In addition to being his most popular tragedy, Hamlet (c. 1600) is Shakespeare's most frequently analyzed play. In fact, critics have noted that Hamlet has inspired more critical writing than any other work of Western literature. The play recounts the murder of a Danish king, apparently at the hands of his brother, and the subsequent emotional turmoil that his son, Prince Hamlet, undergoes as he struggles with the idea of vengeance. Critical opinion about the central characters in the play—for example, Polonius, and even Hamlet—has evolved over the centuries, while scholars have continued to examine the play's poetic and rhetorical devices, and its treatment of the themes of politics, power, and friendship. Commentators are also interested in the connection between the plot of Hamlet and contemporary changes in Renaissance England as it prepared to enter the early modern era under the rule of an aging queen.
Although character studies of Hamlet have been popular since the play's inception, critics have shown renewed interest in the personalities of several characters in the play, reinterpreting many of them. Catharine R. Stimpson (2002), for example, rejects the characterization of Polonius as a foolish “meddler,” arguing instead that he should be viewed as a seasoned political insider whose downfall comes as the result of “overconfidence about his schemes and his mastery of manipulative tactics.” Polonius, she concludes, could easily be imagined living today, although instead of being killed he would be investigated for political or personal indiscretions and “forced to resign.” Prince Hamlet's characterization comes under new scrutiny by John Hardy (see Further Reading), who contends that what makes Hamlet such a memorable character is his “unpretentiousness” as well as his sincere attempt to seek the truth. Hardy asserts that it is not moral weakness or melancholy that distinguishes the Prince, but his moral strength and “an uncompromising honesty”—both of which lead him to think carefully before acting. Ronald Knowles (1999) asserts that Prince Hamlet's thought processes reflect the evolution of Western beliefs about the place of human reason and emotion in society and notes that Hamlet's “unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility.”
Hamlet remains Shakespeare's most popular play on stage and screen. Many recent productions have distinguished themselves by updating the setting of the play, thereby, some critics suggest, making Hamlet more accessible to modern audiences. In his review of Campbell Scott's 2001 filmed version, Ken Eisner (2001) observes that the relocation of the action to a mansion on the brink of World War I enhances the play's theme of aristocracy—and by extension the monarchy—in irreversible decline. Patrick Carnegy (2001) discusses the effect on the audience of a barefooted, t-shirted Hamlet and Laertes in Steven Pimlott's 2001 stage production, especially when contrasted with “the world of suits” represented by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their master, Claudius. Carnegy warns that while Pimlott succeeded in providing theatergoers with an intimate connection to the play, he risked portraying Prince Hamlet as immature. Elvis Mitchell (2000) examines Michael Almereyda's 2000 cinematic release of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke as the Prince and notes that “Hamlet is a movie about urban isolation and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained royalty.” The critic finds that the transfer of action to twentieth-century Wall Street works well, but argues that Hawke's Hamlet wastes too much time in adolescent “moping.” Reviewing the same film, Peter Rainer (see Further Reading) contends that Almereyda's focus on Hamlet's similarities to the world of corporate New York occurs at the expense of the play's other themes.
Two themes of particular concern to critics who study Hamlet are those of politics and power, especially as they relate to the political tensions of Shakespeare's Elizabethan England. Zdravko Planinc (1998) limits his discussion to a definition of power and the ideal ruler, using Plato's Republic as a model. Planinc asserts that the play focuses on three types of leaders, two of whom are faulty. The late King Hamlet, he claims, indulged in acts of plunder after success in battle. The current King Claudius is, among other things, a regicide. Only Prince Hamlet, he contends, has the greatness of mind to become Plato's philosopher-king. Larry S. Champion (1993) remarks on the numerous proverbs that appear in the play, suggesting that they are used not only to delineate the characters, but also to highlight the political tensions surrounding the aging Elizabeth I and the lack of an heir to her throne. Like Champion, Donald K. Hedrick (1984) examines the theme of politics and Elizabethan society in his exploration of the play. Hedrick argues that Hamlet is both a heroic and a satiric play, and notes that in both Renaissance England and Hamlet's Denmark satire is used by the powerless to undermine the unscrupulous acts of the powerful. Studying the theme of friendship in Hamlet, Keith Doubt notes that there are three types of friendship in the play: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable.