I have included one question on Hamlet and one question on The Bluest Eye.

I.  Sample question on Shakespeare, followed by two student answers.

Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius, while he is praying:

            And so 'a goes to heaven. 
            And so am I revenged. 

What is the significance of this decision in terms of our understanding Hamlet the character and/or Hamlet the play?


Hamlet has said he will kill the king to avenge his father's death. At this point in the play, it is the perfect opportunity for Hamlet to do this. The king is kneeling down, with his back toward Hamlet, and his eyes closed. He is totally helpless. Hamlet realizes this and begins to approach the king, but he begins to think about the situation. Since the king is praying, Hamlet killing him at this point will not be revenge for his father's death. If Claudius dies in prayer he will go straight to Heaven, unlike Hamlet's father. This scene is ironic since, even though Claudius is praying, he says they are just words flying up with no meaning to them.

This scene shows a significant theme that runs through the play. Hamlet, faced with this deed to kill the King, finds difficulty carrying it out because he tends to think too much about the consequences of his actions. Moments before this scene where Claudius is praying, Hamlet gets the proof he wanted that Claudius murdered his father. At this point he says "I will drink hot blood." He is all ready to kill claudius and has a gold opportunity. His excessive thought, however, stops him and ultimately ends in his own death.

Hamlet is capable of murder, but he is only capable of it when his emotions take over and he is incapable of thinking and reasoning. When Hamlet kills Polonius, it happens very quickly. Emotions are running high as Hamlet is confronting his mother and his mother and his act of killing Polonius happened at the spur of the moment. Had Hamlet been calmer and thought for a moment he probably would have found reason not to plunge his sword through the tapestry.

When Hamlet finally does kill Claudius, it is also a spur of the moment decision. Hew just found out he was poisoned and his mother had just died. His emotions were soaring high and he realized this was his last chance to get revenge or his father's death. He had no time to think of consequences and just acted on impulse.  [Grade: A]


The quotation is said by Hamlet at a point in the play before he kills Polonius and after he is assured of his uncle's guilt by the play. The quotation is said when Hamlet sees his uncle praying. Hhis uncle is alone and at first Hamlet sees that as his opportunity to take his revenge. By not acting at this point Hamlet shows us that he can act and he is not mad. By not acting, Hamlet is acting to not act. Hamlet decided not to kill his uncle at this point because it would be contrary to his motive for killing Claudius. Hamlet's task is to seek revenge for the murder of his father not to commit an act of cold blooded murder that would benefit his uncle. A murder at this point would send his uncle to heaven, not revenge his father and send Hamlet to hell, a benefit to Claudius.

The quotation summarizes Hamlet's not being mad. Throughout the play, Shakespeare makes it seem as if Hamlet is mad but Shakespeare also plays upon reality and imagination so that we must decide for ourselves what is really there. In Hamlet's conversation with the queen in her closet we see the play on the word "seems". The ghost is another play on reality as it does not appear to the queen. Hamlet's apparent madness comes from those around him who do not know of his situation. We know that Hamlet is not mad because there are examples throughout the play. Hamlet is not the only one who sees the ghost as Horatio and other guards are present. In Elizabethan times those who were melancholy as some feel Hamlet was that person was more vulnerable to sighting of ghosts. By him not being the only one to see the ghost, we can say Hamlet was not in this state of mind. Hamlet realizes he can not trust Ophelia in dealing with the King and so fakes his madness to get her out of danger when he tells her "Get thee to a nunnery." Hamlet's plan of action during his planning of the play to see the King's guilt shows us his great mind. Hamlet is able to see right through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they try to assess the nature of Hamlet's madness. Hamlet's other actions also show us that his mind is not hindered.

Hamlet's ability to act directly with the pirate ship and has not throughout the play show us a man who is not mad but simply overwhelmed for a time by the task he must accomplish. The nature of the task itself makes some act in different ways than others. For an analogy we can compare Hamlet to Laertes, who father was also murdered. The difference in their actions can stem from various sources. Laertes is not also dealing with the loss of a crown and of the sexual nature of his mother lying in "incestuous sheets." Laertes is also sure of the nature of his father's death. Hamlet must go on the advice of a ghost so that he needs time to assess the guilt of his uncle even if he felt it was true in his heart since his first visit with the ghost.

The above shows that Hamlet is a man who is not mad but merely overwhelmed by the task at hand. It is his ability to deal with the situation in a calm composed way that shows us the greatness of the man who is emphasized by Fortinbras at the end of the play.  [Grade:  A]

A brief comment about these answers:

Neither student retells the action (paraphrasing the action is unacceptable--you must interpret or analyze the action). Each student interprets or explains the significance of the action in the opening paragraph of the answer. Each explains the meaning of the Hamlet's action and connects the discussion to larger issues--e.g., Hamlet's madness or his ability to act. The essays show that the students have thought about the work and understand it. Also, both of the students write clear, well-organized, coherent essays with no serious or basic errors in them. Ideas proceed logically and are connected by transition.

II. Sample question on Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, followed by two student answers.

Discuss the influence of whites/white society on individual blacks and/or the black community in The Bluest Eye.


