Hamlet (Vol. 82)



In addition to being his most popular tragedy, Hamlet (c. 1600) is Shakespeare's most frequently analyzed play. In fact, critics have noted that Hamlet has inspired more critical writing than any other work of Western literature. The play recounts the murder of a Danish king, apparently at the hands of his brother, and the subsequent emotional turmoil that his son, Prince Hamlet, undergoes as he struggles with the idea of vengeance. Critical opinion about the central characters in the play—for example, Polonius, and even Hamlet—has evolved over the centuries, while scholars have continued to examine the play's poetic and rhetorical devices, and its treatment of the themes of politics, power, and friendship. Commentators are also interested in the connection between the plot of Hamlet and contemporary changes in Renaissance England as it prepared to enter the early modern era under the rule of an aging queen.

Although character studies of Hamlet have been popular since the play's inception, critics have shown renewed interest in the personalities of several characters in the play, reinterpreting many of them. Catharine R. Stimpson (2002), for example, rejects the characterization of Polonius as a foolish “meddler,” arguing instead that he should be viewed as a seasoned political insider whose downfall comes as the result of “overconfidence about his schemes and his mastery of manipulative tactics.” Polonius, she concludes, could easily be imagined living today, although instead of being killed he would be investigated for political or personal indiscretions and “forced to resign.” Prince Hamlet's characterization comes under new scrutiny by John Hardy (see Further Reading), who contends that what makes Hamlet such a memorable character is his “unpretentiousness” as well as his sincere attempt to seek the truth. Hardy asserts that it is not moral weakness or melancholy that distinguishes the Prince, but his moral strength and “an uncompromising honesty”—both of which lead him to think carefully before acting. Ronald Knowles (1999) asserts that Prince Hamlet's thought processes reflect the evolution of Western beliefs about the place of human reason and emotion in society and notes that Hamlet's “unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility.”

Hamlet remains Shakespeare's most popular play on stage and screen. Many recent productions have distinguished themselves by updating the setting of the play, thereby, some critics suggest, making Hamlet more accessible to modern audiences. In his review of Campbell Scott's 2001 filmed version, Ken Eisner (2001) observes that the relocation of the action to a mansion on the brink of World War I enhances the play's theme of aristocracy—and by extension the monarchy—in irreversible decline. Patrick Carnegy (2001) discusses the effect on the audience of a barefooted, t-shirted Hamlet and Laertes in Steven Pimlott's 2001 stage production, especially when contrasted with “the world of suits” represented by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their master, Claudius. Carnegy warns that while Pimlott succeeded in providing theatergoers with an intimate connection to the play, he risked portraying Prince Hamlet as immature. Elvis Mitchell (2000) examines Michael Almereyda's 2000 cinematic release of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke as the Prince and notes that “Hamlet is a movie about urban isolation and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained royalty.” The critic finds that the transfer of action to twentieth-century Wall Street works well, but argues that Hawke's Hamlet wastes too much time in adolescent “moping.” Reviewing the same film, Peter Rainer (see Further Reading) contends that Almereyda's focus on Hamlet's similarities to the world of corporate New York occurs at the expense of the play's other themes.

Two themes of particular concern to critics who study Hamlet are those of politics and power, especially as they relate to the political tensions of Shakespeare's Elizabethan England. Zdravko Planinc (1998) limits his discussion to a definition of power and the ideal ruler, using Plato's Republic as a model. Planinc asserts that the play focuses on three types of leaders, two of whom are faulty. The late King Hamlet, he claims, indulged in acts of plunder after success in battle. The current King Claudius is, among other things, a regicide. Only Prince Hamlet, he contends, has the greatness of mind to become Plato's philosopher-king. Larry S. Champion (1993) remarks on the numerous proverbs that appear in the play, suggesting that they are used not only to delineate the characters, but also to highlight the political tensions surrounding the aging Elizabeth I and the lack of an heir to her throne. Like Champion, Donald K. Hedrick (1984) examines the theme of politics and Elizabethan society in his exploration of the play. Hedrick argues that Hamlet is both a heroic and a satiric play, and notes that in both Renaissance England and Hamlet's Denmark satire is used by the powerless to undermine the unscrupulous acts of the powerful. Studying the theme of friendship in Hamlet, Keith Doubt notes that there are three types of friendship in the play: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Knowles, Ronald. “Hamlet and Counter-Humanism.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 4 (winter 1999): 1046-69.

