Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
A Study Guide
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Type of Work Key Dates Probable Sources Settings Characters Plot Summary Themes Conflicts, Tone, Climax How Old Is Hamlet? The Women in Hamlet "To be, or not to Be" Female Hamlet What's in a Name? What Was a Castle? Figures of Speech Hamlet and Oedipus Why No Throne for Hamlet Why Hamlet Is All of Us
Character Foils War of the Theatres The Acting Booth Brothers Hamlet Production at Elsinore Questions, Essay Topics Complete Free Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2011, 2013
.......Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a tragedy. A tragedy is a dignified work in which the main character undergoes a struggle and suffers a downfall. In Shakespeare's plays, the main character of a tragedy is usually a person of noble heritage. A flaw in his personality, sometimes abetted by fate, brings about his downfall. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is also sometimes characterized as a revenge play in the tradition of the Roman playwright Seneca (4 BC-AD 65).
Date Written: 1599-1601
Publication Dates: (1) 1603 as part of the First Quarto, a pirated, unreliable version; (2) 1604-1605 as part of the Second Quarto; (3) 1623 as part of the First Folio, an authorized collection of all of Shakespeare's plays except those of questionable authorship.
.......A key source for Shakespeare was the third book of Gesta Danorum (The Deeds of the Danes), a Latin work by Saxo Grammaticus (1150?-1220?). Christiern Pedersen (1480-1554), a Danish humanist writer, published the first edition of Gesta Danorum in Paris in 1514 but with a different title: Historia Danica. Saxo was the secretary of Absalon (1128?-1201), archbishop of Lund—under the control of Denmark but now part of Sweden—1177 or 1178 to 1201. He wrote Gesta Danorum at Absalon's request.It recounts the stories of sixty kings of Danish lands in Books 1 to 9 of the sixteen-volume work. Book 3 tells the tale of Amleth (the model for Hamlet) as he avenges the murder of his father, Horwendil, at the hands of Feng.
.......In Grammaticus' tale, Amleth lives on and becomes King of Jutland. It is possible that Saxo Grammaticus based his tale on an Icelandic saga called Amlói. The Amleth tale was retold in Histoires Tragiques, by François de Belleforest.
.......Shakespeare may also have drawn upon a lost play by Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), referred to as Ur-Hamlet (the prefix ur means original) and a surviving Kyd play, The Spanish Tragedy (also spelled The Spanish Tragedie), in which the presentation of the character Hieronimo could have inspired Shakespeare's probing analysis of Hamlet. Regarding Ur-Hamlet, Shakespeare critic and scholar Peter Alexander—editor of a popular edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, first published in 1951—maintains that Ur-Hamlet was actually written by Shakespeare between 1587 and 1589 as a draft of the final version. Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom supports this contention in a 2003 book entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (Riverhead Books, New York, page 124) but offers little hard evidence to buttress his position. Possible additional sources for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are a tenth-century Celtic tale about a warrior named Amhlaide and an eleventh-century Persian tale from The Book of Kings (Shah-nameh), by Abu Ol-qasem Mansur.
.......The main setting is Elsinore Castle in eastern Denmark, on the Øresund strait separating the Danish island of Sjælland (Zealand) from the Swedish province of Skåne and linking the Baltic Sea in the south to the Kattegat Strait in the north. Elsinore is a real town. Its Danish name is Helsingør. In Shakespeare's time, Elsinore was an extremely important port that fattened its coffers by charging a toll for ship passage through the Øresund strait.
.......Modern Elsinore, or Helsingør, is directly west of a Swedish city with a similar name, Helsingborg (or Hälsingborg). Within the city limits of Elsinore is Kronborg Castle, said to be the model for the Elsinore Castle of Shakespeare' play. Construction on the castle began in 1574, when Shakespeare was ten, and ended in 1585, when Shakespeare was twenty-one. It is believed that actors known to Shakespeare performed at Kronborg Castle. Other settings in Hamlet are a plain in Denmark, near Elsinore, and a churchyard near Elsinore. Offstage action in the play (referred to in dialogue) takes place on a ship bound for England from Denmark on which Hamlet replaces instructions to execute him (see the plot summary below) with instructions to execute his traitorous companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Foils of Hamlet: Laertes, Fortinbras, Polonius
Hamlet: Son of a murdered Danish king (who was also named Hamlet) and nephew of the present king, Claudius. Hamlet suffers great mental anguish over the death of his father, the marriage of his mother to the suspected murderer (Claudius), and the clash between his moral sense and his desire for revenge against his father's murderer. To ensnare the killer, Hamlet pretends madness. Some Shakespeare interpreters contend that he really does suffer a mental breakdown. Hamlet is highly intelligent and well liked by the citizens, although at times he can be petty and cruel.
Claudius: The new King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle. He becomes king after Hamlet's father, the previous king, is found dead in his orchard. Hamlet suspects that Claudius murdered him.
Gertrude: Queen of Denmark, Hamlet's mother, and widow of the murdered king. Her marriage to Claudius within two months after the late king's funeral deeply disturbs Hamlet.
Ghost of Hamlet's Father, old King Hamlet.
Polonius: Bootlicking Lord Chamberlain of King Claudius.
Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius. She loves Hamlet, but his pretended madness—during which he rejects her—and the death of her father trigger a pathological reaction in her.
Horatio: Hamlet's best friend. Horatio never wavers in his loyalty to Hamlet. At the end of the play, he recites immortal lines: "Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (5. 2. 304-305).
Laertes: Son of Polonius, brother of Ophelia. Circumstances make him an enemy of Hamlet, and they duel to the death in a fencing match at the climax of the play. As a man who reacts to circumstances quickly, with a minimum of reflection on the meaning and possible outcome of his actions, Laertes contrasts sharply with the pensive and indecisive Hamlet and, thus, serves as his foil.
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern Courtiers and friends of Hamlet who attended school with him. They turn against him to act as spies for Claudius and agents in Claudius's scheme to have Hamlet murdered in England. Hamlet quickly smells out their deception and treachery.
Marcellus, Bernardo: Officers who are the first to see the ghost of Hamlet's father.
Francisco: Another officer.
Voltimand, Cornelius, Osric: Courtiers who bear messages for the king. Osric informs Hamlet of the fencing match arranged for him and Laertes.
Reynaldo: Servant of Polonius..
Fortinbras: Prince of Norway, who is on the march with an army. In battlefield combat (referred to in the play but not taking place during the play), old King Hamlet slew the father of Fortinbras and annexed Norwegian territory. Fortinbras seeks revenge.
