Two years passed between Hamlet's being entered in the Stationers' Register, a journal kept by the Stationers' Company of London in which the printing rights to works were recorded, and the play's being printed. In 1602, James Roberts entered "A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke as yt was latelie Acted by the Lord Chamberleyne his servantes" in the Stationers' Register; when the quarto text of the play was published in 1604, the title page read as follows:
The Tragicall Historie of hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. By William Shakespeare. Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie. At London, Printed by I.R. [James Roberts] for N.L. [Nicholas Ling] and are to be sold at his shoppe vnder Saint Dunstons Church in Fleetstreet. 1604.
In fact, sometime after Roberts initially registered Hamlet but before he printed it, Nicholas Ling published a pirated edition of the play, with the text assembled from memory by actors who had played in touring companies that took Hamlet to Oxford and Cambridge. This pirated edition is called the first quarto and is a corrupt text. The 1604 quarto, called the second quarto, seems to be based on Shakespeare's own papers, but it is marred by printer's errors and by corrupt interpolations from the pirated text. A third and a fourth quarto were subsequently printed, both based on the second. In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, his friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell assembled his plays in a single folio-sized volume, called the 1623 Folio. The text of Hamlet in the Folio is substantially different from that of the play's second quarto; the Folio text is thought to have come from the prompt book of Shakespeare's acting company, the King's Men, and to be a revision of the second quarto by Shakespeare himself. The later text is shorter than the second quarto by two hundred lines and contains passages not in that quarto.
Scholars are uncertain as to when before 1602 Hamlet was written. The best evidence for a date before which Hamlet could not have been written is found within the play itself, as Hamlet discusses how the rise of children's acting companies has driven the established adult acting companies out of business. Through Hamlet, Shakespeare is understood to be referring to the "War of the Theaters," which took place during the years 1599 and 1601, setting the date of Hamlet's composition between 1599 and 1602.
Since its first appearance, Hamlet has been immensely popular, as evidenced by the number of times it was reprinted in the seventeenth century and by its performance history. Even during the Puritan Interregnum, between 1649 and 1660, when the theaters were closed and performances outlawed, the gravediggers scene from Hamlet was performed by actors standing alone, illegally, as a "droll," or a short comic sketch with music and dance. When the theaters were reopened upon the restoration of the monarchy, Hamlet was performed frequently. A gentleman named Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that he saw the play performed in 1661, 1663, and 1668. John Downes, the bookkeeper for the acting company of which the popular seventeenth-century actor Thomas Betterton was the principal, noted that between 1662 and 1706, no tragedy "got more Reputation, or Money to the Company than" Hamlet. In 1695, two rival acting companies each presented performances of Hamlet on the same nights.
For those living in the second half of the seventeenth century, the plot of Hamlet could be read to parallel events in England's immediate past—such as the beheading of Charles I, the years of the Commonwealth, and the restoration of the monarchy—as the play tells the story of a usurper who kills the rightful king and is finally overthrown himself. Beyond historical considerations, in 1698, Jeremy Collier, in his Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage, cited Hamlet as "lewd" for its depiction of Ophelia in her mad scene. That judgment, however, did not diminish Hamlet's popularity or the esteem it was gaining, particularly because the title role was one that the great actors of the eighteenth century relished, and, in turn, audiences relished their performances. The eighteenth century was also an era of great textual work on Shakespeare. The famous English writers Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope were both among those who brought out editions of Shakespeare's works, and in 1725 Lewis Theobald notably collated all existing texts of Shakespeare's works in order to produce the most authentic text possible. While Hamlet was altered, cut, and adapted over the years, it was never subject to the kinds of radical transformations that plays such as King Lear and The Tempest were.
In part because of eighteenth-century textual scholarship, in the nineteenth century, Hamlet, like the rest of Shakespeare's plays, became something to read as well as to see performed—and in fact, critical opinion largely held that it was better read than seen. The English poet and scholar Samuel Taylor Coleridge affected how audiences and readers would perceive the play ever after with his interpretation of Hamlet as a man averse to action, full of resolve but hesitant and irresolute in action. By the twentieth century, Hamlet had achieved the status of being the most famous and most esteemed play in the English language, if not in any language. The character of Hamlet, meanwhile, achieved mythic status, especially after the 1949 publication of the work Hamlet and Oedipus, by Ernest Jones, an English Freudian psychoanalyst, who argued that Hamlet's tendency toward inactivity resulted from identification with his uncle, who had accomplished what Hamlet could have only wished for: to kill his father and marry his mother. Hamlet was also given life outside of his play, becoming a subject or an allusion in other works, like James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
In the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare's focus on Hamlet's intellectual conflicts was a significant departure from contemporary revenge tragedies, like Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1584), which tended to dramatize violent acts graphically on stage. Shakespeare largely established dramatic tension in Hamlet by focusing on Hamlet's dilemma rather than on the depiction of bloody deeds. To achieve this shift in emphasis, Shakespeare created a character with intellectual depth and emotional complexity that had not yet been present in Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare's genius and his accomplishment are evident in his transformation of Hamlet's literary sources—especially the nearly contemporaneous Ur-Hamlet. The Ur-Hamlet, or "original Hamlet," is a lost play that scholars believe was written about a decade before Shakespeare's Hamlet, providing the basis for the later tragedy. Numerous sixteenth-century records attest to the existence of the Ur-Hamlet, with some references linking its composition to Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. The scholar Harold Bloom, on the other hand, drawing on internal and thematic elements in Hamlet and also on events in Shakespeare's life, asserts that the Ur-Hamlet was actually a first draft of Hamlet written by Shakespeare himself in his youth. Other principal sources available to Shakespeare were Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (c. 1200), which features a popular legend with a plot similar to Hamlet, and François de Belleforest's Histoires tragiques, extraits des oeuvres italiennes de Bandel (7 vols.; 1559-80), which provides an expanded account of the story recorded in the Gesta Danorum. From these sources, Shakespeare created Hamlet, a supremely rich and complex literary work that continues to delight and challenge both readers and audiences with the complexity of its themes, the breadth and depth of its portrayal of human nature and consciousness, and the nearly infinite scope of its interpretability.
Act 1, Scene 1
Hamlet opens on the battlements of the castle at Elsinore, in Denmark, where the guard is being changed. Bernardo and Marcellus, accompanied by Horatio, come to relieve Francisco. The first words spoken, "Who's there?" a nervous inquiry by Bernardo indicating suspicion and the need to find something out, set the tone for the rest of the play. Francisco reports that his watch has been uneventful. Alone, Bernardo and Marcellus recount to Horatio how a Ghost appeared the night before but would not stay. Now they are waiting to see if it will appear again. If it does, they hope that it will speak to Horatio, who as a scholar may have more success in speaking to the Ghost than they did.
As they wait, the Ghost appears. Horatio's attempt to speak to it fails, however, and the Ghost vanishes. After the men note the Ghost's resemblance to the deceased King Hamlet, the guards ask Horatio why they are keeping the watch and why war preparations are being made in Denmark. Horatio tells them of a feared invasion by Norwegian troops under the command of young Fortinbras. Fortinbras's father, in a war with the old King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet's father, was killed by King Hamlet. Fortinbras is set on avenging his father's death and recapturing the territory lost to King Hamlet. As they speak, the Ghost appears again, then vanishes again. The three decide to inform Hamlet of what they have seen.
Act 1, Scene 2
Inside the castle, the new king, Claudius, is delivering a state address, touching on his ascension to the throne, the old king's death, and his marriage to Gertrude, old King Hamlet's widow and Hamlet's mother. Next on his agenda is the impending war with Norway. He dispatches Cornelius and Voltimand to Norway to negotiate with Fortinbras's uncle, the king of Norway, and prevent a war.
Claudius then turns his attention to Hamlet, who stands among the courtiers, dressed in mourning black. Claudius calls Hamlet "our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son." Hamlet's first words, an aside, showing his alienation from and disgust with Claudius, are "A little more than kin, and less than kind," acknowledging their kinship but indicating that he thinks of himself as entirely unlike Claudius. When Claudius asks, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" Hamlet answers with a pun: "Not so, my Lord. I am too much in the sun." Hamlet is cryptically suggesting that he is too loyal a son for Claudius's treacherous world.
Claudius's apparent solicitude is fraught with purpose. In marrying Gertrude, he has effectively usurped Hamlet's place as successor to the Danish throne. He speaks to Hamlet directly about the prince's grief for his dead father, arguing that to persist in grief for the dead is actually an offense against heaven, since it seems to reflect rebellion against the will of heaven. In this address, Claudius also informs Hamlet that he is rejecting the prince's request to return to school in Germany, in Wittenberg, and wishes him to remain at court, especially since Queen Gertrude, his mother, wishes him to remain near her. Claudius's refusal to let Hamlet leave Denmark is particularly pointed because he has just previously granted a similar request by Laertes, the son of his Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, to return to Paris. Hamlet agrees to stay; when his mother asks him why his grief for his dead father seems so strong, he tells her that his grief does not just seem strong but actually is strong. Moreover, he tells her that the black mourning clothes he wears and his dejected behavior are outward manifestations of his internal woe.
After the court disperses, Hamlet remains behind and in a soliloquy reveals his internal state. He expresses his disgust with the world, which "is an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / possess it merely." He himself would prefer to be dead, even by his own hand, if such an act were not against the laws of God. Beyond his father's death, a cause of his despair is his mother's quick and unseemly marriage to Claudius. Hamlet says nothing about his own royal ambitions, presumably not having any. He is powerfully troubled, however, by the differences between his father and his uncle. To him, his father was a god; his uncle is a lecher. Hamlet is most incensed not only at Gertrude's disloyalty to her dead husband but at her apparent hypocrisy, in that she could cling to his father and grieve for him as deeply as she had and nevertheless be so quickly seduced by his uncle. "Frailty," Hamlet generalizes from his mother to the sex as a whole, "thy name is woman."
As Hamlet is finishing his painful meditation, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo enter the chamber and report the night's encounter with the Ghost of his dead father. Hamlet arranges to meet them on the battlements and watch with them that night and vows to talk to the Ghost should it appear.
Act 1, Scene 3
In the third scene, Shakespeare shifts the focus of the play to Polonius and his two children, Ophelia and Laertes. As the scene begins, Laertes, about to embark on his return journey to France, in parting from his sister, advises her to guard herself against Hamlet's advances. She promises that she will and reminds him not to counsel chaste and prudent behavior to her while leading a reckless life himself. Polonius enters to bid Laertes farewell and to give him some precepts that he hopes will guide his behavior in France. Once Laertes has departed, Polonius asks Ophelia what they had been speaking about, and Ophelia reports that her brother had warned her to be wary of Hamlet's courtship. Polonius affirms this warning, telling her that Hamlet is in all likelihood only toying with her and that he wishes her to no longer speak to Hamlet.
Act 1, Scene 4
In the middle of the night, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo wait on the battlements of Elsinore to see if the Ghost will appear. In the meantime they comment on the nightly carousing and revelry at the court of Denmark, which Hamlet acknowledges give Denmark a reputation of being a place of drunkenness. Hamlet then philosophizes about human faults, observing that one fault can overwhelm a person who is in all other respects decent. His discourse is interrupted by the appearance of the Ghost, who signals him to follow. Hamlet's companions try to hold him back, fearing that the Ghost may drive him mad or move him to take his own life, but Hamlet resists, drawing his sword, and follows the Ghost. The others follow after.
Act 1, Scene 5
Alone with the Ghost, Hamlet says that he will go no further. The Ghost identifies himself as Hamlet's father's spirit, "doomed for a certain term to walk the night" because he died without having had the opportunity to repent. More significantly, he tells Hamlet that although he is said to have died sleeping in his orchard, the truth is that his brother killed him by pouring a "leperous distillment" in his ear; through this lie, Claudius has abused the ear of Denmark. Hamlet tells the Ghost that he had suspected some foul play by his uncle, and the Ghost tells Hamlet that he is obliged to avenge the murder. Further, the Ghost instructs Hamlet not to hurt his mother but to "leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her." With the approach of morning, the Ghost vanishes, leaving in Hamlet's ears the words "Remember me." Hamlet believes the Ghost and tells Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo that the Ghost is honest, but he refuses to reveal what the Ghost imparted. Hamlet instructs the men to mention nothing of what has just occurred and, if they see Hamlet acting oddly, not to indicate even by the smallest gesture that they know the reason why. He commands them to swear that they will be silent. When they resist, saying that such an oath is not necessary, the Ghost's voice calls out, "Swear," and they do. Hamlet calls the Ghost a perturbed spirit and tells it to rest. He then remarks that "the time is out of joint" and that it is his misfortune that it is his task "to set it right."
Act 2, Scene 1
Polonius is alone with Reynaldo, a courtier whom he is sending to Paris to find out how Laertes is behaving. Polonius instructs Reynaldo in methods of gathering information, emphasizing how he ought to offer demeaning observations about Laertes's character to see if others confirm them or even reciprocate with further accounts of his faults. Once Reynaldo is dispatched, Ophelia enters and tells her father of a recent, disturbing encounter with Hamlet, who entered her chamber with his clothing in disarray, took hold of her by the wrist, sighed, gazed at her, and left. Polonius interprets the behavior as indicating lovesickness and asks her if she has "given him any hard words of late"; Ophelia tells him that she has not, that she has, as Polonius instructed, returned Hamlet's letters and "denied / His access to me." Polonius determines to tell the king of the episode.
Act 2, Scene 2
Claudius and Gertrude greet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old school friends of Hamlet's, thank them for answering their summons, and explain that neither Hamlet's "exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was." The king and queen hope that the two might be able to spend time with Hamlet and find out what has caused his "transformation." The two friends then leave to let Hamlet know of their arrival.
Polonius enters and informs Claudius that the ambassadors to Norway, Cornelius and Voltimand, have returned and that he thinks he knows the cause of Hamlet's madness; he advises the king to first hear from the ambassadors. After Polonius leaves to fetch the ambassadors, Claudius tells Gertrude that Polonius thinks he knows the cause of Hamlet's madness. She remarks that she does not doubt that the cause is the combination of his father's death and their "o'erhasty marriage."
Voltimand and Cornelius report that the king of Norway was grieved to learn that Fortinbras was raising an army against Denmark, as he had thought the army was being assembled for an attack against Poland. When he learned the truth, he suppressed Fortinbras's war effort against Denmark but asked for passage through Denmark for the Polish campaign.
With the ambassadors' business concluded, Polonius informs the king and queen with characteristic long-windedness that he believes the cause of Hamlet's apparent madness to be love for Ophelia; he reads a letter from Hamlet to her that expresses love and desperation. The queen finds the hypothesis credible, and the king wishes to know how they might test it. Polonius suggests that he will arrange for Hamlet and Ophelia to meet and converse while the king, queen, and Polonius hide behind an arras, or long heavy curtain, and eavesdrop. Claudius accepts, and Polonius, noticing Hamlet walking toward them, instructs the king and queen to leave while he engages Hamlet in conversation.
Polonius greets Hamlet and, as if talking to a madman, asks Hamlet if he knows him. Hamlet answers that he knows him very well, that he is a fishmonger. Hamlet often speaks in double entendres, expressions that have two meanings, with one of them usually sexually suggestive; a fishmonger is not only a person who sells fish but also a procurer, or pimp. Indeed, Polonius is in a sense using Ophelia ("I'll loose my daughter," he has told Claudius and Gertrude) to snare Hamlet. Hamlet continues to lead Polonius on, teasing him with references to love, sexuality, Ophelia, and death. Polonius takes leave of Hamlet convinced that he is mad and that love for Ophelia is the cause.
