Hamlet Research Paper & Essay Examples

essay over hamlet

When you have to write an essay on Hamlet by Shakespeare, you may need an example to follow. In this article, our team collected numerous samples for this exact purpose. Here you’ll see Hamlet essay and research paper examples that can inspire you and show how to structure your writing.

✍ Hamlet: Essay Samples

  • What Makes Hamlet such a Complex Character? Genre: Essay Words: 560 Focused on: Hamlet’s insanity and changes in the character Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia
  • Shakespeare versus Olivier: A Depiction of ‘Hamlet’ Genre: Essay Words: 2683 Focused on: Comparison of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Laurence Olivier’s adaptation Characters mentioned: Hamlet, the Ghost, Claudius, Ophelia, Gertrude
  • Drama Analysis of Hamlet by Shakespeare Genre: Essay Words: 1635 Focused on: Literary devices used in Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia
  • Hamlet’s Renaissance Culture Conflict Genre: Critical Essay Words: 1459 Focused on: Hamlet’s and Renaissance perspective on death Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia, Horatio
  • Father-Son Relationships in Hamlet – Hamlet’s Loyalty to His Father Genre: Explicatory Essay Words: 1137 Focused on: Obedience in the relationship between fathers and sons in Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia, Polonius, Fortinbras, Polonius, the Ghost, Claudius
  • A Play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare Genre: Essay Words: 1026 Focused on: Hamlet’s personality and themes of the play Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius
  • Characterization of Hamlet Genre: Analytical Essay Words: 876 Focused on: Hamlet’s indecision and other faults Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, the Ghost, Gertrude
  • Hamlet’s Relationship with His Mother Gertrude Genre: Research Paper Words: 1383 Focused on: Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude and Ophelia Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius, Polonius
  • The Theme of Revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Genre: Research Paper Words: 1081 Focused on: Revenge in Hamlet and how it affects characters Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, the Ghost
  • Canonical Status of Hamlet by William Shakespeare Genre: Essay Words: 1972 Focused on: Literary Canon and interpretations of Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Horatio, Claudius
  • A Critical Analysis of Hamlet’s Constant Procrastination in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Genre: Essay Words: 1141 Focused on: Reasons for Hamlet’s procrastination and its consequences Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius
  • Role of Women in Twelfth Night and Hamlet by Shakespeare Genre: Research Paper Words: 2527 Focused on: Women in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Hamlet Characters mentioned: Ophelia, Gertrude, Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, Polonius
  • William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Genre: Essay Words: 849 Focused on: Key ideas and themes of Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes
  • Shakespeare: Hamlet Genre: Essay Words: 1446 Focused on: The graveyard scene analysis Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius
  • Oedipus Rex and Hamlet Compare and Contrast Genre: Term Paper Words: 998 Focused on: Comparison of King Oedipus and Hamlet from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . Characters mentioned: Hamlet
  • The Play “Hamlet Prince of Denmark” by W.Shakespeare Genre: Essay Words: 824 Focused on: How Hamlet treats Ophelia and the consequences of his behavior Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare Genre: Explicatory Essay Words: 635 Focused on: Key themes of Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Fortinbras
  • Hamlet’s Choice of Fortinbras as His Successor Genre: Essay Words: 948 Focused on: Why Hamlet chose Fortinbras as his successor Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Fortinbras, Claudius
  • Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras: Avenging the Death of their Father Compare and Contrast Genre: Compare and Contrast Essay Words: 759 Focused on: Paths and revenge of Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras, Claudius
  • Oedipus the King and Hamlet Genre: Essay Words: 920 Focused on: Comparison of Oedipus and King Claudius Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude
  • Hamlet Genre: Term Paper Words: 1905 Focused on: Character of Gertrude and her transformation Characters mentioned: Gertrude, Hamlet, Claudius, the Ghost, Polonius
  • Compare Laertes and Hamlet: Both React to their Fathers’ Killing/Murder Compare and Contrast Genre: Compare and Contrast Essay Words: 1188 Focused on: Tension between Hamlet and Laertes and their revenge Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia, Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude
  • Recurring Theme of Revenge in Hamlet Genre: Essay Words: 1123 Focused on: The theme of revenge in Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia
  • The Function of the Soliloquies in Hamlet Genre: Research Paper Words: 2055 Focused on: Why Shakespeare incorporated soliloquies in the play Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude
