Explore the significance of Shakespeare’s presentation of crime and punishment in “Hamlet”. 

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the many ways in which Hamlet can be approached by a critic is as a crime story. Claudius has committed a murder, but he is a clever man and thinks he has not only gotten away with his crime but is reaping all the benefits of that crime. He has become king of Denmark. He has married his brother's wife. And he has gotten rid of a brother whom he probably hated and resented because King Hamlet had all the advantages, being the firstborn, and because he was apparently far superior to his little brother Claudius in practically every way. Here is how Hamlet describes his dead father to his mother when he is finally venting his repressed feelings and really telling her off.

Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill:
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Here is your husband, like a mildew'd ear
Blasting his wholesome brother. 

Like many murderers, Claudius is afraid of getting caught. When Hamlet returns from Wittenberg and begins acting so strangely, Claudius becomes suspicious. He wonders what is going on in Hamlet's mind. Does Hamlet suspect him of murder? Claudius spends much of his time in the play trying to pry into Hamlet's soul. Claudius is afraid he might have overlooked something. He knows that his nephew is exceptionally intelligent and has no idea what Hamlet may have learned in all the years he has been studying at the distinguished university at Wittenberg. Claudius uses Polonius, Gertrude, and Ophelia to help him spy on Hamlet. The paranoid king goes so far to summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to his court, hoping that these two young friends can help him analyze his moody nephew. The situation is similar to that depicted in Dostoievfsky's novel Crime and Punishment. It is also similar to many of the stories in the television series Colombo, starring Peter Falk, a detective who can drive suspects crazy by his unorthodox manner of investigating a case. Claudius is a nervous wreck by the end of the play. He would be even more so if he knew that Hamlet has been having private conversations with the ghost of his father. Hamlet's father is the only one who knows what really happened--and what if he told everything to his son?

Georges Simenon, the great French writer of psychological novels, wrote several novels in which a man commits a murder and then is caught and punished because he cannot keep the truth to himself. There is a marvelous chapter in Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist in which Bill Sykes brings punishment upon himself because he is so eaten up with guilt and fear after he murders Nancy Hanks. Sykes wanders all over London, and everywhere he goes he thinks that people are starting at him and thinking that he is guilty of a terrible crime. Similarly, Claudius is introduced as a heavy drinker and remains a heavy drinker throughout the play. At the end he is drinking and encouraging everybody else to drink. He is not drinking for enjoyment but to drown his fears and guilt. Hamlet, an amateur detective, understands Claudius better than Claudius understands him. He could have driven Claudius to madness and suicide if not for the accidental killing of Polonius. This would have been worse punishment than actual assassination.