Setting of Time and Place

Setting is divided into two categories: time and place. Let us take each in turn. First, most scholars agree that Hamlet is set in the later middle ages (at some point in either the fourteenth century or the fifteenth century). One must also realize that the play Hamlet is meant to be seen on the stage, and the directors of a particular production may choose to change the setting of time to any era they choose. Therefore, the only setting that can be discussed here is the one which Shakespeare reveals through the text. Second, Shakespeare's Hamlet is set in the country of Denmark. (You may be familiar with the famous quotation, often used as an allusion to the play, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.") We can be even more specific with the aspect of setting by saying that the play is set in a royal castle in the Danish city of Elsinore.

First Element of Setting: Time

It is precisely here, at the beginning of Shakespeare's play, that it is appropriate to mention the setting. Because setting is divided into two different categories, let's take the first element and discuss it: the element of time. Although up for a bit of debate, most learned scholars think that Shakespeare set Hamlet in the latter half of the middle ages—in other words, probably somewhere between 1300 and 1500 (otherwise known as the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). We can be even more specific about this actual scene by noting that it is night, and quite a dismal night at that. Barnardo reveals that "'Tis now struck twelve." Therefore, Hamlet begins at midnight. It is also important for a reader to note that there is a big difference between reading this play and watching this play. Shakespeare meant for this play to be seen on the stage. There are directors who have set their productions of Hamlet in vastly different time periods; however, for our purposes, we will concentrate on the setting that Shakespeare intended: the late middle ages.

Second Element of Setting: Place

A discussion of the setting of Hamlet is not complete without speaking of setting's other important element: the setting of place. Perhaps, as a reader, you are already familiar with one of the most famous quotations from Shakespeare: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Even though this exact line is found a bit later in the play, it's still important to focus upon the setting being so dramatically stated. Quite simply, Hamlet is set in the country of Denmark—specifically in the castle in the Danish city of Elsinore. Now, just as there is when considering the setting of time, there is a vast difference between analyzing the written play and the viewed production. Any one production of Hamlet could be set in any vast number of places, so for our purposes here, we will concentrate only on Shakespeare's exact words and confine our discussion of the setting to Denmark.

Enter, the Ghost

Apart from the foreboding night and the meaning behind that dreary setting, the reader must notice the almost immediate entrance of the ghost in the very first scene of Shakespeare's play. For a moment, leave aside the questions about why the ghost has appeared. (In reality, that is a very important topic that will be dealt with in later insights.) Simply the appearance of the supernatural, something that only some people believe in, already calls up a common theme: Appearance versus Reality. Is the ghost real? Are the men tired and lonely and seeing things? Is it a figment of their imagination? Could a ghost actually exist? Thus begins a journey through this theme that will last the entire length of the play.

A Common Allusion: "A little more than kin, and less than kind."

It isn't far into the second scene of Shakespeare's Hamlet that the reader will come upon one of the most famous lines not only from this play but also from all of Shakespeare's collected works.  In fact, this line is one of the most common allusions to Shakespeare found in other works.  Soon after Hamlet appears on stage, he looks to the side and declares with disgust, "A little more than kin, and less than kind."  Hamlet is absolutely disgusted with his uncle Claudius who now, after marrying Hamlet's mother (Gertrude), has become Hamlet's "father."  When other authors use this line as an allusion, it is important to note the play on the words "kin" and "kind." Both pertinent parts to this allusion rely on the double meanings of something being "natural" vs. something being "kind or nice." Let's take each of them in turn.  Hamlet is asserting that Claudius is "more than kin."  This means that where Claudius used to be a distant uncle, now he is (disgustingly) considering himself a second father to Hamlet due to Claudius's marriage to Gertrude.  The irony here is that the term "more than kin" has a positive connotation, as if someone were saying you are "closer than family."  However, Hamlet means the exact opposite in this case.  "More than kin" can also mean that, according to Hamlet, Claudius has crossed the border from family to enemy.  The second aspect of this common allusion is the term "less than kind." The word "kind" can also mean family, as if we were to say "of one's own kind."  Hamlet saying Claudius is "less than kind" can mean that Hamlet does not think of Claudius as part of the family and certainly not as his mother's husband.  To complete the play on the word "kind," it can also mean that Claudius wasn't being nice (and certainly not kindly) when he took his brother's sister as his wife.

King Hamlet's Ghost

Shakespeare wanted to have Hamlet’s father’s ghost tell his son he had been murdered by Claudius and must be avenged. But it might have been odd to just have the Ghost suddenly appear onstage and say, “I am thy father’s spirit.” The playwright needed to establish that the human actor represents the dead king’s ghost before Hamlet ever encounters him. Shakespeare wanted his audience to recognize that player as Hamlet’s father’s ghost any time he appeared.

How could Shakespeare make his audience believe the actor was a ghost? He couldn’t make him seem transparent or translucent; the man had to look somehow strange and different from all the others. Shakespeare hit on the idea of dressing him in body armor and a helmet. This had several advantages: (1) It makes the guards and Horatio, as well as the entire theater audience, believe the Ghost is there on a mission having something to do with war; (2) it helps identify the Ghost as the dead King Hamlet, since he was a great warrior and since, as Horatio says, he is wearing King Hamlet's armor; (3) it helps make him more menacing and frightening.

No doubt the actor playing the Ghost was directed to walk in what might seem a "ghostlike" way--that is, to stalk slowly while totally ignoring the three frightened observers. Thus, when describing the Ghost to Hamlet in the following scene, Horatio says that a figure exactly like Hamlet's father

Appears before them, and with solemn march / Goes slow and stately by them. 

Shakespeare may have wanted to establish the Ghost’s existence but not raise any suspicions that he was there to give his son information of a confidential and personal nature. The Ghost’s real message is supposed to come as a big surprise to Hamlet as well as to everyone in the audience. Shakespeare created a sort of red herring in the character Fortinbras, who is making threatening moves against the Danes with his Norwegian army. Naturally, everyone believes that the Ghost wearing armor is there to do something about Fortinbras and not, as it turns out, tell Hamlet he was killed by Claudius to obtain his throne and wife.

In several of the early scenes of Hamlet, most of the dialogue is intended to establish that the actor in the armor and helmet is unmistakably the ghost of the dead King Hamlet. Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio all exclaim about how much he resembles Hamlet’s dead father, and all three of them testify to this when they meet Hamlet in Act I, Scene 2.

BERNARDO

How now, Horatio? You tremble and look pale.
Is not this something more than fantasy?
What think you on't?

HORATIO

Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.

MARCELLUS

Is it not like the King?

HORATIO

As thou art to thyself.
Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated.
So frowned he once when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Pollacks on the ice.

So the audience is thoroughly convinced that the Ghost is a real ghost and that he must be the ghost of Hamlet’s father—and no one in the audience should think he is only young Hamlet’s hallucination. Shakespeare takes great pains to put this matter out of the way before Hamlet meets the Ghost in Act I, Scene 4 and then has a secret meeting with him in Scene 5.

Shakespeare makes a further effort to prevent any member of his audience from guessing that the Ghost’s appearance might have something to do with treason, assassination, usurpation, and revenge. The ingenious playwright has Horatio offer a number of plausible alternative reasons why the Ghost might be there.

Stay illusion! If thou hast any sound, or use of voice, 
Speak to me;
If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me,
Speak to me;
If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid,
O, speak!
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it! stay, and speak! 

It is noteworthy that Shakespeare did not have a comparable problem with Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth because the audience saw Banquo ambushed and murdered. When Banquo appears at Macbeth’s inaugural banquet (Act III, Scene 4), everyone knows he must be a ghost because he has to be dead. The First Murderer even comes to the door to testify that Banquo’s body is lying in a ditch

With twenty trenched gashes on his head,
The least a death to nature. 

Advice: Laertes vs. Polonius

One of the most interesting things about Hamlet's Act 1, Scene 3 is how the loving brother, Laertes, is pitted against his own father, the fool, Polonius.  Another bit of irony is that they are proven as such through their words of advice.  This status of character proceeds through the entire play.  In regards to Laertes, who is about to go abroad, he has wonderfully bold words of advice (and even of warning) for his sister, Ophelia.  These words of advice center upon Hamlet's possible love for her.  Laertes, always the good big brother, doesn't want Ophelia to concentrate on Hamlet's advances and love.  Above all, Laertes reminds Ophelia of the importance of her virtue.  Perhaps his most poignant words of advice center around the fact that "for [Hamlet] himself is subject to his birth."  

Then, literally twelve lines later, Polonius shares his advice for his son.  Polonius is immediately cemented as a fool by instructing Laertes, "Aboard, aboard, for shame!"  Polonius spits cliches, and in so doing, doesn't make a single one seem of any importance.  This conversation serves to initiate Polonius as the fool of the play.  Ironically, some of these cliches become the most memorable allusions to Hamlet found in our modern world, such as "neither a borrower or a lender be" and "This above all, to thine own self be true."  Unfortunately, if you read between the lines of Polonius's own words of advice, you find nothing more than copied aphorisms.  True wisdom is found elsewhere.

A Common Allusion: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

When a reader hears words in other works of literature that echo the words of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the reader is hearing an allusion to Hamlet.  One should find it quite ironic that two of the most quoted lines from Hamlet are actually words of the fool, Polonius, yet are often quoted as elements of wisdom.  Still, let's take them on their own and separate them from their foolish speaker.  In Polonius's words of advice to his son, Laertes, before he travels abroad by boat, Polonius advises, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."  The gist of the advice is there, but one can get more out of it if one includes the next couple of lines:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be, / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.

Put simply, Polonius is instructing Laertes not to borrow or lend money.  Couple the allusion with the following lines, and the reader can see that if Laertes (or anyone) were not to take this advice, not only would the money be lost but also the friend who took out the loan (or did the borrowing).  In the last part of this idea quoted above, Polonius admits that saving your money and being a frugal person almost never involves borrowing more of said money.

A Common Allusion: "To Thine Own Self Be True"

Again, an allusion is an indirect reference to a work of literature.  A very common allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet is found in the common truism: "This above all:  to thine own self be true."  Ironically, this little bit of wisdom is actually spoken by Polonius, the fool of the play.  Nonetheless, these words have something important to impart.  These words are a departure from the silly explanation of proper etiquette given in the first half of Polonius's long speech.  Just as in the first common allusion from Polonius, this second one can be seen with greater clarity if the full three lines are read:

This above all:  to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man (Act I, Scene 3, lines 77-79).

Put simply, if you are true to yourself and who you really are, just as the sun always rises each morning, then there is no way you will be a liar to anyone you meet.  You will always project truth because it will emanate from your very being.

A bit of irony here is that immediately after Polonius instructs his son to be true to himself, he instructs his daughter otherwise.  Ophelia spends her first words of this play trying to show her dad how Hamlet is quite an honorable potential husband by saying that "he hath, my lord, of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me. . . He hath importuned me with love / In honorable fashion."  Polonius immediately causes Ophelia to doubt herself, "Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?"  Ophelia reneges and promises to "obey" her dad in not receiving Hamlet's advances.  So much for being true to oneself.  According to Polonius, I suppose that should only apply to sons and not to daughters or when what the parent.

Just to end on a humorous note here.  The reason why even this piece of wisdom can seem to cement Polonius as the fool of the play is because, just as Polonius is instructing his own son to be true to himself, Polonius rarely has clarity about anything at all.  In fact, most often he can be seen vacillating between one thought and another or, in his most famous death scene, actually hiding in order to gain more information.  For someone doling out the wisdom of "to thine own self be true," Polonius certainly spends all the rest of his time questioning and doubting everyone else.  Polonius cannot take his own simple, yet important, advice.

An Unusual Theme: Supernatural Honesty in Question

Although rarely discussed throughout the discussion of Shakespeare's Hamlet, this scene introduces a very interesting topic and, in fact, one that is interwoven throughout the entire five acts of the play.  The question:  Is the ghost honest?  Keep in mind the intense Roman Catholicism of the time and the teaching that any strange form (such as the ghost who is presumed to be Hamlet's dead father) is often explained as some unsettled soul from Purgatory.  Purgatory, if the reader is unfamiliar with the teaching, is the place where souls not fully in the state of Grace must go to be "purged" or purified before they are able to enter heaven and experience the Beatific Vision of God.  Roman Catholics are also quite familiar with the antithesis of the holy:  the demonic.  It is the demonic side of things that suggests the ghost is a demon meant to lead Hamlet down the wrong path, a path that will ensure his bodily (and spiritual?) demise. Hamlet invokes the former Church teaching when he says that it might very well be "a spirit of good health," in other words one from Purgatory that has a job to do before entering heaven.  Interestingly enough, Hamlet invokes the latter Church teaching when he says that the ghost just might be a "goblin damn'd," meaning a demon sent from hell in order to lead him astray.  At this point in the play, readers remain unsure as to the nature and the honesty of this ghost.  However, take note of the following things that are very interesting:

  1. The ghost only appears at night (and on gloomy nights, at that).  
  2. The ghost "beckons [Hamlet] to go away with it. . . alone."  None of Hamlet's confidants are allowed to accompany him.  Does this mean the ghost has something to hide?  
  3. Hamlet's friends (who we already know are honest) urge Hamlet both emotionally and physically not to go with the ghost.  Horatio is so adamant that he physically retrains Hamlet saying, "Be ruled. You shall not go."
  4. As Hamlet leaves with the ghost, one of the most prominent quotes taken from the play is used by Marcellus:  "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Truly, this is not the first time the reader must visit this idea of the question, "Is the ghost honest?" One must read the ghost's actual words and directive to Hamlet in order to decide further.  This, of course, comes in later scenes of Shakespeare's play.

A Common Allusion: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

An allusion is when an author makes an indirect literary reference to another literary work.  The reason why the literary reference is "indirect" is because neither the work nor the author is mentioned by name.  What follows is one of the most common allusions to Shakespeare's play, Hamlet.  It can most likely be found in some form within all genres of literature of all time periods after the play was written.  The speaker?  One of Hamlet's cronies, Marcellus.  The reasoning behind the line:  Marcellus sees Hamlet go away with a questionable, ghostly figure (in this case in the guise of Hamlet's dead father). The line:  "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."  This particular line is often alluded to when there is something questionable about a person's character or actions.  How can this relate to theme?  Well, in the case of Hamlet, it relates to an unusual theme of the ghost's honesty.  Is this ghost from heaven or hell?  Marcellus obviously thinks it's from hell.  The Roman Catholics of Denmark of the time would have believed in the possibility of a spirit being from Purgatory (the place souls had to go to be purified before entering heaven) or directly from hell as a demon. There is no doubt that Marcellus (as Hamlet's friend and confidant) is of the latter opinion.