  • The Hamlet’s Emotional Feelings in the Shakespearean Tragedy Genre: Essay Words: 813 Focused on: What Hamlet feels and why Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius
  • Blindness in Oedipus Rex & Hamlet Genre: Research Paper Words: 2476 Focused on: How blindness reveals itself in Oedipus Rex and Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, the Ghost
  • “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” Genre: Essay Words: 550 Focused on: Comparison of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
  • The Role of Queen Gertrude in Play “Hamlet” Genre: Essay Words: 886 Focused on: Gertrude’s role in Hamlet and her involvement in King Hamlet’s murder Characters mentioned: Gertrude, Hamlet, the Ghost, Claudius, Polonius
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Genre: Explicatory Essay Words: 276 Focused on: The role and destiny of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet Characters mentioned: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Hamlet, Claudius
  • Passing through nature into eternity Genre: Term Paper Words: 2900 Focused on: Comparison of Because I Could Not Stop for Death, and I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce by Emily Dickinson with Shakespeare’s Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, the Ghost, Claudius, Gertrude
  • When the Truth Comes into the Open: Claudius’s Revelation Genre: Essay Words: 801 Focused on: Claudius’ confession and secret Characters mentioned: Claudius, Hamlet
  • Shakespeare Authorship Question: Thorough Analysis of Style, Context, and Violence in the Plays Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night Genre: Term Paper Words: 1326 Focused on: Whether Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night Characters mentioned: Hamlet
  • Measuring the Depth of Despair: When There Is no Point in Living Genre: Essay Words: 1165 Focused on: Despair in Hamlet and Macbeth Characters mentioned: Hamlet
  • Violence of Shakespeare Genre: Term Paper Words: 1701 Focused on: Violence in different Shakespeare’s plays Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Horatio, Claudius, Gertrude, Palonius, Laertes,
  • Act II of Hamlet by William Shakespeare Genre: Report Words: 1129 Focused on: Analysis of Act 2 of Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Polonius, Ronaldo, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, First Player, Claudius
  • The Value of Source Study of Hamlet by Shakespeare Genre: Explicatory Essay Words: 4187 Focused on: How Shakespeare adapted Saxo Grammaticus’s Danish legend on Amleth and altered the key characters Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, the Ghost, Fortinbras, Horatio, Laertes, Polonius
  • Ophelia and Hamlet’s Dialogue in Shakespeare’s Play Genre: Essay Words: 210 Focused on: What the dialogue in Act 3 Scene 1 reveals about Hamlet and Ophelia Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Ophelia
  • Lying, Acting, Hypocrisy in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Genre: Essay Words: 1313 Focused on: The theme of deception in Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Behavior in Act III Genre: Report Words: 1554 Focused on: Behavior of different characters in Act 3 of Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius
  • The Masks of William Shakespeare’s Play “Hamlet” Genre: Research Paper Words: 1827 Focused on: Hamlet’s attitude towards death and revenge Characters mentioned: Hamlet, the Ghost
  • Ghosts and Revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Genre: Essay Words: 895 Focused on: The figure of the Ghost and his relationship with Hamlet Characters mentioned: Hamlet, the Ghost, Gertrude, Claudius
  • Macbeth and Hamlet Characters Comparison Genre: Essay Words: 1791 Focused on: Comparison of Gertrude in Hamlet and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth Characters mentioned: Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet
  • Depression and Melancholia Expressed by Hamlet Genre: Essay Words: 3319 Focused on: Hamlet’s mental issues and his symptoms Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia, Laertes, the Ghost, Polonius
  • Meditative and Passionate Responses in the Play “Hamlet” Genre: Essay Words: 1377 Focused on: Character of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play and Zaffirelli’s adaptation Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius
  • Portrayal of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Play and Zaffirelli’s Film Genre: Essay Words: 554 Focused on: Character of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play and Zaffirelli’s adaptation Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Ophelia
  • Hamlet in the Film and the Play: Comparing and Contrasting Genre: Essay Words: 562 Focused on: Comparison of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Zeffirelli’s version of the character Characters mentioned: Hamlet
  • Literary Analysis of “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare Genre: Essay Words: 837 Focused on: Symbols, images, and characters of the play Characters mentioned: Hamlet, the Ghost, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia
  • Psychiatric Analysis of Hamlet Genre: Essay Words: 1899 Focused on: Hamlet’s mental state and sanity in particular Characters mentioned: Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius
  • Hamlet and King Oedipus Literature Comparison Genre: Essay Words: 587 Focused on: Comparison of Hamlet and Oedipus Characters mentioned: Hamlet

