Essential Passage by Character: Hamlet

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O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

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. That it should come to this!

But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two;

So excellent a king, that was, to this,

Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother

That he might not beteem the winds of heaven

Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!

Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him

As if increase of appetite had grown

By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—

Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman—

A little month, or ere those shoes were old

With which she follow'd my poor father's body

Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she—

O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason

Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle,

My father's brother, but no more like my father

Than I to Hercules. Within a month,

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears

Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,

She married. O, most wicked speed, to post

With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

It is not, nor it cannot come to, good.

But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!

Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 132-162


Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is speaking to himself. He is saddened and disheartened by recent events: his father’s death and the marriage of his mother, Gertrude the queen, to his uncle Claudius. By marrying his mother, Claudius has become king and denies his nephew the right to the crown. But losing the kingship is not what upsets Hamlet. Rather, Hamlet is depressed and angry by his mother’s betrayal of the memory of his father (she has remarried in less than two months after his death). Moreover, Hamlet does not feel that his uncle is anything like his father as a ruler or a parent. Claudius, too, has betrayed Hamlet’s father by marrying Gertrude. Despite all of their treachery, however, Hamlet does not feel he can speak out against their poor behavior and decisions. Although it saddens him, he says, “I must hold my tongue.”

This soliloquy establishes how much Hamlet blames his mother for her actions and shows how much esteem Hamlet has for his now-dead father. Most important, it sets the tone for Hamlet’s indecision and mental anguish.


The mental anguish Hamlet expresses in this soliloquy will be a feature of the entire play. King Hamlet was bold, decisive, and active. His son, on the other hand, is intellectual and passive. Hamlet clearly does not want to be involved in such a difficult situation. He even wishes that suicide were not a cardinal sin so that he could kill himself and be finished. Although his situation is not enviable, he spends a good deal of this soliloquy stomping his feet, like a spoiled child, and blaming his mother. While Gertrude is indeed guilty, Hamlet’s anger is motivated not only by her treachery but also because her behavior makes it all the harder for him to ignore his duty to avenge his father’s murder. His procrastination is nearly limitless.

Hamlet’s procrastination may be due in part to his not-very-realistic assessment of his position. His predicament requires a clear head and sound thinking, two...

(This entire section contains 1085 words.)

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areas in which Prince Hamlet falls sadly short. Hamlet’s desire to continue living in an imaginary world is evident in his fondness for mythology. In fact, he couches the whole scenario in overblown mythical terms. For example, while King Hamlet may have been a good ruler, Hamlet’s memory of him seems over-the-top. Even when Hamlet thinks of his parents in more realistic terms, he has a very naive perception of their relationship. He believes his father so doted on his mother that he would even prevent wind from blowing too harshly upon her face. But how could he really know the truth of their relationship? He was away much of the time, and Gertrude obviously did not love the former king the way Hamlet thinks that she did or she would never have become complicit in her husband’s murder and married his brother. He cannot even perceive of his mother as a feeling person who may have had desires of her own unmet by her former husband. In a later scene, he dismisses the notion that she may have been motivated by feelings of passion for Claudius, for Hamlet believes that a woman of her age is no longer capable of being a sexual person. This view of his mother is childish, and once again Hamlet proves that he is not mature enough to assume the crown. 

Blaming others is a way to avoid action and responsibility. Readers certainly have some empathy for Hamlet, who is placed in an impossible position: he does not want to be king and he does not want to commit murder. But when Hamlet involves the innocent Ophelia, our empathy for the embattled prince decreases. In a convoluted scheme to have Claudius confess his crimes, Hamlet decides that he will feign madness. In order to make his madness seem much more believable, he does not inform Ophelia of his deception, accusing her of the very crimes he feels his mother committed: deception and inconstancy. All of Hamlet’s negative perceptions of women are based in his belief that without a woman’s involvement, he would not be in the position of having to take action.

Hamlet even procrastinates when he is presented with a clear opportunity to kill Claudius later in Act 3. Hamlet comes upon Claudius alone at prayer. But intellectual Hamlet once again puts it off. He reasons that if he kills Claudius while the king is at confession, he will be forgiven and go to heaven. Hamlet decides it would be better to wait and catch Claudius doing something wrong so that he will go to hell. Ironically, Claudius felt unable to pray and Hamlet could have in (relatively) good conscience killed him then. Once again, Hamlet’s procrastination stays his hand, and this missed opportunity to kill one person will ultimately lead to the deaths of many.

