Considered to be the world's most popular tragedy, Hamlet combines the emotional power of a family in crisis with the political intrigue surrounding the corruption of the Danish court. Hamlet finds himself at the center of this drama following the death of his father, the King of Denmark, whom Hamlet believes has been murdered by the king's own brother, Claudius. To make matters worse, Claudius has married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and has become the new king. The character of Hamlet continues to be a source of major critical commentary and debate. Critics are particularly interested in Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death, and his supposed madness. Other areas of critical concern include the role of the theater and of theatricality within the play, issues of sexuality and gender roles, and the play's treatment of the conflicts between reason and emotion, and between man as a victim of fate versus man as the controller of his destiny. Modern film and stage directors of Hamlet grapple with how to dramatically represent these issues as well.
Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death has perplexed many readers and critics. Paul Gottschalk (1973) examines the prayer scene, in which Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying, and discusses both Hamlet's delay and his overall character. Hamlet states that he does not kill the king during prayer because his revenge would be spoiled; he believes that Claudius, killed at prayer, would not be damned to Hell. Gottschalk contends that this scene reveals Hamlet's villainy, and finds it to be a true low point in his spiritual journey. However, by the end of the play, Gottschalk maintains, Hamlet ultimately achieves redemption and spiritual regeneration. Taking another approach to the analysis of Hamlet's delay, John Hunt (1988) examines the play's use of corporeal imagery in order to show that Hamlet is unable to adequately react to the demands made upon him by the Ghost until he accepts his own physicality and overcomes his contempt for the body. Hunt suggests that the physical body is used not only as a symbol of Hamlet's disgust for physicality, but it additionally serves as a representation of the spirit, Christ, the Church, and the body politic. Psychoanalytical interpretation of Hamlet's character is a popular area of critical study as well. Bennett Simon (2001) reviews the major trends in the psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet, the play, and several other characters. In his discussion, Simon analyzes Hamlet in light of trauma theory, which suggests that the shattering of basic assumptions—including the assumption that close individuals may be trusted and that the stability of family and the natural world may be counted on—results in the development of a sense of unreality in the affected individual. In Simon's survey, he examines the question of whether Hamlet is acting or is truly mad.
The play's treatment of theatricality and the role of the theater is another area of critical study. Charles R. Forker (1963) analyzes the implications of the way the theater functions as a symbol in Hamlet, contending that the theater serves as a symbol for the exposure of unseen realities and the revelation of secrets. Brent M. Cohen (1977) argues that Shakespeare's use of the theater, particularly the unique design of the Elizabethan theater, allowed Shakespeare to challenge his audience in unique ways. Cohen shows that the absence of physical barriers between the stage and the audience in the Elizabethan theater gave the audience a conflicted understanding of their role within the action of the play. Cohen emphasizes that in Hamlet, Shakespeare used the theater, theatricality, artifice, and performance to develop the audience's sense of self-consciousness; he did not use the theater, Cohen stresses, for the purposes of encouraging audience identification with the characters in the play. Critics Michael Taylor (1971) and Eric Levy (2001) have studied the play's conflicts between fate and destiny, and between reason and emotion, respectively. Taylor contends that the central conflict in Hamlet is between “man as victim of fate and as controller of his own destiny.” Taylor characterizes the first four acts of the play as being pervaded by the notion that man is the master of his own destiny, and argues that this idea is reflected in the way language is used by characters to control and disguise meaning. In the fifth act, Hamlet's attitude changes, Taylor contends, in that Hamlet has come to believe that man is in fact limited in his ability to affect his destiny. Levy is concerned with the play's treatment of the control of emotion through reason, and demonstrates that Hamlet is concerned not just with controlling emotion through rational thought, but with the use of rational thought to provoke emotion. Levy's analysis is informed by his study of the Christian-humanist doctrine on reason and emotion as outlined in the Aristotelian-Thomist system. Exploring the issues of sexuality and gender roles, James W. Stone (1995) investigates the way in which androgyny is represented as a collapse of sexual difference through the portrayal of Hamlet as feminized and impotent and the depiction of Gertrude as masculinized and castrating. Such a collapse in sexual difference, Stone maintains, generates a related collapse in moral meaning and a disintegration of moral boundaries in the play.
Hamlet's continued popularity has made it a favorite of both film and stage productions. John P. McCombe (1997) and Samuel Crowl (1998) both examine Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and find that it focuses heavily on the mother-son bond between Hamlet and Gertrude. McCombe charges that Zeffirelli is overly concerned with this relationship and its dysfunctional nature, to the point that the play's political issues are ignored. Crowl takes a more favorable view of Zeffirelli's somewhat narrow focus. He praises Zeffirelli's casting, textual editing, and exploitation of cinematic space and landscape, and claims that the film offers a full exploration of the play as a family romance centered around Gertrude. Hamlet remains popular on the stage as well. Marguerite Tassi (2001) reviews a stage production of the play directed by Peter Brook, noting that Brook's adaptation is often viewed as controversial. Tassi explains that Brook eliminated from the play all that he deemed “inessential,” resulting in a simple and stark production designed to direct the audience's awareness to the play's exploration of the philosophical problems of being. While Tassi praises Adrian Lester's performance of Hamlet, she contends that the production suffered from problems related to Brooks's textual alterations. Bernice W. Kliman (2001) assesses Brooks's production as well, comparing it with John Caird's version of the play for the Royal National Theater, starring Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. Kliman praises both productions, particularly the performances of Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet in Caird's play and Adrian Lester's Hamlet in Brook's production.