Players: Actors who arrive at Elsinore to offer an entertainment. Hamlet directs one of them, called the First Player, to stage a drama called The Mouse-trap, about a throne-seeker who murders a king. Hamlet hopes the play will cause Claudius to react in a way that reveals his guilt as the murderer of old King Hamlet. As the play unfolds on a stage at Elsinore, the actors are referred to as the following:
........ Prologue: Actor presenting a one-sentence prologue to the play.
........ Player King: Actor portraying the king (whom Hamlet refers to as Gonzago, the Duke of Vienna).
........ Player Queen: Actor portraying the queen (whom Hamlet refers to as Baptista, the Duchess of Vienna).
........Lucianus: Actor portraying the king's nephew and his murderer.
Clowns (Gravediggers): Two men who dig Ophelia's grave.
Yorick: Court jester of old King Hamlet. He amused and looked after Hamlet when the latter was a child. Yorick is dead during the play, but his skull, which a gravedigger exhumes in Act V, Scene I, arouses old memories in Hamlet that provide a glimpse of his childhood. The skull also helps to develop Hamlet's morbid preoccupation with death.
Minor Characters: Captain, English ambassadors, lords, ladies, officers, soldiers, sailors, messengers, attendants.
.......At midnight on the battlements of Elsinore castle in eastern Denmark, an officer named Bernardo arrives to relieve Francisco, another officer who has been standing guard in the frigid air during an uneventful watch. "Not a mouse stirring" (1.1.13), Francisco reports as he leaves. Two other men, Horatio and Marcellus, arrive a moment later. Marcellus inquires, "What, has this thing appeared again to-night?" (1.1.31). The "thing" is a ghost that Marcellus says has appeared twice on the battlements to him and Bernardo. Horatio doubts the story, believing the specter is a child of their imaginations.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......While Bernardo attempts to convince Horatio of the truth of the tale, the apparition appears again—a ghost in the form of the recently deceased King Hamlet, outfitted in the armor he wore when warring against Norway and slaying its king, Fortinbras. Horatio questions the phantom. But just as quickly as it appeared, it disappears. Horatio, grown pale with fright, says, "This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (1.1.85). His words foreshadow all the tragic action to follow. The ghost reappears, then disappears again.
.......Prince Hamlet, the son of the late king, learned of the death of his father while studying at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. When he returns to Denmark to attend the funeral, grief smites him deeply. The king's brother, Claudius, has assumed the throne, even though Hamlet has a claim on it as the son of the deceased king. In addition, Claudius has married the late king's widow, Gertrude—Hamlet's mother—in little more than a month after old Hamlet died, a development that deeply distresses young Hamlet. In a soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his opposition to the marriage, his loathing of Claudius, and his disappointment in his mother:
..............A little month, or ere those shoes were old
..............With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
..............Like Niobe1, all tears:—why she, even she—
..............O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
..............Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle,
..............My father's brother, but no more like my father
..............Than I to Hercules: within a month:
..............Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
..............Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
..............She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
..............With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (1.2.151-161)
The words incestuous sheets in line 161 reflect the belief, prevalent in Europe at and before Shakespeare's time, that marriage between in-laws—Claudius had been Gertrude's brother-in-law before he married her—was a form of incest.
.......As a first priority as king, Claudius prepares to thwart an expected invasion of Norwegian troops under Prince Fortinbras, the son of the Norwegian king slain in battle years earlier by old King Hamlet. Fortinbras apparently has a double goal: to avenge the death of his father (old King Fortinbras) and to win back territory lost to the Danes.
.......In the meantime, Hamlet's best friend Horatio tells the young prince the amazing story of the ghost. He says two guards, Bernardo and Marcellus, have reported seeing on two nights an apparition of old King Hamlet on the battlements of the royal castle. On the third night, Horatio says, he accompanied the guards and himself saw the apparition.
.......''I will watch to-night,'' Hamlet says (1.2.260).
.......Another young man at Elsinore—Laertes, son of the king's lord chamberlain, Polonius—is preparing to leave for France to study at the University of Paris. Before debarking, he gives advice to his sister, Ophelia, who has received the attentions of Hamlet from time to time, attentions that Ophelia apparently welcomes. Laertes advises her that Hamlet's attentions are a passing fancy; he is merely dallying with her.
For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,In other words, Laertes says, Ophelia should be wary of Hamlet's courtesies and flirtations. They are, Laertes maintains, mere trifles that are sweet but not lasting. Laertes then receives parting advice from his father:
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more. (1.3.8-13)
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;.......After Laertes leaves and day yields to night, Hamlet meets on the battlements of the castle with Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo at his side. By and by, Hamlet sees the Ghost but is uncertain whether it is the spirit of his father or the devil in disguise:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee! (1.3.82-88)Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damn'dWhen Hamlet questions the Ghost, it says, "I am thy father's spirit, / Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night" (1.5.16). The Ghost tells him to revenge a "foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.31) committed by Claudius. According to the Ghost's tale, Claudius poured a vial of poison extracted from a plant (probably henbane2, also called hemblane, ) into old King Hamlet's ear while the king was asleep, robbing him, "of life, of crown, of queen" (1.5.83). Claudius had committed the murder when King Hamlet had sin on his soul, the better to send him to the fiery regions of purgatory3.
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy interests wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. (1.4.46-50).
.......Hamlet makes Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus swear on the hilt of his sword (where the handle and a protective bar intersect, forming a cross suitable for oath-taking) never to reveal what they saw. While attempting to verify the ghost's story, Hamlet tells the others he will pretend to be mad, putting on an "antic [clownish, odd] disposition" (1.5.194).
.......It is Ophelia, Hamlet's beloved, who first reports that Hamlet has been acting strangely. She tells her father, Polonius, the nosy lord chamberlain, that Hamlet had burst in upon her while she was sewing. His face white, his eyes crazed, he took her by the wrist, peered into her eyes, then left the room. Polonius runs to King Claudius and repeats Ophelia's report. Claudius suspects there is something sane and threatening behind Hamlet's strange behavior. So he directs two school acquaintances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch the prince to find out the truth.
.......When roving actors come to Elsinore to entertain, Hamlet engages them to stage a play, which he calls The Mousetrap. In the play, a throne-seeker uses poison to murder a king named Gonzago. Claudius's reaction to the play will reveal his guilt, Hamlet believes, "For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ" (2.2.427-428)—and thus confirm that the ghost was indeed telling the truth.
.......Meanwhile, Fortinbras sends word that he will not make war on Denmark if King Claudius allows him to march through the country to invade Poland. Claudius agrees.
.......After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to fathom the meaning of Hamlet's "madness," Claudius and Polonius secretly observe Hamlet conversing with Ophelia. During the conversation, Hamlet rejects and insults Ophelia as his "madness" apparently worsens. His words deeply wound her, and there is a question whether he is transferring to poor, frail Ophelia the loathing and anger he feels toward his mother for her marriage to Claudius. Claudius, unsure whether Hamlet pretends insanity to disguise a scheme or is really mad, decides to rid the court of his unsettling presence by sending him to England on a contrived political mission. There, while conducting the court's business, he will be murdered.
