Hamlet Analysis

Historical Background

There is general agreement about the sources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. About 400 years prior to the Elizabethan version, Saxo Grammaticus told a similar tale in his Historia Danica (c. 1200). About 15 years before Shakespeare’s version, François de Belleforest adopted the essential story in his Histoires Tragiques (1576), a popular collection of tales in French. Both of these sources survive as literary manuscripts.

However, most critics believe that another source, the so-called Ur-Hamlet, is the version most directly responsible for many of the elements which Shakespeare incorporated into his play. Although no written version of this precursor exists, and historians can only work backwards from documents which mention the Ur-Hamlet, it is believed that this play, probably written by Thomas Kyd, was acted in 1594 by the Lord Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the latter of which company Shakespeare belonged to.

While the earlier versions included similar elements to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the hero’s love interest, fratricide, feigned madness, adultery, spies, and revenge), only Kyd’s version includes the Ghost who seeks revenge. In fact, Kyd’s famous play, The Spanish Tragedy, includes other elements which Shakespeare seems to have incorporated into Hamlet: “a procrastinating protagonist who berates himself for talking instead of acting and who dies as he achieves his revenge; … a play within a play, a heroine whose love is opposed by her family, and another woman who becomes insane and commits suicide” [Boyce, 238–39]. However, if Kyd did not author the Ur-Hamlet, both he and Shakespeare may have borrowed from this same “Ur-”...

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Hamlet Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Elsinore Castle

*Elsinore Castle. Thirteenth century Danish castle that is the site of the main action of the play. Elsinore is a real city in modern Denmark, where it is known as Helsingor in Danish. The official modern name of the castle is Kronborg. However, William Shakespeare was not interested in creating the historical Elsinore (a place he almost certainly never visited) but in creating a castle suitable for a play with themes dealing with treachery and revenge, a play in which it seems almost impossible for the revenging hero to know exactly what is true and what is not.

Significantly, all but two scenes of the play are set within the castle or on its battlements, and all the characters seem to live in the castle, at least temporarily. These include King Claudius and his wife, Hamlet’s mother, as well as the aged courtier Polonius and his daughter Ophelia. Prince Hamlet, like his counterpart, Laertes, was evidently away, living at his university town, until called home for his father’s funeral. Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s school friends, seem to be long-term guests at the castle. Even the acting company that stages The Mousetrap is lodged there. The exception is the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras, who lives in his own country except when he is waging war on his neighbors.

From its opening, the play’s action involves spying, an activity well suited to the labyrinthine layout of an ancient building in which one room opens into another and passageways twist unpredictably, leading from royal audience rooms to chapels to private rooms or “closets.” In such a setting, audiences see Hamlet decide to adopt his disguise of an “antic disposition” in order to test the veracity of the ghost. In this setting Polonius asks a spy to observe his son’s behavior in Paris, Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia, Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, and Polonius is killed while spying on Hamlet and Gertrude. The fact that Claudius cannot find where Hamlet has hidden Polonius’s body—near the stairs to the “lobby”—suggests that the castle’s structure is as complicated as the play’s.

The task of the spy is always the same, to learn the truth, a problem central to Hamlet’s theme wherein truth is evasive and every answer seems to lead to more questions. The ghost’s truth-telling, Claudius’s guilt, Gertrude’s complicity, Hamlet’s unstable state of mind, and his apparent delaying are all subjects for questions in the course of the play, and the answers they bring forth are as confusing as the setting in which they are asked.

Exterior locations

Exterior locations. Hamlet is an unusually interior play. Aside from its scenes on battlements, only two scenes seem to take place outdoors. One of those takes place on the Danish coast as Hamlet watches Fortinbras’s army march to make war on Poland. There Hamlet compares Fortinbras’s energetic action to his own proclivity for delaying action. Significantly, the other of the exterior scenes is set in a graveyard. There Hamlet seems to arrive at an answer which frees him to act out his revenge. As he watches preparations for Ophelia’s funeral, he concludes that even the greatest lives end in the grave, and soon after that he tells Horatio that he recognizes his own fatal destiny and is ready to sweep into his revenge.

Battlements

Battlements. Defensive structures around Elsinore’s walls that are the location of some of the play’s most gripping early action, as when the ghost of the dead king appears first to the watchmen and later to Hamlet. It is appropriate that the king, who appears in his armor, should want to walk on the structure that symbolizes his military power, the position from which he once defended Elsinore, since he is about to ask his son to undertake another sort of castle defense in avenging his death.

*Wittenberg

*Wittenberg. Location of the Germany university which Hamlet has attended. Wittenberg is closely associated with Martin Luther, whose studies there precipitated the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The university was still strongly associated with Protestantism in 1603, although Shakespeare never indicates that Hamlet is involved in any religious study. Wittenberg stands in strong contrast to Paris, where Polonius’s son Laertes has been studying and where Polonius suspects he may be overly involved in the city’s temptations to loose living.

*Denmark

*Denmark. General setting of the play. Shakespeare adopted the Danish setting along with the action of the play (which has its roots in thirteenth century Danish folklore) from a source almost contemporary to him; many scholars believe he used a version of the story written around 1589 by the English playwright Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare made no attempt to recreate early medieval Denmark; instead he set the action in a sort of timeless past. However, he included action and references that evoke the early modern period of 1600, when Denmark was an important naval power that competed with England and when both Paris and Wittenberg were significant educational centers. Hamlet’s references to the Danish court’s reputation for drunkenness must have amused Shakespeare’s audiences. Ironically, Shakespeare makes Claudius portray England as a state so eager to stay in the favor of powerful Denmark that its king will surely commit any political executions Claudius requests, including the execution of Hamlet.

Hamlet Essential Facts

Full Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Author: William Shakespeare

Date of Composition: Likely between 1600 and 1602

Setting: Denmark

Main Characters: Hamlet, Ghost of King Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius

Main Symbols:

  • 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).

Main Themes:

  • 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).

Hamlet Modern Connections

Written at the outset of the seventeenth century and based on accounts of several centuries earlier, Hamlet is often regarded as...

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Hamlet Media Adaptations

Media Adaptations

  • Hamlet. Universal, J. Arthur Rank, 1948. Film adaptation of Hamlet by Laurence...

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Hamlet Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Barnet, Sylvan. ‘‘Shakespeare: Prefatory Remarks,’’ in William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of...

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Hamlet Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

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).

Hunt, Marvin W. Looking for Hamlet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. This guide to Hamlet provides an introduction to the play along with extensive literary criticism. Some issues discussed are Shakespeare’s influences, the different versions of the play that exist today, and various interpretations and criticisms. Includes black and white photos of actors playing Hamlet and a bibliography of resources for further research.

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.