Essential Passage by Character: Gertrude

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Here is your husband, like a mildew'd ear

Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?

Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,

And batten on this Moor? Ha! have you eyes?

You cannot call it love; for at your age

The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble,

And waits upon the judgment; and what judgment

Would step from this to this? Sense sure you have,

Else could you not have motion; but sure that sense

Is apoplex'd; for madness would not err,

Nor sense to ecstacy was ne'er so thrall'd

But it reserv'd some quantity of choice

To serve in such a difference. What devil was't

That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?

Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,

Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,

Or but a sickly part of one true sense

Could not so mope.

O shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,

If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,

To flaming youth let virtue be as wax

And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame

When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,

Since frost itself as actively doth burn,

And reason panders will.


O Hamlet, speak no more!

Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,

And there I see such black and grained spots

As will not leave their tinct.

Act 3, Scene 4, Lines 70-98


Gertrude has called Hamlet to her room, yet she is disturbed by his manic behavior. Hidden behind the arras is Polonius, trying to discover more of the cause of Hamlet’s madness. Yet, when Hamlet confronts his mother with her wickedness, Gertrude feels significantly threatened and cries out. Echoing her cry, Polonius reveals his hiding place and Hamlet, thinking that it was Claudius behind the arras, stabs and kills Polonius. Hamlet regrets his death, but he regrets that it was not Claudius even more.

Gertrude, in the face of ongoing judgment from Hamlet, asks her son what she has done to deserve his contempt. Thinking she is playing ignorant, Hamlet accuses her of an immoral marriage to her husband’s brother.

Hamlet points out to Gertrude two portraits of both her husbands. He compares them to each other, first taking note the excellent qualities of his own father. In contrast, he illuminates the wretchedness and wickedness of her second husband, Claudius. Using the Biblical allusion of the “mildewed ear / Blasting his wholesome brother” (from Genesis 41, in which the Pharaoh dreams of withered wheat consuming the wholesome wheat, prophesying the coming drought), Hamlet hints that all that was good about King Hamlet will be destroyed by King Claudius.

Hamlet questions the reason for her marriage. He states that, because she is middle-aged, it cannot be for love, for the passions have by now dried up in her. He notes that she has full use of her senses, but her senses seem to have failed her. Perhaps it was a demon that tempted her to ignore her senses and enter into such a marriage. If so, then mere youth has no chance of virtue if the elders are so quickly drawn into sin.

Gertrude, overcome with this barrage of accusation, pleads with her son to stop. She tells him that he has turned her eyes around so that she is looking into her very soul. There she sees all the defects that he has pointed out, sins that cannot be washed away.


Gertrude and Hamlet have one of the most problematic mother-son relationships in literature. The ongoing love-hate status propels the story in directions beyond the simple revenge story of Hamlet against Claudius. Conflicts with a stepfather are common, yet the implications that arise by the marriage of Gertrude to her husband’s brother present difficulties that further drive Hamlet to the brink of despair.

Gertrude had been the seemingly happily married wife of King Hamlet, as well as the doting mother of her son. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father relates his uxorious attentions to his wife, believing that she of all people would stay true to her husband, even after death. Yet, at his death, her “overhasty” marriage grieves him, causing doubt as to the true nature of her love during their marriage.

Hamlet, as the son of the former king and of the once-and-present queen, is likewise having severe moral issues concerning this marriage. His doubts arose even prior to his encounter with the Ghost. This visitation serves only to validate his outrage. It also impels him to take action, whereas before he was seemingly content to be sullen and withdrawn.

The legal implications, aside from the moral, present a different view. Despite Hamlet’s denouncement of this marriage as “incest,” in point of fact it is not, since Gertrude and Claudius are not blood relations. Though the legal restrictions on the marriage between a woman and her former brother-in-law are unclear, in many cultures, even modern ones, this does not present a particular problem. In ancient Jewish society, for example, the brother of a deceased man was expected to marry his widow in order to raise children for his line. Even in early America this practice was not uncommon. Once the woman became a widow, she was free to marry whom she chose, as long as he was not a close relation. Indeed, some cousins married, again in order to preserve the family line. Therefore, it is difficult to take a negative view concerning the legality of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius, either on a civil or moral ground.

