How to write a film review: Notes for beginners

When you set out to write a film review, it is worth considering why someone would want to read it. There are two reasons. The first is that they want to decide whether or not they should go and see the film. The second is that they have seen the film and want to assess or make sense of, their response to it. Unfortunately, as a reviewer you have no idea which particular group your reader is going to fall into, so you need to write for both.

The first thing to do is to give some overview of what your review is going to say. So a statement like: “I really liked this film with its long intricate examination of the slow destruction of a closely knit family” or “This is a Western and people who like John Wayne films will love this”.

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

Statements like these give the reader an excellent idea of whether they should continue reading review and what to expect from.

Probably the most important element of the film for most people is the storyline, so it’s useful to make some comment on the story. Usually, films are simply stories, great stories, but stories nonetheless. Wonderful examples of this are the Star Wars films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Indiana Jones series, the Terminator series and Die Hard.

Die  Hard, The Last Crusade, Star Wars, Terminator and Lord of the Rings

Die Hard, The Last Crusade, Star Wars, Terminator and Lord of the Rings

It is important to comment on the nature of the narrative structure. In doing this, it is often helpful to tease out the relationship between the characters and the story. Usually, we find stories more interesting than characters and most films reflect this. In these films, the action drives the film, it’s what happens that is important to us. The James Bond franchise presents excellent examples of this type of film.

Star Wars for instance is predominantly a story where the characters only exist to progress story. Hans Solo and Princess Leia are wonderful characters but they are subservient to the plot. Much the same could be said for the Lord of the Rings where the characters are essentially plot devices. The characters are deftly established early in the film and they change very little from then on. Frodo and Sam don’t even get thin during the privations of their journey to Mordor. Sometimes, the characterisation and a film is more important than the plot, often not intentionally.

For instance, I thought that Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Jasmine in Blue Jasmine was brilliant, particularly because the character is one for whom we have almost no sympathy. However, I thought that the story and Woody Allen’s direction was trite and uninteresting. If you take a similar perspective in a review then it would be useful to describe the technical aspects of Blanchett’s acting and why the storyline is less than satisfying.

Cate Blanchett's Jasmine hits the blooze

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine hits the blooze

Sometimes a film will include characters who change and develop in the course of the film. It is worth commenting on this because if the film contains characters who grow (or shrink) during the post the film in this adds an extra mention to the simple idea of a plot-driven film. In a play like King Lear, of which there are 11 film versions, the emphasis is on the central character and Lear’s tragic disintegration and ultimate redemption is at the centre of the play.

When commenting on characters in the film, it is important to make an important distinction. The first way that we may see a character is in their relationship to the narrative and the extent to which the character has developed within that narrative. But there is a subtler aspect of characterisation that the film critic can comment on: the extent to which the actor/actress shapes and develops the character. Sometimes a standout acting performance is more a result of the well-written script rather than great acting. For instance, it is worth considering the extent to which Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar award-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love is result of great acting or great because of the script written by Tom Stoppard. If we compare this with Tom Hanks’ performance, also an Academy award winner,in Forrest Gump. we see an active or is not been gifted a brilliant script but who nonetheless creates one of the great and memorable screen characters.

Gwyneth Paltrow as the brilliantly scripted Violet and Tom Hanks as the brilliantly acted Forrest Gump.

Gwyneth Paltrow as the brilliantly scripted Violet and Tom Hanks as the brilliantly acted Forrest Gump.

So the critic can view the character had three levels: the first is as part of the story, the second is as part of their development as a result of being part of that story and the third is the extent to which the actor/actress’s invests something extra in character that is above what is contained in the storyline or script.

It is also very useful to comment on the structure of the film. The most important element of the structure of the film is, of course the plot, but there are other ways that structure can be used by a director.

The way in which the director has put the film together is an important component of the meaning and impact of film. There are a number of ways that a director can structure a film. The most important criterion in considering these structural elements is whether they make the film a more coherent and satisfying experience for the viewer.

