Hamlet Commentary

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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).

Throughout Hamlet we encounter a great deal of wordplay, Shakespeare using a vast number of multivalent terms ranging from gross puns to highly-nuanced words that evoke a host of diverse associations and images. While Hamlet can tell this difference between a "hawk and a handsaw," the play challenges the assumption that language itself can convey human experience or hold stable meaning.

Lastly, Hamlet contains a great deal of sexual material and innuendo, one in which the charge of "incest" is openly uttered. The Freudian implications of Hamlet's "case" have been explored at length by literary critics and psychoanalysts alike (see Jones 1976). Without belaboring the point, some critics believe that illicit or unnatural sexual drives, particularly Hamlet's repressed desire to be the object of his mother's affection in place of his father, form a strong undercurrent in the text.

Critical Commentary

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There is little debate that Shakespeare is the greatest Renaissance tragedian, and that King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608) and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are the best examples of his work in that genre. Since its first production at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Hamlet has been the subject of intense critical inquiry, and the figure of Hamlet has been among the most intensely studied of any of Shakespeare’s creations. Intellectual, self-reflective, alienated, and seemingly paralyzed by doubts about both himself and the circumstance in which he is called upon to act as an agent of revenge, Hamlet has come to be considered the quintessential modern hero.

For the subject of his drama, Shakespeare turned to a story already popular in English theaters; at least two earlier productions of the sad tale of the Danish prince had appeared in London playhouses. In many ways, Hamlet is typical of a subgenre immensely popular in Shakespeare’s time: the revenge play. Most of these were bloody spectacles in which almost every character dies in the final act. The body-strewn stage in act 5 of Hamlet continues this tradition, as does the central action of the drama: the need for the young Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, the king, whose ghost informs Hamlet early in the play that he (the king) had been poisoned by Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius so Claudius could become king and marry Hamlet’s mother, the queen Gertrude.

The central dramatic interest in the play is the character of its hero. Hamlet sees himself as the “scourge and minister” of some higher order, returned from school in Germany to set right the disorder in his realm caused by his uncle’s murderous action. Unfortunately, the sensitive prince is not callous enough to ignore the doubts he has about the exact cause of his father’s death. He has been told by his father’s ghost that Claudius committed murder; other hints to that effect abound. The prince feels he must delay his revenge, however, until he is certain Claudius is guilty.

Compounding Hamlet’s problem is the fact that his mother, whom he loves dearly, has married his uncle soon after the old king has died. It is not at all clear to Hamlet whether his mother has had a hand in the murder, whether she is simply unaware of Claudius’s treachery, or whether she believes Claudius is innocent. Much is made of the mother-son relationship; Hamlet spends considerable time trying to convince his mother that she has made a mistake in marrying Claudius. Only when she finally comes to accept his view that the new king is somehow guilty does Hamlet decide to act. His decision is precipitated by several other actions as well, most notably the efforts of his supposed friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to have him killed.

Many critics have observed that Hamlet is really too sensitive to effect the revenge that he intends. He is by nature melancholic, possessing a fatalistic disposition that borders on the suicidal. His most famous soliloquy focuses on the virtue of ending his life. “To be, or not to be,” he begins his musings; that is, indeed, a central question for him, since he sees little benefit in continuing to live in a world where injustice reigns. Nevertheless, he decides to act to avenge his father’s murder—once he is certain he knows who has been involved in the plot to kill him. Viewing the world as a place where things are seldom as they seem, he spends a good portion of his time trying to sort appearance from reality. He invents various devices to help illuminate the truth, such as his elaborate arrangement for a dumb show that will re-create the murder of his father in the presence of Claudius to try to make the king reveal his guilt. Hamlet is not satisfied simply to take vengeance on his uncle clandestinely; he wants Claudius to admit his guilt.

For centuries, scholars have debated Hamlet’s inability to act even when he has the opportunity to do so. Early in the play, his inactivity can be attributed to his lack of assurance that Claudius is guilty. Were he to kill the new king without justification, he would be seen as no better than a murderer himself, and no good would come of his action. Nevertheless, when he does appear to have sufficient evidence of Claudius’s role in his father’s murder, the prince still seems paralyzed. In a crucial scene after Claudius has seen the dumb show and left the room visibly upset, Hamlet finds his uncle praying in the castle’s chapel. It is a perfect chance to slay the king, but Hamlet refrains because he says he does not want to send his uncle’s soul to heaven. Such casuistry has been reason for several critics to claim that Shakespeare is simply drawing out the drama until the final catastrophe. By the final act, Hamlet has become totally fatalistic. Having killed Polonius accidentally, he has already bloodied his hands; he accepts the challenge of Polonius’s son, Laertes, with resignation, knowing that he will probably be killed himself. In the final scene, all of the principals meet their end—and almost all by some mischance of fate. Despite the resounding encomium pronounced over the body of the slain prince, the bleak ending offers little encouragement for an audience who has witnessed this great tragedy. Surprisingly, however, the ending seems justified, in that order has been restored to the Danish kingdom, although won at a terrible price. Such is the lesson of most great tragedies, and Hamlet ranks with the very best examples of the genre.