In a society where the opportunities for women were almost nonexistent, marriage was the one security. Remarriage was common, especially if young children were involved. With the husband viewed as the sole breadwinner, it was necessary for the wife and family to be provided for. Thus Hamlet’s objections are shaky.

The implied cause of Hamlet's vilification of his mother is not on her choice of husbands, but on her choice of remarriage at all, especially so quickly. Hamlet’s near-worship of his father prevents any thought of anyone taking his place, either in the kingdom or in his mother’s bed. Yet his rage provides the play with an added foundation for revenge against Claudius: Hamlet is simply using Gertrude as another way to justify that revenge.

In confrontations with her son, Gertrude is confused about the virulence of the attacks. She cannot see his point of view, something that perhaps reflects negatively on her maternal nature. She has moved on from her first husband’s death and is determined to find happiness in her second. Unlike Hamlet, her heart is not in the grave. Despite Hamlet’s objections that, for a woman of her age, she is incapable of feeling passion, she indeed has displayed a deep love for Claudius. It was not a mere political marriage, though that may have been part of it, as a means of ensuring that Hamlet, at some point, would be heir to the throne. Yet Hamlet is not thinking of the future; he is concerned only with the past.

Hamlet’s words cause Gertrude some doubt as she reflects on her motives. Perhaps, as Hamlet says, she married too soon. How seriously she holds Hamlet’s words is shadowed by her belief that he is obviously mad. Though feeling remorse, Gertrude is more concerned at this point for her son’s sanity as well as for the safety of those with whom he comes in contact.

Essential Passage by Character: The Ghost

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I am thy father's spirit,

Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confined to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,

Thy knotted and combined locks to part,

And each particular hair to stand an end

Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

But this eternal blazon must not be

To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!

If thou didst ever thy dear father love—


O God!


Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.




Murder most foul, as in the best it is;

But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 13-32


Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus await the arrival of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, while Claudius drinks the night away. Though it is customary in the palace to drink to the point of excessive drunkenness, Hamlet states that, though he is to this “manner born," he does not indulge. There is too much evil in the world to willingly take more into his mouth to make what is customary become dishonorable. While Hamlet explains his position to Horatio and Marcellus, the Ghost appears, beckoning Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus try to hold Hamlet back, but Hamlet insists and goes off alone.

The Ghost proclaims that, before he is condemned to purgatory to be cleansed of his many sins, he has come to Hamlet to deliver a message. Though the Ghost would love to tell Hamlet of the pains he is to undergo in the afterlife, perhaps as a warning, he is forbidden to do so. Instead he begs Hamlet to avenge his murder.

The murder of his father is not something that Hamlet has brought himself consciously to acknowledge as a possibility, yet it has crossed his mind. To know it for a fact—as much as he has committed himself to trusting the words of the Ghost—is a shock. All murder is “foul,” but this act exceeds all others in its “most foul, strange, and unnatural” state.

Before he is condemned to suffer the eternal consequences of his misdeeds, the Ghost is bent on ensuring that the misdeeds of others have earthly consequences. It is thus that he appeals to Hamlet to carry out this duty. He says that his brother, Claudius, murdered him by pouring a poison into his ear while he slept in the garden. With the rightful king dead, Claudius then usurped the throne and married the recently widowed queen.

The Ghost speaks not only of his brother's betrayal but also that of his wife. That she would so quickly marry another, when she had appeared to be so in love with her husband, is an act of treason to the former king. Thus she also must pay for her guilt. It is through Hamlet that the Ghost will work for justice.


Though Hamlet is typically presented as a play of revenge, as it indeed is, it could also be considered an exploration of the Biblical phrase “sins of the fathers” (Numbers 14:18). The former king was guilty of acts and deeds that may be considered “sins.” It is in the passage above that he freely admits so, although he does not go into detail concerning what “sins” they might have been. On the surface, he may simply be referring to those sins that all people, in their fallen state, commit. Yet he refers to his sins as “foul crimes,” so they are likely more than common, everyday transgressions.

As an absolute monarch, the king is the source of law, and thus he may bend it to his own will. Normally this would be done for the good of the state, as it may have been in the Ghost’s case. But it also may be done for one’s own personal benefit, as in the case of Claudius. It is in this argument that Shakespeare is making a judgment call as to who is the greater “sinner.”

