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.
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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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 central Act III: at its start, Ophelia is brutalized by Hamlet's cutting, lewd rejection and by its end, her father Polonius has been incidentally killed by her former lover. These are powerful traumatic blows, and the gist of mad Ophelia's ditties and ramblings about lost love and death underscores their mutual confusion in her distracted mind. But Shakespeare did not create the character of Ophelia to serve as a clinical case study in female dementia; there is more to her madness than lost love and a father's death can explain.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare reminds us that Ophelia and Hamlet were lovers before its opening act. In her first exchange with Polonius, Ophelia says of Hamlet "He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders/Of his affection to me" (I, iii., ll.99-100). The fact of Hamlet's one-time affection for Ophelia is ironically affirmed in the rejection scene that begins Act III. And, finally, at her burying ground, as he grapples with Laertes, Hamlet declares, "I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/Could not with all their quantity of love/Make up my sum" (V, i., ll.269-271). But Shakespeare never shows us the two as lovers and the only direct reflection of their romance appears in a love letter poem written by Hamlet in which he entreats Ophelia to "never doubt I love you" (II, ii., l.119). The words of this piece and the sentiment it conveys, however, are oddly trite and banal, especially in light of the verbal facility that a deep Hamlet has already disclosed in Act I. Moreover, in his first soliloquy (I, ii), Hamlet proclaims "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (l.146). The woman that Hamlet has in mind is, of course, his mother Gertrude, and her "frailty" lies in her hasty widow's marriage to her husband's brother. But Hamlet couches this oath in generic terms and makes no exclusion of Ophelia, for whom the word "frailty" proves a far more accurate descriptor. All of this casts some doubt about the strength of Hamlet's love for Ophelia and the significance of his rejection of her as a cause of her insanity.
This suggests that lost love is not the event that triggers Ophelia's madness, but that it is the death of her beloved father, Polonius, which pushes her beyond the brink. Laertes finds this to be the case (IV, v., ll.161-163), and when the mad Ophelia sings of "him" lying in the ground and the need for her brother, Laertes to know of it, her brother's diagnosis is reinforced. Yet at the same time, Ophelia's songs and her dissociated statements abound with lewd puns that are strongly reminiscent of Hamlet's cruel, sexual wordplay in Act III, scene i. Indeed, when Laertes says that his sister's madness is the result of her love for Polonius, not only does this ring in an association with Hamlet,...
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
At the conclusion of Hamlet, as the Prince, Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude all lie dead, an ambassador from England arrives on the scene with the blunt report that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" (V, ii., l.371). The inclusion of this news seems like deliberate overkill on Shakespeare's part, for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relatively minor characters and we have already been led to surmise from Hamlet's report to Horatio that his duplicitous school chums have been sent to their death as an artifact of the Prince's ruse. The phrase itself would serve as the title of modern playwright Tom Stoppard's black comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), in which the two characters are resurrected as...
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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,...
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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...
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To Thine Own Self Be True: An Analysis
In Act I, scene iii of Hamlet, the character of Polonius prepares his son Laertes for travel abroad with a speech (ll.55-81) in which he directs the youth to commit a "few precepts to memory." Among these percepts is the now-familiar adage "neither a borrower nor a lender be" (l.75) and the dictum: "This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans't not be false to any man "(ll.78-80). The occasion of the speech has been established in advance, for in the previous scene, Polonius has told the King and Queen that he has granted his son permission to extend his studies in France. This seems to be an eminently reasonable decision by a father concerned with his son's welfare and the...
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Minor Characters and the Number Three
According to Colin Wilson, author of The Occult, some people believe that numbers have an influence on human affairs. It is well known that the Elizabethans were more superstitious than most, and the influence of numbers can readily be seen in Shakespeare's Hamlet. There are two women (Gertrude and Ophelia), two uncles (Claudius and Norway), and six countries (Denmark, England, France, Germany, Norway, and Poland), the result of two times three. The number three itself is a major, though often neglected, motif of the play. Wilson comments on its significance:
Three: the number of versatility and plenty; traditionally lucky ('three times lucky'); people with the number three are gay,...
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To See or Not to See: Fortinbras in Two Film Productions of Hamlet
Shakespeare's most famous play, Hamlet, exists in three versions known as the First Quarto published in 1603, the Second Quarto published in 1604, and the text in the First Folio (1623). All three versions differ from each other, and are often combined to make what editors call a conflated text. The version that is taught in many schools and used by most performance people is the conflated version of Hamlet that has 3760 lines.
Of the film versions now available on videotape, two have been demonstrated to be more popular than any of the others: Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 version with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, and Kenneth Branagh's effort with himself and Julie Christie. As with the texts of Hamlet, there...
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Hamlet and Macbeth: A Comparison
The purpose of this paper is to discuss two of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, to compare the themes, characters, and the conclusion of each play, and to focus in particular upon the concept of evil as it is treated by Shakespeare in each play. Each play primarily concerns the downfall of a man who has the potential for greatness, but finds himself caught in a web of evil woven by others. In the case of Macbeth, we have a man led by greed, an uncontrollable appetite for power, and the urging of an insane wife, who in the course of the play, turns from a noble man into a monster. Hamlet, on the other hand, is led to his end by a desire for revenge which he allows to go out of control, and by the...