[In the following essay, Knowles asserts that Prince Hamlet's thought processes reflect the evolution of Western beliefs about the place of human reason and emotion in society and that, therefore, the play is an important Renaissance document.]

In the study of the development of Western culture the question of subjectivity is a much debated issue which is often directed to the Renaissance in general, and to Hamlet in particular. Beginning with section 1, “Alexander died,”1 this essay reapproaches the question in the play. Sections 2 and 3 expand on the backgrounds of the later Middle Ages, Humanism, and skepticism, while section 4 focuses on rhetoric, particularly on the commonplaces of consolation, in relation to the proscribed status of passion in the individual and society.2 The fifth section considers role-playing and reappraises the nature of Hamlet's experience: his unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility.3 To evade alienation Hamlet embraces the scripted roles within and without him;4 and to understand this experience the critic of early modern culture needs, like Hamlet, to look “before and after” (4.4.37).


In contemplating Yorick's skull, by a process of rhetorical association Hamlet's mind moves to Alexander, the type of imperial greatness, “Dost thou think Alexander look'd o' this fashion i' th' earth?” (5.1.191-92). And then, following Horatio's confirmation, Hamlet invites his imagination to trace “the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bung-hole” (5.1.197-98). Horatio immediately anticipates some form of sophisticated word-play—“'Twere to consider too curiously” (5.1.199)—but fails to pre-empt it: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to 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?” (5.1.201-05). It has been shown that within the Christian literary tradition of timor mortis, memento mori, deriving from St. Bernard, Alexander was often linked with Julius Caesar, as here (“Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,” 5.1.206). For example both are found in a poem by Skelton and in a poem attributed to Southwell.5 But as Harold Jenkins has noted, in meditations on Death the leveller deriving from antiquity, Alexander appears in Lucian's Dialogue of the Dead, and in the Stoic context of Marcus Aurelius where the dust of Alexander is likened to that of his groom.6 In another Stoic context, Thomas Bedingfield's translation of Cardan's Comforte (1576), a book many have argued is the one Hamlet carries on to the stage before the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, Alexander and Caesar are listed with several others as types of human vainglory.7 However, of greater importance here is the form of Hamlet's thought.

In terms of logic and rhetoric, Hamlet works through a sorites colored by tapinosis (or humiliatio). The sorites, perhaps more familiarly known as the chain-syllogism, is close to the rhetorical figure of climax or gradatio. Tapinosis is the use of a word to debase the noble. The sorites was a series of enthymemes, or abridged syllogisms, taking the last word of a sentence or clause to begin the next,8 the logical counterpart to the rhetorical anadiplosis. For mostly witty sophistic purposes a false proposition, or propositions, seemingly led to an inevitably outrageous conclusion. Here, the fourth proposition, “the dust is earth” is manifestly fallacious in its deliberate equivocation between the biblical “dust” (“thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou returne,” Genesis 3.9.) and geological “earth” (as sand, clay, soil, humus, etc). Again, identifying the “dust” of a corpse with “earth” generally is the fallacy of accident whereby what is an adjunct or accident of something is attributed to that entirely, and vice-versa. The remains of a corpse may be said to eventually mingle with the earth, but it hardly constitutes earth as a whole.

Hamlet's cast of mind here gives expression to an individually felt pessimism, but the personal experience that gave rise to this is to some extent depersonalized by the external public modality of logic and rhetoric working through a commonplace. The argument presented by Hamlet is part of the pessimism that culminates at this point of the play, a pessimism influenced by the philosophical skepticism of what Hiram Haydn called the sixteenth-century “counter-Renaissance,” which severely challenged the optimism of Renaissance humanism. At one point Hamlet specifically parallels the two, echoing a cultural context that needs re-examining in the light of modern scholarship. Hamlet's pessimism in part derives from his discovery of subjectivity. Renaissance ontology is closely linked to the philosophy of rhetoric whereby something like grief is understood in a specific, conventionalized way, which Hamlet reacts against but ultimately has to capitulate to, to evade the pain of his alienation. Hamlet's tragedy becomes the site of a cultural struggle between the Western tradition of Stoic rationalism and an affective individualism. As Hamlet traces the dust of Alexander, so we may trace these elements in the play, beginning indeed with that “dust.”