During his reign, King Hamlet was attacked by King Fortinbras of Norway. In this conflict, King Hamlet killed Fortinbras, causing all the latter’s conquered lands to be ceded to Denmark. According to a bargain, some of these lands were to be given back to Fortinbras’s successor, yet this was not done. The son of Fortinbras, also called by that name, now is insisting that the lands be returned. The young Fortinbras, however, is in a weakened position because, like Hamlet, the throne of his country has been taken over by his uncle.

Through this situation, King Hamlet is guilty of dishonest dealings. Though the killing of Fortinbras might not be considered murder in the legal since, as it was committed as an act of war, yet he did directly cause the death of another. As the king of Norway’s heir was denied the throne by an uncle, in an act of divine justice, the king of Denmark’s heir was also denied the throne. Rather than being an innocent victim of assassination, the Ghost was guilty of the civil turmoil in the state of Norway.

While this situation may be seen as merely the typical state of affairs between nations at war, it appears from this passage that, on a spiritual level, it requires purgation. On an eternal scale, the deeds of state do not condone the sins of man. There are eternal consequences for the acts of kings, just as there are for the acts of man. It is for these sins that Hamlet, the son of the king, must pay.

Although Hamlet may feel that he, and he alone, has suffered greatly because of the deeds of his uncle and his mother, the situation was instead caused by the sins of his father. Because of him, Hamlet must face retribution—not for his own sins as such, but for those of the king. Functioning like a Christ-figure, Hamlet must die for the sins of those who came before. While he too is not guiltless, especially in the murder of Polonius as well as in the madness and death of Ophelia, it is specifically for the “sins of the father” that he must die. Because of this substitutionary death, the succession to the throne of Denmark leaves the line of Hamlet to Fortinbras, who functions as a parallel to Hamlet. The death of the guilty—Claudius and Gertrude—and the death of the innocent purge sin from this “rotten state of Denmark.”

Essential Passage by Theme: Revenge

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Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;

And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven,

And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd.

A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.

O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!

He took my father grossly, full of bread,

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;

And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

'tis heavy with him; and am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?


Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent.

When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage;

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At game, a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in't

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn'd and black

As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 75-98


Claudius has summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends and fellow students, to take Hamlet to England, ostensibly for his own safety, as well as that of the kingdom. Rosencrantz points out that, though it is best for everyone to take measures to protect themselves, it is even more important for a king to do so, since so many people depend on him.

Polonius arrives, announcing that Hamlet is on his way to his mother’s room. Polonius will hide behind the arras to make sure that Gertrude stays strong. While a mother may successfully chide a child, she may also be too easily swayed.

Left alone, Claudius seems to genuinely feel remorse for his crimes. He compares himself to Cain, the murderer of his brother Abel. He wonders if he can be forgiven for a sin when he is still enjoying the fruits of that sin. Must he give up the fruits in order to achieve full forgiveness? He tries to pray, but he cannot. He acknowledges that, because of his unwillingness to give up his throne and his queen, he will most likely spend eternity in hell.

Hamlet enters and perceives Claudius in prayer. The opportunity to kill the king affords itself, yet Hamlet hesitates. Hamlet assumes that Claudius is confessing his sins to God. If he kills him in the act of prayer, Claudius will go to heaven. Hamlet does not see this as the fullest act of revenge that he seeks. He does not see the logic of ending Claudius’s life simply to have him go on to eternal reward and bliss. Rather, he will wait until Claudius is caught in some act of sin: drunkenness, sex, or even swearing. He mocks the sufficiency of Claudius’s prayer. Although the king is trying to cure his sin, he is only prolonging his sinfulness.


Hamlet is presented with quite the dilemma. An excellent opportunity to kill Claudius presents itself. Commanded by his late father to exact revenge on the king for his crimes against the royal family and the kingdom, Hamlet has committed himself to do exactly that. All actions that Hamlet has taken up to this point that, so it is unconscionable for Hamlet to refuse the chance to exact revenge when it is most available. He is decides to forgo this opportunity in hopes of a different one.

As presented in this passage, the distinction is made as to the true nature of Hamlet’s quest of revenge. It brings out the true definition of revenge, as just punishment for an unjust deed. The mere ending of Claudius’ life at this juncture would not accomplish sufficiently that punishment.

