Study Guide

Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

Hamlet Essay - Essays

Essays

Hamlet's Delay

The question of why Hamlet does not immediately avenge his father's death is probably the best-known critical problem in Shakespeare studies. The most obvious reply to this inquiry is that if the Danish prince moved at once upon the Ghost's report of foul "murther" and killed Claudius straightaway, then there would be no further story for Shakespeare to tell after the start of the play's second act. From this simplistic (if valid) standpoint, Hamlet's delay is essential to the tragedy's narrative progression. More important, while there is plenty of action in Hamlet (a stage work in which all of the major characters suffer untimely deaths), the play's plot is plainly subordinate to the tandem development of Hamlet's character and certain philosophical themes such as the knotty issues of mortality and chance. Absent his deferral of action, there would be no need for Hamlet to grow into his role as "scourge and minister," and no dramatic occasions at hand for his (and our) consideration of the deeper issues that Shakespeare poses in this tragedy.

A second response to this question challenges its underlying premises. It proceeds from the counter-assertion that Hamlet does, in fact, act forcefully long before the play's final act. By Act V, Hamlet has invented the "mousetrap" of the play-within-a-play, slain Polonius and dragged his corpse away, persuaded the off-stage pirates to release him from captivity, and cleverly arranged the demise of his erstwhile schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Moreover, after being told about the appearance of Ur-Hamlet's apparition on the walks of Elsinore Castle, Hamlet says to Horatio that he will speak with his father's ghost "though hell itself should gape/And bid me to hold my peace" (I, ii. ll.244-245). Indeed, Hamlet casts aside the fears of Horatio and Marcellus about what awaits him when the Ghost beckons, and orders them to unhand him so that he can speak face-to-face with this awesome, fear-provoking figure. These prior acts are not those of a passive or timid soul.

Nevertheless, neither of these pat answers is sufficient to overcome our sense that Hamlet wavers in carrying out the commission laid upon him by the Ghost. Not only does his excuse for not killing the king while he is at prayer ring hollow, Claudius's death in Act V is not the outcome of a truly deliberate act, but a seemingly chance occurrence brought about by circumstances that Hamlet's enemies have contrived. Our sense that Hamlet delays action is reinforced by his demeanor and, above all, by his own words. When we first see the Prince on stage, dressed in black and self-exiled to the periphery of the court, he assumes the role of a critical observer making disparaging asides about Claudius and his consort. After learning of his uncle's crime, Hamlet comes into court in Act II, scene ii reading a book. The association of Hamlet with "mere words" is strengthened by his penchant for ingenious but pointless verbal banter and highlighted by the inordinate number of soliloquies assigned to him by the playwright. Most...

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Exploring Hamlet's Hesitation

Perhaps one of the most perplexing problems a modern audience may have with Shakespeare's Hamlet is the obvious question: what takes him so long to act on the Ghost's request for revenge? The obvious but simple answer is that if he did not take his time, we would have 'Hamlet: The Short Story' instead of 'Hamlet: The Classic Play'. There are, however, valid reasons for Hamlet's slow behaviour. Among them are his public role in the monarchy of Denmark, his education, and the environment of Elsinore.

Hamlet is first and foremost the Prince of Denmark. There are no brothers or sisters, and he is the popular, well-liked son of an equally popular and well-liked King and Queen. Not unlike the royal families of today, the royals of Elsinore have two lives—a public one and a private one, both of which are very much interlinked. Their lives as a whole are really not their own, yet their privacy is apparently a sacrifice they are willing to make to render service to Denmark. Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, had done much to ensure that Denmark was well protected. His untimely death was marked by intense mourning at the court, as well it should have been for a man of his position.

However, Gertrude's marriage to Claudius before a month of mourning had passed could be interpreted as a breach of protocol. This is why in the opening scenes, Claudius goes to such lengths to calm and soothe the concerns of the court. When Hamlet returns to the court from school in Wittenburg, Germany, it is impossible that he can escape what awaits him.

The tenants of this castle include the King's minister, Polonius, and his family, Laertes and Ophelia, as well as a coterie of government officials (Cornelius and Voltemand), guards (Marcellus and Bernardo and their companies), and courtiers (Osric, for example). In this environment, to have even a small amount of privacy is almost impossible since there is always someone somewhere. Such a transgression as the apparently unprovoked murder of a royal minister would open all sorts of questions for Claudius that he may be able to answer.