For Hamlet man is the “quintessence of dust” (2.2.308), and the slain body of Polonius is “compounded … with dust whereto 'tis kin” (4.2.5). According to the queen, Hamlet had sought “with … vailed lids” his “noble father in the dust” (1.2.70-71). This last image is important since it suggests the reversal of a commonplace of Renaissance humanism, that of homo erectus. As will be shown, Renaissance celebrations of man took up the Patristic echo of this biblical theme of man's uniqueness in creation, for he was the only one of God's creatures to be created erect in order to worship the heavens, the source of his origin and end. Thomas Wilson in his The Rule of Reason (1551) included this as an example of the predicable proprium or property of man, “To go upright is proper to a man, and only to a man, and to none other living creature” (sig. Cr). Hamlet's eyes and mind are fixed on earth, death, and bodily corruption. Earlier, Hamlet's sardonically chosen diction had anticipated this: “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” (3.1.128-29). “Crawling,” that is, like one of the brute creation on all fours. This conscious rejection of Renaissance humanism had been systematically worked through earlier before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: the passage needs to be quoted in full:

… this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


The complementary parallelism of macrocosm and microcosm is turned into the antithesis of optimism and pessimism, humanism and skepticism. The fact of the speech itself is the first evidence that man is something more than a mere “quintessence of dust,” yet Hamlet is removed from the irony since the speech is a kind of mock-philosophical exercise worked up by the intellectual student from Wittenberg, seemingly to entertain Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are, in fact, amused. Yet the similarity of this language to that on other occasions implies that Hamlet means every word. Hamlet knows that the philosophical impersonation will amuse his auditors while at the same time this guise actually reveals what he thinks to the audience of the play.9

Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) is probably the most famous of what became a minor genre of Renaissance humanism, yet it is not really typical. Pico's syncretic gathering from Hebrew, Christian, and Neoplatonic writings garnished by the prisci theologi, as they are referred to—the “early theologians” Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster and Moses—makes a heady mystical brew, even for his Renaissance man as “maker and moulder of thyself.”10 If we turn from Pico's esoteric Cabbalism to something like Giannozzo Manetti's On the Dignity of Man (1452) and its context, this will provide the background for the understanding of Hamlet's argument, the materials for which Shakespeare probably got not so much from Montaigne, but from Montaigne's source in his library, Pierre Boaistuau whose work was available to Shakespeare in reprints of John Alday's translation.11

The tradition concerning the debate on the dignity and misery of man is a long and ramified one. Focusing primarily on man's dignity, Charles Trinkaus originally published Adversity's Noblemen in 1940, which, in retrospect, was a prolegomenon to a monumental two-volume study of 1970 entitled In Our Image and Likeness. This work is primarily an intensive scholarly introduction to, and study of, the question of man's dignity in fourteenth-century Italian humanism. I am greatly indebted to this scholar but the interpretation of Hamlet here is the present writer's own.

Dualism underpins Western culture, and the dignity and misery of man is an aspect of this. Either can be stressed at the expense of the other, or one disproportionately, or both equally depending on the speaker and the given cultural moment (or in spite of it—see George Gascoigne below). Genesis l.26, “Let vs make man in our image according to our likenes” provided a major impetus for commentators among the early Church Fathers, in the Middle Ages, and in Renaissance humanists. St. Augustine is known for his harsh view on the depravity of man enslaved by sin, but he nevertheless believed in the soul's trinity of memory, intellect, and will as reflecting the divine Trinity. Furthermore, Augustine cited the significance of man's erect stature, his rule over animals, and his contemplation of the divine as grounds for a more spiritually positive view of man. Complementing this, another church father, Lactantius, stressed Cicero's Stoic-Platonic view of the rational design, divine purpose, and providential order of the world, again pointing out man's erect stature and the immortality of the soul. The Alexandrian Jew Philo provided a Neoplatonic link with Christianity, bringing together Greek providential rationality and Genesis 1:26, stressing the earth's plenitude at the service of man. A notoriously major figure of the Middle Ages, however, is Pope Innocent III, the author of On Contempt for the World, or The Misery of the Human Condition (1195). In the midst of the flowering of Tudor humanism George Gascoigne translated this work as The Droome of Doomes day (1576), though he did not know the author, in repentance for “penning and endightying sundrie toyes and trifles,” namely the poetry for which he was known.12 From vileness of conception through the catalogue of the seven deadly sins to bodily corruption and the pains of the damned, Innocent rehearses man's life and afterlife of misery and suffering. Yet he had also promised another treatise on The Dignity of Human Nature. Presumably this would have seen man from the point of view of salvation rather than that of original sin and damnation. Innocent's treatise was copied and translated all over Europe, particularly in England,13 and eventually gave rise to the humanist debate which was prefigured most pre-eminently by Petrarch.

Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae (1354-1357) was composed as a reply to Pope Innocent. Here are found the central arguments for the dignity of man: the soul as the image of God; the incarnation; erectness of stature and the beauty of the body; the immortality of the soul; the beauty and use of the external world; man's mind, memory, intellect, eloquence, invention, and artistry; man's rule over creatures; resurrection; heavenly destination; exaltation and salvation. Here we find a complementary stress on the divine and the human, the heavenly and the earthly. This is crucial; man is celebrated not just in theological terms (which was St. Augustine's emphasis) but also in terms of earthly existence. Earth and heaven complement each other:

For what does obscenity of origin detract from human dignity? Do not tall and leafy trees, grown from filthy roots, cover the green earth with welcome shade? Are the fields of grain not made fruitful by the vilest dung? The vilest origin of the best things is not something disgusting. You are the grain fields of God to be winnowed in the plains of judgement, and to be placed in the granary of the greatest head of a household. Earthly was man's origin, although partly noble and celestial. But whatever was his origin and however difficult his progress, his final seat is heaven.14

Such a balanced position was rarely followed with such evenhandedness. Where the seemingly complementary themes of dignity and misery are handled, as in the quattrocento treatises of Bartolomeo Facio and Antonio da Bargo, man's dignity is spiritual rather than earthly, to which the body and its misery belong. Though Aurelio Brandolini, in his On the Condition of Human Life and on Bearing Bodily Sickness, expounds fully the misery of life and the joys of existence, he tips the scales towards the latter in a most remarkable statement: “Even if we know that we will be subjected to perpetual miseries and eternal punishments, nevertheless, would we not think that this so great dignity of being born and living excels all miseries and punishments?”15

Brandolini was influenced by Giannozzo Manetti who wrote explicitly against Innocent III's depiction of misery, providing one of the great statements of Italian humanism, against which Hamlet's words may be measured.

With what form, what beauty, what fittingness ought we to think man was endowed, for whose sake alone, we may not doubt, this most beautiful and most ornate world was made? No wonder therefore if the ancient and modern inventors of the most ingenious arts, since they thought that the divine nature excelled and surpassed all things both inanimate and animate also, and believed that no figure was more beautiful than the human form, seem to have agreed that the gods should be shaped and painted in the image of man.16

Yet within the same milieu of Italian humanism Manetti's optimistic views were opposed two years later by another Florentine statesman, Poggio Bracciolini, in his Two Books on the Misery of the Human Condition (1455). Whereas Manetti recognized sin in man but saw it as deriving from pride in the very dignity he acclaimed, Poggio more orthodoxly reaffirmed original sin, the source of all misery. Though life contained some material blessings, only grace could lift man above fundamental misery. Plainly it can be seen that Hamlet's speech derives from someone who has read both sides of the debate, abstracted quintessential elements from each, and starkly juxtaposed one against the other in an alternating litany of pessimism.


There is no doubt that Shakespeare, in his tragic period, was strongly influenced by the writings of Montaigne, though the precise nature of the debt will probably always remain impossible to determine. The passage from Montaigne's Apology of Raymond Sebond often cited as a parallel to Hamlet's macro-microcosm speech reads as follows, in Florio's translation:

Who have perswaded [man] that this admirable moving of heavens vaults, that the eternal light of these lampes so fiercely rowling over his head, that the horror-moving and continuall motion of this infinite vaste ocean were established, and continue so many ages for his commoditie and service? Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himselfe, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himselfe Master and Emperour of this Universe?


In tracing the pessimistic dust of Alexander we shall need to look further into Montaigne, but at this stage it quickly needs to be repeated that for the arguments concerning man's dignity and misery the same source would have been available to Shakespeare that was available to Montaigne, namely Pierre Boaistuau. Boaistuau's Bref discours de l'excellence et dignité de l'homme (1558) was part of Montaigne's library.17 The work reappears as a complementary continuation of Boaistuau's Le Theâtre du monde, où il est faict un ample discours des misères humaines … (1561). Appearing in the mid-sixteenth century, Boaistuau's Bref discours looks back to the tradition Trinkaus has made available to us, for it quotes the prisci theologi, the Church Fathers, and notably Giannozzo Manetti [“Janotius”] and Bartolomeo Fazio. Authorities agree that Boaistuau's work was very well known.18 Though there is no evidence of Le Theâtre du monde in Montaigne's library there are sufficient verbal echoes to show that he knew this as well as the earlier work.19 However, as far as Shakespeare is concerned, we have the translation into English by John Alday, Theatrum Mundi, The Theatre or Rule of the World, wherein may be sene the running race and course of euerye mans life, as touching miserie and felicity … whereunto is added a learned, and maruellous worke of the excellencie of mankinde which appeared in 1566[?], 1574, and 1603. This work was still popular enough by Burton's time to be quoted in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621 and thereafter).20