As Polonius leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and greet Hamlet, who asks what ill fortune brings them to Denmark, which he calls a prison. They respond that they do not find it to be such, and he tells them that it is one only to him, then, "for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." They observe that he must have too much ambition, but Hamlet dissents and, as he had toyed with Polonius, toys with them, telling them he could live happily in a small space but has bad dreams. After they discuss the nature of dreams, Hamlet again asks why they have come to Elsinore, and they answer that it was to visit him. But Hamlet protests that their visit is not voluntary, remarking, "Were you not sent for?… Come, come, deal justly with me." They equivocate, not knowing what to say, and Hamlet tells them that they need not answer; he knows that they were summoned. Still, they do not respond honestly, asking, "To what end?" Hamlet replies, "That you must teach me." Finally, the two admit that they were summoned, and Hamlet says that he will tell them why so that they will not be guilty of revealing their mission.
Hamlet proceeds to inform them that he has lost his ability to take pleasure in being alive and that "man," though a wonderful creature with great capabilities, "delights not me"; when they smile, he suspects they have a bawdy understanding of his words and adds "nor woman neither." Rosencrantz asserts that he was thinking no such thing; rather, he recalled that they encountered traveling players on their way to the court, and if Hamlet takes no pleasure in the ways of men, he will not enjoy the players. Hamlet responds that they will be welcome, especially the one who plays the king. After discussion on the current state of the theater, with reference to the stage in Shakespeare's own London and the rise of children's theater companies, which has forced adult troupes to travel, Polonius enters to inform Hamlet that the players have arrived. Hamlet and Polonius banter about theater and once again about fathers and their daughters. Hamlet refers to the biblical figure of Jephthah, who vowed to God that if he was victorious in battle, he would offer as a sacrifice to God the first thing he saw on his return home. On his return, the first thing Jephtha encountered was his daughter coming out to greet him. "Still on my daughter," Polonius notes, without realizing that Hamlet is suggesting that Polonius is sacrificing his daughter to his own interests. The players enter, and Hamlet greets them and asks one of the players to recite a speech about the fall of Troy to the Greeks in the Trojan War and the suffering of the king and queen of Troy, Priam and Hecuba. Polonius notes that as the player recites the speech, he is filled with emotion. Hamlet then asks the players if they know a play called The Murder of Gonzago; they do. Hamlet arranges for them to play it before the court the following night with the addition of some lines Hamlet will write.
Alone, Hamlet compares himself to the player, who was moved to a passion by his own speech, and berates himself in a soliloquy for his lack of determination in real life in his quest for revenge. His meditation leads him to the idea that "guilty creatures" watching a play that mirrors their misdeeds might become so moved as to confess their crimes, if not verbally then by some facial expression or bodily gesture. Thus, Hamlet plans to watch the king's response to The Murder of Gonzago, which features a murder similar to King Hamlet's murder. Hamlet remarks in closing, "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."
Act 3, Scene 1
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to the king and queen that they were unable to learn much from Hamlet, who, they say, greeted them like a gentleman but avoided their inquiries with a crafty madness. The two inform the king of the players' arrival and of the performance scheduled for that evening. The king is glad that Hamlet seems to be pursuing pleasure and instructs them to continue trying to lead him to reveal the root of his mad behavior. The king then asks Gertrude to leave them. Gertrude tells Ophelia that she hopes it is for love of her that Hamlet is mad; she would not oppose their marriage. Polonius positions Ophelia with a book to wait for Hamlet; he and the king will watch in hiding when Hamlet arrives.
Hamlet enters and recites perhaps the most famous speech from any play, the soliloquy "To be or not to be," in which he ponders the pain of being alive and the fear of death and of what the afterlife may hold. He concludes that fear of the unknown makes people bear the burdens, injustices, and woes of being alive. He breaks off his meditations when he sees Ophelia, who is reading from a book that Hamlet takes to be a prayer book. In greeting her, he asks her to include him in her prayers. She tells him that she has "remembrances" of his, gifts and letters he has given her that she wishes to return to him. He says that he never gave her anything, but she asserts that he knows he did; when he did, he gave them with sweet words, but now that he is cold to her, the gifts no longer have the richness they once had. He interrupts her to ask if she is honest, suspecting that she is the bait in a trap to catch him. She does not understand his question, and he declares that if she is honest and fair, her honesty would not permit her to be used (as she is being used to lure Hamlet into revealing himself).
In a speech full of words with double meanings, Hamlet tells Ophelia "Get thee to a nunnery," meaning both "sequester yourself in a convent to be away from this sinful, dangerous world" and "go into a brothel, for you are being a prostitute, in being used by Claudius and Polonius." At length, he berates himself and all of mankind. He concludes by asking, "Where's your father?" and she answers with a lie, "At home, my lord." Hamlet then calls her father a fool, tells Ophelia that if she marries she ought to be chaste, and concludes with a condemnation of women who apply makeup and act affectedly, making a mockery of God's creation. He rails against marriage and makes a veiled threat to kill the king. He concludes by once more telling her, "To a nunnery, go."
Alone, Ophelia grieves at Hamlet's apparent madness. The king and Polonius come out of hiding, and the king remarks that Hamlet did not seem to be talking like a disappointed lover, that his words were not really like those of a madman. Furthermore, the king feels that Hamlet is a threat and so resolves to send him to England in an ambassadorial function, to collect some tribute money that England has neglected to pay Denmark. Polonius tells Ophelia that she need not tax herself to relate the conversation as they have overheard everything, thus offering no comfort to the broken-hearted girl. Polonius suggests that after the play, Gertrude ought to talk to Hamlet to see what she can learn; he will hide behind an arras and listen to their conversation. The king agrees and adds that "madness in great ones" must not go unwatched.
Act 3, Scene 2
Before the performance of The Mousetrap, Hamlet's adaptation of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet instructs the players how to act, telling them not to play the scene that evening too broadly and with great gesticulation—not to go for big effects but to perform realistically and to "hold … the mirror up to nature." When the players leave, Horatio enters. Hamlet first tells him how much he loves and admires him for his balanced, stoical disposition, as he is not a flatterer or a slave to the whims of fortune. Hamlet asks Horatio to observe the king's reactions during the play, which will mirror the circumstances of King Hamlet's death as the Ghost has related them.
With ceremonial flourish the king and the court enter. The king greets Hamlet, asking how he "fares," and Hamlet responds with a cryptic pun, since "how do you fare" means "how do you eat?" as well as "how do you do?" Hamlet says that he "eats the air, promise crammed," punning also on "heir," suggesting that Claudius, by marrying Gertrude and becoming king, has usurped Hamlet's rightful place in the royal succession. Claudius says that he does not understand Hamlet's meaning—"these words are not mine"—and Hamlet retorts that now that they have been spoken, the words are not his either. Hamlet then turns to banter with Polonius about his past as an actor. The queen invites Hamlet to sit beside her, but Hamlet indicates that he would prefer to sit by Ophelia and proceeds to make a series of obscene sexual puns and cutting references to his father's death and his mother's remarriage.
The play begins with a "dumb show" or pantomime of the action to come. After a spoken prologue, the Player King and Player Queen enter. They are loving, but the king is not in good health and speaks of the possibility of dying. The queen says that she will never marry again; to do so would be like a second death of her husband. But the king objects; as circumstances change, he asserts, so will she. She protests that she will be constant and then leaves the stage, and the king lies down for a nap. As the scene changes, Hamlet asks his mother what she thinks of the play, and she says that it seems to her that "the lady doth protest too much."
A new character then enters and pours poison into the sleeping king's ear, as Hamlet, like a chorus, narrates what is happening, noting, "You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife." At this point, Claudius rises, Gertrude asks how he fares, Polonius orders the play stopped, and Claudius calls for "some light" and leaves; all the court except Hamlet and Horatio follow. Hamlet is euphoric, and he and Horatio agree that the king's reaction confirms the Ghost's honesty and the king's guilt. As they talk, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and tell Hamlet how disturbed the king and queen are at his behavior and also that the queen wishes to speak with him in her chamber. They apologize for their boldness in speaking somewhat reproachfully to Hamlet, citing the great love they bear him as an excuse. Hamlet takes a flute from one of the players and asks Guildenstern to play it; Guildenstern protests that he lacks the skill to do so. Hamlet remarks on how cheaply, then, Guildenstern must hold Hamlet, in that Guildenstern was trying to "play upon" him. Polonius enters to also announce that the queen wishes to see Hamlet in her chamber. Hamlet then taunts Polonius, too, and the scene ends with Hamlet leaving for Gertrude's chamber, vowing to be severe with her and reprimand her for her remarriage but not to be abusive or violent.
Act 3, Scene 3
Feeling himself to be in danger, Claudius commissions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England and tells them to arm themselves for the task. They flatter him, telling him how important a king is and how he must protect himself in order to protect all the people of the kingdom who depend on him. As they leave, Polonius enters; he tells the king that Hamlet is going to Gertrude's chamber and that he will hide behind the arras there to listen to their conversation. Polonius adds that a mother is too partial to her son to be trusted in such circumstances.
Alone, Claudius contemplates his crime, admitting to himself how terrible the murder of a brother is. He tries to pray but realizes that his prayer is meaningless as long as he still enjoys the fruits of his crime. Meanwhile, Hamlet passes on his way to Gertrude's chamber and realizes that he might kill the king—but he refrains from doing so because killing Claudius while he is in prayer would send his soul to heaven. That, Hamlet says, would be unfair: "A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do this same villain send / To heaven." He leaves Claudius alive. Claudius, alone, ends the scene saying, "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go." Ironically, prayer did, this time, despite his ambivalence, protect him.
Act 3, Scene 4
In Gertrude's chamber, Polonius tells her that Hamlet is coming and that she should scold her son for his "pranks"; meanwhile, Polonius will hide behind the arras. As Hamlet approaches, she tells Polonius not to worry and to hide. Hamlet asks his mother, "What's the matter?" and she answers that he has much offended his father, meaning Claudius, his stepfather. He retorts that she has much offended his father, meaning her first husband, King Hamlet. She tells him that his answer is idle, he tells her that her question is wicked, and they begin to quarrel. She asks if he has forgotten who she is; he says that indeed he has not, that she is her husband's brother's wife and, though he wishes it were not so, his mother. She says that if he will not listen to her, she will have others speak to him, and he takes hold of her and sits her down, saying that he will hold up a mirror for her to see her innermost self. Frightened, she cries out, "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? / Help, ho!" Polonius, hearing her cry, calls out "Help!" too, and Hamlet stabs the man behind the curtain without seeing who it is. When his mother asks, "What hast thou done?" he says that he does not know. He asks if the man was the king, but she only says that it was a "bloody deed." Hamlet responds that the act is "almost as bad, good Mother, / as kill a king, and marry with his brother." She responds with the question, "As kill a king?" apparently not knowing what he is referring to. He then lifts the curtain and sees the dead Polonius, to call him a "wretched, rash, intruding fool."
The murder seems to spur them to speak more openly, for Gertrude then asks what she has done to leave him so incensed. Hamlet proceeds to answer, and what he does not say is as interesting as what he does, for he fails to mention his meeting with the Ghost, nor does he explain the expression "as kill a king." Rather, he focuses on the differences he perceives between the two brothers, elevating the old King Hamlet to a divine level and depicting Claudius as a depraved man. He chides his mother for being able to go from a man so fine to a man so base. She breaks down and tells him that he has torn her heart in two. He tells her to throw away the rotten part, the part attached to Claudius. As he speaks, the Ghost enters to remind Hamlet that he has nearly forgotten his mission, to avenge his father's death. Gertrude sees Hamlet talking to the air and grows afraid that he truly is crazy. Hamlet warns her not to think that he is mad rather than realize that she is at fault; he tells her not to go again to Claudius's bed or to be seduced into revealing Hamlet's true condition. She agrees. Hamlet then tells his mother that he is being sent to England, that he suspects a plot against him, that he does not trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that he will beat them at their own game. He leaves, dragging Polonius's body behind him to deposit it in another room.
Act 4, Scene 1
The king asks Gertrude how the interview with Hamlet went. She asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to withdraw and tells Claudius that Hamlet is as mad as the raging sea during a tempest and that he killed Polonius. The king reflects on how he himself might have been killed and on how the people will hold him partly responsible for the killing, as he failed to keep Hamlet in check. He reiterates that he will send Hamlet to England. When Claudius asks Gertrude where Hamlet is now, she reports that he has gone to stow Polonius's body somewhere. The king summons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back into his presence, tells them of the murder of Polonius, and orders them to find Hamlet and the body.
Act 4, Scene 2
No longer as friends but as agents of the king, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern demand Polonius's body of Hamlet. He does not give them a straight answer, insults them, and runs away as if playing hide-and-seek; they pursue him.
Act 4, Scene 3
The king tells two or three courtiers that he has sent to find Hamlet and the body and that Hamlet is dangerous, though the "multitude," the people, love him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and tell the king that Hamlet is outside the chamber under guard but will not say where the body is. The king orders Hamlet brought in and asks him where the body is. Hamlet answers cryptically first that Polonius is "at supper," "not where he eats, but where he is eaten," then that perhaps Polonius is in heaven and the king ought to send a messenger there to find him; if he is not there, the king might look in the "other place" himself. Finally, Hamlet says that if the king cannot find him in either place he will soon smell him by a certain staircase. Claudius tells Hamlet that for his own safety he is sending him to England aboard a ship, and Hamlet is removed under guard. In a short soliloquy, the king reveals that he has sent letters to England ordering Hamlet's murder and that he will not know peace until Hamlet is dead.
Act 4, Scene 4
Fortinbras, of Norway, crosses the stage with his troops, passing through Denmark on his way to fight for a barren piece of land in Poland, as a captain tells Hamlet when he inquires. Hamlet is astonished that men should fight and so many should die for the possession of a worthless piece of ground. He concludes that to be great is to "find quarrel in a straw," and reproaches himself for not having accomplished the Ghost's commission yet. He vows that his thoughts will be bloody from then on, thinking that if they are not, they will be worth nothing.
Act 4, Scene 5
In the castle, Gertrude refuses to speak with Ophelia until a courtier tells her that Ophelia is distracted and talks madly in incoherent snatches about her father; Horatio then advises Gertrude to speak with Ophelia lest she bring people to think ill of the king, and Gertrude agrees. Ophelia enters, deranged by grief and singing songs about sexual promiscuity, abandonment, and death. Claudius enters and speaks gently to Ophelia, but she leaves them talking of her father's burial in the cold ground and how her "brother shall know of it." Claudius instructs Horatio to keep an eye on Ophelia, as he is worried that seeing her grief will turn the people against him; Claudius then tells Gertrude that Laertes has secretly returned from France to avenge his father's death, for which he blames the king. As Claudius speaks, there is a commotion, as Laertes has incited a mob looking to overthrow Claudius and make Laertes king. They break down the doors of the castle and enter, and Laertes commands the mob to stand outside and demands to know where his father is. Gertrude unsuccessfully tries to calm Laertes, and Claudius bids her let him go, saying that he is not afraid, for a king is protected by God. The king persuades Laertes to be patient and tries to convince Laertes that they are partners in grief, that he is not responsible for Polonius's death, and that he does not begrudge Laertes his revenge but also does not want Laertes to punish the innocent with the guilty. As Laertes's passion subsides, Ophelia enters again, mad and strewing flowers, rousing that passion again. Once Ophelia has gone, Claudius tells Laertes that he will answer any questions regarding Polonius's death and will satisfy Laertes regarding his own innocence.
