Hamlet is, quite simply, the best known of Shakespeare's plays and the most famous play in Western literature. It is not hard to see why it enjoys such an exalted status. The play, which dates from the middle of Shakespeare's career (around 1600-1), manages to combine a complicated plot, profound insights into the human condition, and non-stop action into one seamless whole. An extraordinary amount of criticism has been written about Hamlet; in fact, the journal Hamlet Studies is devoted solely to discussion of the play. The amount of criticism generated is matched by its variety; some critics focus on the characters or concentrate on the gender issues that the play addresses, while others examine the play’s highly condensed language and imagery. Critics are also interested in how Shakespeare transformed his sources in creating Hamlet, as well as the play’s various themes and its influence on culture.
Historically, critical attention has been concentrated on the character of Hamlet. In recent years however, critics have begun to focus on other characters as well, especially Ophelia. Gunnar Sjögren (see Further Reading), for example, looks at Ophelia from numerous different critical perspectives in order to “do justice” to her. For Sjögren, the crucial point about Ophelia's characterization is its ambiguity, and he looks to contemporary Elizabethan attitudes and important plays by Shakespeare's rivals in an attempt to judge how her character was meant to be viewed. He examines the relatively lax morals of the Elizabethan court and the characterization of Bel-imperia in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1586), and concludes that Ophelia is seduced by Hamlet. According to Sjögren, Ophelia is cast aside when she gets in the way of Hamlet’s primary goal of revenge, and her madness arises from Hamlet’s rejection of her. Sjögren concludes by observing that modern performances of Hamlet have done justice to Ophelia, for in them “Ophelia comes into her own and emerges as a very interesting part indeed.” Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia has also been of interest to critics. R.A. Foakes (1973) analyzes the effect of Hamlet's cruelty on Ophelia, and Eric P. Levy (1999) examines the encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia in Ophelia's room. Jennifer Low (1999) discusses the symbolic importance of the location of the initial fight between Laertes and Hamlet, which takes place at Ophelia's grave.
It is, however, in feminist criticism and the discussion of gender roles that Ophelia has played a central part. Elaine Showalter (1985) considers how to read Ophelia’s story. In an attempt to gain new perspectives on her character, she traces the “cultural history” of Ophelia’s representation, both on and off the stage, and examines the connection between female sexuality and insanity. Showalter also examines the feminist revision of Ophelia’s character, and contends that “there is no ‘true’ Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak,” and that Ophelia’s representation depends entirely on cultural attitudes towards both women and madness. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (1996) review the shifting critical attitudes to the female characters in Hamlet, commenting that many critics have echoed Hamlet's own misogynistic attitudes towards the women in the play. Thompson and Taylor ultimately contend that the play has “relatively simplistic views of women as angels or whores.”
The discussion of gender issues has always been a politically and culturally charged one. By contrast, the analysis of the language and imagery in Hamlet has been relatively tranquil although wide ranging. Richard A. Lanham (1976) traces the uses of rhetoric in the play. He concludes that Shakespeare's two principal preoccupations as a playwright were with style and motive. According to Lanham, the crucial insight Hamlet presents is that any sense of morality needs to take into account human beings' inherent theatricality—our self-conscious realization that we are always acting and are forever on stage. Imtiaz Habib (1994) emphasizes how the language of the play will always be misread due in part to Hamlet's ambiguity and in part to the very nature of language. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1999) examines the mouse and mousetrap imagery in Hamlet.
Despite the recent trend toward concentrating on gender issues and language, two older critical strategies remain well represented in contemporary criticism: source studies and thematic analyses. Cherrell Guilfoyle (1990) deepens the hunt for Shakespeare's sources by tracing Ophelia's character to the legend of Mary Magdalen as developed in medieval drama, and suggests that Shakespeare parallels Mary Magdalen in the character of Ophelia in order to stress the twin ideas of hope and atonement in a play. Frank Nicholas Clary (see Further Reading) returns, as have so many critics and scholars, to one of Shakespeare's sources for Hamlet—Belleforest's adaptation of the Saxo Grammaticus story—and concludes that Belleforest's work was more influential than has been previously acknowledged. Manuel Aguirre (1996) examines the literary origins of the cup from which Gertrude drinks a fatal toast to Hamlet in the play's final scene, and argues that by Shakespeare's time women's mythic role within society was being undermined. From Aguirre's perspective, Shakespeare's attention to the theme of sovereignty dramatizes the clash between older and newer ideologies. Millicent Bell (1998) also studies Hamlet's concern with a particular theme: in this case, revenge. Bell shows that one of Shakespeare's intentions in Hamlet was to satirize the revenge-play genre by means of both the overstylized play-within-the-play and the conclusion of the play itself. The critic contends that the play-within-the-play, The Murder of Gonzago, is “stale bombast,” and Hamlet's concern with revenge is nowhere to be seen when he is dying, noting that, rather than crying out for revenge, Hamlet asks only to be remembered.