Thanks for checking the samples! Don’t forget to open the pages with Hamlet essays that you’ve found interesting. For more information about the play, consider the articles below.

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Essays on Hamlet

Hamlet essay topics and outline examples, essay title 1: the tragic hero in "hamlet": analyzing the complex character of prince hamlet.

Thesis Statement: This essay delves into the character of Prince Hamlet in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," examining his tragic flaws, internal conflicts, and the intricate web of relationships that contribute to his downfall, ultimately highlighting his status as a classic tragic hero.

  • Introduction
  • Defining Tragic Heroes: Characteristics and Literary Tradition
  • The Complex Psychology of Prince Hamlet: Ambiguity, Doubt, and Melancholy
  • The Ghost's Revelation: Hamlet's Quest for Justice and Revenge
  • The Theme of Madness: Feigned or Real?
  • Hamlet's Relationships: Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, and Horatio
  • The Tragic Climax: The Duel, Poisoned Foils, and Fatal Consequences

Essay Title 2: "Hamlet" as a Reflection of Political Intrigue: Power, Corruption, and the Tragedy of Denmark

Thesis Statement: This essay explores the political dimensions of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," analyzing the themes of power, corruption, and political manipulation as portrayed in the play, and their impact on the fate of the characters and the kingdom of Denmark.

  • The Political Landscape of Denmark: Claudius's Ascension to the Throne
  • The Machiavellian Villainy of Claudius: Murder, Deception, and Ambition
  • Hamlet's Struggle for Justice: The Role of Political Morality
  • The Foils of Polonius and Laertes: Pawns in Political Games
  • The Fate of Denmark: Chaos, Rebellion, and the Climactic Tragedy
  • Shakespeare's Political Commentary: Lessons for Society

Essay Title 3: "Hamlet" in a Contemporary Context: Adaptations, Interpretations, and the Play's Enduring Relevance

Thesis Statement: This essay examines modern adaptations and interpretations of "Hamlet," exploring how the themes, characters, and dilemmas presented in the play continue to resonate with audiences today, making "Hamlet" a timeless and relevant work of literature.

  • From Stage to Screen: Iconic Film and Theater Productions of "Hamlet"
  • Contemporary Readings: Gender, Race, and Identity in "Hamlet" Interpretations
  • Psychological and Existential Interpretations: Hamlet's Inner Turmoil in the Modern World
  • Relevance in the 21st Century: Themes of Revenge, Justice, and Moral Dilemma
  • Adapting "Hamlet" for New Audiences: Outreach, Education, and Cultural Engagement
  • Conclusion: The Timelessness of "Hamlet" and Its Place in Literature

An Analysis of Characterization in "Hamlet"

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The Enduring Appeal of Hamlet: an In-depth Analysis

Review of hamlet by william shakespeare, how hamlet is faking insanity: appearance vs reality in shakespeare's play, the representation of madness in shakespeare's text, hamlet, let us write you an essay from scratch.

