"Hamlet" by William Shakespeare
"Hamlet" is one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays. Although the play was written over four centuries ago, the issues that it deals with are truly universal.
The play centres on the dilemmas of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark who is told by the ghost of his father that his uncle, Claudius, murdered the king in order to seize the throne and the Queen (Hamlet's mother). Much of the play is based around Hamlet deciding whether revenge and murder are ever moral, although it also touches upon a number of other key moral questions. Although the play is far more concerned with thoughts than actions, Hamlet's decisions have important consequences, and the play culminates in a famous bloody finale.
"Hamlet" was first performed in 1602 at a time when many new ideas and theories were beginning to spread throughout Europe. Both "Hamlet" the play, and Hamlet the character are preoccupied with metaphysics (how and why things exist - including humans).
"Hamlet", therefore, is a play that is fundamentally concerned with philosophy, and what it means to be human. These are both issues that were growing in interest in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. Although Shakespeare (as he did with many of his plays) took much of the basic plot from existing stories, he added some profound (intense and wide-reaching) themes.
Compared with "Macbeth", which like "Hamlet", is about a man who kills the existing king and seizes the throne, we don't actually get to see much of the drama unfold in Denmark. Where "Macbeth" is concerned with the danger of pure ambition, "Hamlet" is more interested in Hamlet's thoughts on various issues. Shakespeare introduces idea such as the afterlife (the ghost), the nature of mortality (the gravediggers and Yorick's Skull) and morality (Hamlet's decision not to kill a praying Claudius). Hamlet is a young man struggling to understand the world, and whilst we may not emphathise with his life as a Danish Prince in the Middle Ages, much of what he says and thinks is applicable to humans of all backgrounds in all periods of history.Back to top
The play opens to a cold night in Denmark. Two guards, Bernardo and Marcellus are keeping guard over the castle. The previous two nights, they have seen the ghost of the recently dead king, Hamlet (the father of the main character, also called Hamlet). They invite Horatio to come and witness the ghost, and they see it appear, although are unable to communicate with it. Horatio, Bernardo and Marcello also discuss the fact that the prince of Norway, Fortinbras, may be using the death of Hamlet as a chance to invade Denmark. After the ghost of King Hamlet appears again, they agree to tell Prince Hamlet.
Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, has married Claudius, Hamlet's uncle. Claudius addresses the speed of his marriage to the widowed Gertrude, and it is clear that he wields power in Denmark - promoting peace with Norway and sending ambassadors to secure this. Hamlet stands sulkily in the corner, and when he is pressed by Claudius and Gertrude, responds that he is still mourning his father. It is clear that there is tension between Hamlet and Claudius/Gertrude, and when all the characters leave, Hamlet explains the nature of his discontent in the first of his many soliloquies (monologues to the audience). When Horatio enters and tells him about the ghost, Hamlet decides to have a look himself.
The character of Ophelia is then introduced. Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, a counsellor, and the sister of Laertes, an ambassador. Both Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia about her feelings towards Hamlet, saying that he only wants to remove her 'chastity', and does not really love her.
Hamlet comes into contact with the ghost of his father, who tells him that he was not killed by a snake bite, but by Claudius, who put poison in his ear. The ghost tells Hamlet to get revenge, although only on Claudius, and not Gertrude. The Act ends with Hamlet swearing Horatio and Marcellus to secrecy, and telling them that whatever happens, they must not tell anyone what they heard.
Act II begins by increasing the sense of suspicion within Denmark. Polonius has asked his servant to go to Paris and spy on his son, Laertes, giving him very specific instructions on how to do so. Ophelia tells Polonius that she has seen Hamlet, and that he appears to be mad. Polonius thinks this is because Ophelia has refused his advances, and rushes to tell Claudius and Gertrude that he has solved the riddle of Hamlet's madness.
