Hamlet Themes

  • Madness emerges as one of the most important themes of the play. Scholars have long debated whether Prince Hamlet is just pretending to be mad to deflect suspicion or if, in the process of feigning madness, Hamlet actually becomes mad himself. This is open to interpretation.
  • Revenge is central to the plot of Hamlet. Hamlet's quest to uncover the truth of his father's death is fueled by his desire to seek revenge on Claudius, who poisoned his brother, King Hamlet, in order to assume the throne. In the end, Hamlet gets his revenge, but at a terrible price.
  • Shakespeare introduces the theme of corruption, both physical and spiritual, with the line, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." This is evident in the fact that a murderer sits on the throne.


Hamlet is often called an "Elizabethan revenge play", the theme of revenge against an evil usurper driving the plot forward as in earlier stage works by Shakespeare's contemporaries, Kyd and Marlowe, as well as by the French writer Belleforest (Histoires Tragiques, 1576). As in those works, a hero plays minister and scourge in avenging a moral injustice, an affront to both man and God. In this case, regicide (killing a king) is a particularly monstrous crime, and there is no doubt as to whose side our sympathies are disposed.

As in many revenge plays, and, in fact, several of Shakespeare's other tragedies (and histories), a corrupt act, the killing of a king, undermines order throughout the realm that resonates to high heaven. We learn that there is something "rotten" in Denmark after old Hamlet's death in the very first scene, as Horatio compares the natural and civil disorders that occurred in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar's assassination to the disease that afflicts Denmark. These themes and their figurative expression are common to the Elizabethan revenge play genre in which good must triumph over evil.

But Hamlet is far more than an outstanding example of the revenge play. It is, to begin, a tragedy in which the attainment of justice entails the avenging hero's death. It is in the first scene of Act III that Hamlet speaks a soliloquy that has become a verbal emblem for Shakespearean tragedy and a measure of its thematic depth.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 't is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?

Two of the play's salient themes are interwoven here; human mortality or death and fortune or chance. On the level of plot action, Hamlet is an exceedingly mortal work: virtually all of the major characters—Hamlet, Claudius,...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Advanced Themes

(Shakespeare for Students)

The most fundamental issue in Hamlet, one which opens the door to countless readings of the play, can be stated in one simple...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)