Hamlet is often called an "Elizabethan revenge play", the theme of revenge against an evil usurper driving the plot forward as in earlier stage works by Shakespeare's contemporaries, Kyd and Marlowe, as well as by the French writer Belleforest (Histoires Tragiques, 1576). As in those works, a hero plays minister and scourge in avenging a moral injustice, an affront to both man and God. In this case, regicide (killing a king) is a particularly monstrous crime, and there is no doubt as to whose side our sympathies are disposed.
As in many revenge plays, and, in fact, several of Shakespeare's other tragedies (and histories), a corrupt act, the killing of a king, undermines order throughout the realm that resonates to high heaven. We learn that there is something "rotten" in Denmark after old Hamlet's death in the very first scene, as Horatio compares the natural and civil disorders that occurred in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar's assassination to the disease that afflicts Denmark. These themes and their figurative expression are common to the Elizabethan revenge play genre in which good must triumph over evil.
But Hamlet is far more than an outstanding example of the revenge play. It is, to begin, a tragedy in which the attainment of justice entails the avenging hero's death. It is in the first scene of Act III that Hamlet speaks a soliloquy that has become a verbal emblem for Shakespearean tragedy and a measure of its thematic depth.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 't is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?
Two of the play's salient themes are interwoven here; human mortality or death and fortune or chance. On the level of plot action, Hamlet is an exceedingly mortal work: virtually all of the major characters—Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes—die from unnatural causes by the end of the play; the penultimate scene takes place in a cemetery. Death, decay, and the futility of life fill the spoken thoughts the Danish prince, and the appearance of Ur-Hamlet's tortured ghost leaves us with cold comfort about the afterlife. Shakespeare skillfully shows vitality being cut short and leading to a gruesome end. Thus, in the graveyard scene that opens Act V, Hamlet...
(The entire section is 816 words.)
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The most fundamental issue in Hamlet, one which opens the door to countless readings of the play, can be stated in one simple question: Why does Hamlet delay taking revenge on Claudius? While critics offer various answers to this question, their theories generally differ in two distinct ways: one group focuses on the inner workings of Hamlet's mind as the primary cause of his procrastination; the other stresses the external obstacles that prohibit the prince from carrying out his task. Critics who find the cause of Hamlet's delay in his internal meditations typically view the prince as a man of great moral integrity who is forced to commit an act that goes against his deepest principles. On numerous occasions, the prince tries to make sense of his moral dilemma through personal meditations, which Shakespeare presents as soliloquies (a soliloquy is a speech delivered while the speaker is alone and devised to inform the reader what the character is thinking or to provide essential information concerning other participants in the action). Another perspective of Hamlet's internal struggle suggests that the prince has become so disenchanted with life since his father's death that he has neither the desire nor the will to exact revenge. In addition, Hamlet has been shocked and appalled that in the midst of his grief Gertrude has yielded to Claudius's affections, marrying him only two months after her husband's funeral. To the prince, these events have degraded the...
(The entire section is 1056 words.)