Claudius is conspiring with Hamlet's school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in an attempt to find out why Hamlet is acting so strangely. Just after Claudius has sent the two away, Polonius rushes in and tells Claudius about Hamlet's problems with Ophelia. Claudius says that Polonius should set a meeting up between Hamlet and Ophelia, and then hide behind a tapestry (a large wall hanging) to spy on Hamlet. As Polonius is leaving to organise this, Hamlet arrives and teases Polonius by giving bizarre answers to his questions. Polonius takes this as evidence of madness, and leaves to arrange the meeting.
Hamlet meets up with Rosencrantz and Guidenstern, who talk about past glories, although Hamlet slips in and out of depression. A group of players (actors and musicians) enter the castle, and Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get them to act out a scene. Hamlet chooses a scene from Greek history, where a character called Hecuba talks of the death of her husband, Priam. The actor's grief-filled portrayal of the scene strikes a chord with Hamlet. He asks the actors to perform a play called 'The Murder of Gonzago' the following night, although states that he will write some additional parts for the play. Hamlet's plan is to have the players act out the death of King Hamlet at the hands of Claudius, at which point Hamlet will be able to observe Claudius and see if he acts like a guilty man.
Act III begins with Claudius asking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the nature of Hamlet's madness. They say that they are not fully sure, although they advise Claudius to attend the performance of 'The Murder of Gonzago' that evening, saying that the actors seem to have improved Hamlet's mood. In addition, Claudius and Polonius set in motion the plan to spy on Hamlet while he is talking to Ophelia.
Ophelia waits in the library, while Claudius and Polonius hide behind the tapestry. Hamlet enters, and gives his famous 'to be or not to be' speech about what it is to be human. Ophelia tries to rekindle some of her flirtation with Hamlet, but he rudely rebuffs (rejects) her, and tells her to 'get thee to a nunnery' (i.e. to control herself). Hamlet leaves and Ophelia is distraught. Claudius takes this interaction to mean that Hamlet is mad about something else, while Polonius, still consoling Ophelia, states that he thinks Hamlet is heartbroken. They both agree that the best course of action is to send Hamlet on a mission to London to keep him out of trouble.
Later that evening, the play Hamlet has organised begins. Hamlet and Horatio attempt to observe Claudius and Gertrude, and Hamlet enjoys some witty chat with Ophelia. The play begins and acts out the story of a King and Queen, who have been married for thirty years, and when the King suggests that the Queen should remarry if he dies, the Queen says she never will. Gertrude remarks to Hamlet that 'the lady doth protest too much'. When the King is poisoned in his ear, Claudius orders that the play end, and storms out of the hall. Hamlet is now convinced about what the ghost said. Hamlet has made Claudius extremely angry, and his mother requests to see him. Although he decides to be cruel to his mother, he promises himself he will not hurt her.
Before Hamlet gets to his mother's chamber, he sneaks up on Claudius, who is on his knees praying forgiveness for killing the King. Hamlet is about to kill Claudius, but realises that if he does so, Claudius will go to heaven (because he is confessing his sins). Hamlet feels angry that Claudius didn't let King Hamlet confess before dying, and therefore confining him to purgatory. Hamlet decides that he can only kill Claudius when he is sinning, to ensure that he goes to Hell.
In his mother's chamber, Hamlet confronts Gertrude. He drags her in front of a mirror, and it appears as if he is about to murder her. Polonius, who was hiding behind a curtain, shouts out for help. Hamlet thinks that it is Claudius hiding, and stabs Polonius through the cloth. Polonius dies, and Hamlet feels guilty very briefly, although he says that the death is Polonius's fault. Hamlet continues talking to Gertrude, and the ghost appears to remind Hamlet that his ultimate target is not the Queen, but Claudius. Hamlet agrees, although Gertrude, thinking that Hamlet is talking to himself, thinks he has gone mad. Hamlet disagrees. He exits the chamber, dragging Polonius's body behind him, and promising not to trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Act IV begins immediately after the action in Act III. Claudius is talking to Gertrude about what happened. Claudius is panicked by the fact that Hamlet killed Polonius thinking it was him, and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet and Polonius's body. The two find Hamlet, although he doesn't seem to have Polonius's body. He teases Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and accuses them of being slaves of Claudius.