Thus the argument that Shakespeare might have been specifically influenced in Hamlet's micro-macrocosm speech by a famous passage of Montaigne needs to be tempered by the recognition that possibly both were reacting to the same tradition—fifteen hundred years of debate epitomized in Boaistuau with a clear line of transmission to England by way of Alday. Elsewhere in Hamlet the direct influence of Montaigne remains an issue of debate. Yet anyone who saw Hamlet and then read Florio's translation of Montaigne in 1603 and found something like “the heart and life of a mighty and triumphant emperor is but the break-fast of a seely little worme” (Apology, 232) is likely to have been reminded of Hamlet's “Your worm is your only emperor for diet” (4.3.21), part of his preoccupation with corruption and death with links to both the micro-macrocosm and “Alexander … dust” speeches. We know that a manuscript of Florio's translation of Montaigne was in circulation before its publication in 1603. Florio's patron Southampton was also Shakespeare's, but it seems that a manuscript was in circulation outside Southampton's household, since in his own essays written before 1600 Sir William Cornwallis praises the translation of his model. “Evidence” for Shakespeare's knowledge of Montaigne falls into three classes: (1) direct quotation, (2) verbal echoes, and (3) general ideas.21 The only generally accepted example in class one is that of The Tempest (2.1.145-66) where Shakespeare quotes “Of the Caniballes” (I.xxx) in Gonzalo's description of an ideal commonwealth. Attention to the case of verbal echoes suggests the influence of Montaigne in the composition of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and King Lear. In his early study, looking particularly at these plays, George Coffin Taylor found 750 words in Florio and Shakespeare which do not appear before Hamlet. For example, Shakespeare's “consummation” which appears in the 1605 “To be, or not to be” (3.1.56) soliloquy, is the word used by Florio to translate aneantissement (“annihilation” in modern dictionaries) in the speech of Socrates in the essay “Of Physiognomy” (III.xii.540). The accumulation of such instances provides strong grounds for the likelihood of Shakespeare's familiarity with Montaigne. Yet in the third category of general ideas it has been forcefully, perhaps too forcefully, argued that both Shakespeare and Montaigne relied on a body of commonplaces central to the traditions of rhetoric as taught in the culture of the Renaissance.22

The significance of commonplaces will be a major concern of the second half of this essay. Suffice it here to note that in addition to the above-quoted echoes of Montaigne Ellrodt notes as “parallels both in thought and phrasing” the line from the essay “Of the art of conferring,” concerning fortune: “My consultation doth somewhat roughtly hew the matter” (476), which Shakespeare echoes in “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10-11). Montaigne's “That to Philosophise is to learne how to Die” also influenced Shakespeare, although as we shall see, the thought and style of both passages derive from a common Stoic background:

Nor alive, nor dead, it doth concern you nothing.
Alive because you are: Dead, because you are no more.
Moreover, no man dies before his houre. The time you
leave behinde was no more yours, than that which was
before your birth, and concerneth you no more.


… If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now; if it be not
now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no
man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is't to
leave betimes? Let be.


The evidence, if it amounts to such, that Shakespeare knew An Apologie of Raymond Sebond—not so much an essay as a short book—is of major significance since it is here that Montaigne gives voice most fully to the Renaissance rediscovery of classical Pyrrhonism. Montaigne's defence or apology for the rationalistic natural religion of the second book of Sebond's Natural Theology is in fact an ironic dismantling of reason with the tools of Pyrrhonian skepticism. Pyrrho's works had been lost but Diogenes Laertius's account in his Lives of the Philosophers and, above all, the outline of Pyrrho's philosophy (transmitted by Sextus Empiricus in the Hypotyposes) gave Montaigne and his contemporaries of a skeptical temper a dialectical armory. Henri Estienne published a Latin version of the Hypotyposes in 1562, and in 1569 Gentian Hervet published a Latin edition of all of Sextus's works. However, it should be noted that there is evidence for a now...

