Hamlet paper for non-Humanities students

CGS the aim of the perfect Courtier … is so to win for himself … the favor and mind of the prince whom he serves ….  The Courtier will in every

There are two options for this paper, each centering upon rhetorical analysis of an excerpt from Hamlet and exploring an interdisciplinary connection (in one case to philosophy/political thought, connecting with discussions in Social Science; in the other case to performance, connecting with our visit from Ben Crystal). One of the play’s remarkable qualities lies in its presentation of characters as rhetors: as judges (good or bad) of situation and audience.

As stylists employing different registers of diction and figures suited to their intent, as shapers of arguments shaped by all of the Aristotelian proofs, both inartistic (such as appeals to authority, laws, or promises) and artistic (logos [enthymemes & examples], pathos, ethos—demonstrations of good will, wisdom, & moral virtue), and so one. Sometimes characters demonstrate how rhetorical efforts can go wrong, or turn their rhetorical talents on themselves, using rhetorical strategies in soliloquies that judge.  Praise, or deliberate regarding the given character’s own actions. Both options for this paper begin from this starting point.


Is a slightly scaled-down version of the joint paper Prof Coffman and I are assigning to our shared students (you are all, I believe, taking Social Science and will have read Machiavelli at least).

Building on the starting point of the play as showcase for.  Or exploration of, rhetorical strategies and practices, you are here asked to consider how Shakespeare draws upon contemporary thinkers.  Among the assumptions shaping how his characters persuade each other and themselves are a number that derive from texts that inform Shakespeare’s presentation of the world of the royal court. Especially Machiavelli’s The Prince and Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier—works quite different in tone and spirit.

Machiavelli seeks to instruct a ruler in pragmatic politics, suggesting that moral virtue is finally irrelevant—or even a hindrance—to political success. Castiglione, on the other hand, offers a text shaped by a sort of Platonic idealism.  One that assumes the courtier will be most useful to his prince when he can lead that ruler down the path of the good. In other words, he articulates a vision of political success as inseparable from moral virtue.

This paper option should analyze an argument advanced by any one character in Hamlet.  Focusing on one longer speech by that character or (if the argument is presented across several lines of dialogue because it is part of an exchange) on part of one scene. Your paper’s central claim should address one of the following prompts:

  1. In what ways does the speech demonstrate an allegiance to the position described by Castiglione? (And, perhaps, a dissatisfaction with that of Machiavelli?)

  2. In what ways does the speech demonstrate an allegiance to the position described by Machiavelli? (And, perhaps, a dissatisfaction with that of Castiglione?)

  3. What aspects of the argument are compatible with Machiavelli’s perspective, and which with that of Castiglione? Which perspective is finally triumphant?

Make sure not to deal with Machiavelli or Castiglione in broad terms. The summary perspectives delineated above are “givens”—part of your task is to be more focused, to narrow the topic down by being more specific.  In order to help you, please see below (way below***) selections from Castiglione and Machiavelli.  Your paper should frame its argument using at least one of these selections from Castiglione and/or Machiavelli.

You are free to work with whatever passage from Shakespeare strikes you as appropriate to the assignment. In case you are unsure about a selection, below are also a number of quotes from the play that may be inspiring to you. Some of these would be satisfactory selections for the paper. In the case of others, you might want to broaden the passage a bit by considering material surrounding the few lines of text we supply.


Builds on both our in-class group work on rhetoric in Hamlet and our visit from Ben Crystal, with its focus on performance; that is, with translating your analysis and interpretation of a piece of the play into actually acting it. If you choose this option I am asking you to analyze a selection from the play (a speech and/or or portion of a scene) from a rhetorical perspective, and then do two things:

  1. A) Record a reading/performance of your selection informed by your analysis, and

  2. B) Write a short essay detailing your analysis of the excerpt/scene and explaining how it shaped your performance choices. You should lay out your critical reading of the episode (the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, strategies, etc.) and discuss how you “translated” this interpretation into concrete actions in performance (particular inflections, gestures, etc.). Perhaps the act of performance itself deepened, challenged, or made you rethink your initial analysis; feel free to discuss this as well.

You may choose any one of the excerpts/selections used in our in-class exercise, or find one of your own, though in the latter case you should run it by me first, briefly explain why and how you think it particularly exemplifies the use of rhetoric (i.e. an attempt at persuasion or other (usually) verbal display or action which could be classified as rhetorical). If your selection includes more than one character, you will need to find a volunteer or volunteers to read the other part(s), if only perfunctorily (maybe you can find someone else doing this option and “work” for each other).

