Hamlet is without question the most famous play in the English language. Probably written in 1601 or 1602, the tragedy is a milestone in Shakespeare’s dramatic development; the playwright achieved artistic maturity in this work through his brilliant depiction of the hero’s struggle with two opposing forces: moral integrity and the need to avenge his father’s murder.
Shakespeare’s focus on this conflict was a revolutionary departure from contemporary revenge tragedies, which tended to graphically dramatize violent acts on stage, in that it emphasized the hero’s dilemma rather than the depiction of bloody deeds. The dramatist’s genius is also evident in his transformation of the play’s literary sources—especially the contemporaneous Ur-Hamlet—into an exceptional tragedy. The Ur-Hamlet, or “original Hamlet,” is a lost play that scholars believe was written mere decades before Shakespeare’s Hamlet, providing much of the dramatic context for the later tragedy. Numerous sixteenth-century records attest to the existence of the Ur-Hamlet, with some references linking its composition to Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. Other principal sources available to Shakespeare were Saxo Grammaticus’s Historiae Danicae (circa 1200), which features a popular legend with a plot similar to Hamlet, and François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (7 Vols.; 1559-80), which provides an expanded account of the story recorded in the Historiae Danicae. From these sources Shakespeare created Hamlet, a supremely rich and complex literary work that continues to delight both readers and audiences with its myriad meanings and interpretations.
In the words of Ernest Johnson, “the dilemma of Hamlet the Prince and Man” is “to disentangle himself from the temptation to wreak justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passion, and to do what he must do at last for the pure sake of justice.… From that dilemma of wrong feelings and right actions, he ultimately emerges, solving the problem by attaining a proper state of mind.” Hamlet endures as the object of universal identification because his central moral dilemma transcends the Elizabethan period, making him a man for all ages. In his difficult struggle to somehow act within a corrupt world and yet maintain his moral integrity, Hamlet ultimately reflects the fate of all human beings.
Full Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Author: William Shakespeare
Date of Composition: Likely between 1600 and 1602
Main Characters: Hamlet, Ghost of King Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius
- Ghost of King Hamlet.The Ghost is a symbol of the consequences of death in the afterlife.
Essential quotation: “I am thy father's spirit, / Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” (1.5.13-17).
- Yorick’s skull.Yorick’s skull is a reminder of mortality and the permanency of death.
Essential quotation: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath / borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how / abhorred in my imagination it is!” (5.1.177-179).
- Flowers.In Ophelia’s bouquet, each flower she distributes is a symbol for the ways various people have betrayed her. For example, daisies are symbols of unhappiness in love.
Essential quotation: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. And there’s pansies, that’s for thoughts…There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we / may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. You (must) wear / your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when / my father died. They say he made good end.” (4.5.194-199).
- Uncertainty. Hamlet wishes to avenge his father and punish both his mother and uncle, but he does not know the moral or proper way to achieve justice.
- Fortune or Chance. Hamlet could not save his father. No matter how carefully he plots his revenge, chance events lay waste to his plans. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet believes his uncle is hiding behind the curtains in his mother’s room. In fact, however, the person who is hiding is Polonius, Ophelia’s father. Hamlet kills him and sets off an unanticipated chain of events.
- Mortality.Hamlet is grief-stricken by the loss of his father. When he comes upon Yorick’s skull, Hamlet realizes the permanency of death. He thinks of all the great men who have come before him and not a single one has escaped death.
Essential quotation: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth / into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; / and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might / they not stop a beer barrel? / Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away” (5.1.201-206).