In its most simple form, a film goes from beginning to end in a chronological sequence but this can be varied with flash backs and flash forwards. There are numerous possibilities, one of which is beginning at the end.

In Inside Llewyn Davis, the film begins and ends with the same scene. It is important to remember is that every scene in a film has been consciously placed in position by the director, and that the Coen brothers are very conscious film directors. So it is useful, in this case, to comment on how this particular element of structure has affected your view of the film. My personal view is that this is a circular structure, and that the main character, despite the experiences of the film, has finished up in the same place as he began rather like Groundhog Day.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis and Ulysses the cat. Joel Coen explained: “The film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.”

Oscar Isaac as
Llewyn Davis and Ulysses the cat. Joel Coen explained: “The film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.”

Many films have used this technique showing the final scene first: Fight Club, Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard to name just a few. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starts at the end and has two characters moving in opposite chronological directions. This is a wonderful example of the relationship between structure and meaning in a film. It is also one that divided the critics.

Films that start at the end: Sunset Boulevard (Gloria Swanson and William Holden) Lawrence of Arabia  (TE Lawrence on his motorbike),  Citizen Kane  (also Wells), Fight Club  (Brad Pitt), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett)

Films that start at the end: Sunset Boulevard (Gloria Swanson and William Holden) Lawrence of Arabia (TE Lawrence on his motorbike), Citizen Kane (also Wells), Fight Club (Brad Pitt), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett)

21 Grams, directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts is a wonderful example of parallel narratives in the film. This film is essentially three stories that are increasingly woven together to provide a complex and deeply satisfying film.

Sean Penn in 21  Grams

Sean Penn in 21 Grams

By contrast, the film adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel The Turning consists of 17 separate short films linked together thematically and in eight of them through a main character and his wife. Unfortunately, the characters are played by different actors in each one of these short films, making it extremely difficult to extract any cohesive sense of meaning from the film.

As a final element of a film review, the critic may wish to consider whether they are able to place the film in a broader context. Most films fit into some category or genre: thriller, western, musical comedy, horror. If a critic is able to place a film in a genre, is in easier for the reader to make comparisons and to see the film in some context. Gladiator is an epic film in the old-style and should be seen in the context of films such as Ben Hur, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Alexander and The Robe.

The advantage of being able to place a film in a genre is that each genre has a set of conventions, although some may some may call them clichés. Horror movies for instance require innocents wandering into the lair of evil, lots of blood, lots of suspense, evil, diabolically murderous central character etc. Just as the Enid Blyton books were tremendously popular with children in the 1950s and 60s, so to genre films are extremely popular and the critic can usefully benchmark in the genre film against the better-known examples.

Some films may also fit into some of the archetypal story lines. The rags to riches stories go back to stories such as Dick Whittington and his Cat and Cinderella and in films like Jobs, Slum Dog Millionaire and Evita all of which are based on real-life characters. And then there is The Quest (Lord of the Rings) and its near relative The Journey (from which all the road movies spring), Overcoming the Monster (think Alien and also the film adaptation of the early Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf), Voyage and Return (all the adaptations of CS Lewis)

Then there’s the vast range of superheroes: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America and Howard the Duck who go back to the heroes of ancient mythology: Achilles, Hercules, Ulysses, Jason, Thor, King Arthur, Peter Pan and Robin Hood as well as a range of wicked stepmothers, ugly sisters, fairy godmothers and Prince Charmings.

Films that are based around these archetypal characters characters are often more than simply genre films. What they have in common is that they have their roots in mythology and fairy tales that, arguably, tap into some deeper part of our collective unconsciousness. I would also argue that Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films fall into this category. I believe that the popularity of these films is that Harry Callahan is a character who taps into a deep vein of our subconscious where lurk our desires to do violence against those who threaten us.

So in summary, a good film review says whether or not you like the film and why. It comments on the story and the extent to which the characters are merely part of the story will have a life of their own. It also comments on the extent to which the actor/actress has worked with the material that is inherent in the script. A good film review looks at the storyline as part of the structure and the extent to which the director has used the structure to enhance the cinematic worth of the film. And finally, a good review places the film within a genre (if it fits within one) also place in the context of some broader archetypes of narrative and fairy tale.