.......While the actors present the play, they stage a murder in which an actor pours ''poison'' into the ear of another actor playing Gonzago. The scene so unnerves King Claudius that he rises and ends the play abruptly. His reaction convinces Hamlet of Claudius's guilt: He killed Hamlet's father; there can be no doubt of it.
.......Later, Queen Gertrude reproves Hamlet for upsetting Claudius by staging the play. Hamlet in turn rebukes her for her hasty marriage. Polonius, meanwhile, has positioned himself out of sight behind a wall tapestry (called an arras) to eavesdrop. When Hamlet sees the tapestry move, he stabs through it and kills Polonius, thinking he is Claudius..After Hamlet discovers his fatal mistake, the ghost reappears to remind Hamlet of his duty. When Hamlet speaks with the apparition, Gertrude cannot see the ghost and concludes that her son is indeed insane. Later she tells Claudius that Hamlet, in a fit of madness, killed Polonius.
.......Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry sealed papers ordering Hamlet's execution after the ship's arrival. At sea, Hamlet discovers the papers in a sealed packet while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sleeping and writes a new commission ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then re-seals the papers and places them in the packet. The next day, pirates attack the ship, and Hamlet escapes and hitches a ride with them back to Denmark. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive in England and present the sealed papers, they are executed.
.......Meantime, Ophelia, distraught over her father's death and the apparent loss of Hamlet's love, drowns in a brook—at first floating until her clothing, heavy with water, pulls her down. She apparently committed suicide, or was her death an accident—or the work of a sinister hand?
.......After Hamlet meets up with Horatio, they pass through a cemetery where two men are digging a grave. The first gravedigger sings as he digs and throws out a skull. Shocked, Hamlet tells Horatio, "That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once; how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder!" (5.1.34). The man continues to dig and throws out another skull. Hamlet says, "There's another; why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him
about . . . ?" (5.1.40). After Hamlet strikes up a conversation with the gravedigger, the latter tells him that the second skull was that of Yorick, old King Hamlet's jester when Hamlet was a child. Holding the skull, Hamlet recites a short speech about Yorick that underscores Hamlet's preoccupation with death.
.......A funeral procession approaches. Hamlet is unaware that the body being borne aloft is Ophelia's. It is she who will be lowered into the grave. When Hamlet sees her face, and when Laertes sees the face of Hamlet, the two men grapple, tumbling into the grave. Laertes means to avenge the deaths of his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Attendants part them, and Hamlet declares,I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers.......Later, in secret, Laertes and Claudius plot against Hamlet and poison the tip of a sword Laertes is to use against Hamlet in a fencing match designed as an entertainment. For good measure, Claudius prepares poisoned wine he will offer Hamlet during the match. Osric, a courtier and messenger of the king, informs Hamlet of the details of the match. Hamlet is unaware of the deadly plot against him.
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. (5.1.155-157)
.......During the competition, Hamlet performs brilliantly, and Claudius offers him the cup of wine. But Hamlet and Laertes fight on. Meanwhile, Gertrude takes the cup, telling Hamlet, "The queen carouses to thy fortune" (5.1.224) and, before the king can stop her, she drinks the wine. ....
Laertes grazes Hamlet with the poisoned rapier,4 breaking his skin and envenoming his bloodstream. Swords wave and poke wildly, and the fencers drop their weapons and accidentally exchange them. Hamlet then wounds Laertes with the same poisoned rapier. Both men are bleeding. A short while later, the queen keels over. To divert attention from the drink and himself, Claudius says Gertrude has fainted from the sight of blood. But Gertrude, drawing her last breath before dying, says, "The drink, the drink; I am poison'd."
.......Everyone now knows that Claudius had offered Hamlet poisoned wine.
.......Before Laertes dies, he reconciles with Hamlet and implicates Claudius in the scheme to undo Hamlet. Hamlet then runs Claudius through. As Hamlet lies mortally wounded from the poison on the tip of Laertes sword, Prince Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore with his army after his conquest of Poland. Hamlet tells Horatio that he wishes the Crown of Denmark to pass to Fortinbras. Then Hamlet dies. Ambassadors from England arrive to report the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horatio announces that he will inform the world of the events leading up to the deaths of Hamlet and the others. While soldiers bear off the bodies in a solemn procession, canons fire a salute.
ThemesHesitation: Hamlet has an obligation to avenge his father’s murder, according to the customs of his time. But he also has an obligation to abide by the moral law, which dictates, “Thou shalt not kill.” Consequently, Hamlet has great difficulty deciding what to do and, thus, hesitates to take decisive action. While struggling with his conscience, Hamlet time and again postpones carrying out the ghost's decree. In the meantime, he becomes cynical, pessimistic, depressed. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither. . . . (2.2.250)In his famous critiques of Shakespeare’s works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) has written:
He [Hamlet] is all dispatch and resolution as far as words and present intentions are concerned, but all hesitation and irresolution when called upon to carry his words and intentions into effect; so that, resolving to do everything, he does nothing. He is full of purpose but void of that quality of mind which accomplishes purpose. . . . Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth that action is the chief end of existence—that no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from or rend us repugnant to action, and lead us to think and think of doing until the time has elapsed when we can do anything effectually. (Lectures and Notes on Shakspere [Shakespeare] and Other English Poets. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904, page 164)Inherited Sin and Corruption: Humans are fallen creatures, victims of the devil’s trickery as described in Genesis. Allusions or direct references to Adam, the Garden of Eden, and original sin occur throughout the play. In the first act, Shakespeare discloses that King Hamlet died in an orchard (Garden of Eden) from the bite of a serpent (Claudius). Later, Hamlet alludes to the burdens imposed by original sin when he says, in his famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, that the “flesh is heir to” tribulation in the form of “heart-ache” and a “thousand natural shocks” (3.1.72-73). In the third scene of the same act, Claudius compares himself with the biblical Cain. In Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Like Cain, Claudius kills his brother, old King Hamlet. Claudius recognizes his Cain-like crime when he says:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse5 upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. (3.3.42-44)
In Act V, the second gravedigger tells the first gravedigger that Ophelia, who apparently committed suicide, would not receive a Christian burial if she were a commoner instead of a noble. In his reply, the first gravedigger refers directly to Adam: "Why, there thou sayest: and the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam’s profession" (5.1.13). After the gravedigger tosses Yorick’s skull to Hamlet, the prince observes: “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder!” (5. 1. 34). All of these references to Genesis seem to suggest that Hamlet is a kind of Everyman who inherits “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”—that is, the effects of original sin.