Hamlet and Claudius come into contact, and Claudius seems to be preoccupied with finding Polonius's body. Hamlet eventually tells him where it is. Claudius tells Hamlet that he has to travel immediately to England, and Hamlet exits. Claudius reveals that he has written a letter in a sealed envelope to ask the King of England to have Hamlet killed while he is in London.
The action then jumps to the Danish-Norwegian border. Fortinbras sends a messenger to ask Claudius to allow the Norwegian army through his territory on their way to fight Poland. The messenger meets with Hamlet, who is on his way to the ship to take him to England. The two discuss the nature of war and conflict, and Hamlet agrees that if the Norwegians are sending men to die to fight the Poles, that he must be braver in avenging his father's death.
Back in the castle, Gertrude talks about how Ophelia has gone mad. This is a combination of Hamlet's rejection of her, as well as the secret burial of Polonius, which Ophelia feels is uncaring. Claudius admits to Gertrude that he should have dealt with it better, and mentions that Laertes is coming back from France, and that he blames Claudius for Polonius's death. Laertes bursts in and threatens to remove Claudius from power. Claudius says that Laertes and he are on the same side - and that Hamlet is to blame. Ophelia then enters, and shows her brother that she is mad. Laertes agrees with Claudius and promises to investigate Polonius's death.
Horatio receives a message saying that pirates attacked Hamlet's ship, and took him prisoner. Horatio is given instructions to deliver a letter to Claudius, and then to go and see Hamlet where he is being held. Back at the court, Laertes and Claudius are planning how to kill Hamlet. They agree to arrange a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, and Laertes will dip his sword in poison so that even a small scratch will kill him. In addition, Hamlet's drink will be poisoned during the fight. It is at this point that Gertrude enters and announces that Ophelia has drowned. This increases Laertes's desire to kill Hamlet.
Act V begins with a famous scene, where two gravediggers are burying Ophelia. They debate about whether Ophelia committed suicide, and whether this means she should be allowed a proper burial (suicides were not usually allowed to be buried in 'hallowed' graveyards). Hamlet enters and seems fascinated by the nature of the gravedigging, and how the gravediggers don't seem to be bothered by the idea of death.
After one of the gravediggers leaves, Hamlet talks to the other, and is told about the decay of bodies. Hamlet is shown a skull of a jester, Yorrick, whom Hamlet knew when he was young. Hamlet can't believe that a once jolly figure is now just a skull, and this leads him to talk about the nature of mortality. At that point, a number of people arrive, and Hamlet hides. He sees that it is Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes, although he establishes that the body must be that of a suicide as the burial is very plain. When he sees Laertes' grief, he reveals himself, saying that he loved Ophelia deeply. Gertrude and Claudius blame this on Hamlet being mad, and when Hamlet leaves, Claudius and Laertes discuss their plan to kill Hamlet.
Horatio and Hamlet discuss Hamlet's kidnapping, and Hamlet says that he swapped the sealed letter from Claudius with another one, ordering the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At that point a messenger arrives, telling Hamlet that Laertes has challenged him to a duel. Horatio thinks it may be a trap, although Hamlet tells him that he has been practicing his sword work.
At the duel, a table has been set so that Claudius and Gertrude can watch. Hamlet apologies to Laertes, who seems to accept this, although continues with the plan. Laertes picks up the wrong sword, which is blunt and does not have poison in it. The fight begins, and Hamlet appears to be the better swordsman. In each break, Claudius keeps offering Hamlet the poisoned cup, although he does not take it. Eventually, Gertrude drinks from it, despite Claudius's objections. Laertes and Hamlet wound each other with the poisoned sword. At this point, Gertrude collapses, saying that she has been poisoned. Hamlet demands to know how, and Laertes, knowing he is about to die, confesses. Hamlet forces Claudius to drink the remainder of the poison from the cup. Just before Hamlet dies, he asks Horatio to tell the story of the events to people, and to ensure that Fortinbras becomes the new Danish king.