What do Milgram and ZImbardo tell us about Manus Island?

The events on Manus Island have provoked outrage in Australia. What actually happened is likely to be lost in the “fog of war” as the bureaucrats, the military, the politicians and the security services obfusticate and delay.

In seeking to understand what has happened on Manus Island, it is helpful to look at two clinical studies that provide pointers to the behaviours of the security forces. The first is Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. The second is the Stanford prison experiment conducted by by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo.

The account of the experiment conducted by Professor Zimbardo has chilling parallels to the situation on Manus Island.

While controversial, there is general agreement that these experiments have provided a disturbing insight into the extent to which people are prepared to carry out orders and brutalise other human beings.

In the experiments, interrogators and guards were instructed to, or provided with the opportunity to, inflict punishment on otherwise innocent people who were in their control.

The parallels with Manus Island a clear.

There has been a concerted campaign on the part of the Abbot government to demonise, isolate and discredit the asylum seekers. This has set the culture and framework for the treatment of the asylum seekers in a way very similar to the way the subjects were treated in the two experiments. This situation allows a subtle but gradual increase in the ill-treatment and abuse of the prisoners.

As conditions in the experiments, and on Manus Island, became worse, there was revolt and riot. This was by institutionalised violence. This in turn ramps up the institutional rhetoric about the danger presented by the asylum seekers/prisoners and further justifies the use of violence and repression.

The ground-breaking work done by Milgram and Zimbardo has proved to be an accurate predictor of the situation on Manus Island. Given the situation created by both Liberal and Labor governments, there is a dreadful inevitability about the situation that we are now faced with. There is nothing to suggest that the continuation of these policies is likely to resolve the situation. In fact, we can expect an escalation of the ugly scenes from the detention centre.

The real tragedy is that both sides of the political divide have painted themselves into a corner on this issue. In pandering to the worst and most xenophobic elements in Australian society, they have given themselves no option but to appear “weak on border protection” if they decide to change policy and allow onshore processing.

Ross Gittens commented in The Age on ” history-making decline in standards of political behaviour”. The situation on Manus Island is the most obvious example of the consequences of policy failure in government. But this particular failure is part of a pattern that is now becoming common in the Abbott government. There are now a legion of small abuses of the democratic process: allowing Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to attend party room meetings, the shameful abuse of travel entitlements, the unprecedented use of royal commissions to enquire into the previous government, the appointment of failed Parliamentary candidates to plum jobs and the attacks on the ABC. It’s an impressive list for a government that has only been in power for four months. The Manus Island affair dwarfs these by comparison. There are profoundly disturbing elements to the administration of this policy: the use of the Armed Forces to implement government policy, the refusal of government to release details on policies it promised to the election and the phenomenal financial commitment that these deeply flawed policies has involved.

Gittens sees the Australian political process as being a race to the bottom. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be anybody in the either of the two main political parties who is capable of rescuing the system from this downward spiral.

Save $2 billion a year, Joe: scrap the detention centres.

In February 2013, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship estimated that the cost of mandatory detention would be $2.124 billion dollars, for the 2012 – 2013 financial year. These are the recurrent running costs. The capital costs are less, a mere $500 million to build detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. But it would appear that the Australian public can expect to pay somewhat over $2 billion year to run the detention centres for the foreseeable future.

As American politician Everett Dirksen said: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.

It would be interesting to know if Joe “heavy lifting” Hockey has considered taking an economic rationalist approach to asylum seeker policy. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to let these people come and live in Australia, get jobs, become productive members of our community, in other words to do all the things that they want to do. The great thing is, it won’t cost the Australian taxpayer anything near $2 billion a year.

If Hockey is serious about reducing the budget deficit, he should be looking seriously at ways of reducing expenditure on asylum seeker policy.