Act 4, Scene 6
Sailors bring Horatio a letter from Hamlet, who writes that he is back in Denmark, as pirates boarded their ship at sea, and during the battle Hamlet boarded the pirates' ship. They have dealt fairly with him and for a reward are returning him to Denmark. He requests that Horatio take the sailors to the king and give the king letters from him. Hamlet has much to tell Horatio of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are still traveling to England. Horatio promises the sailors to do as Hamlet requests and asks them to bring him to Hamlet.
Act 4, Scene 7
Explaining what has happened to Polonius, Claudius convinces Laertes of his own innocence regarding Polonius's death and of Hamlet's guilt. When Laertes asks why Hamlet was not punished, Claudius explains that he could not punish him outright because of the love his mother and the people both bear him. Laertes vows to take revenge himself, but the king tells him that more news will soon come to satisfy him. As they speak, a messenger enters with Hamlet's letters, and the king reads that Hamlet has returned to Denmark alone and wishes to see him. Laertes asserts that he must now take revenge, and the king concocts a scheme to make Hamlet's death look accidental. He tells Laertes how much Hamlet admires his skill in fencing and proposes a match between the two. Laertes' sword, however, shall not have a blunt on its tip. Laertes, roused by the king's goading to a passion that would allow him to cut Hamlet's throat in church, agrees. Besides the sword's being naked, the king proposes that its tip be wetted with a deadly poison and that, should Hamlet become thirsty during the duel, the king will offer him a cup of poisoned wine. Gertrude interrupts their conversation to announce that Ophelia has drowned in a brook near the castle, and Laertes is shattered. The king and Gertrude follow him offstage, with the king noting how terrible Ophelia's death is, since he has had so much trouble calming Laertes' rage, and her death has now inflamed it once again.
Act 5, Scene 1
In the graveyard, two clowns are joking and singing as they dig a grave. By their conversation, the audience or reader understands that the grave is Ophelia's and that owing to a dispute over whether her drowning was accidental or suicidal, she will not be given full burial rites. Hamlet and Horatio then enter, and Hamlet is astonished that the First Clown can go about his gravedigging business in such a carefree fashion and engages him in conversation. The First Clown says that he has been employed at his trade for thirty years, since the young Hamlet was born. They speak of mortality, and the clown shows Hamlet a skull, saying that it was the skull of Yorick, the king's jester; Hamlet then meditates on the passing of time.
As they speak, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, a Priest, and members of the court enter for Ophelia's burial. When she is laid in the earth, Laertes jumps into the grave after her. Hamlet, seeing everything, his passion aroused, jumps in, too, and there grapples with Laertes, proclaiming his greater love. The king has them parted, and Hamlet protests that Laertes has no cause to be angry with him, that he has always esteemed him. Claudius bids Horatio look after Hamlet, and when he is alone with Laertes, the king asks him to be patient in his desire for revenge, reminding him of the plan they have to murder Hamlet in the dueling contest.
Act 5, Scene 2
Hamlet tells Horatio how he found the letter that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were carrying from Claudius to the king of England commissioning Hamlet's immediate execution. He then notes that he substituted another letter that he wrote and sealed with his own royal signet ring, ordering instead the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for whose deaths he feels no guilt, so willing were they to go about the king's business. In the course of this discussion, Hamlet reveals a new calmness of temperament founded on his acceptance that things, with time, will be as they are ordained to be.
As they are speaking, Osric, a foppish courtier, enters and tells Hamlet of the fencing wager the king has placed on him against Laertes. Hamlet agrees to the contest and says that he is available immediately. The king, queen, Laertes, and the court then enter, and the contest begins. Hamlet asks Laertes for forgiveness, claiming that his madness, not himself, wronged Laertes, and Laertes, yet planning to kill Hamlet, lies and says that he forgives him, provisionally. They choose their foils, with Laertes taking the bare, poisoned one and Hamlet accepting the blunted one without checking the other, as the king had said he would. Between rounds, the king offers Hamlet a drink of poisoned wine, but Hamlet declines until later. The queen then begins to take a sip, and the king tries to stop her, but she protests that she will drink; after drinking, she swoons and realizes that she has been poisoned. Hamlet and Laertes then both wound each other with the poisoned sword, for in a scuffle their foils are exchanged. Laertes then has a change of heart and tells Hamlet of the king's plot; Laertes asks Hamlet's forgiveness and dies receiving it. Hamlet then strikes the king with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink some of the wine, and the courtiers call out treason. As Hamlet is dying, Horatio says that he will take the cup and drink as well, thus, like a Roman, following his friend in death. However, Hamlet prevents him, imploring him rather to put off the joys of death for a while and, in the cruel world, to draw his breath in pain and tell Hamlet's story, for as it stands he dies with a sullied reputation. Hamlet notes that he imagines Fortinbras will be selected king of Denmark, and he approves of that. Fortinbras, indeed, then enters, returning across Denmark from victory in Poland, and has Hamlet placed on a funeral platform and given military rites.
Bernardo is a guard at Elsinore. During his watch on the ramparts, along with his partner Marcellus, Bernardo sees the Ghost of Hamlet's father, the old King Hamlet, and reports the event to Hamlet's friend Horatio, who joins the two guards on the night watch.
- Laurence Olivier's black-and-white film version of Hamlet (1948), for which he won Academy Awards for both acting and directing, cuts Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras out of the play and emphasizes Hamlet's inability to make up his mind and his oedipal fixation on his mother. The film was released by J. Arthur Rank.
- Elmer Rice's 1958 stage adaptation of Hamlet, Cue for Passion, transposes Shakespeare's play from Denmark to contemporary California. This play offers the story of a widow who remarries to the only witness to her first husband's apparently accidental death, with her son finding the situation disturbing. The play was first produced by the Playwrights' Company at Henry Miller's Theater in New York.
- For his 1990 film version of Hamlet, director Franco Zeffirelli rearranged and cut the text but fully retained the spirit of the original, with Mel Gibson performing admirably as Hamlet. The film was released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
- Kenneth Branagh's four-and-a-half-hour film version of Hamlet (1996) is a monumental rendition of the complete play set in the nineteenth century. Branagh adapted the play, directed the movie, and starred as the title character. The film was released by Columbia Pictures.
- As he was filming Hamlet, Branagh also filmed A Midwinter's Tale (1995), a modest black-and-white film of a group of amateur provincial actors putting together a production of Hamlet. A Midwinter's Tale includes certain scenes from Hamlet, some done as burlesque and some done with an insightful naïveté. The film was released by Sony Pictures.
- Let the Devil Wear Black (1999) turns Hamlet into a crime thriller set in the boardrooms of Los Angeles. The film was released by Unapix.
- The director Michael Almereyda set his 2000 film version of Hamlet in modern Manhattan, with Ethan Hawke starring as the title character. The film was released by Miramax Pictures.
Claudius is the old King Hamlet's brother and Prince Hamlet's uncle. At the play's opening, he has secretly murdered his brother, married his brother's widow, and ascended the throne of Denmark. Claudius soon becomes wary that Hamlet has discovered his crime and is planning to avenge King Hamlet's murder by killing him. Consequently, he arranges for the murder of Hamlet. Although Claudius is unrepentant and unwilling to forfeit the advantages he has gained through his crime, he is plagued by a guilty conscience.
As he digs Ophelia's grave, the First Clown sings and makes grim jokes about death. Hamlet encounters him thus and is surprised at his merriness; Hamlet inquires as to whose grave is being dug and contemplates mortality as he holds what the First Clown declares to be the skull of Yorick, Hamlet's father's jester.
The Second Clown essentially plays the role of straight man to the comedic First Clown as they dig a grave for Ophelia.
Fortinbras is the prince of Norway. His father was killed by King Hamlet in combat years before, and he is determined to go to war against Denmark in order to recapture the territories his father lost in that battle. After Claudius persuades Fortinbras's uncle, the king of Norway, to restrain Fortinbras with respect to Denmark, Claudius, in return, allows Fortinbras to lead his troops through Denmark to conduct war against Poland. At the end of the play, when Hamlet and Claudius are dead, Fortinbras becomes king of Denmark.
Francisco appears in the first scene as one of the guards who nightly stand watch on the battlements at Elsinore.
The queen of Denmark, Gertrude is the old King Hamlet's widow and Hamlet's mother. Claudius marries Gertrude two months after her first husband's death. She dies during the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes when she insists on drinking from a cup intended for Hamlet, not knowing the wine is poisoned.
The Ghost is King Hamlet's spirit. King Hamlet is "doomed … to walk the night" for a certain period of time because he died without having the opportunity to repent of his sins, having been murdered in his sleep. He tells his son Hamlet that Claudius, his brother, killed him and commands Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing Claudius. He instructs Hamlet to spare Gertrude, to "leave her to heaven / and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her."
Guildenstern is an old school friend of Hamlet's. Along with his friend Rosencrantz, he is summoned by Claudius to Denmark to spy on Hamlet in order to discover what is troubling him and report back to the king. Hamlet suspects their duplicity. When they are sent by Claudius to escort Hamlet to England, bearing instructions to the English monarch to have Hamlet killed, Hamlet gets hold of the order and substitutes their names for his, and they are later executed.
Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is King Hamlet's son and Claudius's nephew. After King Hamlet's Ghost tells his son that he was killed by Claudius and that he wishes Hamlet to avenge his murder, Hamlet becomes determined to discover whether he saw an honest ghost or a diabolical spirit summoning him to a sinful act. To accomplish this, he decides to feign madness and also to present a play mirroring his father's murder, called The Murder of Gonzago, before Claudius and watch his reaction. In response to his dead father's charge, Hamlet is set on a course of meditation on life, death, responsibility, and fate. Far from being an action hero, Hamlet is a protagonist of reflection and philosophical contemplation. He is mortally wounded during a rigged fencing match with Laertes that Claudius has arranged, but not before he kills Laertes with the poisoned sword surreptitiously prepared for him. He stabs Claudius, as well, with that sword and also forces him to drink from the poisoned cup Claudius had prepared for him. As Hamlet and Laertes are dying, Hamlet forgives Laertes for plotting against him, and Laertes forgives Hamlet for the accidental murder of his father, Polonius. Hamlet then forbids his friend Horatio to commit suicide as a gesture of loyalty and friendship; rather, Hamlet charges Horatio to live and tell the prince's story so that his name will survive in honor after his death.
Horatio is a stoic scholar and Hamlet's true and loyal friend. Hamlet notes that Horatio meets good and bad fortune alike with equanimity. When Marcellus and Bernardo invite him to keep the watch with them and the Ghost appears, Horatio tries to speak to it, but without success. He tells Hamlet of the Ghost's appearance and joins him the following night on the battlements; when the Ghost beckons Hamlet to follow, Horatio tries to prevent Hamlet from going off alone with the spirit. He also advises Hamlet not to accept the king's challenge to compete against Laertes in a duel. At his death, Hamlet forbids Horatio to commit suicide, asking his friend to tell his story, explain his erratic behavior, and clear his name.
Laertes, Polonius's son, returns from his studies in Paris after Hamlet kills Polonius. Laertes' mission to avenge his father's murder thus mirrors Hamlet's mission to avenge the murder of his own father. Claudius mollifies Laertes, who is angry over both his father's death and his sister Ophelia's madness, and conspires with Laertes, arranging for him to kill Hamlet in a fencing match.
Ophelia is Polonius's daughter and Laertes' sister. When Polonius learns that Hamlet has been courting Ophelia, he warns his daughter that Hamlet may only be toying with her—that, being royalty, his choices in matters like matrimony may not be his own to make. After Ophelia breaks with Hamlet, following her father's instructions, Polonius suggests that the thwarting of Hamlet's love for her is what has maddened him; in effect, Polonius uses Ophelia in order to discover the root of Hamlet's malady. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia goes mad and eventually drowns. Whether her death is accidental or a suicide is unclear.
Osric is a courtier who conveys Laertes' challenge to a duel to Hamlet, who mocks Osric without mercy for his affected courtly mannerisms.
The Players are a troupe of traveling actors who visit Elsinore. At Hamlet's request, the principal player recites a speech depicting the fall of Troy and the fate of the king and queen of Troy, Priam and Hecuba. Later, the Players perform The Mousetrap, Hamlet's revision of a play called The Murder of Gonzago, before Claudius and the entire court. The play presents a situation similar to the murder of King Hamlet and the seduction of his widow. Hamlet hopes to see if Claudius reacts to the play in a way confirming his guilt and the Ghost's assertions—and indeed, Claudius does so.
Polonius is Claudius's Lord Chamberlain—one of his closest advisers—and is the father of Laertes and Ophelia. He is verbose and sententious and seems to love to hear himself talk and to make what he considers wise formulations. Hamlet mocks him with contempt. When Polonius is hidden behind a curtain (an arras) in Gertrude's closet, seeking to overhear the interview between Gertrude and Hamlet that he has arranged, Hamlet stabs him, thinking Claudius is hidden there.
The Priest presides over Ophelia's funeral and defines the limits of the religious rites allowed to her, since her death is considered a suicide.
Polonius sends Reynaldo to Paris to make inquiries regarding Laertes' behavior.
Rosencrantz, along with Guildenstern, is a school friend of Hamlet's whom the king summons to Elsinore to help discover the cause of Hamlet's strange behavior.
When Hamlet is being conveyed to England, the boat he is on is overtaken by pirates who return Hamlet to Denmark. Among others, the First Sailor delivers letters to Horatio and Claudius from him.
Voltimand, along with Cornelius, is an ambassador Claudius sends to Norway to negotiate with the king to prevent Fortinbras's invasion of Denmark.
The Active versus the Contemplative Life
As the hero of a revenge tragedy, conventionally, Hamlet ought to be a man of action, not of thought; what thoughts he does have ought to concern carrying out the deed he is dedicated to accomplishing. Shakespeare's hero, however, is a contemplative man. He thinks about the actions he will take and whether taking them will be morally right. He worries about the authenticity and authority of the Ghost. He contemplates the absurdity of war and the meaning of honor when he sees Fortinbras's army marching to fight in Poland for a tract of land. He meditates on the difficulties and pains of being alive and the fearsomeness of death in his "To be or not to be" soliloquy. When he has the opportunity to slay Claudius when he finds him at prayer, he forbears for fear of sending him to heaven. Still, Hamlet ultimately proves quite active. He kills Polonius; he performs feats of derring-do aboard his ship when it is attacked by pirates; he leaps into Ophelia's grave and grapples with her brother; and he is an excellent fencer, as his final duel with Laertes shows.
Nearly every character in Hamlet spies on another character or at some point conceals something. Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in France and is killed himself when he hides behind the arras to spy on Hamlet as he speaks to Gertrude. He also counsels Claudius to watch with him as Hamlet and Ophelia converse. The king orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet. Ophelia is used by the king and her father as a bait for their spying. Hamlet himself, in his attempt "to catch the conscience of the king" and authenticate the Ghost's report, devises a complex series of surveillance strategies, including feigning madness and presenting a play during the performance of which he watches the king. Aboard the ship to England, Hamlet engages in espionage that allows him to discover the plot against his life. Horatio, too, at Hamlet's request, becomes a spy during the performance of The Mousetrap.
A common type of play performed on the Elizabethan stage was the revenge tragedy. In a revenge tragedy, one act of brutality gives rise to a counteract, which gives rise to another, until all the characters are murdered. Usually, the murders are grim and treacherous. Hamlet is a complex example of a revenge tragedy. Hamlet is a man with greater consciousness than the typical heroes of revenge tragedies usually possess, and he struggles with the role of avenger that is cast upon him. After Hamlet's father dies, his father's ghost visits and reveals that he was murdered by his brother, and he calls upon Hamlet to avenge his murder. Parallel revenge plots are also present, as the old King Hamlet had defeated Fortinbras, the king of Norway, in a war, and at the beginning of Hamlet, the young Fortinbras plans to avenge his father's death by warring on Denmark. After Hamlet kills Polonius, that man's son, Laertes, returns to Denmark in order to avenge his father's death. The king suggests the climactic duel between Laertes and Hamlet as a way of accomplishing that revenge. In the end, Hamlet not only takes vengeance on the king but also avenges himself against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had become the king's agents in his attempts tomurder Hamlet.