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The Tragic Story of Hamlet

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"Act": The Theme of "Acting" in Hamlet

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1603, William Shakespeare

Play; Shakespearean tragedy

Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius

The play Hamlet is the most cited work in the English language and is often included in the lists of the world's greatest literature.

"Frailty, thy name is woman!" "Brevity' is the soul of wit" "To be, or not to be, that is the question" "I must be cruel to be kind" "Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison."

1. Wright, G. T. (1981). Hendiadys and Hamlet. PMLA, 96(2), 168-193. (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/pmla/article/abs/hendiadys-and-hamlet/B61A80FAB6569984AB68096FE483D4FB) 2. Leverenz, D. (1978). The woman in Hamlet: An interpersonal view. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 4(2), 291-308. (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/493608?journalCode=signs) 3. Lesser, Z., & Stallybrass, P. (2008). The first literary Hamlet and the commonplacing of professional plays. Shakespeare Quarterly, 59(4), 371-420. (https://academic.oup.com/sq/article-abstract/59/4/371/5064575) 4. De Grazia, M. (2001). Hamlet before its Time. MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, 62(4), 355-375. (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/22909) 5. Calderwood, J. L. (1983). To be and not to be. Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet. In To Be and Not to Be. Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet. Columbia University Press. (https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.7312/cald94400/html) 6. Kastan, D. S. (1987). " His semblable is his mirror":" Hamlet" and the Imitation of Revenge. Shakespeare Studies, 19, 111. (https://www.proquest.com/openview/394df477873b27246b71f83d3939c672/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1819311) 7. Neill, M. (1983). Remembrance and Revenge: Hamlet, Macbeth and The Tempest. Jonson and Shakespeare, 35-56. (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-349-06183-9_3) 8. Gates, S. (2008). Assembling the Ophelia fragments: gender, genre, and revenge in Hamlet. Explorations in Renaissance Culture, 34(2), 229-248. (https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA208534875&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=00982474&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=anon%7Eebb234db)

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Jeffrey R. Wilson

Essays on hamlet.

Essays On Hamlet

Written as the author taught Hamlet every semester for a decade, these lightning essays ask big conceptual questions about the play with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover, and answer them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. In doing so, Hamlet becomes a lens for life today, generating insights on everything from xenophobia, American fraternities, and religious fundamentalism to structural misogyny, suicide contagion, and toxic love.

Prioritizing close reading over historical context, these explorations are highly textual and highly theoretical, often philosophical, ethical, social, and political. Readers see King Hamlet as a pre-modern villain, King Claudius as a modern villain, and Prince Hamlet as a post-modern villain. Hamlet’s feigned madness becomes a window into failed insanity defenses in legal trials. He knows he’s being watched in “To be or not to be”: the soliloquy is a satire of philosophy. Horatio emerges as Shakespeare’s authorial avatar for meta-theatrical commentary, Fortinbras as the hero of the play. Fate becomes a viable concept for modern life, and honor a source of tragedy. The metaphor of music in the play makes Ophelia Hamlet’s instrument. Shakespeare, like the modern corporation, stands against sexism, yet perpetuates it unknowingly. We hear his thoughts on single parenting, sending children off to college, and the working class, plus his advice on acting and writing, and his claims to be the next Homer or Virgil. In the context of four centuries of Hamlet hate, we hear how the text draws audiences in, how it became so famous, and why it continues to captivate audiences.

At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, these essays are concrete examples of the mind-altering power of literature and literary studies, unravelling the ongoing implications of the English language’s most significant artistic object of the past millennium.