Simplistic approach to Manus Island problems

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s defence of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison: ”You don’t want a wimp running border protection. ‘You want someone who is strong, who is decent and Scott Morrison is both strong and decent”, is woefully inadequate. But the strength and decency of the individual is not the issue here. The issue is the nature and conduct of the policy.

What is worrying is that the Prime Minister appears to think that being strong and decent deflects all criticism about asylum seeker policy and releases ministers from the responsibility for the proper conduct of their portfolio.

It isn’t enough to be strong and decent, you need to be good at what you do and it’s difficult to see that the current Immigration Minister is doing a particularly good job.

It’s bad enough that Morrison got the information about the Manus Island riots hopelessly wrong. It’s worse that he chose to release unconfirmed information that placed the blame for the riots on the asylum seekers. It’s unfortunate that this completely uncharacteristic openness supported the government’s stance on asylum seekers and further denigrates them in the eyes of the Australian public.

Now he’s been forced into a humiliating back-down.

We are in the unfortunate position that the policy of offshore processing is supported by both of the major parties and, if recent polls are to be believed, by the majority of the Australian population.

The situation is exacerbated by the Abbott government’s inept execution of this policy. If the government is forced to continue towing boats back to Indonesia, it is only a matter of time before something goes dreadfully wrong with a significant loss of life.

We also need to see the Manus Island riots in some perspective. It’s not the first time it’s happened. In July 2013, there was a major riot in the detention centre on Nauru with an estimated damage cost of $60 million. In April 2011, there were riots in the Villawood detention centre, causing an estimated $20 million worth of damage.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the Australian government will be “firm” in its administration of the deception centres.

That should do the trick!

Pink Batts Royal Commission: a political stunt

The Australian should be in no doubt that what will turn out to be an exceptionally expensive Royal Commission is at best a political stunt and, at worst, a government sanctioned witch-hunt.

The best that Tony Abbott can do to justify establishing the commission is to saying “The whole point is to ensure we learn the right lessons from these terrible mistakes”. This assumes that the Abbott government would consider economic stimulation such as the home insulation scheme in the face of another GFC. It is unlikely that the current government has sufficient economic nouse to engage in such an operation.

Royal Commissions are exceptionally expensive because they involve vast cohorts of lawyers charging daily fees that ordinary Australians would only earn in a month. Not only is this commission going to be expensive in the way that all royal commissions are, it will also face a number of High Court legal challenges which will entail more legal fees and the expense of the court procedures.

Abbott has also claimed that, “It was probably the most disastrously conceived and executed Commonwealth government program in our history”. He may well come to regret saying this when the next Labor government, and there will be a next Labor government, uses this quotation to launch an enquiry into the “turn back the boats” policy.

The most disconcerting aspect of this role commission is that, as Michael Gordon pointed out in The Age (22/2/14) there have already been six investigations two coronial inquests and three prosecutions arising from what was undoubtedly a tragically disastrous installation process.

What more can be learned from a Royal Commission? Abbott clearly hopes that it will prove that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were at fault in some way. In terms of cause and effect, this is drawing an exceptionally long bow. The tragic deaths of the young men engaged in installing the pink batts has been sheeted home to negligence on the part of their employers by the criminal investigations and prosecutions. To suggest, as the establishment of this Royal Commission does suggest, that in some way the policymakers in Canberra are responsible for the occupational health and safety failures in the workplace, is clearly preposterous.

More dangerously, the establishment of this Royal Commission establishes the precedent that responsibility for any bungled government initiative (and there will always be bungled government initiatives) can be traced back to the politicians responsible for the policy initiatives. This is an exceptionally dangerous precedent and will have the effect of making our elected representatives extremely careful about making bold policy decisions.

The flow-on effects of GP co-payments

The Minister for Health Peter Dutton has proposed that people visiting GP should no longer be bulk-billed but should make a payment of $6 to the GP. “We have a discussion about you or me on reasonable incomes, whether we should expect to pay nothing when we go to see the doctor.”

