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Hamlet

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English Literature

Hamlet (1599-1601) is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. Over recent years, the titular character has been played by many illustrious figures such as Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant, and Benedict Cumberbatch, a testament to how highly esteemed the play remains within popular culture. Hamlet (1599-1601) has and continues to fascinate audiences, scholars, and critics alike – so, what's all the fuss about?

William Shakespeare's Hamlet

The context and influence of this play by Williams Shakespeare are explained below

Context and Influence

The precise date of Hamlet's first performance is unknown, but it is rumoured that the play was completed and performed for the first time somewhere between 1599 and 1602. The events of the play may have been influenced by England's immediate past, which saw the beheading of King Charles I, the rise of the Commonwealth under Lord Protector Cromwell after the monarchy's abolit, and the restoration of the monarchy in England.

Revenge tragedies were a popular genre at the time that often focused on demonstrating events in graphic and violent ways. Therefore, as a revenge tragedy, Shakespeare's Hamlet stands out. Hamlet is more character- than action-driven, and raises the titular character's moral dilemma concerning his quest for revenge.

Because it is so character-driven, the leading role of Hamlet, especially for stage performances, is considered to be rather prestigious. Critics have long acknowledged that the play features less action, being more concerned with exploring questions of psychology, personal philosophy, and moral code.

Literary critic Ernest Jones compares Hamlet's character to that of Oedipus, stating that Hamlet's inability to act stems from the Oedipal complex. The Oedipal Complex is a psychoanalytic theory that Sigmund Freud first mentions in his Interpretation of Dreams (1913). It proposes the hypothesis that all young boys go through an unconscious phase in which they desire their mothers and see their fathers as competition, thus developing a hatred for them. For Jones, Hamlet struggles to come to terms with his uncle's actions of killing his father and marrying his mother because it was something that Hamlet unconsciously desired for himself.1

Did you know: numerous Shakespearean plays (such as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Troilus and Cressida) were inspired by other texts. Hamlet, for example, was inspired by the Scandinavian figure of Amleth in the works of Saxo Grammaticus.

Hamlet: The Play

A brief summary of the play, Hamlet is explained below

Hamlet: Summary

The opening of Hamlet sets the tone for the rest of the play. In the castle of Elsinore in Denmark, the guards are changing as the end of the shift nears. They are discussing the appearance of a Ghost, which looked remarkably similar to the recently deceased King. As the Ghost reappears and then disappears, the guards resolve to tell Prince Hamlet about it.

Meanwhile, after recently ascending to the throne of Denmark, King Claudius addresses the court, directly addressing the unseemly death of his brother and his marriage to his brother's widow, Queen Gertrude. Claudius addresses Prince Hamlet and asks him why he is persistent in mourning his father, while everyone else seems to have moved on. Claudius insinuates that Prince Hamlet is offending heaven and its divine will by continuing to mourn for his father. Queen Gertrude too, asks him about his grief.

Hamlet makes his thoughts known, especially when he says that his grief is too deep as, to him, his father was akin to God. Hamlet is disgusted by Claudius' remarks about his grief, but also by the hypocrisy of his mother as, although she was bereaved upon the King's death, she quickly overcame her grief once she was seduced by Claudius. As the court disperses, Hamlet is informed by the guards about the Ghost of his late father and resolves to meet them at the battlements to inquire into the matter.

The audience is then introduced to Ophelia, whose father and brother warn her against Hamlet and instruct her not to speak to him or acknowledge his advances towards her. Meanwhile, Hamlet and the guards encounter the Ghost and follow it. The Ghost of the King tells Prince Hamlet that he was killed by Claudius and that Hamlet is obliged to avenge his death. Hamlet elicits a promise from the guards to tell no one about the Ghost and to give no indication that they know what is bothering Hamlet. Meanwhile, Hamlet comments that he must set things right.

Hamlet, dishevelled and disturbed, visits Ophelia, but does not speak to her and soon leaves. Ophelia recounts this to her father Polonius, who resolves to report Hamlet to the King. Two of Hamlet's friends are summoned by the King and Queen, who wish for them to lift Hamlet's spirits as he is not the man they knew him to be. Polonius informs the King and Queen that he thinks Hamlet is madly in love with Ophelia, and that this is the cause for his odd behaviour. They decide to test this theory by eavesdropping on Ophelia and Hamlet.

Hamlet, showing signs of odd behaviour and depression, toys with Polonius as well as his friends, who he knows have been summoned to check on him. Hamlet comments that he takes no pleasure in being alive and does not enjoy life. In the meantime, a troupe of theatre actors are welcomed to Elsinore. Hamlet meets with the troupe and requests them to perform The Murder of Gonzago, but with certain lines altered by Hamlet.

Hamlet is frustrated with himself for not being determined and motivated in his quest for revenge. He resolves to watch Claudius and Gertrude during the performance of the play and hopes that, when Claudius sees their misdeeds mirrored in the play, he will be moved to confess to the murder of the King, and Gertrude will repent her actions of disloyalty.

