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; however, their powerlessness ultimately leads to their tragic ends.
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, when 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—have died 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...
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