On the surface this appears to be a reasonable argument. But there are always flow on effects from policies like this. Doctors and academics have been quick to condemn the move saying it will deter people from seeing the doctor, particularly those for whom $6 is a lot of money. The flow on argument is shown in the causal loop diagram below. The co-payment either deters people from attending the GP or redirects them to the emergency wards.

Unintended consequences of the GP co-payment

Unintended consequences of the GP co-payment

This sets up a vicious cycle.

The extra attendance at emergency increases the number of people being given a hospital bed and this increases the availability of beds in hospitals and leads to a increasing delays in elective surgery. The effect of this is that people either visit the GPs more or present to the emergency wards and the circle continues.

The number of people being admitted to hospital may not be particularly great but this is on a system that is already stretched to the limit and anything that increases the number of people presenting in emergency wards has the potential to have significant knock-on effects through the whole system.

Certainly, one consequence of increased presentations in emergency will be increases in the use of ramping and major hospitals going on emergency bypass. Both of these techniques are designed to hold emergency patients until camps available for them in the emergency ward.

In effect, it delays the admission of these patients into the emergency ward and extends the number and the period of time that the emergency ward will be admitting patients to the hospital. The dynamics of this are shown in the causal loop diagram below where the new dynamic is shown in the two small black loops.

GP co-payment And ramping at emergency  wards

GP co-payment And ramping at emergency wards

One thing the Minister has not yet explained is how the $6 fee will be used.

Will it simply be used to top up GP’s income?

Will it be used to reduce the Medicare payment to GPs by $6?

What happens for those of us who already pay a $30 co-payment?

Will we now pay $6?

Dutton is right. It probably is time to have a conversation about how we can ensure good medical treatment for the entire population. It would probably help if he were to explain a little bit more about where money is going.

Hamlet’s problems (iv): Laertes doesn’t like him

We get the first hint of this in Act 1 Scene 2 where Claudius gives Laertes permission go back to France. What’s important in the scene is the way the actors are positioned. Laertes and Hamlet must’ve grown up together in court. But Laertes is not in a corner having a quiet final beer with Hamlet. He keeps his distance. So it is what is not happening, rather than what is, that is significant in this scene. The two do not speak to each other and there are no farewells. Certainly not good friends.

Before he departs for France, Laertes gives Ophelia some advice about Hamlet. Clearly Laertes knows Hamlet is a bit of a pants man, but not with his sister. This is not going to be a Wills and Kate romance. Laertes quite rightly points out to Ophelia that Hamlet, as Prince, may have no choice in whom he marries. In a practical sense he suggests,

Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster’d importunity.
I iii 29 – 32

Put bluntly, no bonking with the Lord Hamlet.

Emily Trask (left) as Ophelia, Ashley Smith as Laertes and Kieran Connolly as Polonius in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2006 production of Hamlet

Emily Trask (left) as Ophelia, Ashley Smith as Laertes and Kieran Connolly as Polonius in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2006 production of Hamlet

This message is later reinforced by Polonius. It is to have disastrous consequences.

But when Laertes returns to Denmark to find that Hamlet has killed his father and that his sister has committed suicide as a result, his dislike of Hamlet escalates into homicidal rage. In such a state, he is no match for the wiles of a politician like Claudius.

He agrees that

that, with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and in a pass of practise
Requite him for your father.

And suggests that

I’ll anoint my sword.
I bought an unction of a mountebank

that, if I gall him slightly,
It may be death.
IV vii 134 -141

Both Laertes and Ophelia are innocents caught up in a world they do not understand and which ultimately destroys them both. What Hamlet says of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths in England:

Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.

V ii 60 – 62

is as true for Laertes and Ophelia as it was for the ” wretched, rash, intruding fool”, their father.

ABC is at it again

The unpatriotic ABC is at it again with its coverage of the Manus Island riots. Why cannot the ABC understand and support the principle underlying the government’s approach to asylum seekers: if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, it hasn’t happened.