          In The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison we see that the influence of the white society on individual blacks is very detrimental to them and to the black community as a whole. In looking at these effects we can look at the characters of Pecola, Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove, Cholly Breedlove and Soaphead Church..

          In terms of an overall effect on the black community, all of these characters as being part of that community look for ways to be accepted. Whether this acceptance is by the white or black community it is something which they feel will fulfill their lives. This was a negative effect on the community as a whole because it is not this acceptance that will fulfill their lives, because they never accept themselves.

          For Pecola and Pauline, the way they see acceptance by others is beauty. For Pecola, this beauty translates into the blue eyes. As a result of the heritage of her mother and the community around her Pecola feels she is ugly. We know that she is not because as a baby her mother saw her hair as beautiful. Pecola's mother beating her, constant abuse by the community and the rape of her by her father which led to further community disapproval caused her to go insane because she was incapable of getting the acceptance she thought she needed. She thinks she has blue eyes which should be enough for her to accept herself in her mental state, but because of the further community alienation as a result of her pregnancy she now needs the bluest eyes.

          Pecola's mother, Pauline, put the robe of ugliness onto Pecola as a result of her own need for acceptance. Pauline's idea of beauty comes from the movies. Pauline had an abnormality to overcome with her foot but simply pushes this on to her family when she comes to the realization that she can not be as beautiful as those in the movies. As for Pecola's blue eyes, this was an association of the white community's with beauty. Pauline's acceptance comes from the white family she works for. There she has a certain power that makes her feel the acceptance she needs. The acceptance comes in the form of a nickname, Polly, which seems a degradation from Pauline.

          The differences of the white community can be seen in the episode where Pauline does not have a real feeling for alimony. Pauline is also two different people in the white and black communities. Her nice manner with the whites translates into becoming a martyr for her family. She becomes a strong church women who must deal with the sins of her husband, her children, and her community.

          In Cholly Breedlove we can see that the influences of the white community made him a hard man who has trouble in expressing his emotions. Cholly's instrument to let out these emotions becomes his penis as his sex with Polly shows and the rape of Pecola. Cholly's attitudes are shaped by the absence of a father figure in his life and the episode with the white hunters. The absence of a father and his eventual running away made Cholly believe that the black man is not bound to anything. Freedom is the absence of everything including his ability to express emotion. The white hunters episode made Cholly humiliated, embarrassed and mad but during that episode he did not direct his anger to the whites but to the black girl whom he was with, an example of the white community's power to make blacks blame themselves. Cholly needs to be accepted by his family through love which he couldn't express.

          Soaphead Church was a character who was a mix of both black and white backgrounds. His inability to be fully accepted into either community contributed to his aloneness and his hatred for physical love. It was the black community which was above but the white community which he was below.

          So the above shows us that influences of the white community on the black community caused harm because they are two different communities when segregated as they were. There should be no attempt to try to behave as the other group for acceptance. [Grade:  A-]


      White society and its standards have a huge influence on blacks in the black community. This is seen clearly in Morrison's The Bluest Eye. The white ideal of what beauty is becomes the standard for what is beauty. This standard of beauty becomes incorporated into the black community and becomes a standard for blacks as well. Blacks, however, cannot achieve this ideal of the white skinned, blond haired, blue eyed beauty, and are therefore forced to feel inferior.

          In The Bluest Eye movies had a big part in showing what beauty should be. Pauline would constantly go to the movies and see glamorous, white movie stars who were the ideal women. Pauline would dress herself up and try to look like Jean Harlow. However, since these movie stars were white, it was impossible for Pauline to achieve looking like them. When she broke her tooth she realized this. She began to think of herself as ugly. If these white movie stars were considered beautiful, then not looking like them would have to mean you were ugly. This idea of being ugly is a direct result of the standards of the white community being imposed on the black community.

          The children were also exposed to this white ideal of beauty. Claudia would receive a white doll for Christmas that was considered as beautiful, even though she didn't think so. Pecola was probably influenced the most by this idea of beauty. She would admire the Shirley Temple cup and buy Mary Janes, both of which had a picture of a white girl with blond hair and blue eyes. Pecola wanted to be like them and realized she couldn't. She wanted blue eyes so she could be beautiful. This was impossible, however, and it caused her to believe she was ugly. She had no ugly features, but since she thought she was ugly she carried herself that way. This caused a projection of her ugliness to others who all thought she was ugly. She was only ugly, however, in that she did not look like the white model of beauty.

          This idea of white beauty began to cause anger and hostility among the blacks. Claudia hated her doll and wanted to destroy it. Pecola also began to feel some anger. When she bought the Mary Janes, the storeowner could not see her as a person. When she left the store she was angry at this and once again projected her ugliness. The dandelions projected her ugliness. The dandelions she once thought were beautiful suddenly became weeds and were ugly. The idea of not being able to look like these beautiful white girls caused Pecola to hide behind her ugliness, which eventually led to her crazy state at the end. [Grade:  A-]

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Revised February 25, 2009