Introduction of Hamlet as a Revenge Play

Shakespeare's Hamlet is considered a "revenge play."  It is during this scene that this theme of revenge first becomes evident due to the ghost's request of Hamlet. Quite specifically, the ghost asks Hamlet to "revenge his foul and most unnatural murder."  The ghost, of course, indicates who the murderer is:  "But know, thou noble youth, / the serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown." [Here we should also note that the ghost certainly does not extend this revenge to Hamlet's mother, the queen.   We know this because the ghost warns in his monologue:  "But howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her."  As the ghost admits, Queen Gertrude will beat herself up enough with guilt.]  How does this introduction as a revenge play compare with others of its time?  Well, as was important to all Elizabethans, the divine order of things must (above all else) be preserved.  In this case (as in may other revenge plays), a corruption of this order appears in the killing of a king.  The order must be set right through revenge.  Hamlet, then, fits quite nicely within the revenge play genre.  

A Common Allusion: "O villain, villain, smiling, damned villian! / ... / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

Although one of the lesser-used allusions to Shakespeare's Hamlet, this quote also needs to go on the list of indirect references found in other works of literature.  After the ghost appears to Hamlet and reveals his father's murder, Hamlet becomes even further disgusted by the actions of his mother, Gertrude the Queen.  Even though the ghost instructs Hamlet to leave his mother "to heaven" by letting her create her own downfall through her own guilty conscience, Hamlet is obviously overwhelmed here by negative feelings towards his mom.

Another Unusual Theme Introduced: Mental Illness

One cannot overestimate the importance of Hamlet's promise "to put an antic disposition on."  Not only does he promise this, but he says that he will do so "perchance hereafter."  What does this mean?  Quite simply, Hamlet's plan is to act crazy for the duration of the play.  Why?  At this point, Hamlet wants to test the different characters and family members to figure out whether the ghost's words are true.  (However, could this really just be his very first delay in action?  We will deal with that in a later insight.)  The serious question for most scholars becomes one of appearance vs. reality:  Is Hamlet simply appearing crazy, or is he really crazy?  If the answer is the latter (or even if it's not), the theme of mental illness is present here.  It will not be the last time we see it in this play.

A Common Theme Introduced: Hamlet's Inability to Act

When discussing the "tragic flaw" first taught by Aristotle, scholars love to fight about what Hamlet's tragic flaw might be.  Perhaps the most common possible tragic flaw mentioned and easily proved through the text is the flaw of inaction, or Hamlet's inability to act.  Scholars who point to this as Hamlet's flaw deem Hamlet to be the top procrastinator of his time.  Scholars who don't agree that inaction is Hamlet's tragic flaw must admit that Hamlet's inability to act is at the very least an important theme of Shakespeare's work. The reader doesn't even get out of Act I before this theme is being presented.  The ghost has just demanded revenge by way of Hamlet planning his uncle's murder, and Hamlet delays the action first by "testing" all of the characters by putting "an antic disposition on."  Instead of acting, Hamlet simply pretends to act crazy.  Procrastination at its finest.  Hamlet furthers the theme just a few lines later by saying, "The time is out of joint.  O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right."  In this very common allusion to the play, Hamlet admits that he does not want to take revenge at all.  He admits that even "time" is not on his side.  He does not want to set the divine order right again.  He considers it "spite" for him to have to do so.

"An Antic Dispositon": More Appearance vs. Reality

It is really important to revisit this common theme here.  Hamlet, himself, participates in this theme when he says, "As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on."  What does this mean?  Hamlet is going to pretend to act crazy for the rest of the play.  How does he plan to do this?  Sometimes, says Hamlet, it will be through his appearance through "arms encumb'red thus, or this headshake."  Sometimes, says Hamlet, it will be because he speaks irrationally "by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase."  Now, why is this appearance vs. reality?  Well, according to Hamlet, he will "appear" crazy, but he will be sane in "reality."  That is one way to look at it.  However, there is another interpretation that should be considered.  Does Hamlet simply appear crazy, or might he actually be crazy?  Does the method of acting crazy for days and days (months?) suddenly make mental illness a reality?  When something appears real, does that make it real in its reality?  Is Hamlet crazy now, or does he become crazy throughout his act?  Is it possible that Hamlet never becomes crazy and always remains sane?  Such is the fodder for scholar fits and fights.

A Common Allusion: "O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right."

Although a lesser-known allusion to Hamlet in later works of literature, "O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right" still deserves mentioning. Directly after Hamlet decides to act crazy, or to put "an antic disposition on," he also complains about having to do any of this crazy mess at all.  Hamlet considers it spiteful that he was chosen by the ghost to revenge his father's murder.  It is Hamlet that must set it right because no one else is willing to do so.  Hamlet is not happy about having to do this.  The real question is, why?  When is this allusion to Hamlet used?  Well, any time a character complains about doing something that truly should be done or complains about something that they are not sure should truly be done, an amalgamation of this quotation or idea can be used.

The Naivete of Ophelia Revealed

After establishing that Ophelia's father, Polonius, is truly the fool of the play, the reader is forced to shake his or her head at poor Ophelia, who takes her addled father's advice without question.  Not only does she obey, but she reports her obedience when she says:  "I did repel his letters and denied / His access to me."  Further, she reports Hamlet's actions.  Without having seen Hamlet again (after promising to put an "antic disposition on," we learn here that Hamlet is succeeding in his quest (or is already quite crazy).  The naive Ophelia is confused, of course, and reports Hamlet's delirium to her dad.  (Can this be considered action on the part of Hamlet?  Perhaps.)  Ophelia shows complete trust here as she reveals all of Hamlet's actions.  Ophelia was doing her daily sewing when Hamlet appeared with “his doublet all unbraced; / No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled, / Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle / ... his knees knocking each other" and with a "piteous look" as if he had just come "from hell."  When Polonius asks what Hamlet said to her, Ophelia reports that Hamlet "took me by the wrist and held me hard," shook her arm, "raised a sign so piteous and profound," and then let her go.  How do we know that Hamlet's play of "antic disposition" (or perhaps true mental illness) is working?  Polonius says Ophelia's denial of Hamlet "hath made him mad."  Polonius does reveal that Hamlet must be in love with Ophelia (and not just teasing her) in order to cause this madness.  One should wonder what Ophelia thinks here.  She says nothing more.  However, considering her naivete, she most likely believes her father about Hamlet's love.  She also must agree with her father that King Claudius should be told of Hamlet's behavior.  Therefore, (and some scholars could disagree), through her naivete, Ophelia can be accused of indirect betrayal of Hamlet's affections.

A Common Allusion: "Brevity is the soul of wit"

Although not the most-used allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet, it is important to note this fairly common indirect reference to the play.  Again, the irony is that this truism is spoken by the fool, Polonius.  Here we see Polonius speaking to Queen Gertrude and, in the middle of a long, drawn-out speech, Polonius reveals the truth that "brevity is the soul of wit." In other words, the smaller amount of words that one needs to use to say something should signify how smart that person is.  Again, the irony is that Polonius is neither brief nor wise. How can we tell as readers?  Note how Polonius swears to use no "art" and then rambles about Hamlet's apparent madness, "'tis true: 'tis pity, / And pity 'tis 'tis true -- a foolish figure."

Another Common Allusion: "More matter, with less art"

Writers often provide an indirect reference (an allusion) to Hamlet by using this line spoken by Queen Gertrude to the fool, Polonius:  "More matter, with less art."  This, of course, follows nicely after the previous insight about Polonius promising that "brevity is the soul of wit" and then failing miserably at that very same brevity and wit.  Polonius rambles and rambles about how he will describe Hamlet's actions and prove him to be mad.  Gertrude, rightly, is immediately frustrated when she says this one simple line.  How is she instructing Polonius?  She wants him to stop rambling, get to the point, and stop using superfluous words.  Polonius proves himself the fool once again by saying again and again that he will heed her advice and "use no art at all."  As a result, Polonius fails miserably at taking both his own advice ("brevity is the soul of wit") and the queen's ("more matter with less art").

Hamlet Plays Polonius All Too Well

Although in the summary above, eNotes properly reports that, "Polonius and Hamlet have a brief conversation full of non sequiturs and punned insults, which confirms Polonius’ opinion regarding the prince’s madness" and that the conversation is full of "vulgar innuendos," this does not suffice in demonstrating Hamlet's avid skill of discourse present in this scene.  Hamlet fully succeeds in both (1) putting "an antic disposition on" in seeming crazy in front of Polonius and (2) proving Polonius to be the fool as a result. From Hamlet insisting that Polonius is "a fishmonger" to his revelation of his reading about "slanders," Hamlet proves once again to be the smarts of the royal family of Denmark.  Even Polonius, once taken, acts more confused than ever until he gets an inkling of being taken advantage of by saying, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (This is discussed in full during the next eNotes Insight.) Of course, the renditions of this scene are as various and sundry as the number of times Hamlet has been portrayed on the stage and screen.

Another Common Allusion: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't"

The number of truisms from Polonius that make their way into modern literature and art cannot be understated.  It is such an irony, mostly because Polonius is definitely the fool of Shakespeare's play.  In this case, there are many indirect references, or allusions, to Shakespeare's Hamlet through the following line:  "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."  This, of course, comes from the scene where Hamlet successfully "plays" Polonius as the fool by making many vulgar jokes.  Near the end of the conversation between Hamlet and Polonius, Polonius finally gets a clue that he is being made a fool of, at which point Polonius says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."  This line is also the most often misquoted or otherwise jumbled of any common allusion to Hamlet.  Often, readers might hear something like, "there is a method to my madness."  This can mean there is a difference between the appearance of disorder and the reality of order.  This line (and, thus, this allusion) nicely connects to the appearance vs. reality theme.

A Final Common Allusion: "What a piece of work is a man"

There is another indirect reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet both in works of literature and in common language from the following line spoken by Hamlet himself:  "What a piece of work is a man."  The context of this line is the conversation between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sent by Claudius to spy on Hamlet.  Hamlet, being the intelligent wit that he is, knows they are spying.  Hamlet plays with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Scholars (and directors) seem to disagree with how this line (and in fact entire speech) should be played.  Most of the time, this line is spoken as truth and as human nature as the work of God, with the human being truly worthy of praise and admiration.  Sometimes, though, this speech is meant to mock Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with Hamlet using a sarcastic tone to indicate irony.  Again, in this way, this line can serve to augment the appearance vs. reality theme.  If one takes this particular interpretation, idiots who spy for their superiors (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) are certainly not worthy of praise and pieces "of work" created by God, nor are they "infinite in faculties" in that they have both little wit and little intelligence.  It is ironic to note that if someone today refers to someone else as a "piece of work," it is generally not meant as a compliment.  Even if the person has no knowledge of Hamlet, he or she is using an allusion (or an indirect reference) to Shakespeare's very famous play.

Hamlet Names His Own Flaw?

Pay attention to a particular line in the monologue spoken by Hamlet at the very end of this scene:  "I am pigeon-livered and lack gall."  Those who believe Hamlet's flaw is inaction point to this line as Hamlet naming his own flaw, owning his own flaw, and yet being unable to correct his own flaw.  Ironically, Hamlet has just set an ingenious trap (worthy of a noble character of high intelligence) at asking the players to perform the play The Murder of Gonzago.  As a first-time reader, one may not know of the plot.  As readers, we find out later that the play is about the murder of a king in order to gain the queen.  Hamlet, knowing his uncle will be closely observing this play, has set a trap for Claudius in order to "prove" Claudius is the killer, as the ghost has named him to be.  After concocting this plan, however, Hamlet becomes disgusted with himself (for quite a few lines, actually).  It is then that he names his possible flaw of inaction.

Common Allusions: "To Be, or Not to Be"

An allusion, of course, is an indirect reference to a famous work of literature in yet another work of literature or work of art.  As allusions go, Hamlet's first line in this particular soliloquy ("To be, or not to be") is very likely the line most alluded to in all of literature and film.  This indirect reference to "being" or simply "existing" is also possibly the most famous one-liner of all time.  It is a contemplation of suicide.  It is a reflection upon the importance of life itself.  It is melancholic wisdom in a nutshell.  If we look at this line a little more closely, we see what most scholars readily admit: Hamlet is deeply pondering the benefits and the drawbacks of simply "existing" in this world.  To put it more bluntly, Hamlet is considering suicide.  This idea hinges on the verb "to be" being defined as "to exist."  The rest of Hamlet's soliloquy is the character's melancholic reasoning for that suicide (which he never attempts).  Further, it is important to note that the entire soliloquy (which encompasses forty lines or so) is often alluded to in other works of literature.  In fact, even though the most common allusions will be mentioned here, please realize that, depending on where one decides to begin or end the allusion, there are infinite possibilities.  For example, another common indirect reference in other works of literature or art is to speak of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."  (There is even a movie from the 1980s called Outrageous Fortune, a direct allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet.)  Yet another common allusion in modern literature comes from the following line:  "To die, to sleep-- / To sleep--perchance to dream."  This line makes a direct comparison of the death of the mortal body to the act of sleeping.  It also suggests a direct comparison of the afterlife that a person experiences after death to a dream that a person experiences during sleep.  Another allusion that should be mentioned is "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."  In this line, Hamlet is admitting that, due to fear of hell or due to consequences in the afterlife, he becomes a "coward" in that he can't actually take his own life.  Further, he subjects all of us to that idea.  (Some scholars think the irony in that idea is that even though Hamlet remains a coward in not being able to commit the act of suicide, it is Ophelia who is the brave one by doing so.)

