Referring to Hamlet as Shakespeare's "Mona Lisa of literature" renowned scholar Harold Bloom adds that it is also Shakespeare's "white elephant, and an anomaly in his canon."
Indeed, Hamlet is not representative of Elizabethan thought. True, Prince Hamlet deliberates and hesitates about killing Claudius because regicide is a serious crime, and in the Elizabethan Age with its Chain of Being, the divine right of kings as beneath the Almighty is intact in Hamlet. But, this fact is not what delays Hamlet. Ghosts, too, are de rigeur, also, for Elizabethan drama. But, the ghost expects his son to be a version of himself just as Fortinbras is of his father; however, as Bloom writes that with the two Hamlets,
the Archaic age faces the High Renaissance, with consequences as odd an any we might expect.
Indubitably, Prince Hamlet is the most intellectual character in all of literature; he is a skeptic and wit who owns a new perspective of the world from that of the Elizabethans, that of the advanced humanists of his time. For, he rejects the standards of the ruling class in which tyranny, cruelty, and murder are condoned politically albeit condemned theoretically. Truly, Hamlet's soliloquies are the meditations of a new age as he no longer behaves as a conventional prince; instead, he is intrigued with the possibilities of the new humanism. Notably, Hamlet returns repeatedly in his anguish and conflict to the words man and friend. He says his father "was a man, take him for all in all." In an entire soliloquy, he considers What a piece of work is man," and he considers always what a man should do. As he dies, he calls to Horatio and gives him his hand, saying "
As thou art a man,
Give me the cup.
Throughout the drama, Hamlet is troubled by own melancholy against his optimistic sense of the potential of man. Critic Arnold Kettle notes that with Hamlet, "always the question is, what should a man do?" In his final resolve, Hamlet declares, "This is I, Hamlet the Dane," ; he becomes the man for his time.
It is widely thought that this play was Shakespeare's development of an earlier tragedy, entitled Ur-Hamlet, probably written by Thomas Kyd. What Shakespeare adds to this tragedy, whose storyline in lots of ways remains similar to the original work on which it is based, are references to his own world and times, and in particular what is a constant theme in this work are debates concerning acting and drama. This is achieved largely through the famous play-within-a-play which Hamlet uses to "catch the conscience of the king," but also through the conversation that Hamlet has with the Players at various points about drama and acting. Note, for example, the instruction that Hamlet gives the First Player in Act III scene 2:
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
Critics are almost unanimous in arguing that this refers to certain contemporary actors performing at the time of Shakespeare, and thus Shakespeare attacks those who, in his opinion, are terrible actors in his play. In this quote he describes the evils of over-acting and injecting too much passion into speeches, and thus tearing it "to tatters," and "splitting the ears of the groundlings," who paid a penny to stand and watch the drama in the original theatre. This play therefore is strongly connected to its Elizabethan context through the way in which Shakespeare raises and discusses so much about drama and acting, which is seen by many critics as direct contemporary references to either specific actors or specific failings that Shakespeare felt were being made by other acting groups.