Hamlet's two friends report to the King and the Queen that Hamlet talks like a madman, but they have not been able to locate the source of his madness. Polonius and Gertrude believe it is his love for Ophelia that is causing him to behave madly. Polonius stages a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet, where Hamlet behaves coldly towards Ophelia and laments the state of mankind. Ophelia is broken-hearted due to Hamlet's attitude towards her. Meanwhile, Claudius, who overheard them, remarks that Hamlet did not speak as if he was madly in love. He perceives Hamlet as a threat and resolves to send him on an ambassadorial mission to England to be rid of him.

The court gathers for the play performance, with Hamlet continuing to converse oddly with everyone. During the play, the character of the King is assassinated, mirroring the Ghost's revelation. During this scene, Claudius is upset and exits along with most of the court, leaving behind Hamlet and Horatio. Claudius' disturbance during the scene is taken as confirmation of his guilt by Hamlet and Horatio.

Polonius and Hamlet's two friends inform him that the King and Queen are upset with Hamlet and demand to speak with him privately. Hamlet taunts them and departs to meet with Queen Gertrude. Claudius, fearing for his hold over the throne, demands Hamlet's friends to escort him to England. Hamlet meets with Queen Gertrude and quarrels with her, accusing her of being seduced by a man as depraved as Claudius. The Ghost makes an appearance again and reminds Hamlet of his mission of vengeance. Hamlet ends up accidentally stabbing Polonius, who is spying on him, and Gertrude. Gertrude is frightened and Hamlet leaves.

Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius in his fit of madness and is stowing his body away. Hamlet's friends, who are now agents of the King, demand Hamlet to reveal the body's location, which Hamlet refuses to do. The King and Hamlet exchange words and Claudius tells him that he is to leave for England by ship immediately. The audience is told that Claudius plans to have Hamlet murdered in England, as he will not know peace till Hamlet is dead.

Polonius' death has driven Ophelia mad, and her brother, Laertes, is furious and blames the King for Polonius' death, swearing revenge. Claudius claims he is innocent and vows to explain everything to Laertes. Hamlet, meanwhile, has returned to Denmark and wishes to speak to the King in private. In a letter to Horatio, Hamlet explains how he escaped the ship to England because of an attack by pirates. Ophelia has drowned herself in a brook near the castle, which angers Laertes further, as he and the King plot to kill Hamlet in a fencing match, with Leartes using a sharp blade with a poisoned tip instead of a blunt one.

At Ophelia's burial, things get heated between Laertes and Hamlet. The two participate in the fencing duel, where both are injured by the poisoned tip. Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine and dies. At this point, Hamlet, too, is nearing death, and he injures the King with the poisoned blade and forces him to drink the poisoned wine. As Hamlet lies dying, he requests Horatio to clear his name. The king of Norway then enters and lays a claim over Denmark, ultimately giving Hamlet a military burial.

Hamlet: Characters

The following are the characters involved in this play:

Hamlet

The titular character, Prince Hamlet, is the main driving force of the play. He is fair, yet weak in resolve. He wants to avenge his murdered father and, rather than a direct confrontation, he feigns madness to provoke the people who are guilty of the crime. His moral dilemma, depression, and odd behaviour counter his slowness in taking action. He expresses remorse upon the death of Ophelia, and also admits that he was wrong in killing Polonius.

King Claudius

He is the brother of the King of Denmark who he kills to usurp the throne and marry the Queen. Claudius is manipulative, and he does not repent his actions despite struggling with guilt.

Queen Gertrude

She is the late King's widow who is seduced by Claudius before marrying him. While she mourns her late husband at first, she is quick to shed her grief, which upsets Hamlet.

Ophelia

Ophelia is Hamlet's love interest, although their relationship never reaches fruition due to Hamlet's disturbed state of mind caused by his father's death and the appearance of his ghost. While Hamlet only feigns madness, Ophelia is, ironically, truly driven mad by her father's death.

Hamlet: Quotes

Hamlet: . . . O God, God,How weary, stale, flat and unprofitableSeem to me all the uses of this world!

(Act 1, Scene 2)

These lines from Hamlet's first soliloquy in the play give the audience an insight into the complexities of his mind and emotions. Hamlet is experiencing a wave of overwhelming feelings. He is mourning the loss of his father, who he idolised. He is angry with his mother for being seduced by Claudius. He also harbours hatred and disgust for Claudius, who wasted no time in usurping the throne after the death of the King and engaged in drunken revelry. Because of these emotions, Hamlet laments at the state of the world, noting that he experiences no pleasure from being alive.

Hamlet: . . . The play’s the thingWherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

(Act 2, Scene 2)

These lines are spoken by Hamlet, who is determined to use the theatre actors' performance to confirm Claudius' guilt. However, he doubts whether this plan is foolproof. As he does not entirely trust outward appearances and expressions, he does not anticipate that his plan will succeed.