An aside is the term for a remark uttered out loud but understood by the audience as reflecting a character's thought while not being heard by the other characters on the stage. Hamlet's first words in the play, "A little more than kin, and less than kind," constitute an aside. The words are not directed to the king, who has just addressed him, but reveal Hamlet's own unuttered thoughts. Similarly, when Polonius is trying to sound Hamlet out, in act 2, scene 2, after Hamlet has referred to his daughter, Polonius says to himself, "How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first." And then he addresses Hamlet, asking, "What do you read, my lord?"
Most of Hamlet, except for occasional prose passages, is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is called blank verse. Pentameter means that there are five poetic feet in each line, where a foot is composed of a certain number of syllables or beats. Iambic signifies the rhythm of the feet; in an iambic foot the first syllable is unaccented, the second accented. Thus, the iambic pentameter line "When we have shuffled off this mortal coil," for example, is scanned as follows: "When WE have SHUFFled OFF this MORtal COIL." Spoken English often falls into an iambic pattern.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- When Horatio announces, as Hamlet is dying, that he will commit suicide like an ancient Roman, to join his friend in death, Hamlet asks him to instead remain alive and relate his story. Imagine you are Horatio talking to a group of Danish citizens and, either in blank verse or in prose, tell Hamlet's story.
- In an essay, compare and contrast Thomas Kyd's play The Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet.
- Sources for Hamlet include historical chronicles. Choose a period in history that interests you and find one or two narrative accounts of that period and of some particular events and people of that time. Then use what you have studied as the basis for a short imaginative play set in that time period and incorporating some of the events and characters you read about.
- Many filmed versions and adaptations of Hamlet have been produced. Choose two, and in a well-organized essay of around one thousand words describe each and compare and contrast them with each other and with the original play by Shakespeare.
- Write an adaptation of a scene from Hamlet set in contemporary times, with contemporary characters and dialogue reflecting similar themes and concerns to those found in the original play.
- Write a rap song or a folk song in which the story of Hamlet is related.
- Along with Desdemona in Othello and Cordelia in King Lear, Ophelia is one of Shakespeare's heroines who is in some way sacrificed to the wishes and passions of the lead characters in those plays. Compare and contrast the three women, focusing on their relations to their fathers and to their beloveds.
Shakespeare is noted for his playing with words—punning—in order to simultaneously suggest multiple meanings in one word or phrase. In Hamlet, Shakespeare can be said to have given punning a rhetorical and dramatic relevance that he had not given it since the very early Comedy of Errors, when confusion regarding two sets of twins makes many comments have at least two contexts. Hamlet plays with language continuously and puns deliberately in order to tease and confuse those with whom he speaks, and he thereby also reveals the complexity of his personality.
In the 1590s, when Elizabeth I continued to reign, revenge tragedies were extremely popular. Structurally, these tragedies typically involve an initial crime that engenders waves of retribution for the crime and of counter-retribution for the retribution. These plays are often violent, brutal, and graphic. Hamlet follows in the tradition of the revenge tragedy but features a hero who, by virtue of his intellect and philosophical disposition, questions the conventions of his role while undertaking it.
A soliloquy is a speech a character delivers when alone on stage. It is an address to the audience revealing the character's inner thoughts and feelings. Hamlet is famous for its soliloquies, particularly the one that Hamlet relates in act 3, scene 1, beginning "To be, or not to be." Shakespeare gave Hamlet several soliloquies, a feature that emphasizes the character's inward-looking nature and the activity of his mind.
Children's Acting Companies
Hamlet speaks about children's acting companies with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in act 2, scene 2, when they explain to him that the players who are visiting Elsinore have been forced to travel because of the popularity of the newly emerging children's acting companies. In fact, beginning in 1598, after a decade of inactivity, children's acting companies, especially the Children of the Chapel Royal, became so popular on London stages that some established adult companies were forced, from 1599 to 1601, to go on the road in search of audiences. This conflict between boy's and men's acting companies was dubbed the "War of the Theaters."
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1600s: The players report to Hamlet that adult actors have been driven off the London stage and been replaced by children's companies, which have become very popular.
Today: The Broadway theater, which was once the home to plays written by playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Wiliams, William Inge, and Clifford Odetts, all writing about complex psychological and political subjects, has become inundated with children's spectacles and juke-box musicals.
- 1600s: Shakespeare adapted older plays, tales, and historical narratives in the composition of Hamlet.
Today: Hamlet continues to serve as the basis for new dramatic, cinematic, and narrative adaptations and reworkings.
- 1600s: In general, people do not consider it impossible to see a ghost.
Today: Seeing a ghost would be, by many people, considered a sign of mental or emotional disturbance.
The Trojan War
One of the players recites for Hamlet the story of the fall of Troy and the grief of Queen Hecuba. The Trojan War was fought between Greece and Troy, ostensibly over the wife of the Greek king Menelaus, Helen, who was seduced and kidnapped by Paris, a Trojan prince. That war was known to Elizabethans through a translation of The Aeneid (c. 29–19 b.c.e.), originally written by Virgil, made by the Scotsman Gavin Douglas. That translation appeared in London for the first time in 1553.
Hamlet is regarded as being among the greatest plays ever written, if not the greatest, and is as popular as it is critically esteemed. From its first performances, Hamlet enjoyed such great success that its first printing was an unauthorized pirated edition, reconstructed from memory by several actors who had been in road company productions at Oxford and Cambridge. It became the most popular work on the Restoration stage when the theaters were reopened in 1661, and it retained its popularity throughout the eighteenth century, in large part because great actors like Thomas Betterton, Colley Cibber, and Edmund Kean were drawn to the role of Hamlet. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge could write, "Hamlet has been the darling of every country in which the literature of England has been fostered." Undoubtedly, this has been true because of the play's poetry and because of the scope and depth of human character and complexity which it reveals through and in that poetry. A. C. Bradley, in his 1904 classic study Shakespearean Tragedy, praises "the dramatic splendour of the whole tragedy" and also states that "the whole story turns upon the peculiar character of the hero." The particular problem that Bradley associates with Hamlet's character is that Hamlet seems to be slow to act after his encounter with the Ghost. This concern extends backward from Bradley to the beginning of the nineteenth century and was also a chief concern in twentieth-century interpretations of Hamlet.
In 1818, reviewing his own critical approach to Hamlet, Coleridge argued,
We see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it…. This character Shakspere places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment:—Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve.
In "Hamlet and His Problems," from 1922, T. S. Eliot argues that rather than being a brilliant creation, Hamlet is an artistic failure. He asserts, "Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary." Eliot contends that Shakespeare failed to find an adequate "objective correlative," or "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." Eliot argues that in Hamlet, the emotional response evoked is greater than the plot can account for. Shakespeare, Eliot asserts, had "intractable" material in Hamlet's character, which defeated Shakespeare because he was dealing with things he did "not understand himself."
James Joyce, in the novel Ulysses, offers a biographical interpretation of Hamlet, presenting it as a reflection of the character Stephen Dedalus, who is as much concerned about his relationship to a father as he postulates Hamlet is.
One of the most influential twentieth-century readers of Hamlet, and one who was likewise concerned with Hamlet's attitude toward his father and its bearing on his actions, was the British Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones. Jones argued that Hamlet is held back from acting because of his Oedipus complex, which leads him to identify with Claudius because of his unconscious desire to murder his own father and possess his own mother. Jones's thoughts were published in 1946 as Hamlet and Oedipus but had been introduced in 1910 in a paper called, "The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive." Jones's analysis greatly influenced Laurence Olivier's classic 1948 film version of Hamlet.
The majority of critics and interpreters have pursued approaches to the problem of what became known as Hamlet's delay with greater attention to the text itself or to period scholarship, rather than to external theories or systems. Eleanor Prosser, in Hamlet and Revenge, attempts to determine the credibility of the Ghost and the morality of its injunction to revenge by determining whether it was a Protestant or a Catholic ghost. If conceived of from a Catholic perspective, the Ghost is a tormented spirit from purgatory, which is a Catholic concept. From a Protestant perspective, the Ghost must be a demon from hell. (Martin Luther, who sparked the Protestant Reformation, by 1530 had rejected the idea of purgatory, and Protestant teaching does not include belief in purgatory.) Prosser concludes that the spirit is misleading and evil.
What seems to unite all critics throughout the centuries is agreement that Hamlet is a profound study of the human condition with great dramatic excitement, exceptional lengths of the greatest poetry, and penetrating studies of human characters and relationships.
Jones applies Sigmund Freud's techniques of psychoanalysis to Hamlet's character, asserting that the prince is afflicted with an Oedipus Complex. This psychological disorder involves the unconscious desire of a son to kill his father and take his place as the object of the mother's love. According to the critic, Hamlet delays taking revenge on Claudius because he identifies with his uncle and shares his guilt. Thus Hamlet's inaction stems from a "tortured conscience," and his affliction is caused by "repressed" feelings. Furthermore, this theory accounts for Hamlet's speaking to Gertrude like a jealous lover, dwelling on his mother's sexual relations with Claudius, and treating his uncle like a rival. Significantly, the critic also claims that while his father's murder evokes "indignation" in Hamlet, Gertrude's perceived "incest" awakes his "intensest horror." In addition, Jones maintains that the prince suffers from "psychoneurosis," or "a state of mind where the person is unduly, often painfully, driven or thwarted by the 'unconscious' part of his mind." This internal mental conflict reflects Hamlet's condition throughout much of the play.
[The] whole picture presented by Hamlet, his deep depression, the hopeless note in his attitude towards the world and towards the value of life, his dread of death, his repeated reference to bad dreams, his self-accusations, his desperate efforts to get away from the thoughts of his duty, and his vain attempts to find an excuse for his procrastination; all this unequivocally points to a tortured conscience, to some hidden ground for shirking his task, a ground which he dare not or cannot avow to himself. We have, therefore,… to seek for some evidence that may serve to bring to light the hidden counter-motive.
The extensive experience of the psychoanalytic researches carried out by Freud and his school during the past half-century has amply demonstrated that certain kinds of mental process show a greater tendency to be inaccessible to consciousness (put technically, to be "repressed") than others. In other words, it is harder for a person to realize the existence in his mind of some mental trends than it is of others.
Bearing these considerations in mind, let us return to Hamlet … We … realize—as his words so often indicate—that the positive striving for vengeance, the pious task laid on him by his father, was to him the moral and social one, the one approved of by his consciousness, and that the "repressed" inhibiting striving against the act of vengeance arose in some hidden source connected with his more personal, natural instincts. The former striving … indeed is manifest in every speech in which Hamlet debates the matter: the second is, from its nature, more obscure and has next to be investigated.
This is perhaps most easily done by inquiring more intently into Hamlet's precise attitude towards the object of his vengeance, Claudius, and towards the crimes that have to be avenged. These are two: Claudius' incest with the Queen, and his murder of his brother. Now it is of great importance to note the profound difference in Hamlet's attitude towards these two crimes. Intellectually of course he abhors both, but there can be no question as to which arouses in him the deeper loathing. Whereas the murder of his father evokes in him indignation and a plain recognition of his obvious duty to avenge it, his mother's guilty conduct awakes in him the intensest horror.
Now, in trying to define Hamlet's attitude towards his uncle we have to guard against assuming off-hand that this is a simple one of mere execration, for there is a possibility of complexity arising in the following way: The uncle has not merely committed each crime, he has committed both crimes, a distinction of considerable importance, since the combination of crimes allows the admittance of a new factor, produced by the possible inter-relation of the two, which may prevent the result from being simply one of summation. In addition, it has to be borne in mind that the perpetrator of the crimes is a relative, and an exceedingly near relative. The possible inter-relationship of the crimes, and the fact that the author of them is an actual member of the family, give scope for a confusion in their influence on Hamlet's mind which may be the cause of the very obscurity we are seeking to clarify.
Let us first pursue further the effect on Hamlet of his mother's misconduct. Before he even knows with any certitude, however much he may suspect it, that his father has been murdered he is in the deepest depression, and evidently on account of this misconduct.
According to [A. C.] Bradley, [in his Shakespearean Tragedy], Hamlet's melancholic disgust at life was the cause of his aversion from "any kind of decided action." His explanation of the whole problem of Hamlet is "the moral shock of the sudden ghastly disclosure of his mother's true nature," and he regards the effect of this shock, as depicted in the play, as fully comprehensible. He says:
Is it possible to conceive an experience more desolating to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be; and is its result anything but perfectly natural? It brings bewildered horror, then loathing, then despair of human nature. His whole mind is poisoned … A nature morally blunter would have felt even so dreadful a revelation less keenly. A slower and more limited and positive mind might not have extended so widely through the world the disgust and disbelief that have entered it.
But we can rest satisfied with this seemingly adequate explanation of Hamlet's weariness of life only if we accept unquestioningly the conventional standards of the causes of deep emotion. Many years ago [John] Connolly, a well-known psychiatrist, pointed out [in his A Study of Hamlet] the disproportion here existing between cause and effect, and gave as his opinion that Hamlet's reaction to his mother's marriage indicated in itself a mental instability, "a predisposition to actual unsoundness"; he writes: "The circumstances are not such as would at once turn a healthy mind to the contemplation of suicide, the last resource of those whose reason has been overwhelmed by calamity and despair." In T. S. Eliot's opinion, also, Hamlet's emotion is in excess of the facts as they appear, and he specially contrasts it with Gertrude's negative and insignificant personality [in his The Sacred Wood] … We have unveiled only the exciting cause, not the predisposing cause. The very fact that Hamlet is apparently content with the explanation arouses our misgiving, for, as will presently be expounded, from the very nature of the emotion he cannot be aware of the true cause of it. If we ask, not what ought to produce such soul-paralysing grief and distaste for life, but what in actual fact does produce it, we are compelled to go beyond this explanation and seek for some deeper cause. In real life speedy second marriages occur commonly enough without leading to any such result as is here depicted, and when we see them followed by this result we invariably find, if the opportunity for an analysis of the subject's mind presents itself, that there is some other and more hidden reason why the event is followed by this inordinately great effect. The reason always is that the event has awakened to increased activity mental processes that have been "repressed" from the subject's consciousness. His mind has been specially prepared for the catastrophe by previous mental processes with which those directly resulting from the event have entered into association … In short, the special nature of the reaction presupposes some special feature in the mental predisposition. Bradley himself has to qualify his hypothesis by inserting the words "to a man such as we have seen Hamlet to be."
We come at this point to the vexed question of Hamlet's sanity, about which so many controversies have raged. Dover Wilson authoritatively writes [in his What Happens in Hamlet]: "I agree with Loening, Bradley and others that Shakespeare meant us to imagine Hamlet as suffering from some kind of mental disorder throughout the play." The question is what kind of mental disorder and what is its significance dramatically and psychologically. The matter is complicated by Hamlet's frequently displaying simulation (the Antic Disposition), and it has been asked whether this is to conceal his real mental disturbance or cunningly to conceal his purposes in coping with the practical problems of this task?