Common (and Not so Common) Analysis of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" Soliloquy

One would be amiss to conclude the analysis of Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet without including a short discussion of the analysis of Hamlet's long soliloquy, beginning with the famous line, "To be, or not to be."  A soliloquy is a long speech a character gives in a drama that is spoken alone (and only for the benefit of the audience to hear the character's thoughts).  Soliloquies are very common within the works of Shakespeare.  In this important existential and metaphysical soliloquy, most scholars agree that Hamlet is thinking about the pros and cons of simply "existing."  To talk about the verb "to be" is to talk about the ability of someone "to exist."  If the reader takes the second part of the line ("or not to be"), then this leads that reader (and most scholars) to agree that if Hamlet is contemplating his right not to exist, he is actually contemplating suicide.  The rest of the soliloquy is Hamlet's reasoning for contemplating said act of suicide.  This world only provides Hamlet (and people in general) with pain and sorrow.  Hamlet concludes that even though ending this sorrowful life is "devoutly to be wished," what makes Hamlet stop considering suicide is what might happen to him in the afterlife.  In other words, if death is "sleep," then what happens in the afterlife to the soul is the "dream."  This, of course, stems from the Roman Catholic belief that a person who commits the sin of suicide cannot go to heaven because he or she has thwarted God's greatest gift of all: the gift of life. Note these lines: "The undiscovered country. . . makes us rather bear those ills we have. / Than fly to others that we know not of? / Thus conscience does make cowards of us all."  In other words, that "undiscovered country" of the afterlife makes us stay here in our mortal bodies and not kill ourselves because it is fear of the unknown (especially the horrors of hell) that is so scary.  In this way, our consciences make us cowards in that we can't take our own lives out of fear.  In short, this soliloquy nicely corresponds with Hamlet's possible tragic flaws of both inaction and melancholy.  Both ideas are truly present here in light of this most common interpretation (of Hamlet contemplating suicide).  Why melancholy?  In the realm of existential thought, Hamlet spends forty lines or so contemplating so grim of an idea as ending his own life.  Not many things can be more melancholy than that.  Why inaction?  Although he contemplates suicide, Hamlet never attempts suicide.  In other words, Hamlet never "acts" by committing suicide.  This nicely leads into a more rare interpretation of this soliloquy (however, one that does indeed merit mentioning).  Some scholars believe this soliloquy has been erroneously misplaced by later editors of Shakespeare's play.  As a result, these scholars believe this soliloquy of Hamlet's belongs closer to his scheme of using The Murder of Gonzago as a "mousetrap."  In this regard, scholars think this is not a contemplation of suicide at all, but rather a speech about the troubles of turning thought into action.  (As evidence, these scholars point out that Hamlet never directly refers to himself and that Hamlet suspects an audience so he specifically keeps his wording mysterious, with Hamlet mostly thinking about which is more "noble," thought or action.  Although not widely accepted, this interpretation is interesting in and of itself.  It is also important to note the usual interpretation of the end of this soliloquy, which "works" in light of both of the above interpretations.  Around line 84 in this soliloquy, there is a shift in Hamlet's thought.  Before that point, Hamlet is expressing that he is unable to act on suicide due to the fear of the unknown of the afterlife.  After that point, Hamlet is expressing that he is unable to act in avenging his father due to his fear of the unknown compiled from his own melancholic thoughts.

Tragic Flaw in a Nutshell: Melancholy vs. Inaction

If the audience is trying to figure out Hamlet's tragic flaw from his "To be, or not to be" speech, they need to look no further than lines 85-88.  Note the following words:

Thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, / And enterprises of great pitch and  moment, / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action.

Proof for either tragic flaw (melancholy or inaction) can be found within these lines.  The proof for the tragic flaw of melancholy can be found in the quotation about "the native hue of resolution" that is being "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."  In other words, it doesn't matter whether the scholar believes Hamlet is contemplating suicide or avenging his father because Hamlet is not able to do so due to his melancholic thoughts, sad musings, contemplation of wisdom in this arena, and simply the ideas in his head.  If the reader is looking for proof of the flaw of inaction (or Hamlet's inability to act), one needs only point to the words "With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action."  Again, it doesn't matter in the slightest whether the reader thinks Hamlet is contemplating ending his own life or killing Claudius in order to avenge Hamlet's own dad; Hamlet can't commit murder no matter what.  He is unable to act, period.  The reasoning matters not.  The question of "why" is not important.  The flaw is not in the asking of "why," but in the fact that Hamlet is not able to act.

Summation of Vulgar Innuendo from Hamlet

In keeping with Hamlet's vow to put "an antic disposition on" and act crazy (or perhaps in actually becoming insane in reality), Hamlet spends the latter half of this scene yelling at Ophelia with words full of double meaning.  As a result, the latter half of Act III, Scene 1, is a perfect summation of Hamlet's intelligence in regards to language and wording.  I will look at the specific dual meanings of three words:  "honest," "fair," and "nunnery."  First, look at the following lines:

Hamlet. Ha, ha! Are you honest?

Ophelia. My lord?

Hamlet. Are you fair?

Ophelia. What means your lordship?

Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.

The two words "honest" and "fair" have a definite double meaning.  Of course, one must look at their literal meaning first.  Hamlet's less vulgar insinuation is in asking Ophelia if she is truthful ("honest").  In regards to the second word, Hamlet's less vulgar insinuation is in asking Ophelia if she is either beautiful or weighing her thoughts equally (in other words, the two general denotations of the word "fair").  In both instances, it is the secondary and hidden meaning that puts Hamlet's speech over the line of vulgar innuendo.  Why?  Because asking Ophelia if she is "honest" and "fair" can be taken as asking Ophelia if she is chaste.  In other words, Hamlet is asking Ophelia if she is a virgin.  To put it more bluntly, Hamlet is insinuating that Ophelia is, in fact, not a virgin.  Therefore, due to her disgusting lack of integrity, he is no longer obligated to woo her.  Ophelia, to complete her naivete, is unsure about what Hamlet means.  Finally, let's take the word "nunnery" and analyze it for its obvious and hidden meanings.  A nunnery is another word for a convent.  (A convent, if the reader is unfamiliar, is a place where Roman Catholic nuns both reside and live their entire lives in service to Christ.)  Hamlet's obvious meaning here is to tell Ophelia to go ahead and become a nun, because neither he nor any other man will ask for her hand in marriage.  To take the hidden or more vulgar meaning, Hamlet yelling, "Get thee to a nunnery!" is a reference to the very kind of girls who are sent to convents.  Are some of them young, fair, and virtuous?  Of course.  Many of the girls sent to convents during this time period were the girls who were wonton and shamed their families.  Thus, by committing Ophelia to a nunnery, Hamlet is making the insinuation (similar to the dual meaning of "honest" and "fair") that she has shamed her family with pre-marital sexual behavior.

Hamlet's Love for Ophelia: "An Antic Disposition" or Insanity?

It behooves us to delve a bit deeper into the screaming match between Hamlet and Ophelia near the end of Act III, Scene 1 because the word "love" is used in such explosive terms.  Hamlet can be seen to use love as an actual weapon here against Ophelia (whether or not we believe Hamlet truly did show love toward Ophelia in the past, or whether it was her own delusion).  Ophelia has admitted in the past that Hamlet did give her "many tenders of affection" and now admits that she thought Hamlet was in love with her because she says, "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so."  Due to the naivete of Ophelia (that has already been proved), the reader cannot help but believe her.  Now, knowing this, remember that Hamlet has vowed to "put an antic disposition on." How could Hamlet be doing this in these lines?  How does Hamlet look crazy here?  In line 115, Hamlet proclaims, "I did love you once," but in line 119, Hamlet proclaims, "I loved you not."  Now, is Hamlet doing a good job at acting crazy by proclaiming one thing and then proclaiming the polar opposite, or has Hamlet actually gone insane? It is up to the audience (and in some cases the director) to decide.  Keep this in mind, though: Hamlet's reasoning for acting crazy was to figure out whether Claudius actually killed Hamlet's father and, if so, to avenge his death.  One has to wonder what Ophelia has to do with this.  Yes, Hamlet knows that Ophelia has agreed to follow her father's advice and not pursue a relationship with Hamlet anymore.  Hamlet knows that Ophelia is, by obeying her father, kind of "spying" on him (and in the worst case scenario, betraying him).  Does messing with this young girl's emotions bring Hamlet any closer to killing Claudius and avenging dad's death?  If not, would this screaming match prove Hamlet to be insane?  Let's examine one more admission by Hamlet before deciding.  Later in the screaming match, Hamlet says the following:

God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. . . Go to, I'll no more on't; it hath made me mad.

Is Hamlet simply calling Ophelia "two-faced"?  In other words, is she acting one way to her father and another to Hamlet himself?  Did this realization make Hamlet angry, or is Hamlet admitting his own insanity that, because of Ophelia's behavior, Hamlet has gone "mad"?  There is no right or wrong answer here.  Either point can be proven.  Scholars continue to disagree.  One thing is for sure, however: this part of the text lends itself very well to the theme of appearance vs. reality.

The Mousetrap: Proof of Claudius' Guilt and an "Honest" Ghost

If the reader had any doubt of Claudius's role in the murder of Hamlet's father and plan to marry Hamlet's mother, there should no longer be any question due to the effects of The Murder of Gonzago, which Hamlet deftly gives a secondary name of The Mousetrap.  The play-within-a-play clearly shows the original king and queen in love, the conspiring murderer poisoning that king, and the murderer then taking possession of both the crown and the queen.  Note the exact lines from the text: 

Ophelia. The King rises. 

Hamlet. What, frighted with false fire? 

Queen. How fares my lord?

Polonius. Give o'er the play.

King. Give me some light. Away!

This is an example of a time when it is definitely beneficial to be watching the play instead of reading it. Through the jumble of different voices here, the reader needs to ascertain that Claudius is so upset by what he sees on the stage (the mirror of his own actions) that he has to leave the room.  During Hamlet's time, if the king rose and left the room in the middle of a performance due to ill-temper, the performance stopped.  There is no exit without recognition.  Everyone notices when the king leaves.  This scene is no exception.  And it is here, without any shadow of a doubt, that the reader can be sure that Claudius is guilty of his brother's murder, the insidious plan to gain the kingship, and the plan to marry Gertrude (Hamlet's mother).  The question is, does this prove the ghost to be "honest"?  Well, in one regard it does.  Now we know that the ghost is "honest" in the sense that he was telling the truth about past events; however, what remains to be seen is if the ghost actually wants Hamlet's father to be avenged.  You see, perhaps the ghost isn't "honest" at all.  Perhaps what the ghost truly wants is for Hamlet to commit murder, die before forgiveness, and be damned to hell.  Is the ghost committed to setting things right, or for Hamlet to join him in damnation?  The answer to that question is for the reader (and many scholars) to determine.

Claudius's Three (of Seven) Deadly Sins: Envy, Greed, & Lust

After Claudius's reaction at the end of The Murder of Gonzago, the reader should have no doubt that Claudius is guilty of his brother's murder.  Just in case the reader wants further proof, Claudius speaks a monologue on his own, saying, "O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven."  Then he uses exact wording by saying the following:

But, O, what form of prayer / Can serve my turn?  "Forgive me my foul murder"? / That cannot be, since I am still possessed / Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

Claudius actually admits to the murder.  This text goes further in that Claudius actually names his own sins when he says, "My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen."  Claudius's brother (Hamlet's father) had the position of power: the kingship.  Claudius demonstrates envy because he is willing to do anything to get into that position of power.  Then there is the echo of the flaw of Macbeth (who, if you remember, had the tragic flaw of "vaulting ambition") when Claudius names his own ambition for that same power of kingship and, further, his willingness to commit murder in order to achieve it.  If one has an "intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food" that person feels the exact definition of greed.  Due to this intense selfish desire (and apart from the fact that his brother was already in possession of those desires:  the kingship and the queen), Claudius is definitely guilty of greed.  Finally, due to Claudius' additional desire for Gertrude (yet another of the "effects" of the murder), Claudius is also guilty of lust.  Why are these sins of envy, greed, and lust important?  They are three of what the Roman Catholic Church called "the seven deadly sins."  At the time, people were taught that all sins stemmed from these seven as the "origin" of all sin.  In a way, this shows that Claudius is in no way a moral and noble character.  In fact, he is the villain of the play (if you disregard the dishonest ghost theory).

Hamlet and his mother

A combination and a form indeed/ Where every god did seem to set his seal/ To give the world assurance of a man.

Hamlet shows his mother Gertrude miniature portraits of his father and her present husband, Hamlet's uncle Claudius. In describing his father, Hamlet compares him to the gods Hyperion, Jove (Jupiter), Mars, and Mercury, and concludes his eulogy with a marvelous metaphor which could easily be overlooked. The alliteration in the line "Where every god did seem to set his seal" creates the image of a line of gods, each of whom places his royal seal on Hamlet's father as he passes down their line. Each seal, like the seals of human dignitaries, is intended to verify the authenticity of whatever is being stamped with it. It is, in effect, a seal of approval, or a seal of "assurance." The S sound in the word "assurance" acts like an echo of the alliteration of the three S sounds in "seem to set his seal" in the line above it. The whole purpose of the alliterations is to enhance the mental picture of a virtual assembly line of the famous, immortal gods taking turns affixing their seals to a human being to verify his godlike nature and appearance.

Horatio as the First to Challenge the Ghost

Horatio is the one who challenges the ghost to speak, not Hamlet. Not only does Horatio challenge the ghost to speak, but he challenges the ghost to speak multiple times. This is important because there is often a debate among scholars as to whether the ghost is “honest” or not. Horatio, being a very honorable character, can be seen to have a bit of intuition in the first scene when he puts forth these interesting challenges. After the ghost causes Horatio to harrow “in fear and wonder,” it is in line 48 that he first asks the ghost “By heaven I charge thee, speak.” Now, yes, it is Marcellus who begs Horatio to do so with the words, “Speak to it, Horatio.” One imagines a cowardly friend pulling on the arm of a buddy who is more brave. Horatio doesn’t stop there. Line 51 reads, “Stay! Speak, speak. I charge thee, speak.” Then the ghost exits and reenters, and Horatio says again in line 127, “Stay, illusion. . . If thou has any sound or use of voice, speak to me.” Then further, “If there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease and grace to me, speak to me.” By line 135, Horatio is yelling, “O, speak!” In line 139, Horatio says again, “Speak of it. Stay and speak. Stop it, Marcellus.” It is then that the ghost is seen no more. The interesting thing to note there is that Horatio asks the ghost to speak no less than nine times within only 100 lines. What is also interesting is that Horatio calls the ghost an “illusion,” not something of reality. Further, it’s important to note the condition as to which Horatio wants the ghost to speak. Horatio asks the ghost to speak only “if there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease and grace to me.” This is precisely the debate among many scholars. Does the ghost have any desire to do “grace” to good characters like Horatio and Hamlet? Or is the ghost’s main goal to damn characters like Horatio and Hamlet to a fiery hell? This urge from Horatio and the ghost’s refusal to abide that urge could be used as proof of the latter point. The ghost waits to speak in order to confine his talk of revenge only to Hamlet himself. Although Horatio is a good character, perhaps the ghost knows that Horatio will not bend to the whims of murder. It is also possible that the ghost, being the ghost of Hamlet’s father (as opposed to Horatio’s father), wants simply to leave the avenging to his son? The reader is urged to make up his or her own mind. Either case can be proved through quotes from the text.