Why is Hamlet the most famous English artwork of the past millennium? Is it a sexist text? Why does Hamlet speak in prose? Why must he die? Does Hamlet depict revenge, or justice? How did the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, transform into a story about a son dealing with the death of a father? Did Shakespeare know Aristotle’s theory of tragedy? How did our literary icon, Shakespeare, see his literary icons, Homer and Virgil? Why is there so much comedy in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy? Why is love a force of evil in the play? Did Shakespeare believe there’s a divinity that shapes our ends? How did he define virtue? What did he think about psychology? politics? philosophy? What was Shakespeare’s image of himself as an author? What can he, arguably the greatest writer of all time, teach us about our own writing? What was his theory of literature? Why do people like Hamlet ? How do the Hamlet haters of today compare to those of yesteryears? Is it dangerous for our children to read a play that’s all about suicide? 

These are some of the questions asked in this book, a collection of essays on Shakespeare’s Hamlet stemming from my time teaching the play every semester in my Why Shakespeare? course at Harvard University. During this time, I saw a series of bright young minds from wildly diverse backgrounds find their footing in Hamlet, and it taught me a lot about how Shakespeare’s tragedy works, and why it remains with us in the modern world. Beyond ghosts, revenge, and tragedy, Hamlet is a play about being in college, being in love, gender, misogyny, friendship, theater, philosophy, theology, injustice, loss, comedy, depression, death, self-doubt, mental illness, white privilege, overbearing parents, existential angst, international politics, the classics, the afterlife, and the meaning of it all. 

These essays grow from the central paradox of the play: it helps us understand the world we live in, yet we don't really understand the text itself very well. For all the attention given to Hamlet , there’s no consensus on the big questions—how it works, why it grips people so fiercely, what it’s about. These essays pose first-order questions about what happens in Hamlet and why, mobilizing answers for reflections on life, making the essays both highly textual and highly theoretical. 

Each semester that I taught the play, I would write a new essay about Hamlet . They were meant to be models for students, the sort of essay that undergrads read and write – more rigorous than the puff pieces in the popular press, but riskier than the scholarship in most academic journals. While I later added scholarly outerwear, these pieces all began just like the essays I was assigning to students – as short close readings with a reader and a text and a desire to determine meaning when faced with a puzzling question or problem. 

The turn from text to context in recent scholarly books about Hamlet is quizzical since we still don’t have a strong sense of, to quote the title of John Dover Wilson’s 1935 book, What Happens in Hamlet. Is the ghost real? Is Hamlet mad, or just faking? Why does he delay? These are the kinds of questions students love to ask, but they haven’t been – can’t be – answered by reading the play in the context of its sources (recently addressed in Laurie Johnson’s The Tain of Hamlet [2013]), its multiple texts (analyzed by Paul Menzer in The Hamlets [2008] and Zachary Lesser in Hamlet after Q1 [2015]), the Protestant reformation (the focus of Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory [2001] and John E. Curran, Jr.’s Hamlet, Protestantism, and the Mourning of Contingency [2006]), Renaissance humanism (see Rhodri Lewis, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness [2017]), Elizabethan political theory (see Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet [2007]), the play’s reception history (see David Bevington, Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages [2011]), its appropriation by modern philosophers (covered in Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine [2013] and Andrew Cutrofello’s All for Nothing: Hamlet’s Negativity [2014]), or its recent global travels (addressed, for example, in Margaret Latvian’s Hamlet’s Arab Journey [2011] and Dominic Dromgoole’s Hamlet Globe to Globe [2017]). 

Considering the context and afterlives of Hamlet is a worthy pursuit. I certainly consulted the above books for my essays, yet the confidence that comes from introducing context obscures the sharp panic we feel when confronting Shakespeare’s text itself. Even as the excellent recent book from Sonya Freeman Loftis, Allison Kellar, and Lisa Ulevich announces Hamlet has entered “an age of textual exhaustion,” there’s an odd tendency to avoid the text of Hamlet —to grasp for something more firm—when writing about it. There is a need to return to the text in a more immediate way to understand how Hamlet operates as a literary work, and how it can help us understand the world in which we live. 