What we are essentially concerned with is the psychological understanding of the dramatic effect produced by Hamlet's personality and behaviour. That effect would be quite other were the central figure in the play to represent merely a "case of insanity." When that happens, as with Ophelia, such a person passes beyond our ken, is in a sense no more human, whereas Hamlet successfully claims our interest and sympathy to the very end. Shakespeare certainly never intended us to regard Hamlet as insane, so that the "mind o'erthrown" must have some other meaning than its literal one. Robert Bridges has described the matter with exquisite delicacy [in his The Testament of Beauty, I]:
Hamlet himself would never have been aught to us, or we
To Hamlet, wer't not for the artful balance whereby
Shakespeare so gingerly put his sanity in doubt
Without the while confounding his Reason.
I would suggest that in this Shakespeare's extraordinary powers of observation and penetration granted him a degree of insight that it has taken the world three subsequent centuries to reach. Until our generation (and even now in the juristic sphere) a dividing line separated the sane and responsible from the irresponsible insane. It is now becoming more and more widely recognized that much of mankind lives in an intermediate and unhappy state charged with what Dover Wilson well calls "that sense of frustration, futility and human inadequacy which is the burden of the whole symphony" and of which Hamlet is the supreme example in literature. This intermediate plight, in the toils of which perhaps the greater part of mankind struggles and suffers, is given the name of psychoneurosis, and long ago the genius of Shakespeare depicted it for us with faultless insight.
Extensive studies of the past half century, inspired by Freud, have taught us that a psycho-neurosis means a state of mind where the person is unduly, and often painfully, driven or thwarted by the "unconscious" part of his mind, that buried part that was once the infant's mind and still lives on side by side with the adult mentality that has developed out of it and should have taken its place. It signifies internal mental conflict. We have here the reason why it is impossible to discuss intelligently the state of mind of anyone suffering from a psychoneurosis, whether the description is of a living person or an imagined one, without correlating the manifestations with what must have operated in his infancy and is still operating. That is what I propose to attempt here.
For some deep-seated reason, which is to him unacceptable, Hamlet is plunged into anguish at the thought of his father being replaced in his mother's affections by someone else. It is as if his devotion to his mother had made him so jealous for her affection that he had found it hard enough to share this even with his father and could not endure to share it with still another man. Against this thought, however, suggestive as it is, may be urged three objections. First, if it were in itself a full statement of the matter, Hamlet would have been aware of the jealousy, whereas we have concluded that the mental process we are seeking is hidden from him. Secondly, we see in it no evidence of the arousing of an old and forgotten memory. And, thirdly, Hamlet is being deprived by Claudius of no greater share in the Queen's affection than he had been by his own father, for the two brothers made exactly similar claims in this respect—namely, those of a loved husband. The last-named objection, however, leads us to the heart of the situation. How if, in fact, Hamlet had in years gone by, as a child, bitterly resented having had to share his mother's affection even with his own father, had regarded him as a rival, and had secretly wished him out of the way so that he might enjoy undisputed and undisturbed the monopoly of that affection? If such thoughts had been present in his mind in childhood days they evidently would have been "repressed," and all traces of them obliterated, by filial piety and other educative influences. The actual realization of his early wish in the death of his father at the hands of a jealous rival would then have stimulated into activity these "repressed" memories, which would have produced, in the form of depression and other suffering, an obscure aftermath of his childhood's conflict. This is at all events the mechanism that is actually found in the real Hamlets who are investigated psychologically.
The explanation, therefore, of the delay and self-frustration exhibited in the endeavour to fulfil his father's demand for vengeance is that to Hamlet the thought of incest and parricide combined is too intolerable to be borne. One part of him tries to carry out the task, the other flinches inexorably from the thought of it. How fain would he blot it out in that "bestial oblivion" which unfortunately for him his conscience contemns. He is torn and tortured in an insoluble inner conflict.
Source: Ernest Jones, "The Psycho-Analytical Solution," in Hamlet and Oedipus Doubleday & Company, 1954, pp. 51-79.
Muir discusses imagery and symbolism in Hamlet, beginning with an examination of what he considers the most apparent image pattern in the play—disease. The critic suggests that images of disease are not associated with Hamlet himself, but a sense of infection surrounds both Claudius's crime and guilt and Gertrude's sin. Muir attributes Hamlet's disorder to his melancholic grief over his father's death and his mother's frailty. In addition, the critic includes images of decay, flowers, and prostitution with those of disease in the larger patterns of corruption and appearance versus reality. Finally, Muir explores war imagery in Hamlet, noting that it frequently recurs in the text and that its dramatic function is to underscore the fact that Hamlet and Claudius are engaged in a duel to the death.
A good many of the sickness images are merely designed to lend atmosphere [in Hamlet], as when Francisco on the battlements remarks that he is "sick at heart" [I. i. 9] or when Hamlet speaks of the way the courtier's chilblain is galled by the peasant's. Other images … are connected with the murder of Hamlet's father or with the corresponding murder of Gonzago. Several of the images refer to the sickness of the state, which some think to be due to the threat of war, but which the audience soon comes to realize is caused by Claudius' unpunished crime. Horatio believes that the appearance of the Ghost "bodes some strange eruption to our state" [I. i. 69] and Marcellus concludes that
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
[I. iv. 90]
Hamlet himself uses disease imagery again and again in reference to the King's guilt. He thinks of himself as a surgeon probing a wound: "I'll tent him to the quick" [II. ii. 597]. He tells Guildenstern that Claudius should have sent for a physician rather than himself, and when he refrains from assassinating him he remarks:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
[III. iii. 96]
He compares Claudius to "a mildewed ear Blasting his wholesome brother" [III. iv. 64-5] and in the last scene of the play he compares him to a cancer:
Is't not to be damn'd
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil.
[V. ii. 68-70]
It is true that Claudius reciprocates by using disease images in reference to Hamlet. He compares his leniency to his nephew to the behaviour of one suffering from a foul disease who conceals it and lets it feed "Even on the pith of life" [IV. i. 23]. He supports his stratagem of sending Hamlet to England with the proverbial maxim:
Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are reliev'd,
Or not at all.
[IV. iii. 9-11]
In hatching his plot with Laertes, he calls Hamlet's return "the quick of th'ulcer" [IV. vii. 123]. It is surely obvious that these images cannot be used to reflect on Hamlet's character: they exhibit rather the King's guilty fear of his nephew.
Some of the disease images are used by Hamlet in reference to the Queen's adultery at which, he tells her, "Heaven's face … Is thoughtsick" [III. iv. 48-51]. He urges her not to lay to her soul the "flattering unction" that he is mad:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whiles rank corruption, mining all within,
[III. iv. 147-49]
Gertrude herself, suffering from pangs of remorse, speaks of her "sick soul."
Laertes uses three disease images, two in his warnings to Ophelia not to allow herself to be seduced by Hamlet since in youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
[I. iii. 42]
In the third he tells Claudius that the prospect of avenging himself "warms the very sickness" [IV. vii. 55] in his heart.
Hamlet uses one image to describe the cause of the war between Norway and Poland—
the imposthume of much wealth and peace
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies.
[IV. iv. 27-9]
We have now examined nearly all the disease imagery without finding any evidence to support the view that Hamlet himself is diseased—the thing that is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is rather Claudius' crime and his guilty fears of Hamlet, and Gertrude's sin to which the imagery mainly refers; and in so far as it relates to the state of Denmark it emphasizes that what is wrong with the country is the unpunished fratricide committed by its ruler. But four disease images remain to be considered.
While Hamlet is waiting for his interview with his father's ghost he meditates on the drunkenness of the Court and of the way a single small defect in a man's character destroys his reputation and nullifies his virtues in the eyes of the world—"the general censure" [I. iv. 35]. The dram of evil,—some bad habit, an inherited characteristic, or "some vicious mole of nature"—
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt.
[I. iv. 24-5]
The line is textually corrupt, but the general meaning of the passage is plain. Some critics, and Sir Laurence Olivier in his film of the play, have assumed that Hamlet, consciously or unconsciously, was thinking of the tragic flaw in his own character. But there is no reason to think that at this point in the play Hamlet suffers from some vicious mole of nature—he has not yet been tested. In any case he is not arguing that a single defect outweighs infinite virtues, but merely that it spoils a man's reputation. The lines cannot properly be applied to Hamlet himself.
Two more disease images occur in the speech in which Claudius is trying to persuade Laertes to murder Hamlet. He tells him that love is apt to fade,
For goodness, growing to a plurisy
Dies in his own too much: that we would do
We should do when we would
[IV. vii. 117-19]
If we put it off,
this 'should' is like a spendthrift's sigh
That hurts by easing.
[IV. vii. 122-23]
The speech is designed to persuade Laertes to avenge his father's death without delay. But as Hamlet and Laertes are characters placed in a similar position, and as by this time Hamlet's vengeance has suffered abatements and delays, many critics have suggested that Shakespeare is commenting through the mouth of Claudius on Hamlet's failure to carry out his duty. It is not inherently impossible; but we should surely apply these lines to Hamlet's case only if we find by the use of more direct evidence that Shakespeare so conceived Hamlet's failure to carry out his duty.
Only one sickness image remains to be discussed, but this is the most famous one. In his soliloquy in Act III scene 1 (which begins "To be or not to be" [III. i. 55ff.]) Hamlet shows that thinking about the possible results of action is apt to inhibit it. People refrain from committing suicide (in spite of the miseries of this life) because they fear that death will be worse than life. They may, for example, be punished in hell for violating the canon against self-slaughter. Hamlet continues:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
[III. i. 82-7]
Obviously these lines are an important clue to the interpretation of the play. I used to think that conscience meant both "thinking too precisely on the event" and also the "craven scruple" of which Hamlet speaks in his last soliloquy—conscience as well as conscience, in fact. I now think the word is used (as in the words "the conscience of the King" [II. ii. 605]) only in its modern sense. Since Hamlet foresees that in taking vengeance on Claudius he may himself be killed, he hesitates—not because he is afraid of dying, but because he is afraid of being punished for his sins in hell or purgatory. But, as G. R. Elliott has pointed out [in his Scourge and Minister], Hamlet is speaking not merely of himself but of every man:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.
[III. i. 82]
It is apparent from this analysis of the sickness imagery in the play that it throws light on Elsinore rather than on Hamlet himself. He is not the diseased figure depicted by a long line of critics—or, at least, the imagery cannot justifiably be used in support of such an interpretation. On the other hand, the parallels which have been pointed out with Timothy Bright's Treatise of Melancholy do suggest that Shakespeare conceived his hero as suffering from melancholy. As depicted in the course of the play, he is not the paragon described by Ophelia, the observer of all observers, the glass of fashion,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state. [III. i. 152]
But it is necessary to emphasize that his melancholy has objective causes in the frailty of his mother and the death of his father.
Closely connected with the sickness imagery is what may loosely be called symbolism concerned with the odour of corruption … Hamlet, like Webster in Eliot's poem, is much possessed by death. He speaks of the way the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog, he refers to the corpse of Polonius as "the guts"; he tells Claudius that the dead man is at supper at the diet of worms and he proceeds to show how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar. The Graveyard scene is designed not merely to provide a last expression of Hamlet's love for Ophelia, and an opportunity for screwing up Laertes' hatred of Hamlet to the sticking-point. This could have been done without the conversation between the gravediggers, and that between the gravedigger and Hamlet. The scene is clearly used to underline the death-theme. Hamlet's meditation on the various skulls serves as a memento mori [a reminder of mortality]. We are reminded of Cain, who did the first murder, of Lady Worms, "chapless and knocked about the mazard with a sexton's spade" [V. i. 89-90], of Yorick's stinking skull, and of the noble dust of Alexander which may be stopping a bung-hole. Hamlet is thinking of the base uses to which we may return; but his meditations in the graveyard, though somewhat morbid, are calmer and less bitter than his thoughts earlier in the play.
All through the play there are words and images which reinforce the idea of corruption. Hamlet, feeling himself to be contaminated by the frailty of his mother wishes that his sullied flesh would melt. He suspects "foul play" when he hears of the appearance of the ghost. The intemperance of the Danes makes foreigners soil their addition with swinish phrase. Denmark's ear is "rankly abused" by the false account of the death of Hamlet's father; and later Claudius, at his prayers confesses that his "offence is rank" [III. iii. 36]. The Ghost tells Hamlet that Lust
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.
[I. v. 56-7]
Polonius speaks of his son's youthful vices as "the taints of liberty" [II. i. 32]. The air seems to Hamlet "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours" [II. ii. 302-03] and he declares that if his uncle's guilt is not revealed, his
imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy.
[III. ii. 83-4]
In the scene with his mother, Hamlet speaks of "the rank sweat of an enseamed bed"; he urges her not to "spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker"; and he speaks of "rank corruption mining all within". The smell of sin blends with the odour of corruption. [III. iv. 92, 151-52, 148]
The only alleviation to this atmosphere is provided by the flowers associated with the "rose of May" [IV. v. 158], Ophelia. Laertes compares Hamlet's love for her to a violet; Ophelia warns her brother not to tread "the primrose path of dalliance" [I. ii. 50], and later she laments that the perfume of Hamlet's love is lost. In her madness she distributes flowers and the last picture we have of her alive is wearing "fantastic garlands". Laertes prays that violets may spring from her unpolluted flesh and the Queen scatters flowers in the grave with the words "Sweets to the sweet" [V. i. 243]. Hamlet, probably referring to his love for Ophelia, tells Gertrude that her adultery
takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there.
[III. iv. 42-4]
The rose colour again reminds us of the flower. But the flowers and perfumes associated with Ophelia do not seriously counterbalance the odour of corruption.
I have left to the end what by my reckoning is the largest group of images. This is derived not from sickness, but from war. Many of these war images may have been suggested by the elder Hamlet's campaigns and by the activities of Fortinbras; but we should remember that Prince Hamlet himself is not without martial qualities, and this fact is underlined by the rites of war ordered for his obsequies and by Fortinbras' final tribute. But the dramatic function of the imagery is no doubt to emphasise that Claudius and Hamlet are engaged in a duel to the death, a duel which does ultimately lead to both their deaths.
Hamlet speaks of himself and his uncle as mighty opposites, between whose "pass and fell incensed points" [V. ii. 61] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had come. All through the play the war imagery reminds us of the struggle. Bernardo proposes to "assail" Horatio's ears which are "fortified against" his story. Claudius in his first speech tells of discretion fighting with nature and of the defeated joy of his wedding. Later in the scene he complains that Hamlet has a heart unfortified. Laertes urges his sister to "keep in the rear" of her affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire [I. iii. 34-5]
and he speaks of the "calumnious strokes" sustained by virtue and of the danger of youth's rebellion. Ophelia promises to take Laertes' advice as a "watchman" to her heart. Polonius in the same scene carries on the same imagery: he urges her to set her "entreatments at a higher rate Than a command to parley" [I. iii. 122-23]. In the next scene Hamlet speaks of the way "the o'ergrowth of some complexion" breaks down "the pales and forts of reason" [I. iv. 27-8]. Polonius compares the temptations of the flesh to a "general assault," The noise of Ilium's fall "takes prisoner Pyrrhus ear" [II. ii. 477], and Pyrrhus' sword is "rebellious to his arm" [II. ii. 470]. Hamlet thinks the actor would "cleave the general ear with horrid speech," and says that "the clown shall make those laugh whose lungs are tickle o'th'sere" (i.e. easily set off) [II. ii. 563, 323-24]. He speaks of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and derides the King for being "frighted with false fire" [III. i. 57; III. ii. 266]. Rosencrantz talks of the "armour of the mind" [III. iii. 12] and Claudius admits that his "guilt defeats" his "strong intent" [III. iii. 40].
