What can we learn from Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet?

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To be honest, to fully answer this question would take a book. I've looked over the other answers and am not satisfied with them. In fact, I think that this might be the longest answer to a question on Yahoo! Answers so far. But there are lots of things to learn from Hamlet. To this point, we've been looking at Hamlet as a play and how it teaches us how to structure our stories, how to develop our characters and how to use language effectively. The story itself is also a great demonstration of these things in action, but there's more that can be learned from Shakespeare than just what makes for good stories or good plays. To quote Dr. Bill Kieffer: "

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Art is an amazing thing that speaks to each person who interacts with it differently. Two people can see the same play, but it may speak to them in vastly distinct and separate ways.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespearean plays, and I find that it has many messages or lessons for its audience.

Hamlet is a seemingly happy young man, with a family he loves, called home at his father's unexpected death. When he arrives at Elsinore Castle, he is as prepared as he can be for the loss of his father, but then discovers that his mother has married his father's brother (considered an incestuous marriage in Elizabethan times), and that his uncle, Claudius, now sits on the throne of Denmark.

If this is not enough, Hamlet's father's ghost appears and charges his son to avenge Old Hamlet's murder.

There are several important life lessons in this play, for me.

First of all, life can change with one beat of the heart. Life holds no guarantees.

Secondly, I believe it is important to allow people to help you and have faith in those you love. Hamlet quickly decides he cannot trust Gertrude (his mother) or Ophelia (his sweetheart). Had he been able to do so, surely his burden would have been lighter, and Ophelia might not have died.

There are times when life asks us to do things we do not want to do. In Act I, scene five, Hamlet complains that he is required to avenge his father's murder:

O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!   (210)

Finally, one of the play's most important themes comes, ironically, from the mouth of one of the play's most foolish characters: Polonius. Polonius has wonderful advice, but never takes it. This famous line speaks to us, hundreds of years after Shakespeare wrote it:

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.  (I, iii, 82-84)

Hamlet is called upon to fix a situation with which he has no experience. He does not feel he can speak to his family, or Ophelia and her family, but he does not spend a great deal of time trying to work things out with Horatio. And although Horatio is a man who Hamlet can trust, the young prince decides to "put on an antic disposition" to trick those he feels he cannot trust.

None of this comes naturally to Hamlet; we sense he is a young man who is given to speaking his mind honestly, without deception.

Hamlet is unable to follow this advice, but must present himself as something he is not: a man crazed with love, or grief, or both. Since Claudius is a murderer, it stands to reason that Hamlet cannot speak his mind regarding his father's murder, but had he leaned on others, and remained true to his own sensibilities, rather than trying to be what he imagined would help him decide the path he must take to avenge his father's death, perhaps his fate might have been different, hypothetically.

These are some of the main themes or messages I find in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

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What can we learn from Hamlet's soliloquies?

Not to beat a dead horse, but yes, thousands of pages could be and have been written about the soliloquies.  One of the things that previous posters have not pointed out is the fact that you can learn a great deal about the skillful use of the English language from Hamlet's soliloquies.

If we look at Hamlet's soliloquy in Act I, scene ii, the two sentences are themselves a wonderful demonstration of Shakespeare's ability and also happens to show us a great deal about Hamlet and about his state of mind.

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.  O God, God,

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

We learn here that it isn't just that he suspects some foul play in his father's death, it isn't just that things with Ophelia might not be going the way he hoped, but that everything, "all the uses of this world" are empty and meaningless to him.  He cannot even find a purpose in avenging his father.  Here Shakespeare helps to show the depth of his characters.  Unlike Romeo, who is carried away completely by his love of Juliet, Hamlet is far more introspective and far more deeply affected by the various things around him.  This soliloquy serves to demonstrate some of that while also providing great examples of the use of imagery and symbolism, etc.

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What can we learn from Hamlet's soliloquies?

The above answer does an excellent job of summarizing the main thrust of each of Hamlet's major soliloquies, and the editor is certainly correct when she writes that more could be written on them.  In fact, a thousand pages could easily be written to answer your question.

I'll just elaborate on one line from one soliloquy to give you some specifics.

In Hamlet's early speech in which he figuratively wishes his flesh, his life, would melt away, he metaphorically compares the world--existence--to "an unweeded garden."  Hamlet here is applying his own personal situation to the world and existence as a whole, projecting his own troubles on to existence.  This is evidence that he is suffering from melancholy, or as we would say today, major depression. 

His father's unexpected death and his mother's hasty and incestuous remarriage apparently triggered Hamlet's depression before the opening of the play.  And one common symptom of depression is, of course, inaction.  If everything is meaningless and hopeless, why bother?

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What can we learn from Hamlet's soliloquies?

For starters, we learn what Hamlet thinks about himself, life, death, Denmark, his mother, Claudius.  From his first soliloquy, "O that this too too sullied flesh should melt,"  we learn that he is close to suicide over his father's death and his mother's too soon marriage to Claudius.  We know that he is learned, scholarly, moral, and deeply disillusioned by those around him.  But we also learn that he is not quick to action.  He knows he must hold his tongue.  Later, in Act 2, Hamlet reveals in his "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy his extreme frustration over his inability to avenge his father's death.  He is angry that Claudius lives and that he has been able to do nothing but put on an antic disposition.  But in this soliloquy, filled with self-loathing and bitterness, we see a very smart mind at work.  He comes up with a clever plan to ascertain Claudius' guilt.  In his "To be, or not to be" speech, we see further a more mature mind as Hamlet philosophically and rationally considers why people endure suffering in this life when they could take action to end this suffering.  This speech marks a certain development in Hamlet's character in that it is a general musing rather than an individual expression of emotion.  In Act 4, Hamlet's soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me," we see Hamlet dissect the connection between thought, action, and cowardice as he evaluates the honor and merit of Fortinbras's actions.

These are some of the major soliloquies and some brief ideas of what is learned through them.  Through them we understand Hamlet's developing maturity throughout the play, his impressive thought processes, and his motivation for acting or refraining from acting.  Much more could be written on these.

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