Revenge always has a strong tinge of justice threaded throughout. Mere lashing out in the heat of passion would not meet the full requirements. To do so would be akin to murder, which is not what Hamlet is about.

The ancient custom of “an eye for an eye” is involved in Hamlet’s call to revenge. One life has been taken away; therefore the life of the guilty party must be forfeited as well. But in the worldview from which Hamlet functions, the ending of a life is not the goal. It is justice. A crime has been committed, so there must be more than just earthly punishments involved. Claudius’s crime is murder and, in Hamlet’s mind, incest. These are not crimes against the laws of the state. They are crimes against the laws of God. Therefore, beyond just temporal punishment, there must be eternal punishment as well. If Hamlet kills Claudius in the act of confession, the king’s life will be ended, but he will receive no punishment in the hereafter. Thus, to kill Claudius now would be murder. Hamlet has decided: not only must Claudius die; Claudius must go to hell.

This dilemma showcases Hamlet’s extreme intelligence. He is guided not by his passions but by his mind. He is not a creature of action, as his previous indecision has revealed. Prior to his encounter with the ghost of his father, Hamlet’s attempts to reconcile himself to the death of his father and the remarriage of his mother purely on an intellectual basis, at which he was failing miserably. Such a situation cannot be understood with the mind. It goes against all that is logical in how a kingdom, and a family, is supposed to exist. Yet Hamlet cannot bring himself to take steps to rectify this situation, or even seek the help of advisers to bring Claudius to justice. It is what it is, and there is nothing to do but feel bad about it.

Yet when King Hamlet appears to his son, he prods Hamlet reluctantly to action. Hamlet accepts the task, yet he carries it out in an intellectual fashion. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game, signified by the play he has the acting troupe to perform, "The Mousetrap.” All the cerebral talents of Hamlet come forth as he drives Claudius to the edge. While the Ghost might have been meaning a simple execution, Hamlet prefers to toy with Claudius’s mind. As an intellectual this is most appealing to him. But to take action and kill Claudius is contrary to his inactive nature. Thus he is reluctant at this point to do so, aside from the notion of sending him straight to heaven.

This raises some questions: Is Hamlet falling into evil? Is he milking this situation to the utmost? He evidently wants Claudius to suffer pain—physical, mental, and spiritual. He is not satisfied with only one. All must come into play.

Other questions also arise: What is the distinction between revenge and justice? Which one is Hamlet seeking? Does the Ghost of King Hamlet endanger his son’s immortal soul by ordering this duty? Is Hamlet selling his own soul to the devil? If Hamlet kills Claudius in the passage quoted above, Claudius will go to heaven and Hamlet will go to hell. That would not fall under the category of justice. However, it must be pointed out that if Hamlet had killed Claudius at this point, many lives would have been saved.

Mere revenge betokens the idea that justice is carried out by an unauthorized individual in an unauthorized manner. Does Hamlet fall under this category? Is the Ghost’s intention justice or revenge? As the son, Hamlet may indeed at that time be seen as authorized to deal out punishment for the murder of his father. There is no indication of a structured legal system in Denmark at the time. Hamlet does not have recourse to the courts for retribution. However, the fact that Hamlet seeks to carry this out in a prolonged torture places him within the realm of mere revenge.

Essential Passage by Theme: Redemption

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For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune.

I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,

Which now, to claim my vantage doth invite me.


Of that I shall have also cause to speak,

And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more.

But let this same be presently perform'd,

Even while men's minds are wild, lest more mischance

On plots and errors happen.


Let four captains

Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage;

For he was likely, had he been put on,

To have proved most royal; and, for his passage,

The soldiers' music and the rites of war

Speak loudly for him.

Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this

Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 404-420


In a setup instigated by Claudius and Laertes, Hamlet and Laertes are to fight a duel of honor, to assuage the crime of Hamlet’s murder of Polonius. Laertes, on accepting Hamlet’s apology, states that, while he is satisfied in “nature,” as a son and brother, the duel must still be fought on “terms of honor.” They fight, Laertes with the sword that he has painted with poison. At the first cut, Hamlet’s death is assured, as is Laertes, who is struck by the same sword during an exchange of weapons. Gertrude has died, unknowingly drinking the poison that Claudius had prepared for Hamlet; Claudius dies at the hand of Hamlet.