Hamlet fears that Gertrude's heart is so brazed by custom that it is "proof and bulwark against sense", and he speaks of the way "compulsive ardour" (sexual appetite) "gives the charge" [III. iv. 86]. He tells his mother that he will outwit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
For 'tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar; and it shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon.
[III. iv. 206-09]
The Ghost speaks of Gertrude's 'fighting soul'. Claudius says that slander's whisper
As level as the cannon to his blank
Transports his pois'ned shot.
[IV. i. 42-3]
He tells Gertrude that when sorrows come,
They come not single spies
But in battalions!
[IV. v. 78-9]
and that Laertes' rebellion,
Like to a murd'ring piece, in many places
Gives me superfluous death.
[IV. v. 95-6]
In explaining to Laertes why he could not openly proceed against Hamlet because of his popularity with the people, he says that his arrows,
Too slightly timber'd for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
But not where I have aim'd them.
[IV. vii. 22-4]
Hamlet, in apologising to Laertes, says that his killing of Polonius was accidental:
I have shot my arrow o'er the house
And hurt my brother.
[V. ii. 243-44]
(These last two imagesare presumably taken from archery rather than from battle.) Gertrude compares Hamlet's hairs to "sleeping soldiers in the alarm."
Six of the images are taken from naval warfare. Polonius tells Ophelia he thought Hamlet meant to wreck her [II. i. 110] and he advises Laertes to grappe his friends to his 'heart with hoops of steel' [I. iii. 63] and, in a later scene, he proposes to board the Prince [II. ii. 170]. Hamlet, quibbling on "crafts," tells his mother:
O, 'tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
[III. iv. 209-10]
In the same scene he speaks of hell that mutines in a matron's bones; and, in describing his voyage to England, he tells Horatio:
Methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes.
[V. ii. 5-6]
In addition to the war images there are a large number of others that suggest violence. There are four images about knives, as when the Ghost tells Hamlet that his visitation is "to whet" his "almost blunted purpose" [III. iv. 111].
The images of war and violence should have the effect of counteracting some interpretations of the play, in which the psychology of the hero is regarded as the centre of interest. Equally important is the struggle between Hamlet and his uncle. Hamlet has to prove that the Ghost is not a devil in disguise, luring him to damnation, by obtaining objective evidence of Claudius' guilt. Claudius, for his part, is trying to pierce the secret of Hamlet's madness, using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia, and finally Gertrude as his instruments. Hamlet succeeds in his purpose, but in the very moment of success he enables Claudius to pierce the secret of his madness. Realising that his own secret murder has come to light, Claudius is bound to arrange for Hamlet's murder; and Hamlet, knowing that the truth of his antic disposition is now revealed to his enemy, realises that if he does not kill Claudius, Claudius will certainly kill him.
We have considered most of the patterns of imagery in the play—there are a few others which do not seem to throw much light on the meaning of the play—and I think it will be agreed that … the various image-patterns we have traced in Hamlet show that to concentrate on the sickness imagery, especially if it is divorced from its context, unduly simplifies the play. I do not pretend that a study of all the imagery will necessarily provide us with one—and only one—interpretation; but it will at least prevent us from assuming that the play is wholly concerned with the psychology of the hero. And that, I hope you will agree, is a step in the right direction. It may also prevent us from adopting the view of several modern critics—Wilson Knight, Rebecca West, Madariaga, L. C. Knights—who all seem to me to debase Hamlet's character to the extent of depriving him of the status of a tragic hero. It may also prevent us from assuming that the complexities of the play are due to Shakespeare's failure to transform the melodrama he inherited, and to the survival of primitive traits in his otherwise sophisticated hero.
Source: Kenneth Muir, "Imagery and Symbolism in Hamlet," in Etudes Anglaises, Vol. XVII, No. 4, October-December 1964, pp. 352-63.
Detmold addresses the question of why Hamlet delays taking revenge on Claudius by assessing his status as a tragic hero. According to the critic, a tragic hero has three prominent characteristics: (1) a will-power that surpasses that of average people, (2) an exceptionally intense power of feeling, and (3) and unusually high level of intelligence. From this definition of a tragic hero, Detmold especially focuses on Hamlet's unorthodox demonstration of will-power in the play, arguing that the protagonist's preoccupation with moral integrity is what ultimately delays him from killing Claudius. Further, the critic asserts that Hamlet is distinct from other tragedies in that its action commences in the soliloquy of Act I, scene ii where most other tragedies end: "with the discovery by the tragic hero that his supreme good is forever lost to him." Perhaps the most significant reason why Hamlet hesitates, the critic concludes, is that although he is tempted by love, kingship, and even revenge, he is long past the point where he desires to do anything about them. None of these objectives gives him a new incentive for living.
Hamlet is surely the most perplexing character in English drama. Who has not sympathized with the Court of Denmark in their bewilderment at his mercurial conduct? Theatre-goers, to be sure, are seldom baffled by him; perhaps the spectacle and melodrama of his undoing are powerful enough to stifle any mere doubts about his motives. But the more dispassionate audience of scholars and critics—if one may judge from the quantity of their published remarks—are often baffled. Seeking an intellectual satisfaction which will correspond to the pleasant purging of pity and terror in the spectator, they are only perplexed by Hamlet's behavior. They fail to understand his motives. How can a man so dilatory, who misses every opportunity to achieve what apparently he desires, who requires nearly three months to accomplish a simple and well-justified killing—how can such a man be classed a tragic hero? Is he not merely weak and contemptible? How can he be ranked with such forceful men as Lear, Macbeth, Othello, or even Romeo? And yet he is a great tragic hero, as the playgoers will testify. The spectacle of his doings and undoing is profoundly stirring; it rouses the most intense emotions of awe and admiration; it never moves us to scorn or contempt.
In order to understand Hamlet, we must be able to answer the old question about him: "Why does he delay?" Granting—as he does—that he has sufficient "cause, and will, and strength, and means" [IV. iv. 45] to avenge his father, why should he require approximately three months to do so, and then succeed almost purely by accident or afterthought? There is only one possible reason why a strong, vigorous, intelligent man does not kill another when he feels no revulsion against the deed, when his duty requires that he do it, when he is not afraid, when the man to be killed is not invulnerable, and when the consequences of the act are either inconsiderable or are not considered at all. Hamlet delays to kill his uncle only because he has little interest in doing so. His thoughts are elsewhere. Most of the time he forgets about it, as we forget about a letter that should be answered—and only occasionally does he remember it and ponder his reluctance to perform this simple duty. Rightly or wrongly, he is preoccupied with other things.
Yet revenge, especially when it entails murder, is a tremendously important affair; how can any man overlook it? What kind of man can consider what kind of thing more important? Is Hamlet in any way unique, beyond or above or apart from our experience of human nature? Let us examine him as a man and—more important—as a tragic hero.
We must realize that there is nothing curious or abnormal about him. He is recognizably human; he is not diseased or insane. If this were not so he would rouse no admiration in an audience, for it will never accord to a sick or crazy man the allegiance it usually gives to the tragic hero. The normal attitude toward abnormality is one of aversion. We worship strength and health and power, and will identify ourselves with the hero who displays these qualities. We may even identify ourselves with a Lear during his temporary insanity, but only because we have known him sane and can appreciate the magnitude of his disaster. For the Fool who is his companion we can feel only a detached and tender compassion. Hamlet rouses stronger emotions than these, and only because we can recognize ourselves in him, because he is in the finest sense a universal man: Homo sapiens, man thinking—and man feeling, man acting. The proper habitat of the freak is the side-show or museum, not the stage.
But within this humanity and universality we may distinguish three characteristics which are usually found in the tragic hero. The first of these is a willpower surpassing in its intensity anything displayed by average men; the hero admits of no obstacle and accepts no compromise; he drives forward with all his strength to his desired goal. The second is a power of feeling likewise more intense than that possessed by average men; he rises to heights of happiness forever unattainable to the majority of us, and correspondingly sinks to depths of misery. The third is an unusually high intelligence, displayed in his actions and in his power of language. Aristotle sums up these characteristics in the term hamartia: the tragic flaw, the failure of judgment, the refusal to compromise. Passionately pursuing the thing he desires, the hero is incapable of compromise, of the calm exercise of judgment.
It will be seen that Hamlet possesses these three characteristics. His power of feeling surpasses that of all other characters in the play, expresses itself in the impassioned poetic diction peculiar to great tragedy. His intelligence is subtle and all-embracing, displaying itself not only in his behavior but also in word-plays beyond the comprehension of the others in the drama, and in metaphors beyond their attainment. But what can be said of his will-power, the one pre-eminently heroic characteristic? He is apparently a model of hesitation, indecision, procrastination; we seem to be witnessing an examination of the failure of his will. And yet demonstrably it has not failed, and does at odd moments stir itself violently. In no other way can we account for the timidity of his enemies, the respect of his friends, and his own frank acknowledgement that he has "cause, and will, and strength, and means" to avenge his father. And though he is a long time in killing Claudius, he does kill him at last, and he is capable of other actions which argue the rash and impulsive nature of a man with strong will. He will "make a ghost" [I. iv. 85] of any man who tries to prevent him from following his father's spirit. He murders Polonius. He engineers the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He boards the pirate ship single-handed. He takes so long to kill Claudius only because he has little interest in revenge—not because he lacks will, but because it is inactive. Will-power does not spread itself in a circle around the possessor, but lies in a straight line toward the thing he desires.
Hamlet, then, has the heroic traits of Lear, Othello, Tamburlaine, Macbeth, and Oedipus: high intelligence, deep sensitivity, and strong will. There is another characteristic of the tragic hero without which the former ones would never be perceived: his delusion that there is some one thing in the world supremely good or desirable, the possession of which will make him supremely happy. And to the acquisition of the thing he desires he devotes all his will, all his intelligence, all his power of feeling. Thus Romeo dedicates himself to the pursuit of love, Macbeth to power, Lear to filial gratitude—and Hamlet to moral beauty.
It is clear that, at some point before the opening of the play, Hamlet has been completely disillusioned. He has failed to discover moral beauty in the world; indeed, by the intensity of his search he has roused instead his supreme evil: moral ugliness. The majority of us, the non-heroes, might disapprove of the sudden remarriage of a mother after the death of her husband—but we would probably not be nauseated. Hamlet, supremely sensitive to the godliness and beastliness in men, was overwhelmed by what he could interpret as nothing but lust. To be sure, the marriage of his mother and uncle was technically incestuous. But his objection to it lies much deeper than surface technicalities. He has worshipped his father, adored his mother (his love for her is everywhere apparent beneath his bitterness). Gertrude has mourned at the funeral "like Niobe, all tears" [I. ii. 149]. And then within a month she has married his uncle—a vulgar, contemptible, scheming drunkard—exposing without shame her essentially shallow, thoughtless, amoral, animal nature.
The blow has been too much for Hamlet, sensitive as he is to moral beauty.
O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
[I. ii. 156-58]
That is, it cannot come to his conception of the good, whatever may be said for Gertrude's. He is unable to offer her understanding or sympathy, since to do so would mean compromising with his ideal of her. He fails to realize that no amount of scolding will ever improve her. Instead of accepting her conduct as inevitable or even endurable, he fights it, exaggerates it into a disgusting and an intolerable sin against everything he holds dear. And because the sin may not be undone, and since it has destroyed his pleasure and purpose in living, he wishes to die. The only thing that restrains him from suicide is the moral injunction against it:
O that this too too sullied 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. 129-32]
The longing for death, once the supreme good has been destroyed, is entirely normal and usual in the tragic hero. Romeo, hearing that Juliet is dead, goes immediately to her tomb in order to kill himself:
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh …
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark.
[Romeo and Juliet, V. iii. 110-14]
Othello, when he realizes that in seeking to preserve his honor he has ruined it, prepares to die in much the same state of mind:
Here is my journey's end, here is my butt
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.
[Othello, V. ii. 267-68]
Macbeth, discovering at last that his frantic efforts to maintain and increase his power have only destroyed it, finds life a tale told by an idiot—and he too longs for death:
I 'gin to be a-weary of the sun,
And wish the estate of the world were now undone.
Ring the alarum bell. Blow wind, come wrack,
At least we'll die with harness on our back.
[Macbeth, V. v. 48-51]
Lear, instead of dying, is driven mad. His counterpart, Gloucester, who also has lived for the love of his children, tries to throw himself from the cliff at Dover. Oedipus [in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex], too, when he discovers that he has ruined the city he tried to save, finds life worthless—blinds himself, and begs to be cast out of Thebes. As a general rule, whenever the tragic hero discovers that in his efforts to attain his supreme good he has only aroused his supreme evil, he kills himself, or goes mad, or otherwise sinks into a state that is death compared to his former state. Once he has lost all hope of gaining what he desires, he quite naturally finds no reason for continuing to live. Life in itself is always meaningless to him; he lives only for the good that he can find in it.
The curious thing about Hamlet is that it begins at the point where most other tragedies end: with the discovery by the tragic hero that his supreme good is forever lost to him. The play is surely unique among great tragedies. Elizabethan drama usually presents a double reversal of for-tune—the rise and fall in the hero's prosperity and happiness—or sometimes, as in King Lear, the fall and rise. Greek tragedy, limited to a single curtainless stage and thus to a late point of attack in the plot, could show only a single reversal—usually the fall in fortune from prosperity to misery, as is observed by Aristotle. But certainly nowhere else is there a tragedy like Hamlet, with no reversal at all, which begins after the rise and fall of the hero have taken place, in which the action does not coincide with his pursuit of the good, and which presents him throughout in despair and in bad fortune. We never see Hamlet striving for or possessing his good. Rather, he knows only the evil which is its counterpart; and in this unhappy condition he find nothing further desirable except death.
We are now in a position to understand why Hamlet takes so long to effect his revenge. Everyone in the play, including himself, recognizes that he is potentially dangerous, that he has the necessary courage and will to accomplish anything he desires. But the demand upon these qualities has come at a time when he has forever lost interest in exercising them. Upholding the divinity of man, he is betrayed by the one he thought most divine, exposed to her rank shameless adultery, bitterly disillusioned in all mankind, and desperate of any further good in existence. The revelation by the Ghost that murder has cleared a way for the new husband shocks Hamlet to the base of his nature, but it gives him no new incentive for living; it merely adds to his misfortune and confirms him in his despair. The further information that his mother has committed adultery provides a final shock. All evidence establishes him immovably in his disillusion. The Ghost's appeal to him for revenge is, remotely, an appeal to his good: if he may not reestablish the moral beauty of the world he may at least punish those who have violated it. But it is a distant appeal. The damage already done is irreparable. After giving passionate promises to "remember" his father, he regrets them:
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.
[I. v. 188-89]
Within ten minutes after his first meeting with the Ghost he has succumbed again to his anguish, which is now so intense after the discovery of his mother's adultery and the murder of his father that his mind threatens to crack under the strain. His conversation with his friends is so strange that Horatio comments upon it:
These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
[I. v. 133]
A few minutes later Hamlet announces his intention to feign madness, to assume an "antic disposition"—presumably as a means of relieving his surcharged feelings and possibly forestalling true madness, but certainly not as a means of deceiving Claudius and thus accomplishing his revenge. At the moment there is no point in deceiving Claudius, who knows of no witnesses to the murder and who is more vulnerable to attack now than he will be at any point later in the play.
Two months later the antic disposition has succeeded only in arousing the King's suspicions. Hamlet has not effected his revenge; there is no sign that he has even thought about it. All we know is that he is badly upset—as Ophelia reports to her father:
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac'd,
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd,
Ungartered 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. 74-81]
It is doubtful that he wishes to deceive the court into thinking that he is mad with unrequited love—only the fool Polonius is so deceived. Most probably he goes to Ophelia because he loves her as he loves his mother, and fears to discover in her the same corruption that has poisoned his mind towards Gertrude. He suspects that her love for him is insincere; his suspicions are later reinforced when he catches her acting as the decoy of Claudius and Polonius. But the one significant thing here is that his mind is still upon his old sorrow and not upon his father.