Hamlet as the Master of Word Play

No one can deny that Hamlet is an intelligent man. One doesn’t have to look but into the second scene of the very first act to see Hamelt saying things like he is “too much in the sun” as a mocking reference to his uncle who has just become his “dad.” The “sun” in this case, is of course, a reference to the king. Just as the sun was the center of their universe, the king was the center of their kingdom. If Hamlet is “too much in the sun,” it means he is disgusted by the influence and actions of this new king who took his father’s crown.

Further on in the same scene, Hamlet has some more word-fun with his uncle, saying that he is “a little more than kin, and less than kind.” Hamlet is totally grossed out by his uncle, Claudius, who now has married Hamlet’s mother (Gertrude) and become Hamlet’s “father.” It is an important allusion because scholars point to the play on the words kin and kind. Both important parts to this allusion rely on the double meanings of something being "natural" and then something being "kind" or even "nice." First, Hamlet is asserting that Claudius is most definitely "more than kin." The meaning here is simple: where Claudius used to be an uncle (distant at best), he is now disgustingly considering himself to be the surrogate father to Hamlet due to his hasty marriage to Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Another cool irony here is that the words “more than kin” usually have a very intimate and even positive connotation. If you are considered “closer than family,” isn’t that usually good? Hamlet, being the master of words that he always is (as well as a master of irony), is being very sarcastic. “More than kin” can also mean that Claudius has crossed the line from the line of “family” over to the line of “enemy.” Now let’s look at the second part of the word play in considering the “Less than kind” words together. The word “kind” (similar to the word “kin”) can also mean “family” because we could also say something like “he is of my own kind.” Hamlet could be saying that Claudius is most certainly “less than kind” because in no way does Hamlet think of Claudius as part of the family, and certainly not as Hamlet’s father or his mother’s husband. To take a more juvenile approach, we could simply take the word “kind” to mean “nice.” Then, Hamlet is literally saying that Claudius was being “less than nice” when he did all of those horrible things.

Of course, another wonderful aspect of word play is Hamlet’s renaming The Murder of Gonzago as The Mousetrap. Claudius is the mouse who will be caught in the trap of the play when he sees the reenactment of Hamlet’s father’s murder played before everyone.

There are also countless bouts of word play between Hamlet and the female characters. First, Gertrude says, “thou hast thy father much offended” and Hamlet counters with the brave, “thou hast my father much offended.” Gertrude is meaning Claudius as the father, while Hamlet means his biological father (who was offended by the marriage of Claudius to Gertrude).

How can we talk about Hamlet’s word play with the ladies if we don’t include dear, confused Ophelia? With Ophelia, Hamlet seems to use his biting wit by voicing words with a dual meaning. Let’s look at the dual meanings of three words: "honest," "fair," and "nunnery." Here is the first example which can be found late in Act 3:

Hamlet. Ha, ha! Are you honest?

Ophelia. My lord?

Hamlet. Are you fair?

Ophelia. What means your lordship?

Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.

The words "honest" and "fair" most definitely have a double meaning here.  Still, we cannot explore the double meaning before evaluating the literal meaning. The literal meaning is, of course, the less vulgar and stressful insinuation. In this regard, Hamlet is simply asking Ophelia if she is being truthful, or in his own words, “honest.” In regards to the second word (“fair”), the less vulgar meaning is asking Ophelia if she is either beautiful or putting equal weight to all of her thoughts. (Both of those things were often used as literal meanings for the word “fair” in Hamlet’s time.) It is, of course, the word play and the double meaning of these words that put Hamlet’s speech to Ophelia into the realm of the vulgar. In asking his dear Ophelia if she is “fair” and/ or “honest,” Hamlet can be seen as asking Ophelia if she is chaste. Hamlet is bluntly asking Ophelia if she is a virgin. Even worse, Hamlet is insinuating that Ophelia is, in fact, not a virgin. Hamlet, then, can be seen to have no obligations to a woman with such a lack of reputation in the community. Poor Ophelia, who is confused and upset by the whole thing, is simply left to her own devices (which don’t serve her well, considering what happens to her in the end). Finally, we have to consider the word “nunnery” if we are going to have any discussion of Hamlet’s word play with Ophelia. Again, here we have to take both the literal and dual meanings into account. In Hamlet’s time, a convent (where nuns reside to live in prayer and peace and silence) could also be called a nunnery. The literal meaning here when Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to “a nunnery” is to become a nun because he won’t have anything to do with her anymore, and certainly will not marry her. There is a more vulgar meaning here, even within the literal word play. At the time this play was written, the really shameful girls were often the ones sent to a convent. By telling Ophelia to go to a convent, Hamlet is insinuating that she is bad. To move the word play even further, because of this truth (that parents would place their less-desirable daughters in convents), the word “nunnery” itself became a synonym for whorehouse.

The First of Hamlet’s Four Possible Tragic Flaws: Inaction

Aristotle teaches that every tragic hero not only has honor but also has a tragic flaw. As the tragic hero of Hamlet by William Shakespeare, what is Hamlet’s tragic flaw? There are four possible tragic flaws often debated by scholars: inaction, melancholy, trust in the ghost, or madness. Every single one of these tragic flaws can be proven using the text. Likewise, every single one of them can be disproven. (Further, and probably much to your chagrin, there are other scholars, such as Bradley for example, who are adamant that Hamlet doesn’t have a tragic flaw.) Still, let’s explore each of them in turn so that, as readers of Hamlet and as examiners of its titular character, we can decide which one of Hamlet’s tragic flaws we can sink our teeth into.

Perhaps the most common tragic flaw pointed to by scholars (and most notably by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) is the tragic flaw of “inaction.” Even if a particular scholar doesn’t think that Hamlet’s flaw is inaction, that scholar must at least admit that inaction is a prominent theme in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As readers, we come upon the first example of inaction in Act I. Hamlet has just learned of his father’s murder by his uncle, Claudius, but instead of avenging his father, Hamlet decides to do a kind of “test” on each of the characters to determine their knowledge. How does he perform this test? By putting an “antic disposition on,” in other words, by acting crazy. How much of this is Hamlet’s noble character and how much of this is procrastination? It is up to the reader (and in some cases, the director) to decide.

Hamlet comments on his possible tragic flaw first by saying, "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right." In other words, Hamlet doesn’t really want to avenge his father at all. Time isn’t even on his side. He doesn’t feel responsible for setting the divine order to rights again. To do so would be “spite” according to Hamlet. Such are the various and sundry reasons for his first delay.

Secondly, most scholars who take Hamlet’s flaw to be inaction point to Hamlet actually naming his own tragic flaw found within one of his monologues. In very few words, Hamlet states, "I am pigeon-livered and lack gall." Not only does Hamlet name and own his own flaw here, but he is unable to correct it. As evidence, even after concocting a very ingenious plan to catch his uncle in the act (by commissioning the players to perform the play within a play called The Murder of Gonzago, which relates the exact replication of the murder of Hamlet’s father), Hamlet simply becomes upset with his own inactive self and gives the flaw a name in the line above.

Third, the reader should look at Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech in act three. Most scholars agree (although there would be some that would argue with me) that this particular monologue is Hamlet’s thoughts to himself about merely existing. In other words, it is Hamlet contemplating suicide. If Hamlet simply contemplates suicide, without carrying it out, it is another example of inaction. (It is probably important to mention here that the scholars who do not think this speech is about contemplation of suicide agree that it is at least about the troubles of turning thought into action and, as such, can still be an example of Hamlet’s inaction.) Later in that soliloquy, Hamlet says the following: “Thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, / And enterprises of great pitch and moment, / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action." Note the perfection of the words “lose the name of inaction.” Hamlet, again an example of inaction within his own words. Hamlet, then, is not able to avenge his father.

As a final example, it is important to look at the scene where Hamlet comes upon Claudius praying for forgiveness. Let’s look at the important lines spoken by Hamlet in order to examine them further: “Now might I do it pat, now “a is a-praying, / And now I’ll do’t. And so goes to heaven, / And so am I revenged. That would be scanned. / A villain kills my father, and for that / I, his sole son, do the same villain send / To heaven.” Again, Hamlet doesn’t act. It is a perfect scene, in private, where the avenging can be done without disturbing anyone else. Why doesn’t Hamlet act? (In reality, the reasoning is unimportant; however, for the sake of argument, let’s speak of it anyway.) Hamlet doesn’t act because he will send Claudius’s soul to heaven if he is in the true state of contrition when he is killed. Hamlet doesn’t want to send his father’s murderer to heaven. Hamlet literally wants Claudius to go to hell. Therefore, because of that desire, Hamlet again doesn’t avenge his father.

Thus, with the use of these examples from Shakespeare’s text, any student or scholar can prove that Hamlet’s flaw is, in fact, inaction. Please see other eNotes insights for Hamlet’s other possible tragic flaws.

The Second of Hamlet’s Four Possible Tragic Flaws: Melancholy

The sage named Aristotle has a lot to say about the qualities of a tragic hero. Among other things, every tragic hero is noble and has a specific tragic flaw. The question to ask ourselves is, according to Aristotle, what would Hamlet’s tragic flaw be? Generally, literary scholars agree that there are four possible tragic flaws that can be blamed on poor Hamlet:   inaction, melancholy, trust in the ghost, or madness. It is hard for a first time reader to believe, but every one of these flaws can be proven using quotes from our text. In the same way, each of them can be proven false. (Even further, there are other literary scholars who insist on Hamlet l=not even having a tragic flaw at all.) We have already explored the possible tragic flaw of inaction, so it is time to delve into the second possible tragic flaw: melancholy. After exploring each of these, you (as a reader) can decide who or what to believe in regards to Hamlet’s tragic flaw.

As already mentioned, we have already delved deep into the tragic flaw of inaction, so now it is time to explore Hamlet’s possible tragic flaw as “melancholy.” Scholars who believe this is Hamlet’s tragic flaw believe that Hamlet “thinks too much” and this “thinking too much” makes Hamlet excessively sad and thoughtful. The scholar with the last name of Ornstein is famous for naming this particular tragic flaw. Just as the long soliloquy that is considered Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech can be considered evidence of inaction, it can also be submitted as evidence of melancholy. Shakespeare loved soliloquies. They are found in every single one of his plays. Many scholars consider Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech as the most important, existential, and metaphysical soliloquy of all time. It is here that Hamlet weighs the major advantages and disadvantages of being alive. Many scholars conclude that Hamlet is contemplating suicide. (I must include here, though, that there are scholars who disagree and think Hamlet is simply contemplating his own lack of action through thought, which may also lend to Hamlet’s tragic flaw of melancholy.) The entire soliloquy is Hamlet giving his reasoning (to himself and the audience) for contemplating that suicide. Hamlet makes the case that this world is full of sorrow and pain. Hamlet further muses that this suicide is actually “devoutly to be wished," but Hamlet stops his suicide because of his fear of the afterlife. If Hamlet considers death “sleep,” then he is worried about what happens in the “dream” for the soul who kills itself. A bit of background on Hamlet’s melancholy here is that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the sin of taking one’s own life is one of the most serious sins and cannot be forgiven, leading the soul directly to hell (except in the case of desperate, immediate, and final forgiveness in the moments before death). A full forty lines of soliloquy are devoted to Hamlet contemplating this grim idea. Can you think of a more melancholic subject? The scholars who believe this soliloquy has been misplaced and that it isn’t about suicide at all but rather about “troubles of turning thought into action” also give a perfect explanation for the tragic flaw of melancholy.

Let’s look at some more specifics from the speech to point to more melancholy. In lines 85-89, “Thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, / And enterprises of great pitch and  moment, / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action." How is this melancholy? Well, Hamlet is convinced that “the native hue of resolution” is being “sicklied ‘o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Some point to the idea that here Hamlet names his flaw when he says “the pale cast of thought.” That is melancholy. Of course, you add the “lose the name of action” idea and you have fodder for the flaw of inaction. Therefore, this quote can be used to prove either flaw. Even if you lean toward the inaction flaw here, you can’t deny that the reason behind his inaction is contemplation of suicide or sad musings on the afterlife or thoughts about esoteric wisdom or the random gyrations of the mind. 

Leaving the contemplation of suicide and looking at Act IV, Scene 4 because here is yet another soliloquy that provides ample evidence for the flaw of melancholy. All one needs to do is look at the precise first lines: "How all occasions do inform against me / and spur my dull revenge!" Although this line can be used (to a lesser extent) to prove the flaw of inaction, what is important here is that what Hamlet is constantly doing is precisely “thinking” about acting, while not actually doing so. Now we have Hamlet again naming his flaw, or at least his condition: "A thought which, quarter'd, has but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward." In other words, Hamlet’s thoughts are mostly cowardice, and only one quarter intelligence.

Here are some more of Hamlet’s words to consider in regards to melancholy: "I do not know / Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do,' / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't." It is a wonder that Hamlet can repeat the exact same thing again and again. Hamlet is revealing (again) how he has the motive to do what he needs to do (avenge his dad). How melancholic. Yet again, saying the same thing in different words: The "tender prince, / Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd, / Makes mouths at the invisible event, Exposing what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death , and danger dare." Now Hamlet is talking about actually having “divine ambition” to do what he needs to do even though it is dangerous. He is standing and talking: idle again.

Let’s look at yet another: "Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake." Here it is honor that is at stake, but again it is Hamlet simply talking about that honor and not acting on it. This particular quote requires a bit more explanation. If “honour’s at the stake” and your dad has his life taken by your uncle, it would be important for the son to kill that uncle out of honor. “Stir” without any delay, and not finding “quarrel in a straw” (even if it’s one of his father’s lands) so that there isn’t anything getting in the way of what needs to be done. As a reader, you will notice that a support is better used for the flaw of melancholy (as opposed to inaction) if Hamlet doesn’t really have an opportunity to act at that moment (such as when Claudius is praying).