(The entire section is 9676 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

SOURCE: Stimpson, Catharine R. “Polonius, Our Pundit.” American Scholar 71, no. 4 (autumn 2002): 97-108.

[In the following essay, Stimpson rejects the characterization of Polonius as a foolish “meddler,” arguing instead that he should be viewed as a seasoned political insider.]

I once worked with a man who reveled in his authority but was too shrewd to revel in it gloriously, exuberantly, or crassly. Although his power base was a local institution, he had been a part of some of the large events of his time. He had served on national commissions. He had names on his Rolodex that he could and did drop. He believed in good manners, but at more informal gatherings,...

(The entire section is 5824 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Elvis Mitchell (essay date 12 May 2000)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Elvis. “A Simpler Melancholy.” New York Times, late edition (12 May 2000): B1, E1.

[In the following review of Michael Almereyda's 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet, Mitchell commends the modern setting of the film, as well as the performances of most of the actors, but suggests that actor Ethan Hawke's portrayal of Prince Hamlet lacked depth and maturity.]

“It is curious; one never thinks of attaching Hamlet to any special locale,” the critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Shakespeare's tragedy, and the director Michael Almereyda has brilliantly seized upon that by rooting his voluptuous and rewarding new adaptation of the play in...

(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Patrick Carnegy (essay date 12 May 2001)

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Hamlet.Spectator 286, no. 9014 (12 May 2001): 48.

[Carnegy reviews Steven Pimlott's 2001 stage production of Hamlet, concluding that overall it was a memorable and powerful production.]

On Hamlet's 400th birthday, Steven Pimlott's new production turns its harsh floodlights on a world of grey-suited courtiers and youthful dissidents. The setting, developed from the white box of Pimlott's Richard II, is a high-tech space for surveillance, theatrical experiment and maybe even self-discovery. Its designer, Alison Chitty, is also responsible for a radical makeover of the theatre, bringing the stage forward and...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

Charles Isherwood (essay date 4 June 2001)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “A Pacifist Prince in Brits' Latest Hamlet.Variety 383, no. 3 (4 June 2001): 24.

[In the following review, Isherwood compares John Caird's Royal National Theater production of Hamlet to Peter Brooks's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, remarking that while Brooks's shortened version of the play lacked emotion, Caird's lacked credibility. Isherwood notes that although Simon Russell Beale's performance in Caird's production was conscientious, the actor was too overweight and somber to make a convincing Hamlet.]

The strongest argument in favor of Peter Brook's Hamlet, seen recently at the Brooklyn Academy of...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Ken Eisner (essay date 23 July 2001)

SOURCE: Eisner, Ken. “Hamlet.Variety 383, no. 9 (23 July 2001): 20.

[In the following review, Eisner describes Campbell Scott's 2001 film adaptation of Hamlet as “the most accessible … yet” and notes that Scott's pre-World War I setting suits Shakespeare's theme of decay.]

In one of the most accessible versions of Hamlet yet committed to film, Campbell Scott's self-helmed Great Dane is more than ever a man for our time. Falling somewhere between Kenneth Branagh's fastidious grandeur and Ethan Hawke's slouchingly colloquial take on the troubled prince, the veteran thesp—who returns to the role after several legit runs—injects...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Anita Gates (essay date 27 July 2001)

SOURCE: Gates, Anita. “Aye, in a Harlem Courtyard, the Witching Time of Night.” New York Times, late edition (27 July 2001) B18, E20.

[In the following review, Gates praises the Classical Theater of Harlem's production of Hamlet for its use of an outdoor, multi-leveled setting and its vivid costumes, but notes that the actors had a “less than flawless command of Shakespeare's language.”]

The Classical Theater of Harlem's Courtyard Theater on 141st Street is a very pleasant place to be on a summer night. And the two-year-old company, founded by Alfred Preisser and Christopher McElroen, makes excellent use of the space in its current production of...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Donald K. Hedrick (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Hedrick, Donald K. “‘It Is No Novelty for a Prince to Be a Prince’: An Enantiomorphous Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 1 (spring 1984): 62-76.

[In the following essay, Hedrick argues that Hamlet is both a heroic and a satiric play, and notes that in both Renaissance England and Hamlet's Denmark satire is used by the powerless to undermine the unscrupulous acts of the powerful.]