He does not recall his father until the First Player, in reciting the woes of Troy, speaks of the "mobled queen" who
… saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband's limbs.
[II. ii. 513-14]
Shortly afterwards Hamlet asks him to "play the Murder of Gonzago" and to "study a speech of some dozen lines, which I would set down and insert in 't" [II. ii. 541-42]. This, as we learn in the following soliloquy, is to be a trap for the conscience of Claudius. And why is a trap necessary? Because perhaps the Ghost was not a true ghost, but a devil trying to lure him to damnation. Most likely Hamlet is here rationalizing, trying to find an excuse for his dilatoriness, for forgetting the injunction of his father—yet the excuse is a poor one, for never before has he questioned the authenticity of the Ghost. Furthermore, he does not wait for the trap to be sprung; throughout the performance of "The Mousetrap" he seems convinced of the guilt of Claudius, he taunts him with it. But for a while he has stilled his own conscience and found a refuge from the flood of self-incrimination.
Before "The Murder of Gonzago" is enacted we see Hamlet alone once more. What is on his mind? His uncle? His father? Revenge? Not at all. "To be, or not to be, that is the question" [III. i. 55ff.]. He is back where he started, and where he has been all along, with
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.
[III. i. 61-2]
He is still preoccupied with death.
"The Mousetrap" convicts Claudius beyond any doubt; he bolts from the room, unable to endure for a second time the poisoning of a sleeping king. And yet Hamlet, fifteen minutes later, with an admirable opportunity to kill his uncle, fails to do so—for reasons that are evidently obscure even to himself. He wishes, he says, not only to kill the man, but to damn his soul as well, and thus will wait to kill him unconfessed. At this, apparently, the Ghost itself loses patience, for it returns once more to Hamlet in the next scene and exhorts him:
Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
[III. iv. 110-11]
The exhortation is wasted. On the same night, Hamlet allows the King to send him to England. Possibly he has no recourse but obedience; probably he knows what is in store for him; quite likely he does not care, may even welcome a legitimate form of dying; certainly he cannot, in England, arrange to kill his uncle. The next day, on his way to exile and death, he meets the army of Fortinbras, whose courage and purposefulness stimulate him to reflect upon his own conduct:
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!
[IV. iv. 32-3]
He considers how low he has sunk in his despair:
What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
[IV. iv. 33-4]
When he returns he is unchanged, still preoccupied with death. He haunts the graveyard with Horatio, reflects upon the democratizing influence of corruption. Overcome with disgust at the "rant" at Ophelia's funeral (he has seen too much insincerity at funerals), he wrestles with Laertes. He acquaints Horatio with the crimes of Claudius and resolves to revenge himself—and then accepts the invitation to the fencing match, aware that it is probably a trap, but resigned to whatever fate is in store for him. And with the discovery of his uncle's final perfidy, he stabs him with the envenomed foil and forces the poisoned wine down his throat. But there is still no thought of his father or of the accomplishment of an old purpose. He is stirred to action principally by anger at his mother's death:
Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion: is thy union here? Follow my mother.
[V. ii. 325-27]
The murder of Claudius is simply accomplished. We see how easily it could have been managed at any time in the past by a man like Hamlet, with whatever tools might have come to his hand. Even though the King is fully awake to his peril he is powerless to avert it. The only thing necessary is that Hamlet should at some time choose to kill him.
That Hamlet finally does so choose is the result of accident and afterthought. The envenomed foil, the poisoned wine, Laertes and Gertrude and himself betrayed to their deaths—these things finally arouse him and he strikes out at the King. But he has no sense of achievement at the end, no final triumph over unimaginable obstacles. His uncle, alive or dead, is a side-issue. His dying thoughts are of the blessedness of death and of the sanctity of his reputation—he would clear it of any suggestion of moral evil but realizes that he has no time left to do so himself. Accordingly he charges Horatio to stay alive a little while longer:
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
[V. ii. 347-49]
Then, after willing the kingdom to Fortinbras, he sinks into the oblivion which he has courted so long, and which now comes to him honorably and gives him rest.
Source: George Detmold, "Hamlet's 'All but Blunted Purpose,'" in The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January 1949, pp. 23-36.
Bevington, David, "Canon, Dates, and Early Texts: Appendix 1," in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Scott, Foresman and Co., 1980, pp. 1622-23.
Bloom, Harold, "Hamlet," in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998, pp. 383-431.
Bradley, A. C., "Shakespeare's Tragic Period—Hamlet," in Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904, reprinted by Fawcett Publications, 1992, p. 79.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, "Hamlet," in Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets, George Bell and Sons, 1904, pp. 342-68, available online at http://shakespearean.org.uk/ham1-col.htm, edited by Thomas Larque, 2001.
Eliot, T. S., "Hamlet and His Problems," in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Methuen & Co., 1920, available online at http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw9.html.
――――――, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909–1950, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1952.
Jones, Ernest, Hamlet and Oedipus, Norton, 1976.
――――――, "The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive," in American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 1910, pp. 72-113.
Joyce, James, Ulysses, Modern Library, 1961, pp.187-89.
Kyd, Thomas, The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1590), edited by Philip Edwards, Methuen & Co., 1969.
Prosser, Eleanor, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd ed., Stanford University Press, 1971.
Shakespeare, William, The Comedy of Errors, edited by Harry Levin, New American Library, 1965.
―――――, Hamlet, edited by Edward Hubler, New American Library, 1963.
Taylor, Gary, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History, from the Restoration to the Present, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989, pp. 46, 50.
Bowers, Fredson, "The Moment of Final Suspense in Hamlet: 'We Defy Augury,'" in Shakespeare, 1564–1964: A Collection of Modern Essays by Various Hands, edited by Edward A. Bloom, Brown University Press, 1964, pp. 50-5.
Bowers argues that Hamlet accepts the authority of Christian providence and ignores his sense of the ominous in the duel with Laertes, and consequently he achieves salvation rather than damnation because he resigns his attempt to seek revenge and leaves the disposition of the matter to heaven.
Gana, Nouri, "Remembering Forbidding Mourning: Repetition, Indifference, Melanxiety, Hamlet," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. 37, No. 2, June 2004, pp. 59-78.
Gana invokes Hamlet in a discussion of the dangers involved in the process of remembering during psychoanalytic treatment and cites Hamlet as an example of a character beset by the twin afflictions of brooding melancholy and anxious dread of not being.
Hinten, Marvin D., "Shakespeare's Hamlet," in Explicator, Vol. 62, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp. 68-70.
Hintern contradicts the argument that Hamlet knew that Polonius, not the king, was hiding behind the arras in Gertrude's closet when he killed him.
Knowles, Ronald, "Hamlet and Counter-Humanism," in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4, Winter 1999, pp. 1046-69.
Knowles sees Hamlet as a framework in which occurs a debate between the medieval view that life is full of misery and the Renaissance idea that existence is something to celebrate.
Levy, Eric, "The Problematic Relation between Reason and Emotion in Hamlet," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. 53, No. 2, Winter 2001, pp. 83-95.
Levy considers Hamlet's struggle to resolve the conflict between thinking and feeling, especially in relation to Thomas Aquinas's writing regarding that conflict.
McCormick, Frank J., "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' and Shakespeare's Hamlet," in Explicator, Vol. 63, No. 1, Fall 2004, pp. 43-7.
McCormick traces the similarities between Eliot's Prufrock and not only Hamlet but also Polonius and Ophelia, with whom he argues Prufrock most identifies.
McFarland, Thomas, "Hamlet and the Dimension of Possible Existence," in Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare, Random House, 1966, pp. 1-59.
McFarland puzzles over the problem of determining exactly what constitutes the "thine own self" to which Polonius advises one be true.
Sloboda discusses the ways in which Zeffirelli and Branagh both attempted to overcome the influence of Laurence Olivier's interpretation of Hamlet in their respective film versions of the play.
Smith, Kay H., "'Hamlet, Part Eight, the Revenge'; or, Sampling Shakespeare in a Postmodern World," in College Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall 2004, pp. 135-49.
Smith examines the use of Hamlet as the basis for and as a significant reference in a number of recent popular movies.
Tiffany, Grace, "Hamlet, Reconciliation, and the Just State," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. 58, No. 2, Winter 2005, pp. 111-33.
Tiffany argues that by fulfilling the Ghost's commission, Hamlet purges a wound given to the state of Denmark through the murder of the rightful king and shortens the days of the Ghost's penitential wanderings.
Wormald, Mark, "Hopkins, Hamlet, and the Victorians: Carrion Comfort?" in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 2002, pp. 409-31.
Wormald examines the influence of Hamlet on a sonnet by the late nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
THE LITERARY WORK
A play set in Denmark before the Viking Age (before 780 a.d.); first performed about 1601.
The king of Denmark is murdered by his brother, who subsequently marries the king’s widow and takes the throne. The king’s son. Prince Hamlet, suspects treachery and then sets out to discover the truth about his father’s death. In the end, he exacts a revenge that leads to tragic consequences.
William Shakespeare was fascinated not only by human nature but also by the tumultuous history of rulers. From the combination of these two interests came a number of plays concerning the corrupting influence of power and ambition. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in approximately 1600, after completing a series of history plays (Richard II, Henry IV Part I [also covered in Literature and Its Times], Henry IV Part II, and Henry V) in which he detailed the complex and often deadly subject of succession to the throne. By the time Shakespeare created Hamlet, his characters had gained a high degree of realism and he had become adept at portraying both the positive and negative effects of power. Though a Danish prince of the legendary past, Hamlet was developed into a character whom English audiences of the early 1600s could well understand.
Historian of Denmark
A mixture of legend and fact, the story of Hamlet harks back to Iceland in the 800s. A poem by Snaebjorn (preserved by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda) mentioned a semi-historical character named Amleth (Hamlet). Two hundred years later, an assistant priest in Denmark, Saxo Grammaticus, included the legend in his history of Denmark (Gesta Danorum, or The Exploits of the Danes). Saxo had set out to record Danish history, a task that he completed up to the year 1185 in sixteen books, the first nine of which dealt with the legendary past and introduced Prince Amleth. Catching the fancy of the public, Saxo’s Amleth tale found its way into popular song at the end of the 1400s. In 1514 a translation of Saxo’s work appeared in English, including the tale of Amleth. Such a prince probably did exist, but there is no positive evidence to prove this; how much of Saxo’s history is fact and how much is fiction remains uncertain. Historians question the accuracy of Saxo’s tale, but there are few other sources from which to glean information.
Scholars date the beginning of the Middle Ages from the 400s a.d., after the fall of the Roman Empire. According to tradition, Prince Amleth came from an area of Denmark known as Jutland around this time. One scholar maintains that Amleth was “in truth a historical character regnant [ruling] in Jutland, toward the close of the sixth century” (Johnston, p. 192). Although less specific about the time in which he lived, similar information about Amleth appears in Denmark outside the castle that served as the model for the one in Hamlet. On a sandstone plaque are the following words:
The legend tells of a king’s son Amleth who lived in Jutland before the Viking Age. In the Middle Ages Saxo wrote down the tale about him. In the Renaissance, Shakespeare retold Hamlet’s life and set it at this castle.
(Dollerup, p. 236)
Due to the lack of early sources, little is known about the Danish Middle Ages. The earliest documentation on Denmark concerns the period around 720, when the area included places known as south Jutland, Scania, and the Danish Isles. By 810 it had grown into a kingdom of three main provinces: Jutland, Zealand, and Scania, and some smaller provinces. Especially Scania and Jutland showed a willingness to act independently, suggesting these provinces or portions of them had operated as separate chiefdoms or kingdoms in the past.
The three provinces elected a common king, whose authority and royal family were all that bound them together. While the king became the most important and powerful landowner among the nobles, he did not claim to have a God-given right to rule, for Christianity had not yet been adopted in Denmark. Not until 960 would the Catholic Church become firmly established in the land. Yet Shakespeare clearly includes Christian touches in his play, such as the concept of a hell in which unrepentant sinners suffer everlasting torment. Such touches are but a few of many details from Shakespeare’s own era that the playwright grafted onto the older setting. As noted above, the Elsinore castle in Hamlet was modeled after the palace built under Denmark’s King Frederick II (1559-88). Intended as a fortress, the castle had red brick walls enclosed in sandstone and fine brass guns that sat visibly on the ramparts for protection. The splendidly furnished fortress, called Kronberg Castle, became known far and wide as one of the most marvelous palaces in all of Europe at the time.
In Hamlet, the conflict between Norway and Denmark is a backdrop to the main action of the play. The Danish king—Hamlet’s father—has killed King Fortinbras of Norway in a duel of honor and has confiscated Norwegian land. In response, Prince Fortinbras, the son of the previous king and nephew to the new king of Norway, vows revenge and plans an attack to wrest back the conquered land. He is acting without the knowledge of his uncle. An embassy from Denmark to the king of Norway prevents the prince from carrying out the invasion.
In fact, relations between Denmark and Norway wavered between war and peace over the centuries. Raiders journeyed from one land to the other, and a long-standing rift between the two lands began around 800 a.d. About the same time, conflict broke out between Denmark and England when Danish Vikings began to raid the English coast about 835 a.d. The Danish Vikings finally conquered part of England in 1014 and for a time they would also rule Norway, but within forty years, after the rule of Canute the Great (1018-1035), their empire collapsed. His son Hardicanute laid claim to the thrones of both Norway and Denmark after his father died. But Norway’s young king, Magnus the Good, threatened to protect his crown by going to war. Noblemen in both lands made the two young kings compromise; it was agreed that each would rule his own country for the time being, but the one who lived longest would be entitled to take over the other’s kingdom. This compromise shows that Hamlet’s pronouncement at the end of Shakespeare’s play was a plausible way to handle the succession to the Danish throne; after the deaths of its king and queen, the dying Prince Hamlet designates Norway’s Prince Fortinbras to take over the rule of Denmark.
Christian/pagan ideals and supernatural belief
Though most of the Vikings had adopted Christianity by 960, and all of the subsequent Danish monarchs declared themselves Christians, the people retained beliefs in mythology and supernatural forces. Because the Danes were generally farmers and fishermen, they were heavily dependent on nature for their livelihood. Hence, even after they adopted Christianity, they retained a strong connection to forces they believed controlled nature—human and otherwise. Like the Romans, the Danes and others in the far North had developed an elaborate mythology based on gods of thunder, the sun, and other natural forces. The people often paid homage to these gods in ceremonies that were held before a fishing fleet set sail or during the crop-planting season. The hope was that such ceremonies would guarantee good returns. In Hamlet Shakespeare refers to pre-Christian myth as well as Christianity, drawing on Roman mythology, which was more familiar to his audiences in England than Danish myths and legends. While there are clear references to Christian ethics throughout Hamlet, such as Queen Gertrude’s imminent judgment by heaven, there are also ample references to figures such as Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. Thus Shakespeare’s character Horatio refers not to the watery empire (the sea) of one of the Norse gods but rather to “Neptune’s empire” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.1.119).
Hamlet opens with Prince Hamlet returning from his studies at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. His father, King Hamlet, has recently died. As the play reveals, he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, who has become king and married the older Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude. Young Hamlet is naturally distraught over the events, though at the outset he does not know that his father has been murdered. He only senses, as does his friend Marcellus, that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet, 1.4.89).