It is on this scene of death that Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, arrives. He is returning from Poland, where he has been regaining territory that his father lost, an episode in which Hamlet’s father was also involved. With him is the ambassador of England, with the news that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, though Horatio tells him that this was not Claudius's command.

Horatio, now the spokesman for the house of Denmark, asks that the bodies be removed and placed on the stage (platform) so that he can relate to the people the cause for such a high body count. He tells them that it is a tale of “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,” deaths that were intended for others but came back on the heads of those who commanded them.

Fortinbras, shocked by the carnage and confused as to the complete absence of any visible ruler of Denmark, remarks that he has some right to the throne, which he is inclined to claim. Horatio speaks up and tells him Hamlet’s last request was that Fortinbras be given the crown of Denmark. He requests that the coronation take place immediately, lest more conflict arise from outside by those who wish to take advantage of the chaos that Denmark currently finds itself in.

Assuming authority, Fortinbras commands that Hamlet be carried out and placed upon display with all the ceremony of royalty. Fortinbras commends Hamlet as one who, given the chance, would have made an admirable king. It is for this reason that he should now receive the burial ceremonies of a fallen king.


In this final scene, Fortinbras arrives to assume the throne of Denmark. Fortinbras (a character often left out of film versions) is crucial as a foil to Hamlet. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the son of a king who has been killed and whose throne his brother has usurped. Unlike Hamlet, however, Fortinbras takes action and regains the throne and territory lost by his father. Fortinbras is what Hamlet should have been but was not, due to his melancholy and his indecision. It is only through the Ghost of his father that Hamlet takes up his quest to set the kingdom to rights. The Ghost tells Hamlet, “Remember who you are. You are more than what you have become.” Though Hamlet tries valiantly in this task of rediscovery, he is unable to completely do so, leaving the healing of the kingdom to Fortinbras.

Fortinbras symbolizes the redemption of the land in an Arthurian way. In the tale of the Fisher King, the grail king has received the Dolorous Stroke (an unhealable wound) that brings destruction to his kingdom, turning it into a wasteland. It is only through the grail knight Percival that his wound is at last healed, as well as the land. In Hamlet, Fortinbras takes on the role of Percival, the noble knight who heals the kingdom of Denmark. Like the Fisher King’s wound in his thigh or groin, the Dolorous Stroke wounded the legitimate progeny of the king. Hamlet, also a grail knight, has tried to redeem the land (finding the grail, or restoring the crown to its rightful owner) but has failed. Fortinbras, on arriving at Elsinore, raises Hamlet posthumously to the rank of king. It is this act that heals the wasteland of Denmark.

Another parallel of Hamlet to the idea of redemption is the story of the Garden of Eden, with King Hamlet as an Adam-figure and his son as a Christ-figure. Like Adam (the father of mankind), King Hamlet was in a garden at the moment death arrived. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father, relating his murder to Hamlet, states in Act 1 that “a serpent stung me.” As the serpent tempted Adam and Eve, bringing Death to mankind, Claudius (in acting as the serpent) brought Death not just to King Hamlet but to the kingdom of Denmark as well. As both Adam and Eve are implicated in the sin of Eden, both Claudius and Gertrude are implicated in the sin of Denmark. As the seed of Adam (Christ) will bring redemption to mankind, so the seed of King Hamlet will bring redemption to Denmark through his death. In fact, it is the same method of death—poison—for both Hamlet and his father, just as sin is the method of death for both Adam and Christ.

Because Hamlet is not divine, his “resurrection” must come about in another way. It is through Fortinbras that Hamlet returns to life, bringing salvation to the kingdom. Fortinbras, as stated previously, is a “glorified” Hamlet, Hamlet as he was meant to be. The intentional parallel between the lives of Fortinbras and Hamlet is meant to portray them as two sides of the same character. They are the dual nature of one person, as Christ has the dual nature of both man and God. This presentation makes Hamlet a Christ-figure, whose death is necessary for redemption. Significantly, Kenneth Branaugh’s 1996 full-text film version portrays Hamlet being carried out by the soldiers, arms spread out in the shape of a cross, intentionally designed to bring to mind the image of Christ taken down from the cross, and thus “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."


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