I shall begin by quarreling with a formulation by R. A. Foakes that has an unassuming and unprovocative appearance, namely that Hamlet is “basically an heroic tragedy … in spite of the elements of satire.”1 What I take exception to is not the...

(The entire section is 9103 words.)

Larry S. Champion (essay date summer/winter 1993)

SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “‘A Springe to Catch Woodcocks’: Proverbs, Characterization, and Political Ideology in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 15, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1993): 24-39.

[In the following essay, Champion remarks on the numerous proverbs that appear in Hamlet, suggesting that they are used not only to delineate the characters, but also to highlight the political tensions surrounding the aging Elizabeth I and the lack of an heir to her throne.]

Proverbs so fascinated sixteenth-century England that they accomplished the unlikely journey from the edge of folklore to the core of academic learning. Those who collected them or who acclimatized...

(The entire section is 6572 words.)

Keith Doubt (essay date summer/winter 1995)

SOURCE: Doubt, Keith. “Hamlet and Friendship.” Hamlet Studies 17, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1995): 54-62.

[In the following essay, Doubt examines three types of friendship in Hamlet: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable.]

“At this a back cloud of grief enveloped Laertes / And taking a dark double-handful of dust he poured it / Upon his grey head, while one groan followed another. As he...

(The entire section is 3387 words.)

Zdravko Planinc (essay date summer/winter 1998)

SOURCE: Planinc, Zdravko. “‘It begins with Pyrrhus’ (2.2.451): The Political Philosophy of Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 20, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1998): 35-49.

[In the following essay, Planinc contends that Hamlet is evidence that Shakespeare's abilities as a political philosopher are on par with those of Plato. Planinc asserts that both King Hamlet and King Claudius come up short as Platonic ideals, but that Shakespeare endowed Prince Hamlet with the greatness of mind to become Plato's philosopher-king.]

Shakespeare is as good a political philosopher as Plato. And if he had had a Socrates to write about, he would have been better. As it is, his...

(The entire section is 6529 words.)

Reta A. Terry (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Terry, Reta A. “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 4 (winter 1999): 1070-86.

[In the following essay, Terry outlines the ways in which Shakespeare used the characters of Horatio, Laertes, and Hamlet to reflect England's notion of honor as it shifted from the chivalric code of the medieval period to one based on the individual's relationship to the state.]

Contemporary Shakespearean scholars have demonstrated a renewed interest in both Renaissance concepts of honor and the historical context that surrounds these concepts.1 In practical terms, this...

(The entire section is 7135 words.)

Tzachi Zamir (essay date September 2002)

SOURCE: Zamir, Tzachi. “Doing Nothing.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35, no. 3 (September 2002): 167-82.

[In the following essay, Zamir contends that Prince Hamlet's failure to avenge his father's death is the result of his fear of revealing his own individuality.]

Some still-influential theories of meaning in philosophy have regarded the literary treatment of a philosophical concept to be informatively redundant (Ayer; Curtler; Stevenson). Such conceptions have important counterparts in Formalist aesthetics (e.g., Richards; Brooks) and are continuous with a long historical tradition both in the history of philosophy (Nussbaum,...

(The entire section is 6154 words.)

R. A. Foakes (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Foakes, R. A. “Hamlet's Neglect of Revenge.” In Hamlet: New Critical Essays, edited by Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 85-99. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Foakes argues that Hamlet is not a revenge tragedy but a play about whether or not violence is an acceptable choice in a world caught between the ancient heroic code of retaliation and the Christian commandments that reject it.]

Hamlet has commonly been regarded as a revenge tragedy, its early impact being marked by works that capitalized on its success, like John Marston's Antonio's Revenge and the anonymous Revenger's Tragedy, possibly written by Thomas...

(The entire section is 7194 words.)

Further Reading


Andreas, James R. “The Vulgar and the Polite: Dialogue in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 15, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1993): 9-23.

Examines how the vulgar (language of the people) and the polite (language of politics) are used against one another in Hamlet. Andreas demonstrates that the polite language used by Claudius is duplicitous, while Prince Hamlet uses the straightforward language of the people to disconcert and expose Claudius and his retinue.

Cary, Louise D. “Hamlet Recycled, or the Tragical History of the Prince's Prints.” ELH 61, no. 4 (winter 1994): 783-805.

Warns against...

(The entire section is 506 words.)