Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has recently lost his father; his mother has entered into an overhasty marriage with the murdered man’s brother, Claudius. Grieving at his father’s death, and morally outraged at the hurried marriage, Hamlet broods about his helplessness, until a ghost appears on the ramparts, telling him his father was in fact murdered by his uncle, who poured poison in his ear while he slept. Gertrude, his mother, is indirectly implicated, but the ghost orders Hamlet to confine his revenge to Claudius.
In a series of delaying tactics, partly designed to obtain ocular proof and partly a result of Hamlet’s natural hesitation to kill, he forces Claudius to react in public. Feigning madness, Hamlet waits for his chance to kill his uncle in hot blood (not a sin); the play ends in a duel of poisoned swords.
The complex nature of this play, together with the soaring poetry of the soliloquies, makes it the most often quoted play in all history. Hamlet’s feigned madness, hesitation to action, demand for ocular proof, and final revenge are conventions of a formulaic dramatic form called revenge tragedy. What lifts HAMLET above its predecessors is the revelation of character by means of poetic diction. Through the device of soliloquies (internal monologues), we are privy to the anguished deliberations of a sensitive soul debating with itself the moral consequences of murder, weighed against filial loyalty, responsibilities of royal birth, and the human hesitation to perform irreversible acts whose consequences are unknown.
Bowers, Fredson Thayer. Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. A full discussion of revenge tragedy and its connections to the central action of Hamlet. Bowers’ historical account of the conventions of revenge tragedy provides an illuminating context for the play.
Grene, Nicholas. Shakespeare’s Tragic Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The chapter on Hamlet attempts to revise and question some of the Christian interpretations of the play. Also of value is Grene’s connecting Hamlet to the play that preceded it in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600).
Prosser, Eleanor. “Hamlet” and Revenge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. Prosser uses an historical approach to try to answer such central questions as the Elizabethans’ attitude toward revenge, the nature of the father’s ghost, and regicide.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982. Considered by many to be the best edition of the play, its notes are clear and thorough, and Jenkins includes a number of longer notes that discuss such controversies as those surrounding Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech. Also includes an excellent discussion of the sources for the play and earlier criticism on it.
Watts, Cedric. Hamlet. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Includes a stage history and a critical history that provide some of the contexts for Hamlet. The discussion is intended to preserve the play’s mystery rather than offering another solution to the so-called Hamlet problem.
Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. 3d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1951. Wilson attempts to resolve all of the unsolved questions in the play by a close analysis of the text. Suggests plausible answers for some of the problems but fails to resolve the most important ones.