As four bodies lie across the hall, Fortibras enters from his victory in Poland, along with some English ambassadors, who bring news of the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio promises to explain the story, and Fortinbras says he will listen to it, adding that he will now attempt to become Danish king, and that Hamlet should have the burial of a soldier. The play ends with Hamlet's body being carried off stage by some of Fortinbras's soldiers.Back to top
One of the key tactics Shakespeare uses to continue the drama of the play is the idea of uncertainty. Although Hamlet is convinced throughout that Claudius has killed King Hamlet, he continually wants more evidence. Hamlet is shown be a curious man, who questions every aspect of human existence, and this emphasises the uncertainty of the period, as well as the uncertainty of life. There are two parallel uncertainties in the play that Shakespeare interweaves. Firstly there is the uncertainty of metaphysics - what the meaning of life is, and what happens after death. Secondly, there is the uncertainty over what is happening in Denmark. This is highlighted with the continued spying that goes on throughout the play. In the same way that Polonius and Claudius all try and spy to get more information, so Hamlet tries to use trickery to find out if Claudius really did kill King Hamlet. Indeed, there is only one certainty that Hamlet is obsessed with throughout the play - mortality, and the inevitable death and decay of every human.
"Hamlet" is a revenge play - the action begins with Hamlet finding out about his father's murder by Claudius, and ends with Hamlet killing Claudius (and being killed in the process). In addition, Laertes looks to get revenge against Hamlet for the death of Polonius, and Fortinbras fights the Poles in revenge for them stealing a piece of land. All of these three strands come together in the final scene. Where Hamlet seems to be unwilling to take revenge on Claudius, Fortinbras and Laertes are far quicker and bolder in their actions. This is a play that deals with the idea of revenge. Revenge as a concept relies on a sense of universal justice. If someone wrongs you, then either 'the Gods' or man can right the wrong. Included within revenge is a more subtle concept - the idea of atonement (making up for your mistakes). The longer the play goes on, the more guilty Hamlet feels about not killing Claudius, and therefore the more determined he is to do it. In Act I Scene 5, Hamlet commits to avenging his father, although realises that this is a great deal of responsibility. By Act III Scene 4, the ghost has to come back to remind Hamlet to take revenge, and not to hurt Gertrude, showing that Hamlet is acting too slowly for 'the Gods'. Hamlet is worried throughout the play about the afterlife, and is worried about ensuring that his revenge is moral, and that Claudius will not go to heaven, as shown by his refusal to kill Claudius in Act III Scene 3. This shows that whilst the play is driven by revenge, it is one that is concerned fundamentally about morality.
Hamlet shows an obsession with death, rotting and decay throughout the play. Indeed, even the fact that Hamlet is advised by a ghost shows that death is an important theme in the text. Hamlet is uncertain about everything in life, and the afterlife, although he is certain about death, and that even the greatest humans, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar cannot escape death and decay. For Hamlet, the idea of ageing and looking physically older is all part of the process of dying. In the speech where he talks about the death of Yorick, he makes a reference to his mother's make up, thus linking the idea of painting her face to look younger, and the idea of attempting to hide from death. He ultimately concludes that both death and ageing are inevitable.
Another aspect of death that fascinates Hamlet is the fact that it is inevitable. However, this juxtaposes with the uncertainty that comes from the afterlife. Hamlet is confused by the idea of heaven and purgatory, particularly given that he is a Protestant and yet his father's ghost claims to be in purgatory (which Catholics, not Protestants believe in). For Hamlet, the fact that death is inevitable and the afterlife is unknown means that the moment of death is where certainty and uncertainty meet. The battle between certainty and uncertainty runs throughout 'Hamlet', and is a key overall theme.
