Hamlet is often called an "Elizabethan revenge play," the theme of revenge against an evil usurper driving the plot forward as in earlier stage works by Shakespeare's contemporaries, Kyd and Marlowe, as well as by the French writer Belleforest (Histoires Tragiques, 1576). As in those works, a hero plays minister and scourge in avenging a moral injustice, an affront to both man and God. In this case, regicide (killing a king) is a particularly monstrous crime, and there is no doubt as to whose side our sympathies are disposed.
As in many revenge plays, and, in fact, several of Shakespeare's other tragedies (and histories), a corrupt act, the killing of a king, undermines order throughout the realm that resonates to high heaven. We learn that there is something "rotten" in Denmark after old Hamlet's death in the very first scene, as Horatio compares the natural and civil disorders that occurred in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar's assassination to the disease that afflicts Denmark. These themes and their figurative expression are common to the Elizabethan revenge play genre in which good must triumph over evil.
But Hamlet is far more than an outstanding example of the revenge play. It is, to begin, a tragedy in which the attainment of justice entails the avenging hero's death. It is in the first scene of Act III that Hamlet speaks a soliloquy that has become a verbal emblem for Shakespearean tragedy and a measure of its thematic depth.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 't is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?
Two of the play's salient themes are interwoven here; human mortality or death and fortune or chance. On the level of plot action, Hamlet is an exceedingly mortal work: virtually all of the major characters—Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes—die from unnatural causes by the end of the play; the penultimate scene takes place in a cemetery. Death, decay, and the futility of life fill the spoken thoughts the Danish prince, and the appearance of Ur-Hamlet's tortured ghost leaves us with cold comfort about the afterlife. Shakespeare skillfully shows vitality being cut short and leading to a gruesome end. Thus, in the graveyard scene that opens Act V, Hamlet holds up the skull of a court jester he knew as a boy, and utters the lines,
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!
Not only is death pervasive, its occurrence is a product of chance and circumstance. True, Hamlet anticipates his death, while Claudius and, perhaps, Laertes deserve theirs, but Polonius dies by accident as does the Queen, while Ophelia's suicide seems to be beyond her control. Life inevitably yields death and a wormy grave, and its occurrence cannot be foreseen or avoided.
As both a plot component and a central thematic cluster, madness and, with it, the line between reality and illusion are certainly prominent throughout Hamlet. The Prince feigns madness so well that we sometimes question his underlying sanity. Indeed, Hamlet himself harbors the fear that the ghost of his father may be an hallucination. Ophelia, of course, lapses into madness, sinking below the depths of a tragic tide of events into self-destructive melancholia. Reinforcing this, Shakespeare plays on the contrast between reality and illusion. This is most often brought out in contrasts between the "real" and the "seeming" kings of Denmark (see Hamlet's condemnation of Gertrude in Act III, scene iv). This notion of illusion is embodied in Ur-Hamlet's remarks about "my most seeming virtuous queen" (I.v) and in the "play-within-a-play" where mere illusion on the stage evokes the real emotion of guilt in Claudius, the "play" being the thing through which Hamlet "catches the conscience of the King" (II.ii).
(The entire section is 2,822 words.)