The ABC needs to understand its role in the Manus Island riots. The “illegal immigrants” only riot because they know the ABC will provide national coverage. If the ABC didn’t cover the riots, people wouldn’t riot. In effect, the ABC is actually causing the riots on Manus Island.

The coverage has a second effect. It forces Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, to come out from underneath his self-imposed cone of silence. When the Minister does this, he continues to demonstrate that Australia’s asylum seeker policy is at best ill-advised and at worst inhumane. Why does the ABC continue to expose a Minister of the Crown to such ridicule?

It’s time for the ABC to go in to bat for the home side, even if this is the equivalent of facing Mitch Johnson armed only with a fly-swat.

Hamlet’s problems (iii): The Ghost/Father

The central problem for Hamlet is the nature of his father’s ghost.

Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost (Henry Fuseli 1798)

Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost (Henry Fuseli 1798)

The main reason that Hamlet does not immediately kill Claudius after seeing his father’s ghost is that he does not know whether or not to believe what the ghost has told him. His scepticism is deeply rooted in the fundamentally opposed views of the nature of ghosts that the play explores and which, for Hamlet, represent deep philosophical and religious problems.

Hamlet’s desire to return to Wittenberg is significant because that is where Martin Luther preached a new Protestant view of the afterlife. The medieval Catholic view was that after death, souls went to purgatory to be cleansed of their sins before ascending to heaven. In particular, sinners who did not receive the last sacrament went to purgatory until their sins were purged, or in the case of the ghost, until justice was done for wrongs done to them in their lifetime. These souls could be manifest to the living who then had an obligation to act on their behalf. Hamlet’s father appears to be such a Catholic ghost.

The Protestant view, by contrast, proposed that there was no purgatory where sins were purged. Souls either went straight to heaven or straight to hell. Returning souls were sent by the devil to tempt the living to sin and eternal damnation. So Hamlet, the student from Wittenberg, and also his fellow student Horatio, probably harboured serious doubts about the nature of the ghost.

Many of the Shakespearean audience would have been extremely familiar with this particular debate. People were being burned at the stake over questions of theology within living memory and being Catholic in Elizabeth’s England was increasingly dangerous.

Evidence that Hamlet accepts, or at least gives credence to, the Protestant view is shown when he hesitates to kill Claudius when he finds him at his prayers

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged.

Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes
III.iii 73 – 99

Now might I do it pat

Now might I do it pat

He certainly harboured some doubts about the afterlife when he says in his most famous soliloquy

the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

III.i 78 – 82

While trying to deal with the feelings of disgust his mother’s marriage, some of Hamlet’s friends turn up and tell him that they have seen the ghost of his father on the battlements of the castle. Hamlet suspects foul play

My father’s spirit in arms! all is not well;
I doubt some foul play: would the night were come!
Till then sit still, my soul: foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes

Act 1 Scene 4 sees Hamlet on the battlements where he reflects that

So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth…that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect

Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.
I.ii 24 – 34

This speech has been the basis for many commentators endeavouring to understand what the vicious mole of nature is in Hamlet’s case. A C Bradley defined the root of Hamlet’s problem as melancholy, one of the five humours of Elizabethan psychology. Today, we would probably describe it as depression, condition that saps people ability to act.

My contention is that this particular approach is misguided and that Hamlet’s problems are of a more philosophical and religious nature rather than of an inherited nature. The basis for this contention is established in what Hamlet says when the ghost first appears to him:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable

I.ii 39 – 42

Hamlet has two different views of the ghost, put very simply it’s a good ghost or a bad ghost scenario, with the ghost coming either from heaven or from hell and being either wicked or charitable.

Horatio has a very clear understanding of the nature of ghosts, they’re evil spirits designed to tempt mortals and cautions Hamlet

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?

I.ii 69 – 72

This Catholic view is that ghosts remain in Purgatory until they are avenged and it is the duty of their children, in particular, to be the avengers. King Hamlet appears to be such a ghost.