Appearance and Reality
Appearance and reality is at the very heart of the action. The plot is driven by the fact that none of the characters know what the others are thinking, or their real intentions. In addition, most of the characters pretend to be something that they are not in order to achieve their aims. Often, there is an ironic link between appearance and reality. Hamlet pretends to be mad to prevent Claudius from knowing his plans. Ironically, this makes Claudius and Polonius even more intrigued by Hamlet, and they spy on him. Hamlet's pretend madness also contributes to Ophelia's real madness.
Hamlet is concerned with the nature of human existence, and what the purpose of life is. In many respects, Hamlet also examines his own soul to see what is real. Again, this links with the idea of death and the afterlife. Death is most definitely real, whereas the afterlife seems to be an appearance. The role of the ghost also highlights this contradiction. Hamlet isn't sure whether the ghost is real, although it certainly appears to be. Despite seemingly believing the ghost, Hamlet also wants evidence for himself that Claudius killed his father. The suspicion and undertainty in the play is based on the gap between appearance and reality.
The use of metatheatre (putting a play within a play) in 'Hamlet' also highlights the idea of appearance and reality. At this stage of the play, Hamlet is watching Gertrude and Claudius's reaction to the action. The audience is watching the same thing. The audience therefore builds up their empathy for Hamlet because they are doing the same thing. The line between character and audience are therefore blurred. By watching a play in which characters are watching a play, Shakespeare toys with the boundaries between appearance and reality.
The core reason for Hamlet's indecision is the idea of morality. Hamlet simply can't decide whether revenge is a moral or an immoral act. Throughout 'Hamlet', we see revenge as the point at which morality and immorality meet. If Hamlet kills Claudius, there is a sense that justice will have been done, although Hamlet questions whether it can ever be moral to kill someone. Although strange to a modern audience, there is a sense that revenge and murder can be conducted in a 'gentlemanly' and moral way. Laertes desires revenge for the death of Polonius (and perhaps Ophelia), but wants it to be a fair fight between him and Hamlet (despite Claudius's actions). Hamlet also refuses to kill Claudius as he is praying, fearful that this will send him to heaven. It would seem that murder can be moral in Hamlet's world.
Hamlet is a student of the University of Wittenberg, in Germany, which is significant as it is the home of Protestantism. Martin Luther taught at the University, and developed his religious beliefs in the city. The Shakespearean audience would have been very aware of this fact. However, the fact that Hamlet's father's ghost is supposedly in purgatory is particularly confusing, given that Protestants don't believe in purgatory. This adds to the sense of general unease in Denmark, and makes the audience question the moral and religious implications of the ghost's existence. Throughout the play, the audience can never shake the suspicion that the ghost may not be what it seems, and that Hamlet may not be taking a wholly moral course. The audience never sees Claudius kill King Hamlet, as the play begins 'in media res' (in the middle of the action) and therefore it is never clear whether Hamlet is fully moral.
For a Shakespearean audience, the philosophical changes of the Renaissance meant that human life was being seen as more and more valuable. A hundred years earlier, there would have been no question that Hamlet would have been justified in killing Claudius. By the early seventeenth century, it wasn't so clear. The whole basis of the play is an examination of the morality of revenge. The period of the 1590s and 1600s saw a rise in plays based on the idea of revenge, and the troubling moral implications of the justice of murder. Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy', as well as the work of famous playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.
Within 'Hamlet', the idea of incest exists in three key relationships. The first of these is the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. Even though Gertrude is Hamlet's mother, Hamlet seems to show an unnatural attraction to her. Indeed, despite spending the whole play building up the courage to avenge his father's murder, it is the death of Gertrude that prompts Hamlet to act. Hamlet also seems to be more fixated on the fact that Claudius married Gertrude rather than the fact that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Hamlet seems to display Oedipal (a desire to have sexual relations with one's mother - named after the character of Oedipus from Greek mythology) tendencies towards his mother. Ironically, when Hamlet criticises Gertrude's relationship with Claudius, he refers to it as being 'incestuous'.