That latter goal, yes, clings nostalgically to the notion that literature can help us understand life. Questions about life send us to literature in search of answers. Those of us who love literature learn to ask and answer questions about it as we become professional literary scholars. But often our answers to the questions scholars ask of literature do not connect back up with the questions about life that sent us to literature in the first place—which are often philosophical, ethical, social, and political. Those first-order questions are diluted and avoided in the minutia of much scholarship, left unanswered. Thus, my goal was to pose questions about Hamlet with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover and to answer them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. 

In doing so, these essays challenge the conventional relationship between literature and theory. They pursue a kind of criticism where literature is not merely the recipient of philosophical ideas in the service of exegesis. Instead, the creative risks of literature provide exemplars to be theorized outward to help us understand on-going issues in life today. Beyond an occasion for the demonstration of existing theory, literature is a source for the creation of new theory.

Chapter One How Hamlet Works

Whether you love or hate Hamlet , you can acknowledge its massive popularity. So how does Hamlet work? How does it create audience enjoyment? Why is it so appealing, and to whom? Of all the available options, why Hamlet ? This chapter entertains three possible explanations for why the play is so popular in the modern world: the literary answer (as the English language’s best artwork about death—one of the very few universal human experiences in a modern world increasingly marked by cultural differences— Hamlet is timeless); the theatrical answer (with its mixture of tragedy and comedy, the role of Hamlet requires the best actor of each age, and the play’s popularity derives from the celebrity of its stars); and the philosophical answer (the play invites, encourages, facilitates, and sustains philosophical introspection and conversation from people who do not usually do such things, who find themselves doing those things with Hamlet , who sometimes feel embarrassed about doing those things, but who ultimately find the experience of having done them rewarding).

Chapter Two “It Started Like a Guilty Thing”: The Beginning of Hamlet and the Beginning of Modern Politics

King Hamlet is a tyrant and King Claudius a traitor but, because Shakespeare asked us to experience the events in Hamlet from the perspective of the young Prince Hamlet, we are much more inclined to detect and detest King Claudius’s political failings than King Hamlet’s. If so, then Shakespeare’s play Hamlet , so often seen as the birth of modern psychology, might also tell us a little bit about the beginnings of modern politics as well.

Chapter Three Horatio as Author: Storytelling and Stoic Tragedy

This chapter addresses Horatio’s emotionlessness in light of his role as a narrator, using this discussion to think about Shakespeare’s motives for writing tragedy in the wake of his son’s death. By rationalizing pain and suffering as tragedy, both Horatio and Shakespeare were able to avoid the self-destruction entailed in Hamlet’s emotional response to life’s hardships and injustices. Thus, the stoic Horatio, rather than the passionate Hamlet who repeatedly interrupts ‘The Mousetrap’, is the best authorial avatar for a Shakespeare who strategically wrote himself and his own voice out of his works. This argument then expands into a theory of ‘authorial catharsis’ and the suggestion that we can conceive of Shakespeare as a ‘poet of reason’ in contrast to a ‘poet of emotion’.

Chapter Four “To thine own self be true”: What Shakespeare Says about Sending Our Children Off to College

What does “To thine own self be true” actually mean? Be yourself? Don’t change who you are? Follow your own convictions? Don’t lie to yourself? This chapter argues that, if we understand meaning as intent, then “To thine own self be true” means, paradoxically, that “the self” does not exist. Or, more accurately, Shakespeare’s Hamlet implies that “the self” exists only as a rhetorical, philosophical, and psychological construct that we use to make sense of our experiences and actions in the world, not as anything real. If this is so, then this passage may offer us a way of thinking about Shakespeare as not just a playwright but also a moral philosopher, one who did his ethics in drama.