Sons Seeking Revenge: Young Fortinbras seeks revenge against Elsinore because King Hamlet had killed the father of Fortinbras, King Fortinbras. Hamlet seeks to avenge the murder of his father, King Hamlet, by Claudius, the king’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle. Laertes seeks revenge against Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius, the lord chamberlain.
Deception: Deception makes up a major motif in Hamlet. On the one hand, Claudius conceals his murder of Hamlet’s father. On the other, Hamlet conceals his knowledge of the murder. He also wonders whether the Ghost is deceiving him, pretending to be old King Hamlet when he is really a devil. Polonius secretly tattles on Hamlet to Claudius. Hamlet feigns madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pretend to have Hamlet’s best interests at heart while attempting to carry out Claudius’s scheme to kill Hamlet. After that scheme fails, Claudius and Laertes connive to kill Hamlet during the fencing match. However, that scheme also goes awry when Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup prepared for Hamlet.
Ambition: Claudius so covets the throne that he murders his own brother, King Hamlet, to win it. In this respect he is like Macbeth and Richard III in other Shakespeare plays, who also murder their way to the Crown. Whether Claudius’s ambition to be king was stronger than his desire to marry Gertrude is arguable, but both were factors, as he admits to himself in Act III, Scene III, when he reflects on his guilt: “I am still possessed / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition and my queen. . .” (60-61).
Loyalty: Hamlet is loyal to his father’s memory, as is Laertes to the memory of his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Gertrude is torn between loyalty to Claudius and Hamlet. Horatio remains loyal to Hamlet to the end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, school pals of Hamlet, betray Hamlet and spy on him.
Mischance, Coincidence, and Serendipity: Hamlet “just happens” to kill Polonius. Pirates “just happen” to rescue Hamlet. Hamlet “just happens” to come across Ophelia’s funeral upon his return to Denmark. Hamlet and Laertes “just happen” to exchange swords—one of them with a poisoned tip—in their duel. Gertrude “just happens” to drink from a poisoned cup meant for Hamlet. Fate, or unabashed plot contrivance, works its wonders in this Shakespeare play.
Christ-like Hamlet: Hamlet is like Christ, George Bernard Shaw has observed, in that he struggles against the old order, which requires an eye for and eye, as Christ did.
Madness: Madness, pretended or real, wears the mask of sanity. In his attempt to prove Claudius’s guilt, Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition”—that is, he pretends madness. But is he really mentally unbalanced? Perhaps.
Serpentine Satan: Imagery throughout the play dwells on Satan’s toxic influence on Elsinore and its inhabitants. Particularly striking are the snake metaphors. It is the venom of a serpent (in the person of Claudius) that kills old King Hamlet. Claudius, remember, had poured poison into the king’s ear as reported by the Ghost of the old king: While “sleeping in mine orchard,” the Ghost says, “A serpent stung me” (1.5.42-43). It is a sword—a steel snake, as it were—that kills Polonius, Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius. (The sword that kills Hamlet and Laertes is tipped with poison.) Moreover, it is a poisoned drink that kills Gertrude. As for Ophelia, it is poisoned words that kill her. The word poison and its forms (such as poisons, poisoner, and poisoning) occur thirteen times in the play. Serpent occurs twice, venom or envenom six times, devil nine times, and hell or hellish eleven times. Garden (as a symbol for the Garden of Eden) or gardener occurs three times. Adam occurs twice.
Ambiguous Spirit World: In Shakespeare’s time, ghosts were thought by some people to be devils masquerading as dead loved ones. Their purpose was to win souls for Satan. It is understandable, then, that Hamlet is reluctant at first to assume that the Ghost on the castle battlements is really the spirit of his father. Hamlet acknowledges his doubt at the end of Act II:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.433-438)
Empty Existence: Time and again, Hamlet bemoans the uselessness and emptiness of life. He would kill himself if his conscience would let him. He considers taking his life, as his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy” reveals. But as a Roman Catholic, he cannot go against the tenets of his religion, which forbids suicide.
.......Conflicts drive the action in the play. The main external conflict is between Hamlet and the killer of his father, Claudius. While Hamlet is attempting to confirm Claudius's guilt, Claudius is plotting and executing a plan to murder Hamlet. Hamlet is also in conflict with (1) his mother, whom he believes betrayed the memory of his father by marrying so soon after King Hamlet's death; (2) Ophelia, whom Hamlet treats with perplexing and sometimes insulting behavior; and (3) Laertes, whom Hamlet outraged by killing his father and --Laertes believes--indirectly causing Ophelia's death. Finally, Hamlet is in conflict with himself. For information on his internal conflict see Hesitation, under Themes.
.......The tone of the play is somber and foreboding. The tone becomes clear from the outset of the play in the exchange between Bernardo and Francisco as they stand watch on the castle:BERNARDO ’Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.Note that it is midnight, that it is bitter cold, and that Francisco is "sick at heart."
FRANCISCO For this relief much thanks; ’tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart. (1.1.9-11)
.......Moments later, when Horatio enters, Marcellus tells him of a "dreaded sight" that he and Bernardo saw on two nights while standing watch. Horatio is skeptical. But when Bernardo begins to report what they saw—using unsettling nature imagery—Marcelleus interrupts him when the sight appears again:BERNARDO Last night of all,.......Having established a dark, ominous tone or mood, Shakespeare then proceeds to unfold his tale.
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,—
MARCELLUS Peace! break thee off; look, where it comes again! (1.1.47-52)
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in Hamlet occurs, according to the first definition, when Hamlet satisfies himself that Claudius is indeed the murderer of his father—thanks to Claudius's guilty response to the players' enactment of The Mouse-trap (The Murder of Gonzago). According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act during and just after the sword fight, when Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet die.
.......Early in the play, Shakespeare suggests that Hamlet is in his teens or perhaps about twenty. But in the churchyard in Act V, Scene I, the first gravedigger—holding up the skull of the late King Hamlet’s jester, Yorick, who was Hamlet’s childhood baby sitter—says that “this skull hath lain you i’ the earth three-and-twenty years” (5.1.73) Hamlet’s age when Yorick died was about seven. Do the math and you discover that Hamlet should be about thirty.
.......What’s going on? Probably this: In a quarto edition of the play published in the early 1600s, the gravedigger says Yorick has been dead for only twelve years, which would make Hamlet about nineteen. Here is the line spoken by the gravedigger in that edition: “Here’s a scull [skull] hath bin here this dozen yeare [year].” However, in the 1623 folio edition of the play, Yorick has been dead for twenty-three years, as stated by the gravedigger. Apparently, the eleven-year discrepancy between the two editions was the result of an editing error. What it all means is that Hamlet is only nineteen or twenty.
