, so you should not be intimidated by the background knowledge of the writers. Watch their skill in incorporating effective quotation, and the way they both unpack the details of language and character and economically relate them to other matters in the play.

Beginnings. . .

Hamlet has just dismissed the actors who will perform the play that he hopes will reveal his uncle's guilt. He is satisfied the players know their parts well and the king and queen have agreed to watch. Now only one thing is lacking to ensure the success of the prince's scheme: a sure way of gauging the reaction of Claudius. Hamlet turns to his university friend, Horatio, and the way he words his strange request for help in this passage highlights some key themes of the play.

"Thou art e'en as just a man/ As e'er my conversation coped withal.," Hamlet tells Horatio (3.2.56). This declaration, that Horatio is the most evenhanded man Hamlet has ever met, comes from the mouth of a seriously disillusioned man. His mother has betrayed him, marrying her dead husband's brother just a month after his death. His friends have proven untrustworthy, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern admit to questioning Hamlet at the king and queen's request. Ophelia, whom he loved (3.1.115, 5.1.269), has returned his love letters and has refused to see him. Finally, his uncle is plotting to get rid of him in England. In this context, Hamlet's praise for a faithful friend is understandable. But Horatio takes it as too exaggerated and protests. Hamlet's response to this is the first clue in this passage that the tensions in the play have begun to twist and shape his character. Hamlet responds as if he has lost his belief in the innocence and sincerity of true friendship: he tells Horatio that he is not flattering, because there is no profit he can gain from his old friend.

In the passage under study, Claudius has summoned Hamlet before him shortly after he has learned that Hamlet has killed Polonius. Although on the surface it appears that Claudius is concerned about Hamlet's well-being, in reality he is concerned with his own safety and political agenda. Hamlet had been fighting with the idea of killing Claudius, but had decided not to do the deed while the King was praying, as he would go to heaven. However, when he killed Polonius, he had thought it was Claudius, as revealed by his statement, "I took thee for thy better"(3.4.33). Although Claudius is not aware how close he has been to death at times, he did note that, "It had been so with us, had we been there"(4. 1.13). Hamlet has just come from confronting his mother in her closet, where he mentioned that he must go to England (3.4.201), and where he also saw his father's ghost, all which have rewhet his desire to avenge his father's death.

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Middles. . .

Hamlet goes on to illustrate how deep is his admiration for Horatio, using language that is richly expressive and making classical allusions that Horatio, the scholar, would not fail to appreciate. He calls Horatio his soulmate by personifying his own soul as "mistress of her own choice" (63) who has taken Horatio to her heart for his balanced outlook on life, free of greed and complaint, and for the equal degrees of "blood and judgment" (69) that characterize him. He compares "passion's slave" (72) to a musical pipe who, unlike Horatio, is at the mercy of chance, personified as "Fortune's finger" (70), to manipulate as she pleases. Interestingly, and a little ironically, Hamlet evokes this same image later, when he charges Guildenstern with trying to manoeuver him in the same way and angrily declares that "you/Cannot play upon me" (379-80). This metaphor is an effective device to illustrate Hamlet's desire to follow his own heart and to be true to his own beliefs, a trait he clearly sees and values in Horatio but apparently not, at this time, in himself.

Suddenly, with some apparent embarrassment over his eloquent, albeit genuine, monologue displaying the depth of his affection, he moves to the business at hand.

Claudius' ability to call on England is proof of his power and of the successful martial aspect of his rule (assuming that he is not taking credit for something his brother accomplished). The passage implies that England was beaten in battle by "the Danish sword," which has left a "raw and red" scar (4.3.61-62). At the same time, Claudius says that England's submission was uncompelled: "thy free awe/Pays homage to us" (4.3.62-63). The nature of this political struggle cannot be known for certain, but the fact remains that Denmark under Claudius is a power to be reckoned with in northern Europe.

Hamlet seems well aware of Claudius' plot. "If thou knew'st our purposes," muses the King, to which Hamlet replies: "I see a cherub that sees them," (4.3.4849). If a "cherub" is an angel of knowledge, as the Signet footnotes state, then Hamlet is saying that he is privy to the plot and either knows what is planned or will soon learn of it. It is akin to saying that "a little bird told him." This knowledge does not keep Hamlet from appearing to comply with the King's orders, thus making it easier for Hamlet to move about the country secretly.

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Ends. . .

In his soliloquy, Claudius appeals to England to remain loyal and do his bidding and kill Hamlet. He hopes that they will honour his royal command, even though they might not agree with or understand his request. The mention of the recently healed "cicatrice" and "free awe" suggest that, although England's submission is uncompelled, it could be compelled by force. He states that, until he knows t'ne deed is done, he is unable to enjoy the rewards of his position. However, according to his soliloquy in the chapel, his discomfort goes much deeper than wanting to be rid of Hamlet. Another murder will only add to the rankness of his offenses. Claudius compares Hamlet to the "hectic"(4.3.66) or fever, which rages in his blood, which fits with the diseased-body imagery used throughout the play. In most of the other images, Claudius and his plottings are the disease in the otherwise healthy body; for example, it is he that is rotten in the state of Denmark. According to the medical beliefs of his day, the way to cure the fever would be to let blood in order to remove the excess choler and sanguine humor. In this case it is fitting that either Claudius or Hamlet should bleed to ease the "fever". At any rate, Claudius has absolutely no real concern for Hamlet's safety; instead, the sooner his step-son is dead, the happier he will be.
This passage is mainly devoted to the plot device of having Hamlet sent to England, revealing the King's surface intentions for Hamlet and then his actual vicious plan. We learn a little about Hamlet's character by his reaction to this news; however, the most revealing portrayal in this passage is of Claudius, a man who uses his power for ruthless and murderous purposes, but refuses to admit it to himself.
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This page last updated on 28 December 2002. © Internet Shakespeare Editions, 2002.