One of the best-known plays ever written and undoubtedly William Shakespeare’s most popular, Hamlet was first performed in 1601 or 1602. Although it appears Shakespeare took the basic premise from another play written decades earlier, his drama is a very significant literary departure from the original—and from revenge plays of the era: It is a psychological drama developed through the protagonist’s intense introspection. Furthermore, Hamlet is the first truly introspective character in English literature. By focusing on Hamlet’s inner conflict rather than plot action, Shakespeare created a character that has endured through the ages.
Hamlet is an emotionally complex young prince, educated in philosophy and theology. Upon his father’s death, he returns home where he finds reason to believe his father, the King of Denmark, was murdered by his brother Claudius, who has assumed the throne. The responsibility of avenging his father’s death by killing his uncle falls to Hamlet; complicating his charge is that Hamlet’s mother has married Claudius. Although Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s murder, he delays. Much of the play centers on Hamlet’s prolonged inaction and, most importantly, on the psychological torment of his emotional quandary. He wants to act, but for reasons even he does not fully understand, he does not. Plagued by uncertainty, Hamlet grows increasingly volatile and troubled; he is ultimately killed, his death the result of a devious scheme orchestrated by the illegitimate king he was to have murdered in revenge. Although Hamlet eventually kills Claudius, his action proves to be irrelevant by the time it occurs. Hamlet dies as the result of his own inner turmoil, and there is no sense of redemption in the play’s conclusion.
Although modern readers may not relate to Hamlet’s life as a prince or to the precise dilemma he faces, his essential conflicts are universal: the challenge of doing the right thing, especially when the right thing is not clearly defined; the inner conflict between passion and reason; the emotional turmoil of family drama; the trauma of betrayal; and the complex issues of deception, trust, loyalty, and honor. Although few readers would opt to feign madness, as Hamlet does, adopting a certain persona or emotional disguise when faced with a difficult new situation is not unusual human behavior in any age. Hamlet has been adapted to the screen more than twenty-five times, proving that these themes still resonate with readers today.
Hamlet is rife with uncertainty. Shakespeare does not answer the questions raised by his characters and their actions; readers will have their own interpretations of what the playwright intended. There is much room for doubt about different characters’ motivations and Hamlet’s true emotional and mental state. Some readers will sympathize with Hamlet’s desire to do the right thing, while others will regard his increasingly volatile behavior with ambivalence, at best. Hamlet’s complexity and unpredictability are precisely what give Shakespeare’s play its depth and humanity. At times honorable, rash, deceptive, moralizing, cruel, mocking, insightful, and kind, Hamlet is endlessly fascinating. He may be a Danish prince from a distant century, but in his struggles to find his place in the world and behave honorably, Hamlet endures as an intriguing figure in world literature, as relevant to readers today as he was to Shakespeare’s audience.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Define and describe Hamlet’s moral quandary.
2. Identify the primary themes in Hamlet.
3. Determine what makes Hamlet such a timeless and popular work.
4. Explain Hamlet’s feelings about passion vs. reason.
5. Identify examples of deception in the text and explain their significance.
6. Discuss ambiguity and uncertainty in the play and Shakespeare’s possible intentions regarding them.