If you choose option #1, the paper (excluding headers, etc.) should be 1000 words (a little over is OK, if needed); #2 may be a bit shorter (say 800-1000) but will also include the short performance video. In either case, the essay should be submitted via Turnitin on or before April 25. (For option #2, you will also need to post your performance on the Media Center on the course BB at the same time). The paper should simultaneously be posted to the Rhetoric tab of your eportfolio.

You should not use any other sources for the paper (unless there is a compelling reason to do so, discussed with me first!)—I am looking for original engagement with the source material.


Machiavelli:  CGS

“one must either pamper or do away with men, because they will avenge themselves for minor offenses while for more serious ones they cannot; so that any harm done to a man must be the kind that removes any fear of revenge” (Ch 3)

[on noble subjects] “they have their hereditary rights; the King cannot remove them without danger to himself” (Ch 4)

“it cannot be called skill to kill one’s fellow citizens, to betray friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; by these means one can acquire power but not glory” (Ch 8)

“Well used are those cruelties (if it is permitted to speak well of evil) that are carried out in a single stroke, done out of necessity to protect oneself, and are not continued but are instead converted into the greatest possible benefits for the subjects. Badly used are those cruelties which, although being few at the outset, grow with the passing of time instead of disappearing” (Ch 8)

“the nature of men is such that they find themselves obligated as much for the benefits they confer as for those they receive” (Ch 10)

“there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation; for a man who wishes to make a vocation of being good at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good” (Ch 15)

“one will discover that something which appears to be a virtue, if pursued, will end in his destruction; while some other thing which seems to be a vice, if pursued, will result in his safety and well-being” (Ch 15)

“it is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking” (Ch 17)

“men forget more quickly the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony” (Ch 17)

“A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promises” (Ch 18)

“[The Prince must] have a mind ready to turn itself according to the way the winds of Fortune and the changeability of affairs require him; … he should not stray from the good, but he should know how to enter into evil when necessity commands” (Ch 18)

“in the actions of all men, and especially of princes.  Where there is no impartial arbiter, one must consider the final result” (Ch 18)

“victories are never so sure that the victor need be completely free of caution.  Especially when justice is concerned” (Ch 21)

“we never try to avoid one disadvantage without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to recognize the nature of disadvantages and how to choose the least bad as good” (Ch 21)

Castiglione:  CGS

“there is a mean to be found between such supreme grace on the one hand and such stupid ineptitude on the other. And … those who are not so perfectly endowed by nature can, with care and effort. Polish and in great part correct their natural defects…. I would wish the Courtier favored in this other respect. And endowed by nature not only with talent and with beauty of countenance and person.  But with that certain grace which we call an ‘air,’”

“practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance].  So as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”

“he alone is a true moral philosopher who wishes to be good; and for this he has need of few precepts beyond that wish”

“if Alexander envied Achilles, not for his exploits.  But for the fortune which had granted him the blessing of having his deeds celebrated by Homer.  We see that he esteemed Homer’s letters above Achilles’s arms. What other judge would you have.  Or what other sentence on the worthiness of arms of letters than what has been pronounced  . By one of the greatest commanders that have ever been”

“the aim of the perfect Courtier … is so to win for himself … the favor and mind of the prince whom he serves ….  The Courtier will in every instance be able adroitly to show the prince how much honor and profit will come to him and to his from justice.  Liberality, magnanimity, gentleness, and the other virtues that befit a good prince”


I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes (1.1.55–57)

His greatness weighed, his will is not his own; / For he himself is subject to his birth (1.3.19–20)

… the dram of evil / Doth all the noble substance often dout / To his own scandal (1.5.35–37)

there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so (2.2.239–40)

the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from . What it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness (3.1.111¬–13)

May one be pardoned and maintain the offense? / In the corrupted currents of this world  / Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice, / And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself / Buys out the law (3.3.58–61)

Assume a virtue, if you have it not. / That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat.  / Of habits devil, is angel yet in this, / That to the use of actions fair and good / He likewise gives a frock or livery, / That aptly is put on. (3.4.160–65)

I must be cruel, only to be kind: / Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind. (3.4.178–79)

… such officers do the king best service in the end: he keeps them, like an ape, in the corner of his jaw.  First mouthed, to be last swallowed: when he needs what you have gleaned.  It is but squeezing you, and sponge, you shall be dry again. (4.2.15–19)

Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole? (5.1.175–78)

… to know a man well, were to know himself. (5.2.129)


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