What are the main themes in "Hamlet"?I'm making a scale to represent the Elizabethians' value of balance and order.  What else could the scale represent about the story of "Hamlet"?  One example...

What are the main themes in "Hamlet"?

I'm making a scale to represent the Elizabethians' value of balance and order.  What else could the scale represent about the story of "Hamlet"?  One example is love vs. betrayal.

Expert Answers
MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some other themes include:

  • Denmark as a prison. Hamlet speaks this line to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and evidence for this is throughout the play. Polonius spies on Hamlet & Gertrude, as well as his own son. Hamlet is unable to leave, due to Claudius' command to remain in Demark. Claudius uses various characters to spy on everyone in the kingdom.
  • What constitutes sanity/insanity. Hamlet is accused of madness for several reasons, although he tells us he's only pretending. Ophelia clearly loses her mind at the end, broken by the death of her father and Hamlet's rejection. Laertes isn't acting in his right mind when he agrees to duel Hamlet.
  • Female identity in a male-dominated world. Denmark is heavily masculine in this play, ruled by men and the military. Gertrude and Ophelia are forced to find their way through this society, often being used by the men for their own gain. Ophelia is used by Hamlet, Polonius, and Claudius, while Gertrude remains impotent to protect herself or her son.
  • Reflection of the private world in the political. This has a lot to do with the motif of sickness/disease. Of course, there's the famous "Something's rotten in Denmark" line, but there's other examples of physical and mental sickness throughout. This is reflected in the uneasiness of Claudius on the throne, and the shakiness of the political situation between Hamlet & Claudius, and Claudius & fortinbras.
mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Hamlet" is a great play with so many different themes that can be contrasted with one another.  So, it lends itself well to a balanced contradiction of themes.  Here are some other possible ideas:

  • Revenge vs. forgiveness:  Does Hamlet enact revenge or not?  Does he forgive his mother and uncle or not?  What about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--should he forgive or enact revenge?  And what about Hamlet's cruel treatment to Ophelia as a sort of proxy-revenge against his mother and all women?  Was that fair?
  • Action vs. indecision:  The entire play exists because of Hamlet's inaction, and inabiltiy to decide to move forward with reveng.  He debates acting or not, for the entire play.
  • Loyalty vs. infidelity:  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern weren't loyal to Hamlet as friends, whereas Horatio was.  Gertrude was not loyal to her deceased husband, and Hamlet was not loyal to Ophelia.
  • Friendship vs. hatred:  Look at Hamlet's friends once again; they showcase this theme well.
  • Life vs. death:  Hamlet constantly debates whether dying wouldn't be better than living his miserable life.  Many people do die throughout the course of the play, and Hamlet's father returns from the dead as a ghost to prompt murder.  Hamlet longs for death, but fears the afterlife.

I hope that those thoughts help to get you more ideas!  Goo dluck!

lit24 | Student

The first and most important theme would be revenge. In Act I Sc. 5 the Ghost of Hamlet's father asks Hamlet to murder Claudius and thus avenge his murder:

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

The second important theme is procrastination. Hamlet has to confirm first of all whether what the Ghost told him was true or not and he has to carefully plan his revenge in total secrecy. Consequently, Hamlet delays the act of killing Claudius. In Act III Sc. 3, he sees Claudius all alone praying but he gives the excuse that if he murders him now his soul will go straight to heaven:

And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.

In Act IV Sc.4 Hamlet even contrasts himself unfavorably with young Fortinbras who is exactly the opposite of him when it comes to executing his plans:

Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince, [Fortinbras]
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.

Last but not the least would be theme of friendship. Shakespeare contrasts the true and sincere friendship of Horatio with that of the false friendship of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In Act V Sc.2 Hamlet reveals to Horatio how he managed to forge a letter to the King of England asking him to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern executed:

That, on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.