Soon a ghost appears to Hamlet and several of his friends. It is the spirit of Prince Hamlet’s dead father, who has come to inform the prince of his murder. His brother Claudius has killed him by pouring poison in his ear. The spirit declares that Claudius is “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life,” imploring Hamlet to exact revenge (Hamlet, 1.5.40). This news sends Hamlet into a frenzied rage and melancholy depression. He promises to avenge his father’s murder and begins behaving strangely. To others, who do not know the truth, the young Hamlet appears to have gone mad. By pretending to be insane, Hamlet hopes to conceal his knowledge of his father’s murder at his uncle’s hands.
But rather than deflect suspicion, Hamlet’s behavior arouses the curiosity of the king and queen, who try to ferret out the cause of his mad behavior. Polonius, the lord of the treasury, believes the cause is his own daughter, Ophelia, who has on his advice rejected the prince’s advances. Though it is clear that Hamlet once loved Ophelia deeply, he now denies it to her face and rejects her completely, displaying what Ophelia interprets as a distraught noble mind “here o’erthrown” (Hamlet, 3.1.158).
As part of his plot of revenge, Hamlet produces a play about murder to “catch the conscience of the king” (Hamlet, 2.2.606). Hamlet intends to see if the ghost has been truthful about Claudius by watching how the king reacts to the play. But the play yields more than its desired effect. The king becomes so shaken and enraged by it that he begins to plan Hamlet’s murder. Though unaware of the king’s real intent, Polonius offers to aid the king and eavesdrops on Hamlet while he speaks to his mother. Hamlet senses someone’s presence and stabs the figure behind the curtain in the mistaken belief that it is Claudius. Instead, Polonius is instantly killed by the assault.
Claudius now fears Hamlet and devises a plan to send him to England and have him killed there. Meanwhile, Ophelia, who is already distraught over Hamlet’s rejection of her, learns of her father’s murder and goes insane. Her brother Laertes returns from France, demanding revenge for his father’s death. Claudius, of course, encourages Laertes and helps him develop a plot to kill Hamlet, who manages to return from England unharmed. Laertes will challenge Hamlet to a duel, which honor demands that he accept; to guarantee that Hamlet loses, the conspirators will poison not only his wine but also the tip of Laertes’ sword. The queen then arrives and informs them that Ophelia has drowned; after hearing of his sister’s death, Laertes breaks down weeping.
The duel between Hamlet and Laertes takes place as scheduled with the king, queen, and court watching. The poisoned wine is set out for Hamlet, but the queen accidently drinks some of it. As the fierce duel continues, Laertes and Hamlet wound each other with the poisoned sword, which changes hands during the fight. Hamlet witnesses his mother’s death and learns from Laertes that the king poisoned the wine. Enraged, Hamlet runs the fatal sword through Claudius and forces him to drink the deadly wine. Laertes and Hamlet forgive each other and then die; Hamlet’s dying request is that Horatio explain Hamlet’s motives to the world. Finally aware of Prince Hamlet’s agonized last days, the court mourns him as a hero who has avenged his father’s death.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based on the legend of fabled Danish Prince Amleth (also known as Amlodhi), who feigned insanity to veil a plot of revenge against his uncle for his father’s murder. Set down by Saxo Grammaticus at the end of the twelfth century in the Historiae Dan-icae, the legend included two parts: Amleth’s rise to power and his reign. About 1570 Franx00E7;ois de Belleforest published a translation of Saxo’s Amleth story in French in his collection Histoires Tragiques. There is, however, no evidence that Shakespeare came into contact with either of these versions. The most direct source for his drama seems to have been another play of around 1588 now known as Ur-Hamlet, which was based on Belleforest’s version but is now lost. Thomas Kyd is credited with having written Ur-Hamlet as well as The Spanish Tragedy, a revenge play published in 1592 that also influenced Shakespeare’s work.
In Saxo’s version of the tale, Amleth not only killed the eavesdropper (the Polonius character in Hamlet) but also cut “his body into morsels, he seethed it in boiling water, and flung it through the mouth of an open sewer for the swine to eat” (Watts, p. 5). In contrast, Shakespeare’s
MENTAL ILLNESS IN HAMLET AND IN SHAKESPEARE’S TIME
In Hamlet the main character feigns insanity while Ophelia, the woman he loves, actually does go mad. These developments reflect a preoccupation in Shakespeare’s time with melancholy and insanity. There was a hospital for the insane in London called Bethlehem, a name that popular usage changed to Bedlam, which came to stand for “utter madness.” So fascinated were Londoners by the insane that they would go to Bedlam to ogle the fewer than thirty inmates who occupied the hospital in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Meanwhile, doctors, preachers, and dramatists spoke about grief and insanity in their works. These shapers of public opinion warned especially against excessive grief, which, they believed, could drive people to distraction the way the death of Ophelia’s father and Hamlet’s rejection drive her mad in Hamlet. Hamlet acts the part of a genuine madman, which the English classified into two main types—the violent madmen and the raving ones who talked nonsensically, the way Prince Hamlet does. The English also recognized a less serious mental disorder called stupor or mopishness, which referred to a disturbance in a person’s five senses. Hamlet assigns this ailment to his mother to explain her hasty marriage to Claudius: “Eyes without feeling... Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,/Or but a sickly part of one true sense/Could not so mope” (Hamlet. 3.4.78-81).
Hamlet feels remorse after the murder of Polonius:
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
Hamlet’s speech reflects the more Christian viewpoint of Shakespeare’s time. Though his quest for revenge was probably understandable
to audiences of the early 1600s, Amleth’s barbaric treatment of the eavesdropper would have been condemned. Also Shakespeare’s Hamlet plans to punish only the murderer, Claudius, whereas in Saxo’s version the whole court is marked for destruction.
An actual event inspired the idea of murdering Hamlet’s father by pouring poison in his ear. In 1538 in Italy a barber-surgeon killed the Duke of Urbino by pouring a lotion in his ear. He had been hired to do so by Luigi Gonzaga, whose name Shakespeare uses in the play that Hamlet stages to prick the conscience of the murderer Claudius. It is uncertain whether Shakespeare took the event directly from real life or whether the earlier play Ur-Hamlet used it first.
Hamlet’s ghost and Shakespeare’s time
The presence of a ghost character in Hamlet reflects a general acceptance of the supernatural during the Elizabethan Age. The ghost gives Hamlet an insight into life that cannot be seen or transmitted by others living on this “distracted” globe. Shakespeare’s drama suggests that there are a great many things human beings do not understand and that such things can affect human destiny.
The concept that unseen forces or Fortune have influence or control over human destiny was common in Elizabethan tragedy. Much earlier, the Roman philosopher Seneca had written of the Roman goddess Fortuna’s ability to control destiny with her wheel of fortune. Elizabethan playwrights adapted Seneca’s concepts, combining medieval and classical elements in their tragedies.
Succession to the throne
Great Britain has a long and violent history regarding succession to the throne. From 1399 to 1485 the Wars of the Roses raged and produced continual political instability throughout England. Then came Protestant, Catholic, and Puritan conflicts as well as Tudor and Stuart rivalries that continued through the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603). One of the rivalries between the Tudor and Stuart dynasties involved Queen Elizabeth of England (a Tudor) and Queen Mary of Scotland (a Stuart). There were remarkable similarities between the events in Mary’s life and Hamlet. On February 10, 1567, Queen Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered by Lord Bothwell. Three months later the queen married her husband’s murderer, Bothwell. He died in 1576 after confessing his crime, and Mary herself came to trial for other alleged crimes ten years later. In 1587 the English convicted and executed her for conspiring to destroy Queen Elizabeth, England, and its commitment to the Protestant faith. The public was
Saxo’s and Belleforest’s Versions:
Brother murders brother, takes throne, and marries queen.
Son returns home for funeral of his father, learns of murder, and plots revenge.
Son feigns insanity to conceal his knowledge of murder, draws attention of king and queen.
Son kills eavesdropper character.
King tries to kill avenging son by sending him abroad, but son foils plan and king’s agents die instead.
Son finally kills king.
A ghost urges revenge.
Son seeks to verify truth about the murder and stages a play for that purpose.
Son contemplates suicide.
Female character goes insane and commits suicide.
Son laments delay in getting revenge.
Son dies after killing the king.
overjoyed. However, her son James, a prince in some ways like Hamlet, expressed indignation. James, however, took no action, and went on to rule England after Queen Elizabeth. Assuming the throne in 1603, he must have reacted emotionally when he saw a performance of Hamlet, whose plot recalled similar events in his own life.
Denmark and England
The sport of fencing was popular in both England and Denmark in the early 1600s. In 1606, during James’s reign, King Christian IV of Denmark visited England. Over the years he and James had corresponded with each other on friendly terms. King Christian watched fencing matches daily while in England. The fencing match in the last act of Hamlet may reflect the popularity of the sport. Other elements of the play that reflect life in Denmark during the early 1600s are names such as Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern; the braying of trumpets at certain points in the action; and the idea that nobles would leave Denmark to study abroad at Germany’s University of Wittenberg.
Corruption and ambition in the play
Through the character of Claudius in the play, Shakespeare illustrates the potentially corrupting influence of ambition and power. Claudius’s desire to assume the throne was so great that he was willing to kill his own brother, an action that he regards as terrible.
O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It has primal eldest curse upon ‘t,
A brother’s murder.
He further confesses that he committed the murder to satisfy his own ambition. But Shakespeare does not place all the blame squarely on Claudius’s shoulders. He hints that an uninvolved and ignorant society is also to blame for corruption. The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are representatives of a society willing to turn a blind eye to evil in order to prosper or to avoid punishment. In the play’s own
BELIEF IN GHOSTS
The Elizabethan Age has been called the Age of Uncertainty. Science was on the rise, as “experts” created maps, experimented with plants, and concocted new medicines. Concurrently, the debate about the reality of ghosts and apparitions grew. Perhaps this is why Hamlet delays his revenge even though the ghost has clearly instructed him to kill Claudius. Hamlet, like Shakespeare and his contemporaries, may have been unsure if the ghost was real or a figment or his imagination.
words, they are “the indifferent children of the earth” (Hamlet, 2.2.227). Hamlet, on the other hand, struggles to embody the heroic ideal, which stresses fairness in battle and the duty to revenge a lawless killing. He vows vengeance, though he feels tormented by this duty: “O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right” (Hamlet, 1.5.189-90).
From the heroic ideal to humanism
Prince Hamlet reflects, in part, the evolving humanistic attitude of the Renaissance era. In contrast to the earlier medieval belief that death was the proper and necessary punishment to revenge a murder, Hamlet conveys a growing pacifist sentiment that denounces killing in general. In an era that saw rampant human destruction from war and the bubonic plague, the English were beginning to regard killing—even to avenge a lawless murder—as a less heroic action than had the people of the Middle Ages. This changing viewpoint contributes to Hamlet’s delay in avenging his father’s death, which causes the prince much inner turmoil.
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion! Fie upon ‘t, foh! About, my brain!
Hamlet is torn between the conflicting concepts of vengeance as honorable and murder as sin, a struggle that Renaissance society was grappling with as well. A law called the Bond of Association of 1584, for example, legalized revenge against anyone who attempted to overthrow or malign the queen. Yet when the Earl of Essex was killed under that law for attempting to overthrow the government, society in general condemned his execution, as did Shakespeare. Hamlet’s ongoing indecision reflects the society’s debates about the legitimacy of vengeance and humane treatment of wrongdoers and seems to suggest that there are elements of merit and dishonor in both.
Revenge tragedies became very popular in England during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Stemming back to classical Greek and Roman drama, they were widely introduced to English audiences through the works of the ancient Roman playwright Seneca. His plays became required reading at most universities, and English theater companies performed derivatives of them on stage.
Shakespeare figured among the British playwrights who created new revenge tragedies, a genre that appealed to English audiences, who could easily apply them to history in their own times. England’s Queen Elizabeth publicly condemned the execution of her rival Queen Mary of Scotland, but it was regarded as a prudent measure by many in England and proper revenge due to the rumored plans by the Scots to murder Elizabeth. Similarly, the execution of the Earl of Essex was punishment for his attempt to overthrow Elizabeth, although she, like Hamlet, was uncertain that killing Essex was the proper penalty.
Hamlet also reflects beliefs about sin and damnation that were common to Shakespeare’s time. In the play, Hamlet sets out to kill Claudius in a particular manner. He wishes to ensure his victim’s damnation according to his, and the audience’s, understanding of God’s judgement. It was believed that a sinful person could be sentenced to eternal doom if he or she were killed before they had time to pray or if they were killed in one of the conditions that Hamlet envisions—in the act of drinking, gambling, swearing, or some other disgraceful act. When Hamlet finds Claudius praying, this type of damnation is not possible, and he decides not to kill him at that time. Shakespeare’s audience would have likely viewed this decision as proper.
Reviews and early stage history
In 1604 Antony Skoloker wrote that the play was able to “please all” (Skoloker in Watts, p. xix). Richard Burbage played the role of Hamlet during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it is thought that in some productions Shakespeare himself performed the part of the ghost. The most popular of all Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet was performed 358 times through the year 1750. In fact, the play was so popular that it was “pirated” or copied by hack writers and published in what is now known as the bad quarto in 1603. Shakespeare’s own version was first published in response to the illegitimate copy in 1604 or 1605.
Dollerup, Cay. Denmark, Hamlet, and Shakespeare. Vol. 2. Salzburg: Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1975.
Johnston, William Preston. The Prototype of Hamlet and Other Shakespearian Problems. New York: Belford, 1890.
Lauring, Palle. A History of Denmark. Copenhagen: Host & Son, 1986.
MacDonald, Michael. Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by David Bevington. Toronto: Bantam, 1988.
Watts, Cedric. Twayne’s New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Hamlet. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Wright, Louis B., ed. Shakespeare’s England. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
Prince Hamlet of Denmark, the main character in Shakespeare's famous play Hamlet, is one of the most complex figures in Western literature. Faced with avenging the murder of his father by killing his uncle, Hamlet struggles with the conflict between good and evil, weakness and strength, and his own indecision.
Hamlet is based on a legendary character found in Danish and Icelandic myths and folktales. An early version appears in an Icelandic saga of the a.d. 800S. Later the Prose Edda, a book of Norse* mythology from the 1220s, mentions a man named Amloi or Amlothi, whose story is similar to that of Hamlet.
Another source for the legend is Historiae Danicae (Danish Histories), written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 1100s. The work contains a story about a figure named Amleth who, like Hamlet, slays the uncle who has murdered his father. Modern scholars have found characters in early Celtic* mythology that seem related to the legend of Hamlet as well.
In Shakespeare's play, first performed in about 1600, Hamlet's uncle Claudius has murdered Hamlet's father and married his mother. Although eager for revenge, Hamlet is reluctant to act. The play focuses on his emotional turmoil and eventual acceptance of his fate. Although Hamlet finally kills Claudius, his actions lead to his own death as well as the deaths of others, including his mother.
saga story recounting the adventures of historical and legendary heroes; usually associated with Icelandic or Norse tales of the Middle Ages
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
See also Celtic Mythology; Norse Mythology.
In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, adjured by his father's ghost to seek revenge, is torn between hatred of his usurping uncle and love for his mother; in allusive use, his name may indicate not only tragedy but also an ultimately fatal indecision.
Hamlet without the prince a performance or event taking place without the principal actor or central figure. The phrase derives from an account given in the Morning Post of September 1775, of a theatrical company in which the actor who was to play the hero ran off with the innkeeper's daughter; when the play was announced, the audience was told ‘the part of Hamlet to be left out, for that night.’
ham·let / ˈhamlit/ • n. a small settlement, generally one smaller than a village.