Gertrude and Claudius's marriage is one that also carries elements of incest. Throughout the play, they are referred to as 'brother' and 'sister', despite the fact that they have no blood relationship. There is a sense of immorality about marrying a deceased brother's wife. King Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, who had been his brother's wife, although later claimed that the marriage was immoral, and looked to have it annulled. The battle between the Pope and Henry let to the split in the church, and led to the creation of the Church of England. For a Shakespearean audience, therefore, the idea of marrying a sister-in-law was highly controversial.
There are also elements of incest in the relationship between Laertes and Ophelia. Laertes and Ophelia actually are blood relations (unlike Gertrude and Claudius), which makes it even more troubling that they seem to have an unnatural relationship. Laertes makes regular sexual remarks to Ophelia, and he and Polonius seem to be obsessed with Ophelia's romantic engagements. Again, the anger that Laertes feels on the death of Ophelia seems to trump that of the death of Polonius, which naturally draws parallels with Hamlet's incestuous desires.Back to top
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God! (Hamlet - Act I Scene 2)
This quotation is taken from Hamlet’s first soliloquy, and highlights his growing sense of inner turmoil. Hamlet also shows a sense of anger at his own existence, wishing that he would ‘melt’. Importantly, Hamlet also references the ‘sin’ of suicide, which foreshadows the death of Ophelia, which although was regarded as suicide, does not prevent her burial in a Christian graveyard. Hamlet seems to be angry at God’s rules, which would have been shocking to a Shakespearean audience.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Marcellus - Act I Scene 4)
This statement by Marcellus links together the idea of physical and moral decay. Marcellus is also making a reference to the presence of the ghost – who is technically a ‘rotten’ corpse. This foreshadows Hamlet’s later obsession with physical decay in Act V Scene 1. In addition, as well as setting the scene, Marcellus makes a direct link between the moral ruler of the state, and its physical health. This theme is continued throughout the play.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis 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? (Hamlet - Act III Scene 1)
This soliloquy is the most famous in the entire play, and it is well known for a reason. This speech sums up the essential question at the heart of Hamlet’s dilemma – is it better to accept our fate, or to fight against it? Hamlet is openly debating about whether Claudius should be allowed to keep the throne of Denmark or not. As well as telling us about Hamlet’s core moral dilemma, this speech also lets us know that Hamlet prefers to think rather than act, and that he likes to be sure of any decision before undertaking any course of action.
Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not. (Claudius – Act III Scene 3)
Again, this quote is one that links physical and moral decay. Claudius is attempting to pray to atone (make up for) his crime of killing King Hamlet. Claudius talks of his crime having a physical smell (therefore drawing in the idea of ‘rottenness’), and shows that the impact of his crime goes all the way to heaven. This juxtaposes with his prayers, which do not go to heaven: ‘Pray I cannot’. He also makes reference to the historical crime of Cain and Abel, who were the children of Adam and Eve. Cain became jealous of Abel, and killed him. According to the Bible, therefore, Cain was the first human to be born, and Abel was the first to die. (For more details of this section of the play, see Key Scene, below).
Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. (Hamlet – Act V Scene 1)
This scene is a particularly important one in terms of identifying Hamlet’s feelings about both death as well as his mother. For Hamlet, the process of ageing is the same as that of rotting after death. Hamlet thinks that his mother wears makeup to look younger, and therefore to attempt to fight off the onset of death. Hamlet says that this is foolish, and that death is inevitable. The two key causes of Hamlet’s depression are the inevitability of death (as well as what will happen afterwards), and his feelings towards his mother. Both of these are linked in this quotation.