.......Shakespeare’s plays are well populated with strong women who lead or influence men. Examples are Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), Volumnia (Coriolanus), Queen Elinor and Constance (King John), and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing). However, in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia are both weaklings who are dominated by men.
.......In the second scene of the first act, Hamlet, deeply disturbed that his mother (Gertrude) has married Claudius a short time after the death of old King Hamlet, says, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (150). Hamlet well realizes that fickle Gertrude wants, needs, requires marriage—impropriety notwithstanding—to satisfy her desire for attention. As the new Mrs. Claudius, she is totally submissive to the king's will; to offer an original thought that might offend him is out of the question. Ophelia also keeps her place. Like Gertrude, she is totally dependent on a male—in her case, her father. Even though she loves Hamlet, she agrees to help her father spy on Hamlet. When Laertes returns to Elsinore from France, she says, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.” In other words, Ophelia herself withered; her spirit died.
.......Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (3.1.66) is probably the most famous passage in English drama—and may well be the most quoted. Its fame lies partly in the attention it receives from the endless debates it has generated about what it means. It is currently fashionable to oppose the traditional view that the passage is a deliberation in which Hamlet is trying to decide whether to commit suicide. Anti-suicide champions argue that Hamlet is really deliberating what course of action to take—or not to take—to ravel his sleeve of woe while retaining life and limb.
.......Which view is right? Probably the traditional view—that Hamlet is contemplating hara-kiri with his bare bodkin. However, because Shakespeare carried ambiguity to the extreme in this passage instead of speaking his mind plainly, there is plenty of room to argue otherwise. Leading his readers through the tangled dendrites in Hamlet’s cerebrum, Shakespeare bewilders his audience. Admittedly, though, it is jolly good fun to try to solve the passage. In the end, though, it appears that Hamlet is indeed considering suicide in this passage.
.......About twenty centuries before the birth of Shakespeare, the Greek playwright Sophocles (circa 497-406 BC) completed one of the finest plays in history, Electra, about a young woman from Greek myth who resembles Hamlet in temperament and who struggles against circumstances almost identical to Hamlet’s. Her father, King Agamemnon, had been murdered by her mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, who succeeds to the throne. (Hamlet’s father, old King Hamlet, was murdered by Claudius, who succeeds to the throne and marries the late king’s wife—Hamlet’s mother—Gertrude.) Like Hamlet, Electra seeks to avenge her father’s death. But in plotting the deed with her brother, Orestes, she suffers deep anguish, like Hamlet, marked by bouts of melancholy. At times Hamlet seems a carbon copy of Electra. There is no evidence suggesting that Shakespeare used Sophocles as a source for Hamlet, but it would be no great surprise if a historical document turned up suggesting that he did.
.......The first syllable of Hamlet's name appears to derive from a German word, hamm, meaning enclosed area. Claudius, the name of King Hamlet's murderer, derives from the Latin word claudus, meaning lame. In one sense, Claudius is indeed lame. His evil deeds hamstring him, making him incapable of ruling Elsinore while Hamlet is on the prowl. The origin of the name Polonius, Claudius's lord chamberlain, is unclear; however, the first three letters could well refer to his duplicitous and bootlicking style of politics. Horatio, the name of Hamlet's loyal friend, is of Latin origin and may well refer to the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known as Horace, whose major themes include love and friendship. Fortinbras, the level-headed Norwegian prince who arrives in Elsinore at the end of the play to take command and bring stability, may be so-named to suggest strength or "strong-arm" (Latin, fortis: strong; French, bras: arm). Gertrude, the name of Hamlet's mother, who is Claudius's queen, means in old German spear (Ger) and dear (Trut). Gertrude, of course, wounds Hamlet by marrying Claudius (hence, Ger) but remains special to him as his mother (hence, Trut).
.......Between 1599 and 1600, two companies of boy actors—Paul’s Boys and the Children of the Chapel—gained an enthusiastic following in London. In fact, so popular did the boys become that they attracted large numbers of theatergoers away from adult acting companies. But the boy companies were rivals not only of their adult counterparts but also of each other. Ben Jonson, the chief playwright for the Children of the Chapel, despised the chief playwright for Paul’s Boys, John Marston. They lambasted each other in allusions in their plays, precipitating a “war of the theaters.” In the second scene of the second act of Hamlet, Shakespeare comments on the fascination with the boy actors. The occasion is the arrival of a company of adult actors (tragedians) at Elsinore to stage an entertainment—actors whom Hamlet had already seen in stage plays. When Hamlet asks Rosencrantz whether these adult actors remain as popular as ever, Rosencrantz says no. Here is the dialogue:
HAMLET Do they [the arriving adult actors] hold the sameWhat Was a Castle?
estimation they did when I was in the city? are they
ROSENCRANTZ No, indeed, are they not.
HAMLET How comes it? do they grow rusty?
ROSENCRANTZ Nay, their endeavour
keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir,
an aery of children, little eyases,........................... ...[aery: aerie, nest of bird of prey; eyases: baby birds, baby hawks]
that cry out on the top of question, and are most............... [top of the question: top of the voice, top of news on the theater war]
tyrannically clapped for't: these are now the
fashion, and so berattle the common stages—so they.... [berattle: misuse, pervert, take over]
call them—that many wearing rapiers are afraid of
goose-quills and dare scarce come thither....... .......[goose-quills: writing instruments]
HAMLET What, are they children? who maintains 'em?
how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no... [escoted: paid, reimbursed]
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players—as it is most like, if their means are no
better—their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?
ROSENCRANTZ 'Faith, there has been much to do on
both sides; and the nation holds it no sin to tarre them to. [tarre: goad, prod, spur]
controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid
for argument, unless the poet and the player went to
cuffs in the question.
HAMLET Is't possible?
GUILDENSTERN O, there has been much throwing about of brains.
HAMLET Do the boys carry it away?
ROSENCRANTZ Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and
his load too. ..........................................................................[[Hercules: Hercules bearing the world on his shoulders, a symbol of the Globe Theatre]
.......Most of the scenes in Hamlet are set in Elsinore Castle. A castle was a walled fortress of a king or lord. The word castle is derived from the Latin castellum, meaning a fortified place. Generally, a castle was situated on an eminence (a piece of high ground) that had formed naturally or was constructed by laborers. High ground constructed by laborers was called a motte (French for mound); the motte may have been 100 to 200 feet wide and 40 to 80 feet high. The area inside the castle wall was called the bailey.
.......Some castles had several walls, with smaller circles within a larger circle or smaller squares within a larger square. The outer wall of a castle was usually topped with a battlement, a protective barrier with spaced openings through which defenders could shoot arrows at attackers. This wall sometimes was surrounded by a water-filled ditch called a moat, a defensive barrier to prevent the advance of soldiers, horses and war machines.
