The main themes in Hamlet are deception and false appearances, spirituality and revenge, and misogyny and gender.
- Deception and False Appearances: Many characters in the play practice deception, and Hamlet himself feigns madness to uncover the truth about Claudius's crimes.
- Spirituality and Revenge: Hamlet's desire for revenge is complicated by his spiritual questions, and Hamlet spends much of the play contemplating the meaning of life and death.
- Misogyny and Gender: As women in a patriarchal court, Ophelia and Gertrude must navigate the oppressive and contradictory expectations of the men around them, and their powerlessness ultimately leads to their tragic ends.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1284
Deception and False Appearances
Marcellus notes in act 2 that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Indeed, in Hamlet, the truth is rarely easily discerned, and audiences quickly learn that an undercurrent of corruption, violence, and revenge runs just beneath the veneer of civility and order in Denmark’s court. From the very first scenes, Hamlet is shown to be keenly aware of and bothered by the superficiality that he witnesses at court, particularly that of Gertrude and Claudius, whose professed grief for the late king is perceived by Hamlet as insincere. Despite his apparent disdain for false appearances, Hamlet goes on to spend much of the play trying to convince the court that he has gone mad so that he can buy time to evaluate Claudius’s guilt. Even this overt deception may not be what it first appears: Hamlet claims he is merely pretending to be mad, but as his actions and behavior become increasingly erratic, audiences are left to wonder to what extent Hamlet’s madness is not feigned, but real.
Of course Hamlet is not the only character to trade on false appearances: A ghost appears who claims to be Hamlet's deceased father, yet the veracity of the ghost's statements is not certain, and Hamlet knows not whether it is a “spirit of health” or “goblin damned.” Claudius has committed regicide—of his brother, no less—yet he poses as an honorable king and pretends to mourn his brother after stealing his throne and wife. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's old friends, show up at the castle under the pretense of wanting to spend time with Hamlet, yet they have actually been ordered by Claudius to spy on Hamlet. This complex web of deception poisons the court from within, culminating in a public and violent display in the play’s final scene, where the characters’ secrets, grudges, and manipulations are finally brought to light. At the play’s end, the stage is littered with bodies, and even more characters—including Polonius, Ophelia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—lay dead offstage. Ultimately, the effects of the deceptions practiced throughout the play extend to the audience as well, casting doubt on the motivations and reliability of most of the characters and thus making it difficult to judge with certainty where the blame for all this death and destruction rightfully belongs.
Spirituality and Revenge
In act 1, a ghost claiming to be Hamlet’s father accuses Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, of having stolen the crown, the queen, and the late king's life. Claudius’s punishment, the apparition says, must be death. Murdered before he had the chance to repent for his earthly sins, Hamlet’s father has been sent to purgatory, a state between heaven and hell where he is "confined to fast in fires / Till the foul crimes done in [his] days of nature / Are burnt and purged away." The ghost’s tormented existence in purgatory presents Hamlet with a perplexing and difficult choice: to sin by murdering Claudius may expose Hamlet’s soul to the very same divine punishment his father speaks of, yet to allow Claudius’s sins to go unpunished would mean betraying his deceased father and king. This conflicting choice weighs heavily on Hamlet, whose contemplative nature leads him to reflect at length upon his spiritual and moral obligations. Even when he catches Claudius in an unguarded moment, seemingly at prayer, Hamlet's opportunity to achieve a swift and perfect revenge is thwarted by his religious questions: if Claudius is killed while praying, Hamlet wonders, will Claudius be sent to heaven? This uncertainty stays Hamlet’s sword—though unbeknownst to Hamlet, Claudius's guilt prevent him from engaging in true prayer.
As the play progresses, Hamlet appears to shed his concerns about the spiritual implications of his revenge, a shift that perhaps signals his own mental deterioration. He murders Polonius without regret; manipulates and abuses Ophelia, likely contributing to her madness and death; and vengefully orchestrates the demise of his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, dismissing their fate as "not near my conscience." In the graveyard in act 5, Hamlet reflects once again upon what it means to die, yet now he appears preoccupied with the finality and inevitability of physical death rather than what awaits in the spiritual afterlife.
Hamlet is ultimately a product of his religious and social context, which are brought into conflict throughout the play. He has been raised to be a nobleman of honor and loyalty, yet this same honor puts him in the impossible position of choosing between upholding his religious ideals and remaining loyal to his father. As he lays dying, Hamlet says that "the potent poison quite o'ercrows my spirit," referring literally to his fast approaching death but also perhaps figuratively to the corrupting effects of revenge on his immortal spirit.
Misogyny and Gender
Hamlet was written and first performed in a deeply patriarchal society, and this social context is well-represented in the play itself. Through Gertrude and Ophelia, the only two women in the play, modern audiences can come to understand how the limited and challenging gender roles of this period left little hope for a woman’s personal happiness or fulfillment.
Hamlet idealizes his mother and father’s relationship and harshly judges Gertrude for remarrying so soon after his father’s death. It is quite possible, however, that Gertrude's marriage to Claudius was an act of survival rather than of love; Gertrude may have seen an alliance with Claudius as a way to escape her precarious social position as the widowed former queen. Instead of considering the complexity of Gertrude’s situation, Hamlet judges his mother's grief as false, noting the "unrighteous tears" in her "galled eyes." He accuses his mother of weakness, a complaint he then extends to all women: "Frailty, thy name is woman!" In act 3, Hamlet directly confronts his mother, using harsh and, at times, graphically sexual language to accuse her of immodesty and hypocrisy. Confused, Gertrude tells her son that his words are like "daggers" entering her ears and that he has "cleft [her] heart in twain." It is never revealed to what extent Gertrude is aware, if at all, of Claudius’s crimes, but her genuine shock in this scene suggests that she is likely ignorant of his treachery. In the final scene of the play, Gertrude eventually falls victim to Claudius's scheming herself.
Ophelia, a young and innocent beauty who was once the object of Hamlet's affection, finds herself powerless and trapped by the contradictory expectations of the men around her. To her family, Ophelia must embody purity and chastity, whereas Hamlet sees her as an object of desire and romance. The contradictions inherent in Ophelia’s position are highlighted in the conflicting instructions of her family, who initially urge her to reject Hamlet’s romantic advances but then later demand that she exploit Hamlet’s love to further their plans. Once Hamlet realizes that she has been drawn into the schemes of the king, he, too, uses Ophelia as a pawn, toying with her emotions and insisting that his earlier professions of love were lies. He belittles her and dismisses her misery, insisting that women are deceptive by nature. After Hamlet kills her father, Ophelia is driven to madness and dies, presumably by suicide. In her madness, Ophelia’s disjointed stories and songs often touch on themes of sex, betrayal, and innocence, implicating the dueling manipulations of Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet in her mental breakdown. Ophelia’s apparent suicide, though condemned as a sin, is perhaps the only point in the play where she takes control of her own life's trajectory—though her deteriorated mental state leaves the true extent of her agency unclear.
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