To what extent would you agree with the statement "The appeal of Shakespeare's Hamlet lies primarily in the complex nature of the play's central character, Hamlet"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The first issue here is that "appeal" is not really an objective characteristic of a play but instead describes audience responses. Different people find different elements of plays appealing.

For some people, the major appeal of the play is psychological depth. For that audience, the complexity of Hamlet's character and his reluctance to act decisively are important. His soliloquies are particularly vivid portrayals of a decision-making process by a man who is not naturally one of immediate and direct action. He is compelled by external circumstances and his own sense of justice to abandon Ophelia and take violent vengeance for the death of his father.

Other members of the audience may enjoy the bloody and convoluted plot typical of revenge tragedies. The various plot twists and deceptions and gory violence, in which the play ends with a stage strewn with corpses, make for lively popular entertainment. The deceptions such as the play within a play and Hamlet's feigned madness provide clever suspense and plot twists.

Also appealing to the audience is the sheer spectacle of the play. It starts with a ghost, includes sword fights, madness scenes (feigned and real), comic interludes, and even a speech to a skull. The sheer variety of scenes and dramatic spectacle of courtly life, as well as sword-fighting interludes, also appeal to many viewers.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet is arguably the most complex character that Shakespeare ever wrote. It is one of the big “personality roles” in Shakespeare, meaning the qualities of the individual actor or actress playing the part will have a large bearing on the overall production. It is probably true that Hamlet the character is the primary appeal of Hamlet the play. With that said, the play is appealing on multiple levels.

Hamlet is a sneakily good ensemble show. Many of the secondary, and even tertiary, characters are well developed and highly playable. Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Polonius are dream roles for some actors. And Laertes the gravedigger, Osric the player king, etc. all have the potential to be scene-stealing roles in the right hands. If Hamlet is a reflection of the world that he lives in, then surely the world of the play must also have a lot of appeal.

Even so, many of the most appealing aspects of the play—the surprising humor, the pacing, the supernatural elements, and the duel at the end—run through the character of Hamlet. The main strength of the play is its language, which is also dominated by its central character. The character of Hamlet is the largest appeal of the play, but without the rest of the script to support the character, it is difficult for any performance to reach its ultimate height.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I partly agree with this statement, but there are many other factors contributing to the appeal of the play, including the complexities of other characters apart from Hamlet himself.

Hamlet's own personality is a puzzle filled with contradictions. Hostile critics, such as T.S. Eliot, have cited this as a reason that the play is overrated—that it does not make dramatic sense because in Hamlet Shakespeare creates a character that is unrealistic, one whose actions lack clear motivation. In my view, Eliot totally missed the point of the play. Part of the reason Hamlet is so iconic is that it expresses the irrational, perplexing, unaccountable nature of the world and of people overall. Hamlet is the protagonist, but much of his behavior seems calculated to alienate the audience. He is apparently shamming insanity, but even so, his obnoxious and abusive actions towards Ophelia and others are difficult to excuse. Perhaps, however, the lines Shakespeare gives him to speak are so profound and persuasive that we reflexively respond to them and empathize with Hamlet's character and his situation. Like Macbeth, Hamlet represents the "dark side" but an agonized one where audience and reader suffer along with him. This, surely, is a major factor in the play's lasting appeal, which is almost unprecedented in literature. It also leads to a more general observation that we value Shakespeare as much for his being a great poet as we do for his ability as a playwright, or more precisely, that the extraordinary qualities of his poetic language are the key to his power as a dramatist.

The predicaments of the other characters in Hamlet, though not presented as forcefully as those of Hamlet himself, are similarly engrossing, even in the case of Claudius. Another of Shakespeare's strengths is his ability to present an "evil" character in a sympathetic light, as Claudius appears in the scene where he is praying. He knows he has done wrong and is honestly asking God for forgiveness. Here, he is pathetically just a man, in spite of being a power-hungry murderer. Even before this point, during the play-within-a-play scene, one almost feels sorrier for Claudius than for the others, though all are in some sense victims. That virtually all the major characters end up dead is perhaps emblematic of the overall victimization of humanity, which Shakespeare portrays even more effectively in Hamlet than elsewhere in his oeuvre, with the possible exception of King Lear.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hamlet is arguably the most complex male character in the English canon. His soliloquies are complicated and filled with contradictions. He is as motivated as he is contemplative. It is hard to deny that he is a difficult character. However, the main appeal of the play comes from Hamlet's interactions with the many levels and systems that exist within the play. Hamlet, on his own, is not the main appeal of the play. Instead, it is Hamlet's interactions with the other characters and situations that have enchantled audiences and readers for centuries.

There are many moving parts in the play that take hold of Hamlet. On a system level, the country has damaged foreign relationships which threaten to harm the country and its citizens. On a familial level, Hamlet has fractured relationships with his mother. Personally, Hamlet is conflicted and often lashing out. Hamlet's interactions and exchanges with these levels are what engage us.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial