The Conflict Between Appearance and Reality: Between Claudius’s “smiling villainy,” Hamlet’s alleged madness, and the ghost’s cryptic nature, Hamlet is full of ambiguity. By the end of the play, every character except for Horatio believes that Hamlet has truly gone mad. Hamlet’s madness begins as an act, but the question of whether his madness might be real has plagued readers since the play’s debut. The difficulty in discerning appearance from reality can be further explored through the nature of the ghost. A major part of Hamlet’s inability to take revenge against Claudius rests in his own uncertainty regarding the ghost’s claims. The untrustworthiness of appearances and the unknowability of reality limit Hamlet’s ability to act.
- For discussion: Do you think that Hamlet’s madness is real or feigned? How does Hamlet’s mental state inform how you read the play?
- For discussion: In what ways does Hamlet doubt the ghost’s reality? The ghost’s identity? How do Hamlet’s doubts about the ghost impact the way he approaches his revenge? How does the play’s stance on revenge change when the ghost is considered from different perspectives?
- For discussion: How do different characters confront the conflict between appearances and reality? Is Hamlet’s judgment objective or subjective? What factors influence his understanding of the characters around him?
Revenge as Theme: Revenge is the catalyst for the plot of Hamlet, and it is modeled in three different ways by Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. All three characters have lost a beloved father and are called upon to avenge them. Laertes and Fortinbras are quick to action, whereas Hamlet is not totally convinced of the ghost’s claims and instead decides to obtain more tangible proof. The morality of murder and revenge is a frequent source of angst for Hamlet, who has difficulty reconciling his own values with the gruesome task the ghost has given him.
- For discussion: Does the play advocate for or against revenge? Is Hamlet’s revenge successful? What does the play suggest makes someone a successful avenger?
- For discussion: What evidence in the text suggests that revenge is cyclical? Do you think that the cycle will end with Hamlet? Why or why not?
Hamlet as a Religiously Conflicted Character: Hamlet’s character and the conflicts he faces are deeply rooted in Christian beliefs. Furthermore, the play situates his uncertainty about the ghost in the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, which Shakespeare’s contemporaries experienced firsthand. Traditional Catholic doctrine affirmed the existence of purgatorial ghosts, which is what the ghost in Hamlet claims to be. Purgatorial ghosts were spirits of the dead who could ask their families to give offerings or pray for them in order to reduce their time in purgatory, an intermediate state between heaven and hell. However, Protestants rejected the doctrine of purgatory and believed that ghosts were mere manifestations of evil. Furthermore, Protestants considered revenge itself to be at odds with Christian beliefs.
- For discussion: How is Hamlet’s sense of filial obedience at odds with his religious beliefs? How do religious values obstruct Hamlet’s pursuit of revenge? To what extent can Hamlet be read as a play about resisting the temptations of sin?
- For discussion: How does Hamlet’s religious conflict echo the cultural landscape of Elizabethan England? How does this knowledge affect your reading of the play?
- For discussion: How do other characters in Hamlet experience religious conflict? Consider Claudius as a Cain-like figure and Ophelia’s alleged suicide.
Isolation as Theme: Hamlet begins as an emotionally isolated figure. He continues to mourn his father in the midst of a court that has moved on to celebrating a wedding. His knowledge of his father’s murder serves to deepen this isolation, driving him to mistrust everyone except Horatio. Ophelia’s abandonment, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ’s spying, and...
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