How does Shakespeare address the theme of masculinity in Hamlet?
Masculinity in the play is addressed in a few instances. One is when Claudius chastises the grieving Hamlet, asserting that to still be in mourning a month after his death is "unmanly grief." He urges Hamlet to, essentially, be a man and get on with his life, which means, in not so many words, to openly embrace Claudius as a king and a father. More tellingly, throughout the play, Hamlet seems to regard avenging his father's murder as part of a masculine code of honor. He questions his own resolve and indeed his masculinity due to his procrastination. This particularly comes to light when he encounters some of the soldiers of young Fortinbras crossing over Denmark to attack Poland. Idealizing the aggressive warrior Fortinbras, he chastises himself for not acting swiftly enough even though, as he says, "honour's at the stake." At that point he swears to seek revenge, which, again, is conflated with masculinity in Hamlet's world:
O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
There are other aspects of Hamlet associated with masculinity and honor. Sigmund Freud pointed to the play as an example of an Oedipal complex (due to his relationship with Gertrude and his stepfather) more than a century ago. Laertes is another character very concerned with masculine honor. This is why, of course, he wants to kill Hamlet after Polonius and Ophelia's deaths. But the examples listed above are perhaps the most explicit, and of the most interest to modern literary critics interested in gender analysis and masculinity.
The ideology of masculinity is embedded within Shakespeare's Hamlet. The masculine is figured as strong, honorable, active, and decisive. Emotions, especially of the tender sort such as love and mourning, are, to a degree, feminine, while action, reason, and pragmatism are masculine. In his lack of decisiveness and continued mourning for his father, Hamlet appears effeminate. Claudius accuses Hamlet of "unmanly grief" in his prolongation of mourning.
Succumbing to the emotion of love is seen as feminine. When Hamlet criticizes his mother for remarrying, he sees her swift remarriage as grounded in weakness and succumbing to sexual or emotional appetites. He says in light of this: " . . . frailty, thy name is woman!" Thus Hamlet's repudiation of Ophelia can be read as an assertion of masculinity, as can his final decision to kill Claudius.
In act 2, Hamlet says "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!" Although in this period the word "man" would have signified humanity as a whole, this quotation still suggests that reason is the highest of human faculties, and, in the play as a whole, reason is associated with masculinity and emotion with femininity. Men were expected to be more rational and more reasonable than women in this period.
The dominant understanding of masculinity is an ideal to which Hamlet struggles to live up. He is torn between acting as a man would be expected to do and at the same time remaining true to himself. Once Hamlet learns from his father's ghost that he was murdered by Claudius, he vows revenge. Yet, famously, he vacillates. And Hamlet's vacillation is inspired largely by his inability to embrace the masculine code of honor and all that it entails.
While waiting for the right moment to strike and exact revenge upon Claudius, Hamlet finds other ways to express his masculinity. His cruel indifference towards Ophelia is a prime example of this. His feigned madness, his re-writing of The Murder of Gonzago, his unrestrained verbal assault on Gertrude––all of these can also be seen as attempts by Hamlet to express masculine behavior, albeit in ways radically different from the established norm. And even when Hamlet finally exacts revenge upon Claudius, it's notable that he's finishing him off with the tip of his sword as would normally be expected, but by forcing him to drink the poison with which he was going to kill Hamlet.