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The Theme of Pretense in Shakespeare's Hamlet
First published in a 1952 issue of The Yale Review, Maynard Mack's essay "The World of Hamlet" remains one of the most widely-cited explications of that Shakespearean tragedy. As Mack observes, Hamlet is the most "elusive" of Shakespeare's works, for the dramatic world that the Bard created in this play is "a world of riddles" that are not conclusively answered by its end and, in fact, appear to have been deliberately intended to create doubt in the eyes of the viewer (1952/1964, p.45). Mack identifies three salient attributes that pervade the "world" which Shakespeare created in Hamlet; its mysteriousness, its stress on the "playing" or pasts, and, most relevant to this essays’ particular concerns,...
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Analysis of Act Five of Shakespeare's Hamlet
Shakespeare's Hamlet was first published in 1603, although it had been performed prior to that date. Today, it remains perhaps the best known play in the English language. The story is set in Denmark. The title character, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is ". . . himself . . . almost more of a satirist than a philosopher".1 Indeed, despite the play's undeniable status as a tragedy, its satirical and comedic elements often threaten to take precedence over the more sober, weighty considerations encountered within. Nearly every character of note dies, a kingdom changes hands, the fate of many rides in the balance. Furthermore, the reader cannot help but be somehow concerned (whether attracted or repelled, of course, is a...
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Character Analysis of Horatio
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is dominated by the complex, absorbing character of its primary figure, that being the young prince Hamlet. There is scarcely a single scene in the play in which Hamlet does not greatly determine the course of the action either by his forceful presence or, in his absence, by the preoccupation of Claudius and his cohorts as they plot to remove Hamlet as the major obstacle blocking the functioning of their regime. Keeping this fact in mind one must be exceedingly careful not to neglect the importance of the other characters, both principal and minor, in the play. In some cases their development as unique personalities, with identities separate and distinct from the purposes to which they are put by the...
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Staging for Shakespeare's Hamlet: Act II, Scene ii, Lines 85-221
Act II, scene ii is set simply in "a room in the castle." As Claudius and Gertrude greet some of their guests—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the ambassadors from Norway—the room should be elegant and comfortable. As the set and costuming for this production is particularly understated, the room is suggested through the draping of five large swatches of diaphanous material—three violet and two grey (as opposed to the setting of the state room which is hung with many, multi-colored swatches of material). Two of these swatches—one violet and one grey—are draped across the length of the stage ceiling, while the remaining swatches are draped from the ceiling to the floor at several different points to suggest walls. A simple...
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The Nature of Hamlet's Character
The nature of Hamlet's character may well be the most controversial topic in English literature. Yet the background which frames Hamlet’s character seems too uncomplicated to produce such controversy.
Hamlet’s father has been murdered with malicious premeditation and for the most reprehensible reasons. Not only has his being been defiled in order to attain these ends, but his memory has also been profaned in their coming to pass. Claudius and Gertrude are both complicit in murder; Claudius has violated the divinity of rule by committing treason; and Gertrude has gone against the tenets of custom and the sanctity of the marriage vows by so improperly displaying her lack of grief and allegiance to her husband....
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Hamlet's Delay: An Objective and Subjective Analysis Compared
One of the most perplexing problems of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and certainly one which has received a great deal of critical attention, is the question of why Hamlet delays the killing of Claudius. The Prince eventually succeeds in avenging his father's death, but this occurs only in the play's final scene. Before that point, Hamlet has numerous opportunities to accomplish his task: the prayer scene, for example, in which both characters come face to face alone. Yet Hamlet demurs. On this matter critical opinion is divided into essentially two schools of thought. There are the "objective" critics who view Hamlet's delay as being externally determined: Hamlet does not act because of restraints which exist outside the workings...
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Analysis of Three Critical Works on Hamlet
I. ANALYSIS OF E.M.W. TILLYARD'S CLASSIFICATION OF HAMLET AS A PROBLEM PLAY
The initial chapter of E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's Problem Plays concerns Hamlet which is usually considered to be a tragedy rather than a problem play. Tillyard uses three vaguely defined processes inherent in tragedy to accomplish this distinction between Hamlet and the remainder of Shakespeare's tragedies. A tragedy, according to Tillyard, is primarily concerned with suffering, and the critic is willing to allow that in this sense Hamlet conforms to the genre. He states, however, that Hamlet lacks "a complication and an enrichment common in much tragedy: that of being to some extent, even a tiny...
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Hamlet: History, Religion, and Myth
In this essay we will discuss the historical, mythical, and religious content of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and briefly its relationship to the political and social setting of its time and its influence on Western literature. Although it is difficult to separate these into clearly distinguishable and exclusive categories, and perhaps even misleading to do so, we will, for the sake of clearer organization and understanding present them individually. It will be seen that they will overlap and mingle with one another, and hopefully thereby they will in the end be an integrated whole.
The origins of Shakespeare's Hamlet exist both in literature and in human life, in man's psyche, in his myth, his religion, his...
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