How about this example: "How stand I then, / That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, / Excitements of my reason and my blood, / And let all sleep."  Hamlet is basically saying, “Here I stand, again not acting, even though my mom is sinful and my uncle killed my dad and, yet, I let it all go (or ‘sleep’) by not acting.” Another moment when Hamlet doesn’t really have an opportunity to act, but stands deep in thought is in Act IV when he says, after another grand soliloquy, “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” This line is particularly interesting because Hamlet talks about how important it has been, even before this, to get on the ball and avenge his dad, and yet he still stood around talking. In fact, he continues to stand around talking now. Does Hamlet need to clear his conscience yet again before acting? Interesting that he says only his “thoughts” will be bloody. That makes me laugh, actually. Has he been listening to himself talking? His whole point is that honor requires more than just bloody “thoughts.” It requires action.

As a final thought, I would like to assert that almost any of Hamlet’s soliloquies could be use to show the tragic flaw of melancholy. Hamlet is always thinking and talking to himself about those (often sad) thoughts. Therefore, as a researcher of this topic, any soliloquy could be used as support for melancholy as the tragic flaw.

The Third of Hamlet’s Four Possible Tragic Flaws: Trust in the Ghost

The person who originally coined the phrase “tragic flaw” was Aristotle. A tragic flaw is, of course, a quality of the tragic hero. Not only does said hero have to be noble of character, but also possess this special flaw that will bring about his or her downfall. There is a scholarly debate about Hamlet's tragic flaw. Most scholars agree that Hamlet has one of four tragic flaws (and each reader can decide for himself/ herself which flaw is appropriate according to the evidence). Since inaction and melancholy have already been discussed here, it is time to approach the flaw of trusting the ghost. Please note as well that there are still some scholars who believe Hamlet is so noble that he doesn’t have a tragic flaw. 

Before discussing this topic, it’s important to realize the Roman Catholic teaching about ghosts that would have been prevalent in Hamlet’s time. During Hamlet’s time, the Roman Catholic Church taught that any kind of specter or ghost could be one of two things:

  1. A soul that wasn’t quite able to make it to heaven due to past sin and is therefore unsettled enough to roam the earth with a mission until achieving the “State of Grace” possible for the Beatific Vision. This kind of soul, then, needs to be “purged” of former sins and is spending this strange time on earth as its Purgatory.
  2. A demon that has no desire for the good of humanity and whose sole purpose is damning souls to hell. In regards to the first idea, Hamlet does admit at one point that this strange ghost might be in fact “a spirit of good health.” It isn’t long after that that Hamlet admits the ghost could also very well be “a goblin damn’d,” therefore admitting the second possibility.

Within the very first act of Hamlet, there are six things that need to be considered:

  • The ghost of Hamlet’s dad only appears on gloomy nights.
  • The ghost of Hamlet’s dad “beckons [Hamlet] to go away with it. . . alone.”
  • Hamlet’s cronies (who have the reputation of being honest) ask Hamlet not to go with the ghost.
  • The ghost of Hamlet’s dad inspires a very famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
  • The ghost of Hamlet’s dad insists that Hamlet (and all of his friends) swear to tell no one else what they have seen or heard. This hides the evidence.
  • The stage directions (especially that of the word “beneath”) seem to incriminate the ghost.

To assume that Hamlet’s trust in the ghost is, in fact, his tragic flaw is to believe precisely in the second Roman Catholic teaching mentioned above: that the ghost is demonic and wants to damn Hamlet to hell. All of the examples above point to that theory. While most are self-explanatory, the fifth and sixth examples need some evidence attached. Hamlet has already revealed a few things to his friends and then asks them to “Never make known what you have seen tonight." All of Hamlet’s friends are in the middle of promising him not to tell when everyone hears the ghost chime in with the word “swear” three times. In regards to the last example, we must note the stage directions. When the ghost first asks Hamlet and all his friends to swear, the stage directions are non-existent: "Ghost. Swear." The next time, the stage directions become more specific: "Ghost. [Beneath] Swear."  The final time, the stage directions damn the ghost as well as give more specific direction: "Ghost. [Beneath] Swear by his sword." It’s the word "[Beneath]" that should perplex the reader. Does Shakespeare mean that spirits are simply meant to be unseen? Or could this mean that instead of being from “above” in heaven, this ghost is really from “below” in hell?

As a final thought, let’s also consider Hamlet's death at the end of the play. No more honorable Hamlet to lead Denmark in his uncle’s absence. Does this prove the ghost to be dishonest? Because we don’t know whether Hamlet is destined for heaven or hell, does this leave the final decision up in the air? Because the ghost is “correct” in that Claudius did, in fact, order Hamlet’s father’s murder, does that fact make the ghost honest in itself? It is up to the reader to decide.

The Last of Hamlet’s Four Possible Tragic Flaws: Insanity

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had something very interesting to say about the tragic hero. In fact, Aristotle is responsible for the first idea that the tragic hero does, indeed, have a flaw. It is this flaw that condemns the hero of any true tragedy. As has been previously indicated, there are four possible flaws attributed to Shakespeare’s character of Hamlet: inaction, melancholy, trust in the ghost, or madness. It surprises students to hear that all of them can, in fact, be proven using quotes from the text. Further, it’s also possible to assert that Hamlet doesn’t even have a tragic flaw. (The scholar Bradley, for example, thinks this.) Regardless, we have been delving deep into these possible tragic flaws in these eNotes insights; therefore, it’s time to explore the very last possibility: that Hamlet is actually insane.

Hamlet himself does commit to the idea of putting an “antic disposition on.” Even so, could Hamlet be so good at doing so that he actually goes crazy in the process? This theory can, in fact, be proven with evidence from the text. Before we explore examples, also realize the reasoning behind Hamlet’s actions. Hamlet is supposed to be trying to figure out if Claudius really did kill Hamlet’s father. When examining whether Hamlet is truly crazy, that reasoning needs to be considered for each example from the text.

For the first instance, look at the words that Hamlet screams at Ophelia in act three. Specifically, let’s look at the word “love.” Hamlet’s words are explosive, using love as a weapon against Ophelia. Quite simply, in line 115 Hamlet screams, "I did love you once" and only a few lines later Hamlet yells, "I loved you not."  These two lines are the exact antithesis of each other. Is Hamlet doing a wonderful job with his “antic disposition” or has he gone insane? Considering the actual reason why Hamlet decided to act crazy, does this conversation help his cause? (It doesn’t.) Is it enough that Hamlet suspects Ophelia is spying for Claudius? Does this conversation actually bring Hamlet any closer to avenging his father?

Now let’s look at something else Hamlet admits during this conversation: “Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.” Is Hamlet admitting his anger here, or is he admitting his own tragic flaw that, in the act of acting crazy, he has actually gone insane? Could the spurned love of a woman (for whatever reason) make a man go insane? Did this happen to Hamlet? That line could be evidence of that.

Further, there is no doubt that Hamlet sees the ghost, but Gertrude can’t. How do we know this? The ghost enters (according to the stage directions) and Hamlet says “What would your gracious figure?” Gertrude immediately exclaims, “Alas, he’s mad.” Futher, Hamlet becomes even more distraught, asking if Gertrude sees the ghost. Gertrude is confused and says, “Wheron do you look?” And Hamlet replies, “On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!” Gertrude doesn’t see the ghost and says, “To whom do you speak this?” If one person sees a ghost or a demon while another person does not see it, does that make the former person crazy? How about this: what if someone sees something that isn’t there in reality? Could that be the definition of insanity?

Let’s look at some more evidence. How about when Hamlet says outright, “the king is a thing.” Annotators are notorious for talking about what Hamlet “probably” meant here (most of the time they think it refers to Hamlet’s father not inhabiting his body any longer). What if Hamlet has really gone crazy and is now thinking of Claudius (or as Hamlet’s own father) as an immobile object? That could certainly be interpreted as insanity.

Finally, in addition to the conversation with Ophelia where Hamlet declares himself “mad,” Hamlet names his own tragic flaw again in Act V: “Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it, then? His madness.” There are two pieces of evidence here. The lesser bit of evidence is that Hamlet refers to himself in the third person not once, but three times. The larger bit of evidence is that Hamlet actually blames “his madness” as the reason for his inaction.

Although Hamlet’s intelligence throughout the play can be used as opposition, the former pieces of evidence could also be used to prove Hamlet insane.

Laertes, the Wise Brother

In Act I, Scene 3, Laertes, shown as the wise older brother, is pitted against Polonius, his own father. This is proven through their words of advice to Ophelia. This status of Laertes’s wisdom (and Polonius’s lack thereof) continues throughout the play. Laertes is about to leave the country for school and offers Ophelia, his little sister, some words of advice. Of course, the advice centers around love because the rumor is that Hamlet loves Ophelia. Laertes suggests that Ophelia concentrate on other things and not focus on the love of any man. Laertes, then reminds Ophelia of her virtue as a maid. The crux of Laertes’s argument is that Hamlet “himself is subject to his birth.” That means that, no matter what, honor should be more important to Hamlet than Ophelia is. Laertes’s advice looks even more wise when it is held against the advice of Polonius only a few lines later. The difference in quality is astounding. For example, Polonius chides Laertes for procrastinating (“Aboard, aboard, for shame!”) and yet immediately keeps Laertes even longer with a huge harangue of silly advice. Spitting clichés, Polonius ironically gives quite a few popular quotes often used as allusions to Hamlet, including "neither a borrower or a lender be" and "This above all, to thine own self be true." 

Polonius, the Fool

There is no doubt that Polonius proves himself to be the fool of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Just look at the difference between the advice from his son, Laertes, to Ophelia and the advice Polonius gives. Polonius gets mad at Laertes for dawdling ("Aboard, aboard, for shame!") but then detains Laertes even longer with a speech giving silly advice.

Even today, if a person strings cliché after cliché together, that person simply ends up looking (at best) like a copycat. Such is the situation here. The irony is that some of this advice became memorable allusions to Hamlet found elsewhere, including, "neither a borrower or a lender be" and "This above all, to thine own self be true." 

Also, Polonius uses Reynaldo to spy on his own son in Paris. A further example of Polonius’s foolish nature is his conversation with Gertrude during which Polonius does in fact prove that “brevity is the soul of wit” by being the example of the contrary. Another way to say that is to say that the number of words one should use to signify wisdom should be the very smallest number. Ironically, Polonius is neither wise nor brief here. How can a reader tell? Polonius promises not to use any “art” in his explanation and then rambles on and on about how Hamlet is acting: "'tis true: 'tis pity, / And pity 'tis 'tis true -- a foolish figure." 

Even Gertrude gets tired of Polonius’ rambings, saying, "More matter, with less art." Polonius proves himself the fool once again by saying again and again that he will heed her advice and "use no art at all." Polonius, of course, fails miserably.

Probably the crowning glory of Polonius as the fool is the manner in which he is killed. Seemingly obsessed with spying, Polonius now seems to get a thrill out of figuring out what everyone else is doing.

Marcellus, the Speaker of one of Hamlet’s Most Famous Lines

An allusion, of course, is an indirect reference to a literary work. One of the most famous lines from Hamlet is spoken not by a main character, but by a minor one: Marcellus. The quote is, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Marcellus’s line so important because it shows, without a doubt, that Hamlet’s friends question the honesty of the ghost when it appears to Hamlet. Of course, one of the interesting things to consider within the play is whether the ghost has good or evil intentions.

The Ghost: A Character from Heaven or Hell?

Before discussing the character of the ghost in Hamlet, one must do a little research on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in Denmark at this time. The presence of a ghost in the play has certain connotations and, when presented in light of religion, makes more sense. The Catechism taught that a specter of any sort could be considered either “good” or “bad.” In the former case, a soul after death (because it was not in the state of grace) may not be able to make it to heaven due to sins in the past. This unsettled soul, although eventually destined for the Beatific Vision, would have to complete some kind of task on earth before achieving its goal. Its time on earth, then, would be seen as that soul’s “Purgatory,” or the place the soul needed to go in order to be purged of said sin and made possible for the future state of grace. After being “purged” through its mission, the soul could then eventually enter heaven. In the latter case (or the case of a specter being “bad”), the Roman Catholics of Shakespeare’s time were not far removed from the demonic. In other words, there is also the possibility that the ghost might be a demon sent from hell to inflict some kind of evil on characters. This evil could be in the form of death or damnation. Is the ghost of Hamlet’s father an angel or demon? Let’s look at the evidence in order to find out.

Hamlet admits that either is possible. Hamlet says that the spirit of his dead father might be “a spirit of good health,” but he also admits a bit later that it could be “a goblin damn’d,” therefore admitting the second possibility.

Let’s look at the evil possibility first. There are seven pieces of evidence to be considered here:

  1. The ghost only appears on dark and gloomy evenings.
  2. The ghost “beckons [Hamlet] to go away with it. . . alone.”
  3. Hamlet’s honorable friends with good reputations ask Hamlet to leave the ghost alone.
  4. The ghost inspires Marcellus to say a very famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
  5. The ghost insists on silence and, further, that Hamlet and his friends swear to tell not another soul what they have seen or heard in regards to the ghost.
  6. The ghost is continually referred to as “beneath” in Shakespeare’s stage directions.
  7. Even though the reader isn’t sure whether Hamlet’s soul went to heaven or hell, one thing is for sure: Hamlet dies at the end.

The second possibility, of course, is that the ghost is good and has a mission to help Hamlet. Different than the evidence above, the evidence for the goodness or honesty of the ghost isn’t direct, but it is still no doubt important. Firstly, and least importantly, most first-time readers believe the ghost to be good because he says he is and because Hamlet follows the ghost’s advice. Ironically, this is not good evidence for the ghost being on a mission from heaven. A second argument is the assumption that because Shakespeare’s play already has a villain (Claudius), there can’t be another. Why not? To get to the meat of the angelic evidence, the ghost asks for his death to be avenged. This does stand in compliance with the divine order of kings. In Hamlet’s time (and in Denmark), it was considered honorable to avenge the death of a king. Hamlet’s father was, in fact, killed by Claudius, so revenge is just here. Next, the ghost is correct: Claudius did kill Hamlet’s father. At the beginning of the play, the cause of Hamlet’s dad’s death isn’t really known. Everyone is simply sad that Hamlet’s father has died. It is only when Claudius suggests his own guilt during The Murder of Gonzago and then confirms it to the reader while praying for forgiveness that we learn the ghost is really telling the truth. Finally, perhaps the ghost can be considered to be from heaven because the tragedy (as is the case with most tragedies) ends on a note of hope. Hamlet is honored (not defamed), and the kingship of Denmark is restored to glory.