One of the things that makes Hamlet such an interesting character is that it is difficult to predict his actions, or to determine his real motivations. When the play finishes, it is difficult to know if Hamlet would have been happy with the outcome or not. Throughout the play, we don’t know if Hamlet is talking through every decision (via soliloquy) because he wants to be morally certain, or because he is unwilling to act. Hamlet is contrasted throughout the play with Fortinbras, who is decisive, although Hamlet can be decisive at times, such as when he stabs Polonius, or the way he develops the ‘play within a play’ idea so quickly. Hamlet is a mass of internal conflict, particularly relating to the ghost (whom he isn’t sure he can trust) and his mother (with whom he has a Freudian relationship). There is also a sense of irony in that Hamlet spends the whole play attempting to persuade himself to get revenge for his father’s death, yet instantly and rashly avenges his mother’s death in the final scene. The audience is left unsure as to whether this is the result of his strong feelings towards his mother, or whether he simply uses this moment to act without thinking too much. Certainly, it is his most decisive action.
When Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth’, he portrayed Lady Macbeth as a scheming and power-hungry character. However, he left Gertrude in ‘Hamlet’ much more ambiguous. The audience is never sure whether Gertrude was involved in the death of King Hamlet, and neither whether Gertrude loves Claudius, or simply wanted to remain Queen. In this respect, Shakespeare creates a bond between the audience and Hamlet, both of whom are suspicious of Gertrude, and are monitoring her actions. This is most obvious in the ‘play within a play’ device, where Hamlet and the audience are watching to see how Gertrude reacts to the action onstage. We are never given a conclusive answer. Although Gertrude is often seen as a passive character (one who never controls the action, but only responds to it), she has managed to remain Queen under two different kings, and seems to be shrewdly but subtly manipulating various characters (think of how she allows Polonius to hide in her chamber – we aren’t sure if she wants Polonius to spy, or to protect her from Hamlet). The fact that we don’t know what Gertrude really thinks is perhaps a result of her clever control of emotions.
Claudius is contrasted throughout the play with King Hamlet. Where King Hamlet was a bold and noble leader, Claudius is shown to be better at manipulating people, and developing schemes to get his way. The fact that he killed King Hamlet while he was sleeping is evidence of this. In this respect, Claudius also forms a foil to Hamlet. Claudius presumably went through many of the same moral dilemmas as Hamlet, although had the courage to act upon them, less concerned with the moral outcome. When Hamlet couldn’t kill Claudius when he was praying, Claudius was willing to kill the sleeping King and take his wife.
A further contrast with Hamlet is that Claudius’s overthinking causes him to take greater risks, whereas Hamlet’s causes him to take fewer. Hamlet wants to be morally sure before he acts. In contrast, Claudius decides to add another way for Laertes to kill Hamlet – the poisoned drink. Both Hamlet’s caution, and Claudius’s risk-taking are the cause of their downfall.
Polonius is a strange character in many respects. He serves mainly to outline many of the fears of the other characters, particularly Claudius, as well as to provide a link between Hamlet and Ophelia/Laertes. Polonius’s own personal desires causes him to meddle in the lives of others, and causes not only his own downfall, but that of Ophelia and (ultimately) that of Laertes. Polonius is shown to be devious, spying not only on Hamlet (twice) but also on his own son. It is therefore fitting that his death comes through his spying, when he is stabbed by Hamlet whilst hiding in Gertrude’s bedchamber. Polonius is also willing to use his own daughter to get information on Hamlet. Polonius therefore represents the ongoing suspicion within Denmark, as well as the immorality and corruption that has become normal at court. Although Hamlet treats Polonius as a figure of fun, and regularly makes jokes at his expense, Polonius is perhaps more sinister than he may superficially seem.
Ophelia is perhaps the most tragic character in ‘Hamlet’. At no point does she involve herself in the politics of the day, and yet she is the one who is used by the main characters to achieve their aims. Claudius and Polonius use her to test Hamlet’s madness, and Hamlet seems to regard her as her plaything, and uses highly explicit (for Shakespeare’s time) language around her. She is far more passive than Gertrude, as shown by the fact that she ultimately goes mad because of Hamlet’s actions. Shakespeare’s female characters were regularly more susceptible to madness than the male ones, and there is evidence for this in the fact that Hamlet pretending to be made causes Ophelia to go mad for real. There is ambiguity in whether her death can be considered suicide or not, just one of the many ‘moral mysteries’ within the play as a whole.Back to top
The video on the right shows Act III Scene III from the 2009 production of Hamlet. Watching it will give you a better idea of the emotion of the scene and help you to understand precisely what Hamlet and Claudius are feeling.