.......At the main entrance was a drawbridge, which could be raised to prevent entry. Behind the drawbridge was a portcullis [port KUL is], or iron gate, which could be lowered to further secure the castle. Within the castle was a tower, or keep, to which castle residents could withdraw if an enemy breached the portcullis and other defenses. Over the entrance of many castles was a projecting gallery with machicolations [muh CHIK uh LAY shuns], openings in the floor through which defenders could drop hot liquids or stones on attackers. In the living quarters of a castle, the king and his family dined in a great hall on an elevated platform called a dais [DAY is], and they slept in a chamber called a solar. The age of castles ended after the development of gunpowder and artillery fire enabled armies to breach thick castle walls instead of climbing over them.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in Hamlet. Line numbers are based on the Oxford Shakespeare. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
AlliterationWith which she follow’d my poor father’s body (1.2.152)Anaphora
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch (1.3.20)
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts (1.5.51)
I know a hawk from a handsaw. (2.2.272)
Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage strikes wide;
But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword
The unnerved father falls. (2.2.325-327)
The bold winds speechless and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region. (2.2.338-340)
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. (3.2.3)
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! (3.4.39)
He will come straight. Look you lay home to him. (3.4.4)
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit. (5.2.298)’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,Hyperbole
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, modes, shows of grief,
That can denote me truly. (1.2.-81-86)
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love. (2.2.125-128)
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause. (5.2.329-332)By ’r lady, your ladyship is nearer heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine. (2.2.301)Irony, Dramatic
Hamlet tells one of the players that she is nearer to heaven because of the thick-soled shoes (chopines) that she wears.
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, . . . get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir? (3.2..210)
Hamlet speaks these words to one of the actors, asking whether his acting ability would get him a job as a
player if he wore plumes—as actors often did. The phrase forest of feathers (plumes) is a hyperbole.our late dear brother’s death (1.2.21)Metaphor
The king is speaking before Gertrude and other characters. The audience is aware that Claudius,
who refers to the late King Hamlet as "dear," murdered the king. Gertrude is not aware of his foul deed.The moist starMetonymy
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse. (1.1.135-137)
Comparison of the moon to a star and the oceans to an empire
Comparison of the moon to a sick creature
I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day. (1.1.169-172)
Comparison of the rooster to a trumpet
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads. (1.3.52-55)
Comparison of one lifestyle to a steep and thorny trail
And another lifestyle to a primrose path
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail. (1.3.63)
Comparison of the wind to a seated object; comparison of the billowed canvas of a sail to a shoulder
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. (1.3.69-70)
Comparison of the bonds of friendship to steel hoops
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d,
Hath op’d his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. (1.4.54-57)
Comparison of the sepulchre parts to jaws
Thou still hast been the father of good news. (2.2.48)
Claudius compares good news to children of Polonius.
Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating. (5.1.28)
The first clown (gravedigger) compares the second clown's brains to an ass that will that will not change course when beaten.’Tis given out that, sleeping in mine orchard,Personificaton and Metaphor
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus’d. (1.5.42-45)
Whole ear represents the populace of Denmark.Never did the Cyclops’ hammers fallPlay on Words
On Mars’s armour, forg’d for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam. (2.2.342-345)
Personification: comparison of the sword to a person with little remorse
Metaphor: comparison of the sword to a bleeding creatureCLAUDIUS How is it that the clouds still hang on you?Play on Words and Epithet
HAMLET Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun. (1.2.69-70)
Hamlet does not wish to be regard as the stepson of Claudius.
"Too much i' the sun" is a clever reply indicating his feelings.O! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Simile
. . . . that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God! (1.2.133-136)
Everlasting is an epithet for God. Canon here refers to theological
law but is used as if it means cannon (artillery).I could a tale unfold whose lightest wordExamples of References to Greek and Roman Mythology
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres. (1.5.21-23)
Comparison of Hamlet's eyes to stars
Duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. (1.5.39-41)
The ghost tells Hamlet that he would be as dull as a motionless weed on the banks of the
Lethe—the river of forgetfulness in Hades—if he did not desire to avenge the murder of the old king.
Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend. (4.1.9)
Comparison of Hamlet's state of mind to contending elements
.......Shakespeare often alluded or referred directly to figures in Greek and Roman mythology to make a description clear or vivid. For example, to refer to a man as a Hercules is to suggest that he has great strength. Following are examples of references to mythology in Hamlet.
Hecate (3.2.196): A goddess of the moon, earth, and underworld who became associated with witchcraft and magic.
Hercules (1.2.157): Roman name of the Greek hero Heracles, known for his great strength. He was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal. Hercules was famous for his his completion of twelve seemingly impossible labors, including slaying a lion and killing a nine-headed monster.
Hymen (3.2.102): God of marriage.
Hyperion (1.2.144): Father of the Titan sun god, Helios.
Hyrcanian beast (2.2.304): Tiger known for being especially fierce.
Phoebus (3.2.102): Apollo as the sun god.
Priam (2.2.303): King of Troy during the Trojan War.
Pyrrhus ( 2.2.304): Son of Achilles and one of the soldiers hidden in the Trojan horse.
satyr (1.2.144): Minor deity that inhabited the forests. It had horns and pointed ears, the head and trunk of a man, and the legs of a goat. It was a follower of the god of wine, Dionysus (Roman name: Bacchus), and engaged in merrymaking and lechery.
Tellus (3.2.103): Roman name for Gaea, the Greek goddess of the earth.
Vulcan (3.2.48 ): Roman name for Hephaestus, the god of fire and the forge who made armor in his smithy on Mount Olympus.
Why Claudius, Not Hamlet, Became King of Denmark
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
.......Keen readers and audiences often ask why Claudius acceded to the throne in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Should not the crown have passed to the dead king’s son, Prince Hamlet?
.......Not necessarily. In Denmark, the setting of the play, an elective monarchy held sway until 1660, when a hereditary monarchy replaced it. Therefore, Shakespeare’s fictional Hamlet, based on a legendary Dane of the Middle Ages, could not claim the crown as a birthright.
.......In an elective monarchy, court officials—noblemen in high standing—selected the new king by vote. The son of a king was, to be sure, the prime candidate for the royal chair, and usually he won it. But the voting nobles had the right to reject him in favor of another candidate. And that was precisely what happened in fictional Elsinore. The nobles approved the king’s brother, Claudius. In a hereditary monarchy, the king’s oldest son automatically ascended the throne when his father died. But of course Danish laws do not explain why the nobles chose Claudius over Hamlet. Shakespeare offers no explanation of their vote. However, Hamlet refers to the election of Claudius, saying, “He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother, / Popp’d in between the election and my hopes” (5.2.71-72). These lines appear in a passage in which Hamlet—conversing with his best friend, Horatio—is discussing Claudius’s murder plot against him and his moral right to kill Claudius. The words “my hopes” may signify that Hamlet expected to succeed his father. In the same scene of the same act, Hamlet—dying from the wound inflicted by Laertes’ poisoned-tip sword—again refers to the Denmark election system when he says Fortinbras should be the new king: “But I do prophesy the election lights / On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice” (5.2.300-301).