Ophelia as Naïve

Is Ophelia the ultimate loser of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Not only does she die before everyone else, but it is by apparent suicide. She follows the usual directives of her time, taking and heeding the advice of her father; however, her father, Polonius, is the fool of the play, and he leads her astray. Having no mind of her own, Ophelia is forced to follow the advice of the time period and loses her mind in the process. Let’s follow the course of Ophelia’s naivety to her insanity.

Polonius is an addled old man and Ophelia listens to him, doing just what he says. Not only is she obedient to her father, but she proclaims her obedience in Act II when she says, "I did repel his letters and denied / His access to me."  Ophelia then goes further in reporting Hamlet's actions towards her and, therefore, is spying on her boyfriend. Ophelia is confused when confronted by Hamlet, who is either sporting his “antic disposition” or has truly gone crazy. Ophelia tells her father what happens when she is sewing. Hamlet appears with “his doublet all unbraced; / No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled, / Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle / ... his knees knocking each other" and with a "piteous look" as if he had just come "from hell."  It is then that Ophelia naively reports to her dad that Hamlet "took me by the wrist and held me hard," he shakes her arm, he "raised a sign so piteous and profound" and then let her off on her own.  Therefore, considering her unbridled obedience to her addled dad, Ophelia must believe Polonius about Hamlet’s love, actions, and behavior. In this way, Ophelia can (sort of unjustly) be blamed (albeit indirectly) for a betrayal of Hamlet’s affections.

Ophelia is also naïve in regards to Hamlet’s insults and admits such. Hamlet spends the latter half of Act III yelling at Ophelia, who remains completely confused. Let’s look at the lines that confuse poor Ophelia:

Hamlet. Ha, ha! Are you honest?

Ophelia. My lord?

Hamlet. Are you fair?

Ophelia. What means your lordship?

Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.

Here, Hamlet uses the words “honest” and “fair” with double meaning. First, these words literally ask if Ophelia has been truthful and regarding honor. Additionally, there is a more vulgar meaning of both words that puts Hamlet into the realm of innuendo. Ophelia doesn’t understand that by asking her if she is “honest” and “fair,” Hamlet can also be asking her if she is a virgin and chaste, or if she, in fact, has sex with many men. Due to Hamlet’s insinuations, he relieves himself of his promises to her as a “girlfriend.” 

Next, one must consider the use of the word "nunnery" in this scene. The word nunnery does have an obvious meaning: a convent (a place where Roman Catholic Sisters spend their lives going to Mass, praying, and living in Christ’s service). Ophelia most likely thinks Hamlet is telling her to go ahead and become a nun because he is not going to marry her and neither will anyone else. The base meaning that Ophelia probably doesn’t understand is that yelling, "Get the to a nunnery!" is a reference to Ophelia’s offenses against chastity. In Shakespeare's time, it was not always the most virtuous of girls. Because of the latter insinuation, a “nunnery” is also a reference to a whorehouse.

Finally, let’s look at how naïve Ophelia is in reference to the concept of “love.” Does Ophelia realize that Hamlet uses love as a weapon against her? Probably not. She is so confused in this scene, but she does admit that Hamlet gave her "many tenders of affection" and now admits that she thought Hamlet was in love with her because she says, "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so."  Further, the naïve Ophelia can be seen as driven to madness when, in her efforts to understand, Hamlet yells the opposite to her: "I did love you once," yet only a few lines later, Hamlet proclaims, "I loved you not." 

Unable to come to grips with what is really going on here, Ophelia ends up forfeiting her own sanity.

Ophelia as Brave

Even though Ophelia can be considered vastly naïve, she can also be considered brave. Let’s look first about what Hamlet says about bravery: "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." In this line, Hamlet is admitting that, due to fear of hell or consequences in the afterlife, he becomes a "coward" in that he can't actually take his own life. Further, he wants us all to think that way. How does Ophelia fit here? Does her conscience make a coward of her? No. She is driven mad, though. In her madness, she acts, unlike Hamlet, who does not act. While Hamlet stands around considering if he should exist and “be or not to be,” Ophelia takes her own life. Ophelia commits suicide, while Hamlet only talks about it.

Hamlet as Tragic Hero

Like Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes (Macbeth, Othello, Brutus, and Lear), Hamlet is destroyed not by circumstances but by a flaw in his own character. Introspective and indecisive, he is unable to function effectively as he struggles with a conflict that defies a solution consistent with his sense of honor and morality and with the expectations of his society. Hamlet is honor-bound to avenge the murder of King Hamlet. As the prince of Denmark, he cannot ignore regicide, the most heinous of crimes, and he cannot accept the presence of a usurper on the Danish throne. Additionally, as a son, he must avenge his father’s murder; Hamlet’s rage—and the mores of his society—demand revenge. His course of action seems clear: He must kill the vile Claudius. Hamlet’s religious faith, however, makes his course of action anything but clear, since it forbids murder. Ensnared by his social position, the demands of his conscience, the demands of society, the canons of his faith, and his own thirst for justice, Hamlet is trapped. Even suicide offers no escape, since “self-slaughter” is also a mortal sin. When Hamlet agonizes, “To be or not to be--that is the question,” he finds no acceptable answer.

To let Claudius live is morally wrong, but to kill him is morally wrong, too, and a threat to Hamlet’s own soul. Consequently, Hamlet thinks rather than acts, torturing himself with memories of his beloved father and thoughts of his mother’s incestuous marriage to Claudius. He examines his own conscience, observes and evaluates his own behavior and the behavior of others, and seizes upon one reason after another to delay resolving his dilemma. Hamlet cannot let Claudius escape justice, but he will not act decisively, choosing instead to pursue various clever schemes through which he convinces himself for a while that he is moving toward a solution. Ultimately, Hamlet’s dilemma is resolved, but its resolution is not the consequence of careful thought or personal introspection. When he watches his mother die and Claudius’s plot to kill him is revealed, Hamlet’s indecision ends abruptly. He kills Claudius and then dies.

Claudius and Gertrude as guilty advisors

Both Claudius and Gertrude urge Hamlet to forget about his dead father and start enjoying life again. Claudius even says,

We pray you throw to earth This unprevailing woe, and think of us As of a father; for let the world take note You are the most immediate to our throne, And with no less nobility of love Than that which dearest father bears his son Do I impart toward you. 

Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, tells him,

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.  Do not for ever with thy vailed lids Seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.

Both Claudius and Gertrude are being partly sincere and partly phony. What really troubles them is that Hamlet's grief reminds them painfully of their own guilty behavior. The audience does not yet know that Claudius murdered his brother, but they will remember Claudius advising his nephew that the death of a father isn't really such an important matter. At that time the audience might also suspect that Gertrude was an accessory in her husband's murder or that she feels bad about remarrying so soon after her husband's death. The audience realizes that Gertrude had a guilty conscience when she told her son to forget his father, as she apparently has done so easily. 

Actually, neither Claudius nor Gertrude has forgotten King Hamlet. Claudius is eaten up with guilt over the crime he committed. He probably knew he would suffer remorse for a certain length of time after committing the ghastly murder, but hoped he would get over the bad feelings and try to atone by being a good king and drowning himself in liquor. Gertrude was not involved in her husband's death and doesn't suspect that her new husband had anything to do with it; however, she feels guilty because she knows it was immoral if not sinful to marry Claudius after her husband had only been dead for a few months. Both Hamlet's mother and his uncle wish young Hamlet would forget about his father and stop making them remember their own sins. Their advice to young Hamlet is hypocritical and self-interested. Their reasoning with him is specious. Hamlet is the only person in all of this scene who is behaving properly. The new king and his wife, along with all the courtiers who are present, are trying to act as if life is full of nothing but pleasure and delight. When Claudius asks Hamlet, "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" he is suggesting that the whole world is full of warm sunshine, and that this is a time to eat, drink, and be merry, not a time for mourning. No doubt every character in this scene is dressed in bright new clothing--with the exception of Hamlet, who is wearing a black suit and a black cloak and must stand out as a symbol of gloom and doom.

Hamlet must sense that his uncle and his mother are being overly solicitous and phony with him. He can detect it in the tones of their voices. They "protest too much." They make him a little suspicious of their motives. He is not terribly reassured by being promised the kingship after Claudius's death.

After everybody else exits, Hamlet speaks these prophetic words:

It is not, nor it cannot come to, good. But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!

Words, words, words. (2.2.190)

There are many possible meanings to Hamlet's reply when the nosy Polonius asks him what he is reading. Polonius is pretty obviously a non-reader and probably thinks, like most non-readers, that anyone would rather be talking to someone than reading a book. He does not realize he is being a nuisance. When Hamlet replies, "Words, words, words," he may be implying that he cannot focus on the meaning of the words in his book because the old man is distracting him. In fact, this is a good reply that all of us could remember for those occasions when some stranger breaks into our concentration by asking an inane question such as "What's that your reading?" We might say, "I guess I'm not reading anymore. I'm talking to you." Hamlet might also mean by "Words, words, words" that he is sick and tired of doing nothing but read. He is a prisoner at Elsinore and doesn't even have the abundant choice of reading material that was available to him at Wittenberg. On a deeper philosophical level Hamlet may be saying that no book ever written could help him with his current psychological and practical problems. We have all had the experience of reading a whole page in a book, especially in a textbook, and suddenly realizing that we haven't understood a word of what we have read because we were actually thinking about something else. We have been reading a lot of words, but they may as well have been printed in a strange foreign language--or they may be pure gobbledegook.

Refrain tonight (3.4.165-170)

In the tempestuous Scene 4 of Act 3, Hamlet tells his mother to stop having sexual relations with Claudius. 

Refrain to night, And that shall lend a kind of easiness To the next abstinence; the next more easy; For use almost can change the stamp of nature, And [either master] the devil, or throw him out With wondrous potency

This is excellent advice about how to break any kind of bad habit, such as smoking, drinking, overeating, or using illicit drugs. The secret is to get through the first day and night without indulging. This is always hard to do. But invariably the next day and night is easier to get through, and after that the successive days and nights become progressively easier. It is that first day, and especially that first night, that are hard to get through. But succeeding at doing so gives the addict proof that it is possible. This helps to make the second day and night that much easier psychologically, even though the body may still have as strong a craving on the second day and night as on the first. Hamlet considers his mother's sexual behavior a bad habit.

The Consequences of Deceit

There is indeed something “rotten in the state of Denmark,” as Marcellus observes to Horatio as the play begins, and one obvious failing in the Danish court is the apparent inability to act without guile. Deceit seems to be the characters’ default behavior; acts of deception riddle the plot, driving it relentlessly to a deadly conclusion. With the exception of Horatio, the only principal characters who don’t die at the end of the play are those who are already dead—Old Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. The dead in Hamlet are all victims of deceit, in one way or another, and with the exception of Old Hamlet, each of them is also guilty of deception.

The catalog of acts of deceit in the play is comprehensive, beginning with the murder of Old Hamlet. In killing the king, concealing the heinous crime, and feigning love for Hamlet, Claudius initiates subsequent events that lead to further deception. Hamlet pretends to be mad in order to verify the truth of his father’s death. Ophelia meets with Hamlet, allowing Claudius and Polonius to eavesdrop on their conversation. Gertrude conspires with Polonius, meeting with Hamlet while Polonius hides in Gertrude's chamber to listen and observe. Claudius schemes to secure Hamlet’s death at the hands of the English king, but through Hamlet’s clever deception, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die instead after reaching England. It is a final act of deception—Claudius and Laertes’s plotting to draw Hamlet into a duel and kill him with Laertes’s poisoned sword—that results in the ultimate catastrophe that plays out in the drama’s final scene.

Would death and disaster throughout the Danish court have been avoided if Hamlet had chosen at the outset to proceed without guile in addressing his father’s death? Shakespeare seems to suggest that no such option existed for Hamlet, given his nature and the intrigue inherent in the exercise of political power. Moreover, killing a king—even a vile usurper like Claudius—cannot be accomplished without grave ramifications. Regardless of Hamlet’s actions in dealing with Claudius, the consequences would have been severe. The number of characters who die in Hamlet is remarkable, even for a Shakespearean tragedy, and they die as a consequence of deceit.

Polonius and Self-Destruction

Polonius’s dying in Gertrude’s chamber is surely a good example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He isn’t there by chance, however, nor is he a hapless victim of circumstance. A foolish old man, he brings about his own death by continuing to meddle in others’ affairs and by trying once too often to ingratiate himself with the king.

Meddling in Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship places Polonius on the path that leads directly to Gertrude’s chamber and his fatal encounter with Hamlet. When Hamlet courts Ophelia, Polonius assumes the young prince has dishonorable intentions and forbids her to see Hamlet or accept his letters. He compounds his error by subsequently—and erroneously—assuming that Ophelia’s rejection of Hamlet has caused him to go mad. Having meddled in Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship, Polonius acts to mitigate the damage he believes he has done and to circumvent further disaster by informing Claudius of what has transpired. “Come, go we to the King,” he tells Ophelia. “This must be known, which, being kept close, might move / More grief to hide than hate to utter love.” Ironically, with no understanding of the forces at work in the court or of his own errors in judgment, Polonius counsels Ophelia that it’s as natural for old men to jump to conclusions as it is for the young to lack discretion.  

In meeting with Claudius shortly thereafter, the foolish and ever ambitious Polonius sees an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the king and seizes it. Convinced he knows the cause of Hamlet’s madness, Polonius offers to bring Hamlet and Ophelia together so that he and the king can eavesdrop on their conversation and confirm Polonius’s analysis of Hamlet’s condition. Has there ever been a time, he asks Claudius confidently, “[t]hat I have positively said ‘ ‘Tis so,’ / When it proved otherwise?” If there was, he challenges the king, he would like to know it. Polonius’s hiding with the king behind a tapestry to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia succeeds, but the next time Polonius employs the strategy, he dies, stabbed to death by an enraged Hamlet, who senses his presence and assumes he is Claudius.

When Polonius hides behind the tapestry in Gertrude’s chamber to spy on Hamlet, Polonius is unaware of Claudius’s crime, Hamlet’s real psychological state, and the dangerous political currents coursing through the court. He is also unaware of his inability to perceive the truth or to understand what is happening around him. In his ambition and arrogance, the foolish, meddling Polonius ultimately destroys himself.

Hamlet's Father's Ghost

Shakespeare wanted to have the ghost of Hamlet’s father appear to his son and tell him a secret unknown to anyone else in Denmark: that he was murdered by Claudius in order to usurp his throne and marry his widow. The Ghost wants revenge. But Shakespeare had several problems. To begin with, how was the audience supposed to know the bearded actor was a ghost? In Macbeth, when Banquo appears at the coronation banquet, the audience realizes he must be a ghost because they have seen him murdered. Furthermore, one murderer assures Macbeth that Banquo is positively dead.