Chapter Five In Defense of Polonius

Your wife dies. You raise two children by yourself. You build a great career to provide for your family. You send your son off to college in another country, though you know he’s not ready. Now the prince wants to marry your daughter—that’s not easy to navigate. Then—get this—while you’re trying to save the queen’s life, the prince murders you. Your death destroys your kids. They die tragically. And what do you get for your efforts? Centuries of Shakespeare scholars dumping on you. If we see Polonius not through the eyes of his enemy, Prince Hamlet—the point of view Shakespeare’s play asks audiences to adopt—but in analogy to the common challenges of twenty-first-century parenting, Polonius is a single father struggling with work-life balance who sadly choses his career over his daughter’s well-being.

Chapter Six Sigma Alpha Elsinore: The Culture of Drunkenness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Claudius likes to party—a bit too much. He frequently binge drinks, is arguably an alcoholic, but not an aberration. Hamlet says Denmark is internationally known for heavy drinking. That’s what Shakespeare would have heard in the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth, English writers feared Denmark had taught their nation its drinking habits. Synthesizing criticism on alcoholism as an individual problem in Shakespeare’s texts and times with scholarship on national drinking habits in the early-modern age, this essay asks what the tragedy of alcoholism looks like when located not on the level of the individual, but on the level of a culture, as Shakespeare depicted in Hamlet. One window into these early-modern cultures of drunkenness is sociological studies of American college fraternities, especially the social-learning theories that explain how one person—one culture—teaches another its habits. For Claudius’s alcoholism is both culturally learned and culturally significant. And, as in fraternities, alcoholism in Hamlet is bound up with wealth, privilege, toxic masculinity, and tragedy. Thus, alcohol imagistically reappears in the vial of “cursed hebona,” Ophelia’s liquid death, and the poisoned cup in the final scene—moments that stand out in recent performances and adaptations with alcoholic Claudiuses and Gertrudes.

Chapter Seven Tragic Foundationalism

This chapter puts the modern philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory of foundationalism into dialogue with the early-modern playwright William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet . Doing so allows us to identify a new candidate for Hamlet’s traditionally hard-to-define hamartia – i.e., his “tragic mistake” – but it also allows us to consider the possibility of foundationalism as hamartia. Tragic foundationalism is the notion that fidelity to a single and substantive truth at the expense of an openness to evidence, reason, and change is an acute mistake which can lead to miscalculations of fact and virtue that create conflict and can end up in catastrophic destruction and the downfall of otherwise strong and noble people.

Chapter Eight “As a stranger give it welcome”: Shakespeare’s Advice for First-Year College Students

Encountering a new idea can be like meeting a strange person for the first time. Similarly, we dismiss new ideas before we get to know them. There is an answer to the problem of the human antipathy to strangeness in a somewhat strange place: a single line usually overlooked in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet . If the ghost is “wondrous strange,” Hamlet says, invoking the ancient ethics of hospitality, “Therefore as a stranger give it welcome.” In this word, strange, and the social conventions attached to it, is both the instinctual, animalistic fear and aggression toward what is new and different (the problem) and a cultivated, humane response in hospitality and curiosity (the solution). Intellectual xenia is the answer to intellectual xenophobia.

Chapter Nine Parallels in Hamlet

Hamlet is more parallely than other texts. Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes have their fathers murdered, then seek revenge. Brothers King Hamlet and King Claudius mirror brothers Old Norway and Old Fortinbras. Hamlet and Ophelia both lose their fathers, go mad, but there’s a method in their madness, and become suicidal. King Hamlet and Polonius are both domineering fathers. Hamlet and Polonius are both scholars, actors, verbose, pedantic, detectives using indirection, spying upon others, “by indirections find directions out." King Hamlet and King Claudius are both kings who are killed. Claudius using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet mirrors Polonius using Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. Reynaldo and Hamlet both pretend to be something other than what they are in order to spy on and detect foes. Young Fortinbras and Prince Hamlet both have their forward momentum “arrest[ed].” Pyrrhus and Hamlet are son seeking revenge but paused a “neutral to his will.” The main plot of Hamlet reappears in the play-within-the-play. The Act I duel between King Hamlet and Old Fortinbras echoes in the Act V duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Claudius and Hamlet are both king killers. Sheesh—why are there so many dang parallels in Hamlet ? Is there some detectable reason why the story of Hamlet would call for the literary device of parallelism?