Act III Scene III is an extremely important in the context of Hamlet's failure to get revenge, and provides us with an insight into both Hamlet and Claudius's true thoughts, which is rare throughout the play. In Act III Scene III, the key action, appropriately, is inaction, as Hamlet fails to kill Claudius because he is praying. Hamlet is worried that by killing Claudius in the act of prayer, he will send him to heaven. Hamlet decides instead to kill Claudius as he is committing a sin, "When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage; Or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed;" This foreshadows Claudius's ultimate death, which comes from drinking and then falling 'asleep'. There are two ways to read Hamlet's actions (or lack of) in this scene. Either Hamlet wants to not only kill Claudius, but to go beyond this, and ensure that he goes to hell - thus punishing him for eternity, or Hamlet is just thinking of another excuse to delay the actual act. Throughout the play, Hamlet spends a long time thinking about the morality of killing Claudius, it can seem as if he doesn't really want to commit the act at all.
One of the key parts of this scene comes from the fact that in this scene, Claudius appears more empathetic, and Hamlet less. Claudius seems to be genuinely remorseful for his crimes, whereas Hamlet becomes ever more frustrating. Claudius says "O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;", linking his sins to physical rottenness, a recurring motif in the play. His speech makes it clear that he is worried about what will happen to him after he dies, and that he is trying his best to atone for his sins. This gives Claudius more depth of character, and is a technique that Shakespeare uses to blur the boundaries between good and evil. The fact that revenge is based on justice makes it seem even more difficult to decide if Hamlet should kil Claudius, as Claudius appears to be punishing himself for his murder.
Ironically, the scene finishes with Claudius saying: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go", thus showing that he wasn't even praying, and therefore Hamlet could have killed him without sending him to heaven. Another level of irony comes from the fact that Hamlet's decision to be moral and not kill Claudius in prayer ultimately leads to the dramatic climax, and the death of several other characters. Also ironic in this scene is that although it is based on Hamlet's indecision, it confirms to the audience that Claudius did kill King Hamlet. Although Hamlet has realised this through Claudius's reaction to the play within a play, Hamlet now decides he wants to be certain about what will happen to Claudius after he dies. This is something Hamlet can never know, and so makes it seem as if Hamlet will never get revenge. Although the audience s aware of Hamlet's indecisive nature before this scene, it is not clear until now that it may prevent him getting revenge at all.
This scene is one that is based on a juxtaposition (contrast) between knowing and not knowing. Hamlet now knows that Claudius killed his father, although does not know how best to take revenge, or what will happen after Claudius dies. The audience doesn't know whether Hamlet will ever get revenge. As with the play within the play, the audience is drawn into the action. Like Hamlet, the audience now knows about Claudius's crime, although are left with a sense of uncertainty as to whether justice will ever be done.Back to top
Click on the image above or here to read about Elizabethan revenge tragedies, and how Hamlet carries a number of different types of revenge within its plot. This will help you to make links with other plays, as well as understand the structural traditions of Elizabethan theatre.
The video (above) is an excellent short-ish guide to the Renaissance. This will give you a good grasp of the philosophical changes that took place in Europe in the late fifteenth century onwards. This will help you to understand what dilemmas Hamlet is facing, as well as how a Shakespearean audience may interpret the play a little differently than a modern one.
The video above is a great explanation of the Freudian explanation of psychology, which is an important part of 'Hamlet' (although Freud wrote his theory much later than Shakespeare wrote his plays). Although it is a pretty strange video, it gives a neat (if weird) understanding of the psychological conflict within Hamlet.
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