What are we to learn from Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Art is an amazing thing that speaks to each person who interacts with it differently. Two people can see the same play, but it may speak to them in vastly distinct and separate ways.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, and I find that it has many messages or lessons for its audience.

Hamlet is a seemingly happy young man, with a family he loves, called home at his father's unexpected death. When he arrives at Elsinore Castle, he is as prepared as he can be for the loss of his father, but then discovers that his mother has married his father's brother (considered an incestuous marriage in Elizabethan times), and that his uncle, Claudius, now sits on the throne of Denmark.

If this is not enough, Hamlet's father's ghost appears and charges his son to avenge Old Hamlet's murder.

There are several important life lessons in this play, for me.

First of all, life can change with one beat of the heart. Life holds no guarantees.

Secondly, I believe it is important to allow people to help you and have faith in those you love. Hamlet quickly decides he cannot trust Gertrude (his mother) or Ophelia (his sweetheart). Had he been able to do so, surely his burden would have been lighter, and Ophelia might not have died.

There are times when life asks us to do things we do not want to do. In Act I, scene five, Hamlet complains that he is required to avenge his father's murder:

O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!   (210)

Finally, one of the play's most important themes comes, ironically, from the mouth of one of the play's most foolish characters: Polonius. Polonius has wonderful advice, but never takes it. This famous line speaks to us, hundreds of years after Shakespeare wrote it:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.  (I, iii, 82-84)

Hamlet is called upon to fix a situation with which he has no experience. He does not feel he can speak to his family, or Ophelia and her family, but he does not spend a great deal of time trying to work things out with Horatio. And although Horatio is a man who Hamlet can trust, the young prince decides to "put on an antic disposition" to trick those he feels he cannot trust.

None of this comes naturally to Hamlet; we sense he is a young man who is given to speaking his mind honestly, without deception.

Hamlet is unable to follow this advice, but must present himself as something he is not: a man crazed with love, or grief, or both. Since Claudius is a murderer, it stands to reason that Hamlet cannot speak his mind regarding his father's murder, but had he leaned on others, and remained true to his own sensibilities, rather than trying to be what he imagined would help him decide the path he must take to avenge his father's death, perhaps his fate might have been different, hypothetically.

These are some of the main themes or messages I find in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

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