Even Hamlet's private life is of public concern, especially when it comes to his selection of a wife. Laertes tells Ophelia in no uncertain terms that her relationship with Hamlet is fruitless:

Perhaps he loves you now,
And no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will; but you must fear,
His greatness being weighed, his will is not his own.
For he himself is subject to his birth.
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself, for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state,
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head.
(1.3.14-24)

The selection of a future queen is an issue at the very core of a monarchy's survival. On the political side, it was common practice to cement peace treaties with a marriage between two ruling houses. A wife's main function as queen was to produce a male heir for the King. In a kingdom like Denmark, which had an elected monarchy, it was doubly important that a future king be suitably matched for the peace and stability of the country.

Gertrude has produced Hamlet; however, the possibility of a direct heir for Claudius is remote, if not impossible, as Hamlet says: 'at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame' (3.4.1617). The pressure on Hamlet to continue the line and Claudius' desire to keep the Prince off the throne come into direct conflict. Ophelia, as the daughter of a minister, cannot bring either wealth or security to a marriage with Hamlet. Although Hamlet's profession of love at her funeral is moving and sincere, it is unlikely that they would have been allowed to marry...

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Is Hamlet Sane?

With the coming of Freudian theory in the first half of this century and the subsequent emergence of psychoanalytically-oriented literary criticism in the 1960s, the question of Hamlet's underlying sanity has become a major issue in the interpretation of Hamlet. While related concern with the Prince's inability to take action had already directed scholarly attention toward the uncertainty of Hamlet's mental state, modern psychological views of the play have challenged his sanity at a deeper, sub-conscious level, typically citing self-destructive and, most pointedly, sexual drives to explain his behavior, his words, and the mental processes beneath them. In a play with undertones of incest and heavy doses of sexual word-play, critics using diverse psychoanalytical approaches to Hamlet have generated new (and sometimes plausible) readings of Shakespeare's best-know tragedy. But even if we forego this maze, the issue of Hamlet's basic sanity is worth re-examining from a modern perspective.

There is a distinct division of opinion among the other characters of the play about Hamlet's sanity and the split is along gender lines. Ophelia (Act II, scene i.) and Gertrude (Act III, scene iv.) both state that Hamlet is "mad," Ophelia reporting his dishevelment to her father, the Queen being unable to see or hear her son's final exchange with the Ghost of her husband. The major male characters, on the other hand, see with Polonius (II, ii.) that there is "method" in Hamlet's "madness," that his insanity is a surface mask to shield him as he plans the darker purpose of revenge.

Since Hamlet is understandably disturbed by the sudden death of his father and his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, King Claudius, the abnormality of his behavior is to some extent also understandable. Hamlet is naturally withdrawn, dark, and morose in the wake of these traumatic events. And, by the same token, he gives vent to his abject mood with lines...

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The Ghost: Is He Really Hamlet's Father?

Hamlet is not the only Shakespeare play to feature the appearance of an apparition or ghost. Great Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus at Sardis, a procession of eleven ghosts curse Richard III before the battle of Bosworth Field, the spirit of Banquo haunts Macbeth at his banquet. But none of these effigies has the presence or the dramatic function that Shakespeare imparts to the ghost of Hamlet's father. It is through the ghost of Ur-Hamlet that the Danish Prince (and the audience) learns of the "foul and most unnatural murther" committed by Claudius. One of the stage roles that Shakespeare himself is believed to have performed on occasion, the Ghost of Hamlet speaks at length, appears in four scenes, and establishes the basic...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)

The Character of Ophelia: Why Does She Go Mad?

Since the first staging of Hamlet, the very name of Ophelia has become nearly synonymous with that form of female madness that was once termed "melancholia" and marked by a nostalgic state of depression, a dissociation from reality, and a self-destructive drive. Not only does Shakespeare's Ophelia display all of these symptoms, the change that we see in her is shocking. Prior to her re-appearance as a mad woman in Act IV, scene v, Ophelia is first presented in Act I, scene iii in a carefully balanced exchange with her brother, Laertes. She then proves herself to be a sensible daughter to Polonius, agreeing to end her budding romance with Prince Hamlet. The cause of Ophelia's transformation appears to lie in the play's...

(The entire section is 1413 words.)