Ay, my good lord. Safe in a ditch he bides, With twenty trenched gashes on his head, The least a death to nature.

The audience has never seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Shakespeare had no way of making the Ghost look “ghostlike” without the ridiculous expedient of dressing him in a white shroud. Hollywood would have no such problem. The Ghost could be transparent or even hovering in the air.

Shakespeare decided he needed the bearded actor to appear to several witnesses who would all testify that this man looked exactly like the dead king. Shakespeare wanted his audience to recognize this actor as the Ghost before he ever talked to his son. Otherwise there would be too much time spent on the question of identity when the Ghost wants to confide his vital message. Shakespeare also decided to dress his bearded actor in armor so that, if he didn’t look much like a ghost, he would at least look somewhat strange and different.

In Act I, Scene 1, Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio all testify to each other that the Ghost looks exactly like the dead King Hamlet and that the armor he is wearing is the armor he wore in battle. Shakespeare did not want these men, or any member of his audience, to suspect that the Ghost was there to talk to his son. The author wanted to surprise the audience with the Ghost’s news that he had been murdered by his brother Claudius. The Ghost’s armor not only identifies him as the dead King Hamlet but also serves to mislead Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio, as well as the entire audience, into believing the Ghost must be concerned about the prospects of war. If it were not for Fortinbras’s aggressive movements, the audience might suspect that the Ghost was there to communicate something to his son.

The threat of war proves to be a red herring. Fortinbras’s uncle tells him to desist, and the whole issue is resolved by the opening of Act II. Once Shakespeare created Fortinbras and his army, he decided to use it as a subplot in this multifaceted play. At the end, the dying Hamlet even nominates Fortinbras to be king of Denmark.

Shakespeare had to have the Ghost, but at the same time he had to make certain that neither King Claudius nor anyone else—except for those Hamlet swears to secrecy—should have the slightest suspicion that a ghost had appeared on the battlements or that the ghost had a private interview with Hamlet. No one but Claudius knows his own guilty secret. If he thought Hamlet might have been talking to a ghost—any ghost—he would assume Hamlet had learned the terrible truth from the land of the dead. If Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father, he would have no compunctions about doing the same to the son. Hamlet himself senses it might be impossible to fool his uncle. How can he look the cunning king in the eyes without betraying that he knows something he didn’t know before? How can he treat Claudius with the requisite deference when he has so many reasons to hate him and is honor-bound to kill him?

This is what motivates Hamlet to pretend to be insane. His zany antics and weird words are a cover-up. Claudius is a hard man to deceive. He tells Polonius:

There’s something in his soul, O’er which his melancholy sits on brood, And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose Will be some danger.

Claudius is not really put off by Hamlet’s madness, real or feigned. If Hamlet is mad, what drove him mad? If Hamlet is sane, why is he pretending to be unstable? Claudius is intent on getting into Hamlet’s mind, and Hamlet is equally intent, for his own safety, on keeping him out. This is the main conflict in the play. Claudius wants to know what Hamlet is thinking and planning; Hamlet wants to keep Claudius from finding out. Hamlet is at a disadvantage because his uncle is older, experienced, cunning, powerful, and has many spies. Hamlet has one great advantage: the Ghost has told him the king’s guilty secret. Hamlet can read his uncle’s mind, but his uncle can’t read his.

It is an interesting situation. Claudius has a secret, and Hamlet has a secret. Hamlet knows Claudius’s secret, and Claudius doesn’t know Hamlet’s.

As Hamlet tells his mother:

O, ‘tis most sweet When in one line two crafts directly meet.

Alas, poor Yorick!

Hamlet's interest in the skull of Yorick shows his introverted character. The introvert, according to C. G. Jung, who coined the terms "introvert" and "extravert," is interested in the subject, whereas the extravert is interested in the object. The skull does not especially interest Hamlet as an object, as can be seen from the train of thoughts he expresses while he is holding it up in front of him.

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! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that. 

Hamlet is thinking of himself--his own thoughts, memories, and impressions--when he says, "I knew him," and "He hath borne me on his back a thousand times," "how abhorred in my imagination it is!" "Here hung those lips I have kissed I know not how oft," etc. It is because of his ceaseless introspection that Hamlet is not able to act effectively in the real world. His thinking interferes with his emotions. He is the exact opposite of the extremely extraverted Laertes, who is guided by his emotions and acts impulsively and rashly.

The introvert sees everything that is in any way valuable to him in the subject; the extravert sees it in the object. This dependence on the object seems to the introvert a mark of the greatest inferiority, while to the extravert the preoccupation with the subject seems nothing but infantile autoeroticism. So it is not surprising that the two types often come into conflict.  - C. G. Jung

Hamlet will not end up killing King Claudius until he momentarily loses his customary repression of his emotions and releases all his pent-up rage.

In this famous scene, Shakespeare seems to have wanted to show the contrast between the object which Hamlet is holding directly in front of him and the subjective thoughts which that object is capable of arousing. "Alas, poor Yorick!" characterizes Hamlet very effectively. Everything causes him to think, and once he starts thinking he can't stop. 

Hamlet as a Perfect Crime Story

Claudius has committed the perfect crime and gotten everything he wanted. Yet he is plagued by a guilty conscience, as he reveals in detail when Hamlet finds him trying to pray. In this case, we might think of guilt as fear of punishment. Claudius has two things to be afraid of. One is being exposed as a murderer. The other is fear of being punished in the afterlife. If he is exposed he will be disgraced, probably overthrown, possibly even executed. The person most likely to guess the truth is Hamlet. And as legitimate heir to the throne, Hamlet would be in the best position to see that Claudius was duly punished.

Claudius knows Hamlet is not only a man of keen intelligence but that he has spent years acquiring a university education. Hamlet spends much of his time silently brooding alone. Claudius projects his fears of disclosure onto his nephew. He is afraid Hamlet might somehow be able to use his acquired learning, including his acquired powers of logic and deduction, to prove Claudius murdered his brother and explain exactly why and how he did it.

Claudius tells Polonius:

There’s something in his soul O’er which his melancholy sits on brood; And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose Will be some danger (Act III, Scene 1).

Claudius is not afraid Hamlet is plotting a coup. Rather, he is afraid his inscrutable stepson is focusing his intellectual prowess on analyzing the circumstances surrounding the death of his father and his uncle’s usurpation of the throne. Claudius knows he is vulnerable. The story about a snake biting King Hamlet while he was sleeping in his garden sounds pretty phony. Who would benefit from King Hamlet’s death? What about the fellow who ended up with the dead man’s crown, wife, and entire kingdom? Claudius wonders, like most murderers, whether he might have left some clue at the scene of the crime. He is also afraid of betraying his guilt by word or deed. As Gertrude says,

So full of artless jealousy is guilt It spills itself in fearing to be spilt (Act V, Scene 5).

Claudius betrays himself when he flees the performance of the play, and he betrays himself again when he allows himself to be overheard at his prayers by the perspicacious and unnerving son of the man he killed.

For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak With most miraculous organ.

It seems likely that Hamlet, given time, would have solved the mystery of his father’s death on his own. He is already intuitively suspicious of his uncle. When the Ghost tells him what really happened in the garden, Hamlet exclaims,

O my prophetic soul! My uncle!

Hamlet had been sensing that there was something more to his father's death, his uncle's coronation, and the marriage of his uncle and mother than had been explained. There may have been many clues the Prince picked up intuitively but hadn't put together until the Ghost gave him the one missing piece of the puzzle. For example, why were his uncle and his mother showing such unusual concern about what he was thinking and feeling? They were disturbed by the fact that he continued to brood and to wear mourning clothes. It showed the case was not yet closed. The past was not entirely in the past where they wanted it to be. Gertrude was not involved in her husband’s murder, but she was concerned about her son’s obvious depression and how his mourning reflected on the new king and herself as his wife. Claudius was acting much differently than his uncle had acted in the past and doing an unprecedented amount of heavy drinking.

Words, words, words

POLONIUS
What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET
Words, words, words.

A really good reader reaches a stage where he or she does not see the words but sees, hears, and senses the things the words represent. Once a person has achieved that ability, he or she is able to travel freely in what Keats called "the realms of gold." A good reader can travel anywhere in time or space.

Hamlet is undoubtedly a good and voracious reader. He is able to read in many different languages. Still, even the best reader can have a problem if he or she is seriously ill, troubled by a serious practical matter, or feels extremely depressed, frightened, or angry. Sometimes the words on the printed page become just so many little black marks that refuse to yield the images they are supposed to represent. Perhaps this is what Hamlet means when he tells Polonius he is only reading "words, words, words." 

We have all had that experience of trying to escape into a book and finding the words are as opaque as if they were in a language we don't understand. Hamlet is reading words but not getting anything out of his reading because he is so seriously troubled by his practical problems and also so seriously depressed.

"For the apparel oft proclaims the man"

"For the apparel oft proclaims the man"

Polonius offers very good practical advice to his son Laertes in Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet. We ourselves cannot help judging people by their clothing and other apparel, since these are so conspicuous. Much of our evaluation is probably automatic and unconscious. We may not even be aware of our conclusions. It seems instinctive to observe everyone, at least momentarily—perhaps for self-protection, perhaps out of physical attraction, and perhaps just out of normal curiosity about other human beings.

A good example in literature of how two characters judge another character by his apparel is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous story “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.” When Dr. Watson drops in on his friend Sherlock Holmes unexpectedly, he finds the detective in consultation with a man named Jabez Wilson. Here is how Watson sees the visitor.

Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy grey shepherd's check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. A frayed top-hat and a faded brown overcoat with a wrinkled velvet collar lay upon a chair beside him. Altogether, look as I would, there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head, and the expression of extreme chagrin and discontent upon his features.

And here is how Holmes sees Wilson:

Sherlock Holmes' quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

We ourselves can draw some conclusions about Jabez Wilson from what Watson describes. The man is wearing good clothing but does not take care of his clothes. This is probably because he doesn’t go out much and also because it must have been expensive to have clothing cleaned in Victorian times. He is tight with his money. He needs a new top-hat and overcoat, but he won’t replace the ones he has. We can deduce that he is unmarried, as otherwise his wife might insist on his spending a little of his money on clothing. Furthermore, if he had a wife, she might be taking better care of his wardrobe. (Holmes makes that deduction about Henry Baker, the man who lost the goose in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”)

Holmes bases all but one of deductions on Wilson’s apparel and appearance. Often it is the decorative elements that are the most revealing. The snuff-taking is obvious because Wilson drops some on his waistcoat. The Freemason breastpin is obvious. Even the fact “that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately” is based on his apparel.

What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?

Wilson’s story shows that his apparel represents him very well. He is concerned about losing his four pounds a week from the Red-Headed League, and hopes to convince Sherlock Holmes to work for him without pay.

The apparel oft proclaims the man—or woman! It can be an interesting pastime to pay conscious attention to how people’s apparel advertises their occupations, characters, financial status, and other traits and conditions.

Why Hamlet Had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Executed

In Act V, Scene 2, Hamlet tells Horatio how he forged a letter to replace the one that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were carrying with them aboard the ship bound for England. He created

An earnest conjuration from the King,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them like the palm might flourish,
As peace should still her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma 'tween their amities,
And many such like as's of great charge,
That on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.

This may seem unnecessarily cruel, since the two ill-fated men had no knowledge of the contents of King Claudius's letter, but Hamlet was in a tight spot. If he hadn't requested the immediate execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they would have had a lot to say in their defense. They would have told the English authorities that Hamlet had been acting crazy and had killed the king's vizier Polonius. They would have described how Hamlet acted after killing the old man and how Claudius himself believed Hamlet was totally insane and was afraid of him. Furthermore, there were two of them. Rosencrantz would verify Guildenstern's testimony, and vice versa. Whatever Hamlet put in his forged letter, he would be stuck there in England, with no way of getting back to Denmark, while the English sent an ambassador to Claudius to find out just what he wanted done. Claudius would have asked for Hamlet's immediate execution. If, however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dead, Hamlet could find some way of getting out of England quickly. At the time he forged the letter, Hamlet had no way of knowing that they were going to be attacked by pirates and that he would never get to England. He does not feel guilty for having his two erstwhile friends beheaded. He tells Horatio:

Why, man, they did make love to this employment!
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
'tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.

So Hamlet was by no means being gratuitously vindictive. He showed his good sense when he broke open the king's letter, and he showed his resourcefulness when he composed his counterfeit. We can imagine how poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reacted when they arrived in England in their best dress, expecting to be welcomed and entertained as honored guests.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are almost always together. They are not differentiated or fully characterized. We think of them as rather like Siamese twins. It is impossible to tell them apart. Why did King Claudius invite two of Hamlet’s schoolmates to come to Elsinore to spy on Hamlet instead of only one? The real reason is not immediately apparent. Shakespeare invented the duo because in time they will have to stop being friendly and apply physical force—or at least the threat of physical force—against the Prince. For example, after Hamlet kills Polonius, the two young men are sent to apprehend him and bring him to the King. In Act IV, Scene 2, Rosencrantz tells him,

My lord, you must tell us where the body is, and go with us to the King.

At the beginning of the next scene, Rosencrantz tells Claudius,

Where the dead body is bestowed, my lord, We cannot get from him.

When Claudius asks, “But where is he? Rosencrantz replies:

Without, my lord, guarded, to know your pleasure.

From now on, these two erstwhile friends will act like guards. The whole purpose of having two men in these roles rather than only one is to show that Hamlet, although he is treated with respect, could be overpowered if necessary. If there was only one character guarding Hamlet, it would make Hamlet look weak. Shakespeare apparently did not want to show too many guards, but only wanted to suggest Hamlet's restrained condition after he kills Polonius. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keeping close watch on their old friend, it is two against one. There is a suggestion that backup is nearby if Hamlet gets out of hand. When Rosencrantz tells King Claudius that Hamlet is

Without, my lord, guarded to know your pleasure

we understand that Guildenstern must be right outside with several assistants.

Although Hamlet is apparently a prisoner, he uses his wits to dispose of his captors and regain his freedom by sending them to England with a forged letter.

Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

In Act II, Scene 2 of Hamlet, we see that King Claudius has sent for Hamlet's two schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the hope that they can learn what is really on Hamlet's mind and report this information back to him. It was just a few months ago that the three young men were schoolmates at Wittenberg, and they still joke together, mainly about the opposite sex, the way young men will do. Although both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have remained the same unworldly, party-loving students, Hamlet has changed very much as a result of all he has been through in this short time. Try as they might, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot reestablish the same camaraderie and rapport they shared with Hamlet at Wittenberg. He has grown, while they have remained the same. This often happens in friendships, particularly with younger friends. One friend matures, and the other remains behind. They will never have the same easy intimacy again. Hamlet is a character who keeps growing from the beginning to the end of the play. He probably changes more than any other character Shakespeare ever created, with the possible exception of Prince Hal in Henry IV, Parts One and Two. One of the ways that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern function in the play is to serve as contrasts, or foils, to the exceptionally clever Prince. They remain the same clueless young men throughout, while he evolves before our eyes into a serious, determined, mature and regal person. It is appropriate that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern immediately announce the arrival of the troop of traveling actors when they meet Hamlet because their obvious interest in entertainment helps to characterize them. They are simple souls who have been given the delicate task of analyzing the thoughts, feelings, and motives of their old friend, who is now miles ahead of them in maturation. They have to try to do this without letting him suspect that is what they were sent for. Hamlet can see through them as if they are transparent. This was probably not the case just a short time ago when they were all lighthearted schoolmates together, with nothing to worry about but reading books and turning in papers.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Shakespeare's whole purpose in having two men in these roles rather than only one is to show that Hamlet, although he is treated with respect, could be overpowered if necessary. Although Claudius doesn't say so, he thinks Hamlet is mad and possibly dangerous. He thinks this even before Hamlet kills Polonius in Gertrude's chamber. Afterwards, Claudius is sure Hamlet is mad and dangerous. If there were only one character guarding Hamlet, it would make Hamlet look weak. Shakespeare apparently did not want to show too many men guarding Hamlet, but only wanted to suggest Hamlet's restrained condition after he kills Polonius. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keeping close watch on their old friend, it is two against one. There is a suggestion that back-up is within call if Hamlet gets out of hand. When Rosencrantz tells King Claudius that Hamlet is

Without, my lord, guarded to know your pleasure

we understand that Guildenstern must be right outside with several assistants.

Although Hamlet is apparently a prisoner, he uses his wits to dispose of his captors and regain his freedom by sending them to England with a forged letter from Claudius ordering their immediate execution.

Swords

It may not have been customary for men to be wearing swords at Elsinore or in fact in any castle unless they were guards. But Shakespeare wanted Hamlet to be wearing a sword so that he could withdraw it when he thought of killing Claudius at his prayers, when he actually did kill Polonius on the spur of the moment, and when he scared his poor mother with it. So this may have been one of the reasons that Shakespeare started his play with the mood of a nation preparing for war. The whole business with Fortinbras may have originated because Shakespeare wanted Hamlet to kill Polonius, and perhaps also to show that he was capable of killing Claudius at any time. If the Danes were expecting to be attacked by Fortinbras, then it would be acceptable for many of them to be wearing their swords. This seems to be the only way it would be plausible for men like Hamlet, and probably Horatio and Laertes, to be armed at all times. Hamlet draws his sword when he comes upon Claudius at his prayers—but this may only have been invented in order to demonstrate to the audience that Hamlet actually did have a sword. This is sometimes called a “plant” in Hollywood parlance. If a weapon is going to be used, the camera will show that weapon beforehand. Hamlet has a sword when his ship is attacked by pirates, but it would be standard practice for men to wear swords when traveling.

College versus Reality

Many of the characters in Hamlet are collegiate types. Hamlet has spent years at Wittenberg and would like to go back there to continue his studies if the King would let him. In fact, Hamlet seems like the type of studious young man who might stay at the university indefinitely. He may not object to Claudius becoming king if only Claudius wasn't keeping him a virtual prisoner at Elsinore.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both students at Wittenberg and are only visiting Elsinore because Claudius has summoned them to help him find out the reason for what he calls Hamlet's "transformation." Horatio is also a student at Wittenberg. He tells Hamlet he came to Elsinore to attend Hamlet's father's funeral. Even Polonius attended a university, as he tells Hamlet in Act III, Scene 2. Polonius's son Laertes leaves to attend the university in France. No doubt Osric, with his big vocabulary, is also a college graduate.

Shakespeare seems to be drawing a contrast between college and the real world, especially for Hamlet. The university is sheltered, secluded, and idealistic. The real world is full of deceit and corruption. Hamlet has difficulties adjusting to the cold, hard facts of reality. He finds that his father has been murdered, his uncle has usurped the throne, and that Claudius has committed what Hamlet considers incest by marrying Hamlet's mother. Hamlet is quickly disgusted with the real world represented by Elsinore. In Act I, Scene 2, he says to himself:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely

College students typically are in for a rude shock when they graduate and go out into the real world to join in the universal struggle for survival. The rules and values they learn in college do not apply to the real world. This, apparently, is what Shakespeare intended to show as happening to Hamlet.

Twin Characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Act 2, Scene 2 introduces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are almost always together and are so much alike that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. Shakespeare's whole purpose in having two men in these roles rather than only one is to show that Hamlet, although he is treated with respect, could be overpowered if necessary. Although Claudius doesn't say so, he thinks Hamlet is mad and possibly dangerous. He thinks this even before Hamlet kills Polonius in Gertrude's chamber. After that event, Claudius is sure Hamlet is mad and dangerous.

If there were only one character guarding Hamlet, it would make Hamlet look weak. Shakespeare apparently did not want to show too many men guarding Hamlet but only wanted to suggest Hamlet's restrained condition after he kills Polonius. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keeping close watch on their old friend, it is two against one. There is a suggestion that back-up is within call if Hamlet gets out of hand. When Rosencrantz tells King Claudius that Hamlet is

Without, my lord, guarded to know your pleasure

we understand that Guildenstern must be right outside with several assistants.

Although Hamlet is apparently a prisoner, he uses his wits to dispose of his captors and regain his freedom by sending them to England with a forged letter from Claudius ordering their immediate execution.

Hamlet and Laertes

We first meet Laertes in Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet. Laertes is already on his way to attend the university in France, and he does not appear again until Act IV, Scene 5, after his father has been slain and his sister Ophelia has gone mad. Why does Shakespeare introduce this important character early in the play and then keep him offstage until it is nearing the end? Evidently, Shakespeare intended Hamlet and Laertes to become enemies, as they do when they encounter each other at Ophelia's grave. Shakespeare wanted to avoid showing that the two men enjoyed a cordial relationship, or any kind of relationship, before Laertes went away to France. Such a previous relationship would only complicate matters for the playwright. It would be easier to handle the emotions of both Hamlet and Laertes if they did not have a previous amicable relationship. That explains why Shakespeare sends Laertes off to the university in France and keeps him there on ice, so to speak, until he is needed to play his essential part in the play towards the end. It also explains the seemingly gratuitous Scene 1 of Act II in which Polonius is sending Laertes money and instructing the messenger Reynaldo about how to spy on his son. Shakespeare's intention is to establish that Laertes is now in France and to keep the audience aware of Laertes's existence and possible importance to the plot. 

Claudius and Hamlet

King Claudius has presumably never been to college. Yet he has managed to become king and rule over all of Denmark. He thinks that material prosperity is all that really counts. He prides himself that he has learned directly from life. College, however, teaches people how to think--and this is what Claudius is most afraid of in his nephew. Tyrants hate and fear intellectuals for good reason.

When Claudius is directly addressing Hamlet in Act I, Scene 2, the King is deliberately insulting his nephew and insinuating that Hamlet's years at Wittenberg have not given him any practical knowledge of the real world, the kind of knowledge that Claudius himself possesses and which gave him the ultimate worldly success. Claudius is trying to persuade Hamlet--as well as himself--that he has somehow learned through practical experience much of the knowledge and theory which he thinks is taught at schools like Wittenberg. Here are pertinent examples of Claudius's rationalization, along with his thinly veiled insults of his bookish nephew.

'tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father;
But you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd;
For what we know must be, and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we, in our peevish opposition,
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died today,
This must be so.

Anyone who has acquired a good academic education will meet many men outside the ivy-covered walls who, like Claudius, will pretend to despise "book learning" and at the same time show they think they have somehow managed to acquire it without going to college or reading many books. Claudius would like Hamlet to feel he has really learned nothing at Wittenberg, but at the same time Claudius is a bit in awe of his intellectual nephew, who must know a half-dozen languages and who must have an in-depth knowledge of such matters as Aristotelian logic and civil and canon law. The fact is that Claudius only knows how to take things away from people who have them. He would like to pry into Hamlet's mind and steal whatever he can understand in order to use it for his own purposes. Ignorant people will always try to exploit educated people.

There is a certain "mystique" that goes with a college education. People who have never been to college often have a certain awe and fear of those who have, because they think the college-educated person must know practically everything there is to know about everything. Claudius is really afraid of Hamlet. He spends the entire play trying to probe into Hamlet's "soul." As Claudius tells Polonius in a beautiful and characteristically simple Shakespearean metaphor,

There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger; 

Claudius not only uses his own cunning mind to try to analyze his melancholy nephew, but he undoubtedly has spies watching Hamlet all over Elsinore--courtiers, domestic servants, and others. Claudius has cunningly recruited Hamlet's own mother Gertrude to spy on her son for him, along with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and even Ophelia. Hamlet's mind is too complex for the relatively simple Claudius ever to understand him. Hamlet has decides to pretend to be mad in order to make it all the more difficult for Claudius to pry. As a result, Claudius naturally reads more into Hamlet than is actually there, and this is causing the wicked king to experience fears which show themselves in his heavy drinking and other behavior. What if this highly intelligent and well-educated nephew were to deduce the truth about Claudius' deep, dark secret--that he murdered his own brother to usurp the throne?

The Fencing Match

The fencing match is the grand finale of the play. It leads to the deaths of Laertes, Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius. An ambassador from England arrives to announce the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The match was arranged to enable Laertes to murder Hamlet in revenge for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. So all the main characters are wiped out except for Horatio.

Claudius has shown his cunning in arranging this lethal fencing match. He wanted to make it seem like a mere friendly diversion. But the idea of such a match as a means of getting rid of Hamlet appealed to him because he knew Hamlet would fall for it. When Claudius is scheming with Laertes in Act 4, Scene 7, he tells him of a French visitor named Lamont who had praised Laertes extravagantly for his fencing skill:

He made confession of you;
And gave you such a masterly report,
For art and exercise in your defence,
And for your rapier most especially,
That he cried out 'twould be a sight indeed
If one could match you. The scrimers of their nation
He swore had neither motion, guard, nor eye,
If you opposed them. Sir, this report of his
Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy
That he could nothing do but wish and beg
Your sudden coming o'er to play with you.

Claudius knows Hamlet will welcome the chance to fence with Laertes, and that Laertes, who takes great pride in his swordsmanship, will be equally anxious to fence with Hamlet. Claudius knows how to manipulate people. Claudius makes it more difficult for Hamlet to refuse such an encounter by creating a substantial bet between himself and Laertes. According to Osric:

The King, sir, hath wager'd with him six Barbary horses; against the which he has impawned, as I take it, six French rapiers and poniards, with their assigns, as girdle, hanger, and so. Three of the carriages, in faith, are very dear to fancy, very responsive to the hilts, most delicate carriages, and of very liberal conceit.      V.2

To make the match even more appealing to Hamlet, the King has given Hamlet highly favorable odds. Osric tells Hamlet:

The King, sir, hath laid, sir, that, in a dozen passes between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you three hits; he hath laid on twelve for nine, and it would come to immediate trial, if your lordship would vouchsafe the answer.

The King is betting that Laertes would have to get three more hits than Hamlet out of twelve "passes" in order to win. That means Hamlet only needs to make five hits, because Laertes could then only get seven at most, and that would only exceed Hamlet by two. Claudius is giving Hamlet the most favorable odds as a further inducement to participate.

In order to make the proposed match seem even more innocuous, Claudius has intentionally commissioned the foppish, comical young Osric to serve as messenger and referee. Hamlet and Horatio are both amused by this man, and Shakespeare's whole audience is laughing at his language and behavior. Osric is created to disguise the very serious intention behind this fencing match. Claudius has deliberately bet against Laertes to create the impression that they are not in collusion but are rival bettors. The actual match is very tense because Hamlet wins the first two passes and the third ends with neither man being hit. Only the audience knows that Laertes' foil is uncovered and poisoned. Hamlet would have to avoid being hit for five passes in a row in order to win the match and keep from being killed. Laertes does not really care about winning the bet; he wants to kill Hamlet any way he can. In addition to tricking Hamlet, Claudius has tricked Laertes into believing he is the superior swordsman when the King knows Hamlet is much better.

The King has so little faith in Osric that he sends a Lord to verify that Hamlet truly intends to participate in the match immediately. This is partially to inform the audience of what is going to happen, because the audience might have been confused by Osric's inflated vocabulary and Hamlet's banter.

LORD: My lord, his Majesty commended him to you by young Osric, who brings back to him that you attend him in the hall. He sends to know if your pleasure hold to play with Laertes, or that you will take longer time.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's Surprise Reception

Hamlet explains to Horatio how he forged a letter to the English king in place of the one Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were delivering from King Claudius. As Hamlet tells Horatio, his forgery contained

An earnest conjuration from the King,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them like the palm might flourish,
As peace should still her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma 'tween their amities,
And many such like as's of great charge,
That on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.

So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unknowingly carrying what is known as a "bellerophonic letter." The term comes from Greek mythology. The hero Bellerophon, who was noted for taming the winged horse Pegasus, was asked to deliver a letter which unbeknownst to him contained a request that he be executed. One can imagine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's surprise when they are taken immediately to the beheading block instead of being greeted with honors as emissaries from the King of Denmark. The two men would not know that the letter was a forgery because they would not see the letter and probably would not know the difference between Claudius' and Hamlet's handwriting anyway. Nevertheless, Hamlet requested

That on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.

This was to prevent the two unfortunate men from telling anyone, including a priest, anything about Hamlet's recent apparently mad behavior, including his murder of Polonius, or Claudius' fears for his own safety. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not know they are escorting Hamlet to his execution, nor do they know that the letter they are delivering is a forgery. They would probably both die believing that Claudius was having them beheaded for some offense of which they are unaware. If they had more time, they might confer with each other and guess that Hamlet had planted a forged letter in their packet--but Hamlet isn't giving them any time to think or to confer.