.......That Hamlet did not gain accession after the murder of his father could have been due to one or all of the following reasons: (1) Claudius actively campaigned for the kingship, winning votes by promising political favors. (2) Gertrude, eager to remarry and remain queen, campaigned on his behalf. (3) The nobles perceived Hamlet as too young and callow—and perhaps more likely to support the views of the common people instead of their views—and thus denied him succession.
.......In the tale on which Shakespeare based Hamlet—Amleth, a Latin work by Saxo Grammaticus (1150?-1220?)—Feng (the character after whom Shakespeare modeled Claudius) murders his brother, King Horwendil, out of jealousy. The opening paragraph of Amleth explains the cause of the jealousy:Horwendil, King of Denmark, married Gurutha, the daughter of Rorik, and she bore him a son, whom they named Amleth. Horwendil's good fortune stung his brother Feng with jealousy, so that the latter resolved treacherously to waylay his brother, thus showing that goodness is not safe even from those of a man's own house. And behold when a chance came to murder him, his bloody hand sated the deadly passion of his soul.—(Eton, Oliver, trans. The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: David Nutt, 1894.).......The Amleth tale also says Feng gained favor with the nobles by telling lies: "Nor did his smooth words fail in their intent; for at courts, where fools are sometimes favored and backbiters preferred, a lie lacks not credit" (Eton).
.......Throughout its history, Denmark has had three monarchical systems:
.......First: In 940, Harald Bluetooth became the first king of a unified Denmark under an elective system requiring the monarch to sign a charter guaranteeing a division of power between the king and the people.
.......Second: In 1660, Denmark adopted absolutism, granting the king full power, under a hereditary system conferring the right of succession on the oldest son. In 1665, a royal edict affirmed the hereditary system under the principle of primogeniture, a legal term referring to the right of the oldest son to inherit his father’s property.
.......Third: In 1849, Denmark abandoned its absolutist monarchy in favor of a constitutional monarchy that invested government power mainly in the people’s representatives while retaining the king as a ceremonial figure. In 1953, Denmark granted women the right to accede to the throne.
Why Hamlet Is All of Us
English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that one of the reasons for the appeal and success of Hamlet is that audience members and readers recognize themselves in the main character. Hazlitt said:
Hamlet is a name: his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. What then, are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader's mind. It is we who are Hamlet. This play has a prophetic truth, which is above that of history. Whoever has become thoughtful and melancholy through his own mishaps or those of others; whoever has borne about with him the clouded brow of reflection, and thought himself "too much i' th' sun;" whoever has seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists rising in his own breast, and could find in the world before him only a dull blank with nothing left remarkable in it; whoever has known "the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, or the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes;" he who has felt his mind sink within him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady, who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered by the apparitions of strange things; who cannot be well at ease, while he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought, he to whom the universe seems infinite, and himself nothing; whose bitterness of soul makes him careless of consequences, and who goes to play as his best resource to shove off, to a second remove, the evils of life by a mock-representation of them--this is the true Hamlet. . . . [Hamlet) is the one of Shakespear's plays that we think of oftenest, because it abounds most in striking reflections on human life, and because the distresses of Hamlet are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817).
Hamlet, Oedipus, and Freud
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
.......In an 1899 book entitled Die Traumdeutung (Interpretation of Dreams) Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, introduced the term Oedipus complex. This term describes a psychological stage of development in which a male child desires sexual relations with his mother or a female child desires sexual relations with her father. The child also exhibits hostility toward the parent of the same sex. In normal development, a child outgrows this desire. However, in abnormal development, a child may retain his or her sexual fixation on the parent of the opposite sex.
.......After Freud coined the term Oedipus complex, Shakespeare scholars noted that Hamlet exhibits the symptoms of this condition in his relationship with his mother, Gertrude, and stepfather-uncle, Claudius. In a soliloquy in the second scene of Act I, Hamlet condemns Claudius as a “satyr” (144) and agonizes over his mother’s hasty marriage to him, saying, “O! most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (160). Ample evidence exists elsewhere in the play to support the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet’s character while buttressing the view that Hamlet is mentally deranged.
.......In coining his term, Freud drew upon the story of Oedipus in Greek mythology. Here is the story, in brief:
.......An oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet, then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill him. But the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after tying him to a tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless couple—Polybus (also Polybius), King of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea (also Merope). They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot) and raise him to manhood.
.......One day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the oracle tells Oedipus that a time will come when he slays his father and marries his mother. Horrified, Oedipus later strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to live anywhere near his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick of fate cause him to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not know, of course, is that Polybus and Periboea are not his real parents.
.......On the road to Thebes, which leads away from Corinth, Oedipus encounters his real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and several attendants. Laius, of course, does not recognize Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius quarrel over a triviality—who has the right of way. The quarrel leads to violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and four of his attendants.
.......Outside Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two at midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great terror. No one can enter or leave the city.
.......When Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane.
.......Surprised and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant, the people of Thebes then offer this newcomer the throne. Oedipus accepts it and marries its widowed queen, Jocasta. Jocasta is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although no one in Thebes becomes aware of this fact until much later. Thus, the oracle's prophecy to Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.
.......Hamlet, of course, does not marry his mother. But, according to Freudian interpreters of the play, he does desire her—at least subconsciously. What is more, he solves a riddle of sorts, a homicide case, and kills his father—that is, stepfather. However, unlike Oedipus, Hamlet does not live on to anguish over the past.
Character Foils: "To one method of characterization Shakespeare seemed to have been especially partial; it is that of providing his major characters with contrasting opposites or foils designed to set them off. Sometimes the contrast is physical; Falstaff is fat, Shallow is thin; Hermia is short and dark, Helen is tall and fair. Usually, however, the contrast is one of temperament. Thus Claudio is reserved and cold, Benedick is alert and mercurial; Adriana is impatient and shrewish, her sister is calm and cool-headed.... Hamlet...the man who thinks without acting, delays; Laertes, the man who acts without thinking, plunges".—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 32).
Hamlet Production at Elsinore: Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh teamed up to play Hamlet and Ophelia in a late 1930's production in the actual setting of Shakespeare's play, Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark.
