Study Guide

Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

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 Quizzes

Act I Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appear but not speak to the officers on sentinel duty?

2. What do Ghostly apparitions usually portend, according to these witnesses?

3. What is the content of the dispatches Claudius has sent with Voltemand and Cornelius to the King of Norway?

4. In his soliloquy, what are Hamlet’s reasons for objecting to his mother’s remarriage?

5. What advice does Laertes give to Ophelia as he says farewell to her prior to his departure for Paris?

6. What advice does she give Laertes in return?

7. What is the thrust of the advice Polonius gives Laertes as his son prepares to leave?

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Act II Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What task does Polonius assign Reynaldo in Paris?

2. Why is Ophelia so upset when she speaks with her father?

3. In what respect does Polonius change his mind about Hamlet and the prince’s relationship to Ophelia?

4. What task does Claudius assign to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

5. What news do Voltemand and Cornelius bring back from Norway?

6. What do Claudius and Gertrude conclude after hearing Polonius read the letter from Hamlet to Ophelia?

7. What does Polonius mean in an aside, as he speaks with Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”?

8. What does Hamlet make Rosencrantz...

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Act III Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Claudius regarding their conversation with Hamlet?

2. What do the pair fail to reveal to Claudius?

3. What favor does Hamlet ask of Horatio?

4. What is the plot of the Dumb Show the Players present?

5. What is the significance of the play’s title, “The Mousetrap”?

6. What does Hamlet mean, as he prepares to visit his mother, when he says, “O heart, lose not thy nature”?

7. What rationale do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern give for accepting Claudius’ commission to take Hamlet to England forthwith?

8. What is ironic about Hamlet’s failure to kill...

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Act IV Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Claudius’ response when Gertrude tells him that Hamlet has murdered Polonius?

2. What does Claudius direct Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do?

3. Why does Hamlet hide Polonius’ corpse and then dash away when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question him about it?

4. Why does Hamlet call Claudius “dear Mother”?

5. Why does Fortinbras send word to the Danish king (Claud¬ius)?

6. How does Hamlet contrast himself (all men) to beasts?

7. How does Claudius propose to satisfy Laertes’ suspicions?

8. What reasons does Claudius give Laertes for not taking action against Hamlet, who, Claudius says, “Pursued [his]...

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Act V Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why is there debate surrounding the nature of Ophelia’s funeral?

2. How long has the gravedigger been sexton, and when did he first become employed?

3. What joking insult to the English does Shakespeare put into the gravedigger’s dialogue, regarding Hamlet’s madness?

4. What cause does Laertes ascribe to Ophelia’s madness, which led to her death?

5. What prompts Hamlet’s outburst at Ophelia’s graveside?

6. What order did Claudius’ letter, carried by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, convey to the English regarding Hamlet’s fate?

7. How does Hamlet justify his counterfeit command that Rosencrantz and...

(The entire section is 489 words.)