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away

I.v 9 – 13

There is only one way for Hamlet to save his father from this torment

If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

I.v 23 – 25

Not only has King Hamlet being murdered by his brother, but he has died without absolution

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:

I.v 74 – 79

Which has left him in the torments of Purgatory. Later, Hamlet says to his companions

Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you:

I.v 137 – 138

This indicates that, at this point in the play, Hamlet believes what the ghost has told him, but something holds him back, Hamlet’s Protestant training has left him not entirely convinced of the ghost’s “honesty”.

After the arrival of the players and the self-laceration of the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy, Hamlet decides to lay a trap for Claudius

I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ

II.ii 562 – 568

He articulates his concerns about the nature of the ghost and realises that the ghost may be playing on his hatred of Claudius and his disgust at his mother’s marriage.

The spirit I have seen
May be a devil and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy
As he is very potent with such spirits
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

II.ii 572 – 579

He has resolved on a means to have more evidence.

In the first half of the play, we see Hamlet waiting for an opportunity to confirm the veracity of the ghost’s word. As a good Renaissance scholar, he seeks tangible evidence. It is not until the arrival of the players that he has an opportunity to do this.

Before the players perform for the court, Hamlet instructs Horatio

Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy.

III.ii 81 – 85

When the King rushes from the hall, Hamlet is convinced

Hamlet: O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound.
Didst perceive?

Horatio: Very well, my lord.

Hamlet: Upon the talk of the poisoning?

Horatio: I did very well note him

III.ii 281 – 285

From this point onwards, inevitable spiral of violence drives the play to its final bloody conclusion.

Hamlet’s problems (i): the women in his life.

Hamlet’s problems (ii): Madness

Hamlet’s problems (ii): Madness

The first indication that we have that all is not well with Hamlet is in Act II Scene ii with his speech

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

I.ii 129 -133

which indicates that he is bordering on the suicidal as result of his mother’s marriage to his uncle.

Once he has seen the ghost of his father on the battlements, he realises that the burden that the ghost is laid upon him has meant that his wits are beginning to teeter. He greets his companions with ” wild and whirling words”.

He then extracts an agreement from them that despite

How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,

I.v 170 -172

They will not

giving out, to note
That you know aught of me

I.v 179 -180

There has been a lot of discussion about whether Hamlet is actually mad or feigning madness as well as discussions about the possible nature of his mental illness. From a dramatic perspective, this is more or less irrelevant. Mad or otherwise, Hamlet’s behaviour, and its impact on other people, is exactly the same as if you were mad

This is borne out the “affrighted” Ophelia’s description of him to her father

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d,
Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,–he comes before me.

II.i 76 – 182


From her description is pretty clear to Polonius that Hamlet has lost plot and he is very quick to put his slant on the situation and to work it to his own advantage.

Come, go with me: I will go seek the king.
This is the very ecstasy of love

II.i 99 – 100

And this is not the first time it has happened. Claudius says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as he sets them to spy on Hamlet

Something have you heard
Of Hamlet’s transformation; so call it,
Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man
Resembles that it was
II.ii 4 – 7

Gertrude advances another explanation of the cause of Hamlet’s madness

but the main;
His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage.

II.ii 55 – 56

But clearly Claudius suspects it might be something more and is clearly keen to find out how much Hamlet knows. But he is circumspect in his dealings with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

What it should be,
More than his father’s death, that thus hath put him
So much from the understanding of himself,
I cannot dream of:

II.ii 7 – 10

And sets them the task

to gather,
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus,
That, open’d, lies within our remedy.

II.ii 15 – 18

So, add to Hamlet’s woes, he now has to contend with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Not that they are likely to be a problem, within half a scene he has completely unmasked the reasons for their visit to Denmark.

My lord, we were sent for.

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king
and queen moult no feather. I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises;

that this goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me a sterile promontory,

appears no other thing to me
than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
II.ii 281 – 292

However, the arrival of the players appears to banish Hamlet’s madness completely and we see no trace of it for the rest of the play.

Hamlet’s problems (i): the women in his life.

Hamlet’s problems (ii): The Ghost/Father