Heaven and Hell: The word heaven—or a form of it, such as heavens and heavenly—occurs fifty-six times in Hamlet. The word hell—or a form of it, such as hellish—occurs eleven times. Virtue occurs fifteen times, and sin occurs once.
Historical Note: Edwin Booth, one of the nineteenth Century's greatest Shakespearean actors, was the brother of actor John Wilkes Booth, assassin of the sixteenth U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln. The Booth brothers were sons of Junius Brutus Booth, an actor born in London. The latter's middle name was the same as that of the most prominent assassin of Julius Caesar. Ironically, Edwin and John Wilkes portrayed Brutus and Mark Antony in a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Winter Garten Theatre in New York.
- Hamlet faces a moral dilemma. On the one hand, the ghost of his father urges him to gain revenge by killing Claudius. On the other hand, Hamlet's conscience tells him that killing is wrong. After all, he is a college boy who has been exposed to the teachings of theologians, philosophers and other thinkers who condemn revenge. What was the attitude of people in Hamlet's day—as many as a thousand years ago—toward law and order and revenge?
- Another dilemma Hamlet faces is whether the ghost is trustworthy. Is it really the ghost of his father? Is it a demon? Is there really a ghost at all? What was the attitude of people in Shakespeare's time—he was born in 1564 and died in 1616—toward the supernatural: ghosts, witches, etc.? See the second essay topic (below) for additional information.
- In Act I, Scene II, Claudius refers to Gertrude as "our sometime sister." What does he mean by this phrase?
- Does Hamlet himself covet the throne? Why didn't he—the son of old King Hamlet—inherit the throne? (Look for a clue in these lines: He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother, / Popp'd in between the election and my hopes (5.2.4). The play is full of deceit. Who attempts to deceive whom?
- Before he leaves to study at the University of Paris (Act I, Scene III), Laertes warns his sister, Ophelia, to be wary of Hamlet's attentions toward her, saying Hamlet regards her as little more than a "toy." Is it possible that Laertes is right, that Hamlet really is not serious about Ophelia?
- Hamlet is angry because his mother married Claudius so soon after the death of old King Hamlet. Was Gertrude having an affair with Claudius before her husband's death? Was she in on the murder? Does Hamlet suffer from an Oedipus complex?
- Hamlet puts on an "antic disposition"—that is, he pretends to be insane. But is he, in fact, insane or mentally unstable?
- Does Ophelia go insane? Does she commit suicide?
- What circumstances do Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras have in common? Do they share similar character traits?
- In ancient and medieval times, ambitious men often murdered their way to the throne, as Claudius did in Hamlet. Shakespeare was right on the mark in Henry IV Part II when he wrote, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." In other words, a ruler often had to sleep with one eye open to watch for attempts on his life. What were some of the methods monarchs used to protect themselves or uncover plots against them? For example, did they employ spies or food tasters? Did they stay in the company of trusted guards?
- Identify metonymy (a figure of speech) in the following excerpt from the play: "O that . . . the Everlasting had not fix'd / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! What does Shakespeare mean by canon and self-slaughter?
- Argue that Elsinore represents the Garden of Eden after the serpent (Satan) does his dirty work. In your argument, point out that the reason Elsinore is corrupt is that it yielded to—and continues to yield to—diabolical influence. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses imagery that appears to support this view. For example, old King Hamlet is poisoned in an Eden-like setting by a "serpent" (Claudius). Later, Elsinore becomes a place of darkness and deception; Hamlet is urged by a ghost (who could be the devil) to commit a sin, revenge. Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, turn against him. While researching the play, notice the many references to the devil, as in this line spoken by Hamlet to Gertrude: What devil was't that thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman blind? (3.4.86-87). In addition, consider the many references to hell, as in this line spoken by Ophelia about Hamlet: As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors,—he comes before me (2.1.93-94).
- Write an informative essay explaining the attitude of people in Shakespeare's time toward supernatural phenomena and the occult. As part of this assignment, you may wish to consider another Shakespeare play, Macbeth, in which three witches play important roles. In Shakespeare's time, many people believed in the power of witches. One was King James I, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as the ruler of England. In 1591, when he was King of Scotland during Elizabeth's reign, a group of witches and sorcerers attempted to murder him. Their trial and testimony convinced him that they were agents of evil. Thereafter, he studied the occult and wrote a book called Daemonologie (Demonology), published in 1597. This book—and an earlier one called Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer, 1486), describing the demonic rites of witches—helped inflame people against practitioners of sorcery.
- Probe Hamlet's mind. Get inside it and explore every niche and crevice. Then, attempt to explain why he acts as he does. True, his behavior is in large part a reaction to his father's death and his mother's marriage to Claudius. But what else bothers Hamlet? Is he angry because he himself did not succeed to the throne? Does the ghost cause him to dwell morbidly on the afterlife? Does he suddenly hate all women because of what his mother did?
- Write an essay entitled "Hamlet's Deepest Secrets." In this essay, argue that Hamlet harbors disturbing secrets, such as the following: (1) as a child, he was neglected by King Hamlet and Gertrude and, therefore, grew up resenting them; (2) he believes he might really be the child of Claudius; and (3) he is sexually attracted to his mother (Oedipus complex). Evidence appears in the play to support—but not prove—such theories.
- To what extent does the main setting, Elsinore Castle, contribute to the atmosphere of the play? To what extent does this setting affect the mindset of Hamlet and/or other characters?
1...Niobe: In Greek mythology, Niobe had bragged to the goddess Leto that she had six sons and six daughters. Leto had only two children, the god Apollo and the goddess Diana (Greek: Artemis). Because of Niobe's boastfulness, Apollo killed her sons, Diana killed her daughters, and Jupiter (Greek: Zeus) turned her into a mass of stone on a mountain in present-day Turkey. The block of stone cried tears ceaselessly as Niobe wept for her dead children.
2...Henbane (Hemblane): Poisonous plant of the nightshade family that is native to Great Britain as well as to the central and southern European continent and to western Asia.
3...Purgatory: In Roman Catholic theology, a place where the souls of the dead undergo temporary punishment that purges them of venial sins, which are less serious offenses. Once purified, these souls can enter heaven. The souls of persons who die with unforgiven serious offenses, such as murder, go to hell. The concept of purgatory is derived from II Maccabees, an Old Testament book rejected by Protestants and Jews, and from New Testament references.
4...Rapier: In their match Hamlet and Laertes each use a rapier, a narrow sword designed for thrusting and parrying (deflecting the lunging rapier of the opponent) rather than slashing (as with the heavier broadsword). Before the match, the weapons are referred to as foils, which are rapiers with blunted tips. However, the rapier of Laertes has a pointed tip laced with poison.
5...Primal eldest curse: Allusion to the curse on Cain after he killed Abel.