Essential Facts

Full Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Author: William Shakespeare

Date of Composition: Likely between 1600 and 1602

Setting: Denmark

Main Characters: Hamlet, Ghost of King Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius

Main Symbols:

  • Ghost of King Hamlet.The Ghost is a symbol of the consequences of death in the afterlife.

    Essential quotation: “I am thy father's spirit, / Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, /  Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” (1.5.13-17).

  • Yorick’s skull.Yorick’s skull is a reminder of mortality and the permanency of death.

    Essential quotation: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath / borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how / abhorred in my imagination it is!” (5.1.177-179).

  • Flowers.In Ophelia’s bouquet, each flower she distributes is a symbol for the ways various people have betrayed her. For example, daisies are symbols of unhappiness in love.

    Essential quotation: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. And there’s pansies, that’s for thoughts…There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we / may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. You (must) wear / your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when / my father died. They say he made good end.” (4.5.194-199).

Main Themes:

  • Uncertainty. Hamlet wishes to avenge his father and punish both his mother and uncle, but he does not know the moral or proper way to achieve justice.
  • Fortune or Chance. Hamlet could not save his father. No matter how carefully he plots his revenge, chance events lay waste to his plans. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet believes his uncle is hiding behind the curtains in his mother’s room. In fact, however, the person who is hiding is Polonius, Ophelia’s father. Hamlet kills him and sets off an unanticipated chain of events.
  • Mortality.Hamlet is grief-stricken by the loss of his father. When he comes upon Yorick’s skull, Hamlet realizes the permanency of death. He thinks of all the great men who have come before him and not a single one has escaped death.

    Essential quotation: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth / into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; / and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might / they not stop a beer barrel? / Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away” (5.1.201-206).