Advanced Themes

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The most fundamental issue in Hamlet, one which opens the door to countless readings of the play, can be stated in one simple question: Why does Hamlet delay taking revenge on Claudius? While critics offer various answers to this question, their theories generally differ in two distinct ways: one group focuses on the inner workings of Hamlet's mind as the primary cause of his procrastination; the other stresses the external obstacles that prohibit the prince from carrying out his task. Critics who find the cause of Hamlet's delay in his internal meditations typically view the prince as a man of great moral integrity who is forced to commit an act that goes against his deepest principles. On numerous occasions, the prince tries to make sense of his moral dilemma through personal meditations, which Shakespeare presents as soliloquies (a soliloquy is a speech delivered while the speaker is alone and devised to inform the reader what the character is thinking or to provide essential information concerning other participants in the action). Another perspective of Hamlet's internal struggle suggests that the prince has become so disenchanted with life since his father's death that he has neither the desire nor the will to exact revenge. In addition, Hamlet has been shocked and appalled that in the midst of his grief Gertrude has yielded to Claudius's affections, marrying him only two months after her husband's funeral. To the prince, these events have degraded the Danish court to nothing more than "an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely" (I.ii.135-37). Hamlet's strongest impulse is to kill himself to avoid further debasement, and yet he fears the damning consequences of suicide. With such heavy matters weighing on his mind, the Ghost's call for revenge only complicates Hamlet's ability to make decisions, leading to many other interludes of self-questioning and prolonged inaction.

Critics who view Hamlet's hesitation as a result of external rather than internal obstacles often emphasize one point: the prince's difficulty in determining the difference between appearance and reality as a primary barrier that restricts him from taking action. For example, Hamlet questions whether the Ghost is really a benevolent spirit or a devil who tries to trick him into killing Claudius. In addition, the Ghost's accusations pose a very practical problem for Hamlet because Claudius does not at first seem to be a villainous murderer, but rather a competent and responsible monarch. As far as Hamlet is concerned, the king's only transgression is his hasty and incestuous marriage to Gertrude. Other impediments prohibit Hamlet from killing Claudius once he has convinced himself that the king is indeed guilty. The most obvious is that the monarch is almost always surrounded by guards. The one instance in which he is not protected occurs during the prayer scene (Act III, scene iii), where Hamlet hesitates killing Claudius for fear of sending his soul to heaven. The prince's inaction here is perhaps the most controversial aspect of his delay: critics who see Hamlet's procrastination as the result of an internal struggle maintain that this episode clearly demonstrates his inability to exact revenge; on the other hand, commentators who support the theory of external influences assert that the prince delays killing Claudius not only because he fears sending the king's soul to heaven but—more importantly—because he has not proven to anyone (except possibly Horatio) that his uncle is a murderer. If Hamlet is thus viewed as a victim of external influences, his internal meditations on his hesitation do not necessarily demonstrate his inability to act; rather, they reflect his need to vent his frustration through self-reproaches at the fact that he cannot find an adequate opportunity to avenge his father's murder.

Closely related to Hamlet's delay is the theme of revenge. The prince is not the only character preoccupied with revenge in Hamlet: Fortinbras bears a grudge against Denmark because King Hamlet killed his father, and Laertes—infuriated by Polonius's murder—threatens to overthrow the Danish government before joining Claudius in a plot to murder the prince. Further, Hamlet belongs to the genre of the Revenge Tragedy. Revenge Tragedy is a dramatic form made popular on the English stage by Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy is an early example of the type. Such plays call for the revenge of a father's death by a son, or vice versa; this act is usually directed by the ghost of the murdered man. Other devices found in Revenge Tragedies include hesitation by the hero, real or feigned madness, suicide, intrigue, and murders on stage. Some critics theorize that Shakespeare despised the Revenge Tragedy as a form whose conventions had become trite. Yet because revenge theater was immensely popular with Elizabethan audiences, the playwright had to follow certain guidelines to produce a financially successful play. As a result, Shakespeare modified the theatrical type by creating a double entendre (double meaning) in which he subtly denounced the banality of the Revenge Tragedy without denying his audience many of its popular components. Hamlet's distaste for revenge throughout the play therefore reflects Shakespeare's disgust with revenge theater, and yet the dramatist fulfilled the audience's expectations for a tragic conclusion.

Many different patterns of imagery give a visual dimension to the dramatic action of Hamlet. Perhaps the most striking imagery is that of bodily corruption and disease. Throughout the play, Hamlet is preoccupied with the degeneration of the Danish court and the foul implications of Claudius and Gertrude's incestuous relationship. Although images of corruption and disease run throughout the play, they are never associated with Hamlet himself; however, a sense of infection underscores Claudius's crime and Gertrude's sin. Further, the description of disease and corruption exceeds the visual dimension and operates on an olfactory level (relating to the sense of smell). Shakespeare offers a vivid depiction of decay and stench by employing imagery of cancerous infection, rotting flesh, and the sun as an agent of corruption. These rank odors highlight the cunning and lecherousness of Claudius's evil crime, which has poisoned the whole kingdom of Denmark. War imagery is another important visual pattern that frequently occurs in Hamlet. In fact, images of war occur more frequently than those of corruption and decay; their dramatic function is to underscore the notion that Hamlet and Claudius are in a duel to the death.

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