Hamlet's appeal is that he is not like mere mortals. Critic Harold Bloom declares that Hamlet "transcends his play." He thinks too much, but, oh, what intriguing thoughts from such an fascinating soul: the meaning of life,the interpersonal relationships of people, religious considerations, bravery, revenge. Indeed, the dialectical in this play is great!
Truly, Hamlet is an existential play. Shakespeare, Harold Bloom says, was our psychologist before Freud; it is true. His melancholy seems to make Hamlet delay, yet his soliloquies are what move the play forward, showing us that deliberation is indeed a worthy quality.
I think that Hamlet appeals universally because he is very much like all of us. Many of us are often torn between doing the right thing, but trying to also make sure that we don't step on toes or offend. His inability to act upon the ghost's accusations that Claudius killed his father might be like we act when we try to be politically correct about everything and find it difficult to say what we mean or present our opinions honestly. There is nothing to say that we need to be malicious, but often we simply say nothing.
Hamlet struggles until he snaps, but by this time, he has killed the wrong man. This is also a human response. I always tell my students that we are creatures that are governed by the "three-strike rule." As with baseball, we can usually get by when something happens once or twice without a reaction. I find myself this way: if I have to talk to a student more than twice, I have had it by the third time, and then cannot simply let it rest, but feel I must address it. Kids seems to be sure to get a parent's attention by asking the same question—usually achieving their intention with the third repetition. Don't we all hesitate when perhaps we should act?
Hamlet also struggles with seeing his mother as a human being, and not just his mother. He hurts Ophelia, though at her funeral he swears an undying devotion to her. These things seem painfully familiar perhaps because they are painfully common to us.
Failing to act at the opportune time, failing to see people as individuals, treating those we love poorly are things that plague human beings, not simply English playwrights or English-speaking readers or theater-goers. His pain is our pain, wherever we live and wherever we come from.
For these reasons, I feel Hamlet is timeless, and speaks to audiences the world over.
While Hamlet experiences some extraordinary things (a murdered father, a murderous uncle, a mother who marries a murderer, accidentally killing his girlfriend's father, signing a death warrant to have two former friends killed, and more), at their core his struggles are the same kind of things we struggle with, just on a grander scale. Who has not been suspicious, unsure, disappointed, in love, sad, confused, furious, betrayed, or impetuous? Hamlet's condition is the human condition, magnified for the world's stage.
I have to agree with all of the posters. The messages put forth in "Hamlet", as with many of Shakespeare's plays, are ones which people can simply relate to. The only difference is that people typically do not act on the impulses which drive thoughts of revenge. Simplistically, anything people can relate to typically makes something have universal appeal.
I agree with #4. Of course, this play is an incredibly good story that has all of the ingredients of a thrilling drama, as #3 points out. However, at the same time, it goes deeper than this. Hamlet suffers an existential crisis that causes him to debate the meaning and purpose of life itself. This is what makes this tremendous tragedy truly universal, as it relates to life, which is obviously something that every human on this planet has experience of.
I think the family problems are universal. I mean I know someone right now whose mother is currently dating a cousin of her husband while her husband is in IRAQ. There is this human value that marriage should be protected because loyalty helps build the family. In Hamlet we see him destroyed by what the mother and uncle do. The prompt marriage messes with his head. Children struggling with divorce or death of parents or re-marriage consistently struggle no matter the culture.
People love to read about other people's problems, the bigger the better. Hamlet is about serious, highly dramatic issues. There are ghosts, kings, betrayal and murder and even a play within a play. What more could you ask for?
To me, it goes beyond revenge. I think a major issue in Hamlet is that of the meaning or value of life. I think that people of all places and times have wondered at times what the point of life is. They have wondered whether life is preferable to death and what the point of life is if people are simply going to become food for worms after they die. The fact that this play addresses these issues helps to make it popular across different cultures.
Revenge, murder, suicide, ghosts, incest, insanity, ... why wouldn't this story be universal!?! Ha! These subjects are all incredibly interesting, ... and some of them even taboo in some cultures; therefore, the interest level is always high in regards to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
I so commonly talk about Hamlet being a "revenge play," that it's refreshing (for once) to discuss another reason as to why it's universal. Stories about ghosts (and/or supernatural beings) go far back into pre-recorded history and from most every culture. There's a reason why these stories stay around (even if they are only handed down orally), ... they freak people out. Science considered (or not considered), ... think about how many TV shows are about this kind of phenomena. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Stories and I Survived: Beyond and Back litter the airwaves. (I really like the latter show, actually.) Hamlet is no exception, ... where Macbeth would interest the supernatural-seekers with the witches, Hamlet would spark interest with the ghost of Hamlet's father. Specifically, one of my very favorite arguments (which can be proven either way, by the way, through use of the text), ... is about whether the ghost in Hamlet is "honest" or not.
This needs to be moved to the Literature Discussion Forum so we can get lots of opinions and interpretations from other points of view.
I think the idea of revenge is universally understood. In any culture at any point in history, you can read accounts telling of situations in which one character is wronged by another and how revenge is exacted. It's a part of basic human nature, and anyone who reads "Hamlet" with any degree of understanding will recognize the situations and emotions being experiences.
In somewhat the same way, I think there is a morbid fascination in watching others react to death, destruction, and threats of the same. When we are not personally threatened, we can't help but watch what happens to others who are in such situations.