Hamlet: To be or not to be—that is the question . . .

(Act 3, Scene 1)

Considered to be Shakespeare's most famous line, Hamlet's contemplative mood peaks in this scene as he wonders whether he should end his existence. Due to everyone around him having ulterior motives and deceiving him, Hamlet feels he can no longer enjoy living. The contemplation also highlights Hamlet's moral code, and how he shirks away from actions as they lead to violence. Eventually, Hamlet decides to live rather than die, as he can not predict what happens to him if he dies.

Queen: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

(Act 3, Scene 2)

These lines are spoken by Queen Gertrude as she watches the 'play within the play.' In the play, the Player Queen declares her deep and unconditional love for the Player King just before his murder, stating that she would never be able to overcome her grief were something to happen to him. Queen Gertrude then speaks these lines, suggesting that she does not find the Player Queen convincing. Because of the Player Queen's over-exaggeration and repetition of her declarations of love and loyalty, Queen Gertrude suggests that the character comes across as lacking conviction.

The 'play with the play' or a 'story within a story' is also known as a framed narrative. It is a technique often used by authors and dramatists to evoke a sense of intrigue or change the pace of a story and to explore the concepts of reality and illusion on the stage. The framed narrative may also introduce a different narrator or narrative lens to the story. Shakespeare also uses this technique in plays such as Much Ado About Nothing (1598-1599) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-1596).

Today, the line, 'the lady doth protest too much, methinks' is often used as a sarcastic remark to refer to someone who is overdramatic or pressing their denial.

Hamlet: Themes

Below are some of the themes in Hamlet

Action vs contemplation

One of Hamlet's biggest frustrations stems from his contemplative nature. He sees himself spending too long reflecting upon his father's death, rather than being a man of action and swiftly bringing those responsible to justice. He chooses the long-winded route of feigning madness to draw out a confession from the guilty and engages in reflections of his personal moral code and philosophy.

On the other hand, Claudius is a man of action and does so without sparing any thought for the consequences. He murders his brother, marries his widow, and also orders the execution of Hamlet without reflecting upon how public opinion may be swayed against him.

Revenge

Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. During the play, many of the main characters die because of the titular character's vow to avenge the death of the late King. Hamlet struggles with acting upon the promise of vengeance, perhaps because he is aware that it may lead to disastrous consequences and destroy the lives of many.

Hamlet: Genre

Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. The genre of tragedy aims to highlight conditions of human suffering. Traditionally evolving from Greek tragedy, plays of this genre elicit a 'catharsis' from its audiences. The human suffering in the play manifests in the titular character, who finds expression in feigning madness and debates whether he should end his despairing life. Towards the end, the tension that has gradually built up in the play finds release, as the guilt of Claudius is revealed and, like Hamlet, he dies in his quest for revenge.

'Catharsis' is the feeling when heightened tensions build up and ultimately find a release at the end of the play. In a way, catharsis is finding a sense of pleasure in pain.

Hamlet - Key Takeaways

  • Hamlet is a revenge tragedy written by William Shakespeare.
  • Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's most famous and most adapted plays that continues to be performed globally today.
  • Hamlet features the titular character, Prince Hamlet, who is visited by the ghost of his murdered father, and asked to seek vengeance for his death.
  • Hamlet is a contemplative hero who struggles with the call to action and feigns madness to draw out a confession from Claudius and Gertrude.
  • The main characters in Hamlet include Prince Hamlet, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia
  • The main themes of Hamlet are action versus contemplation and revenge.

1 Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus, 1946.

Hamlet

In Hamlet, the question of one's personal morals is pitted against the pressure of what one is expected to do. While Hamlet understands that murder and revenge are wrong, he is forced to avenge the murder of his father.

The most famous line in the play occurs in Act 3 Scene 1: 'To be, or not to be, that is the question.'

Hamlet is a revenge tragedy about a prince avenging the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle.

Hamlet is a fictional story inspired by the figure of Amleth as documented by Saxo Grammaticus.

Hamlet's tragic flaw may be in his delaying of action due to moral dilemmas and contemplation, as it could have spared the lives of many, including his own.

Final Hamlet Quiz

Question

Who wrote the play Hamlet?

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Answer

William Shakespeare

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Question

What is the genre of the play Hamlet?

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Answer

Tragedy

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Question

Why did Hamlet feign madness?

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Answer

To uncover the guilt of his uncle

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Question

Which of the following is the most famous line of Hamlet?

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Answer

'To be or not to be - that is the question'

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Question

Who does Hamlet murder when he is arguing with Queen Gertrude?

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Answer

Polonius

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Question

Which of the following is a theme in Hamlet?

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Answer

Revenge

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Question

What kind of a hero is Hamlet?

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Answer

Contemplative

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Question

How does Ophelia die?

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Answer

Drowning

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Question

How was the late King murdered?

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Answer

Poisonous substance poured in his ear

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Question

How does Queen Gertrude die?

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Answer

Poisoned

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