Chapter Ten Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Why Hamlet Has Two Childhood Friends, Not Just One

Why have two of Hamlet’s childhood friends rather than just one? Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have individuated personalities? First of all, by increasing the number of friends who visit Hamlet, Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of being outnumbered, of multiple enemies encroaching upon Hamlet, of Hamlet feeling that the world is against him. Second, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not interchangeable, as commonly thought. Shakespeare gave each an individuated personality. Guildenstern is friendlier with Hamlet, and their friendship collapses, while Rosencrantz is more distant and devious—a frenemy.

Chapter Eleven Shakespeare on the Classics, Shakespeare as a Classic: A Reading of Aeneas’s Tale to Dido

Of all the stories Shakespeare might have chosen, why have Hamlet ask the players to recite Aeneas’ tale to Dido of Pyrrhus’s slaughter of Priam? In this story, which comes not from Homer’s Iliad but from Virgil’s Aeneid and had already been adapted for the Elizabethan stage in Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Dido, Pyrrhus – more commonly known as Neoptolemus, the son of the famous Greek warrior Achilles – savagely slays Priam, the king of the Trojans and the father of Paris, who killed Pyrrhus’s father, Achilles, who killed Paris’s brother, Hector, who killed Achilles’s comrade, Patroclus. Clearly, the theme of revenge at work in this story would have appealed to Shakespeare as he was writing what would become the greatest revenge tragedy of all time. Moreover, Aeneas’s tale to Dido supplied Shakespeare with all of the connections he sought to make at this crucial point in his play and his career – connections between himself and Marlowe, between the start of Hamlet and the end, between Prince Hamlet and King Claudius, between epic poetry and tragic drama, and between the classical literature Shakespeare was still reading hundreds of years later and his own potential as a classic who might (and would) be read hundreds of years into the future.

Chapter Twelve How Theater Works, according to Hamlet

According to Hamlet, people who are guilty of a crime will, when seeing that crime represented on stage, “proclaim [their] malefactions”—but that simply isn’t how theater works. Guilty people sit though shows that depict their crimes all the time without being prompted to public confession. Why did Shakespeare—a remarkably observant student of theater—write this demonstrably false theory of drama into his protagonist? And why did Shakespeare then write the plot of the play to affirm that obviously inaccurate vision of theater? For Claudius is indeed stirred to confession by the play-within-the-play. Perhaps Hamlet’s theory of people proclaiming malefactions upon seeing their crimes represented onstage is not as outlandish as it first appears. Perhaps four centuries of obsession with Hamlet is the English-speaking world proclaiming its malefactions upon seeing them represented dramatically.

Chapter Thirteen “To be, or not to be”: Shakespeare Against Philosophy

This chapter hazards a new reading of the most famous passage in Western literature: “To be, or not to be” from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . With this line, Hamlet poses his personal struggle, a question of life and death, as a metaphysical problem, as a question of existence and nothingness. However, “To be, or not to be” is not what it seems to be. It seems to be a representation of tragic angst, yet a consideration of the context of the speech reveals that “To be, or not to be” is actually a satire of philosophy and Shakespeare’s representation of the theatricality of everyday life. In this chapter, a close reading of the context and meaning of this passage leads into an attempt to formulate a Shakespearean image of philosophy.

Chapter Fourteen Contagious Suicide in and Around Hamlet

As in society today, suicide is contagious in Hamlet , at least in the example of Ophelia, the only death by suicide in the play, because she only becomes suicidal after hearing Hamlet talk about his own suicidal thoughts in “To be, or not to be.” Just as there are media guidelines for reporting on suicide, there are better and worse ways of handling Hamlet . Careful suicide coverage can change public misperceptions and reduce suicide contagion. Is the same true for careful literary criticism and classroom discussion of suicide texts? How can teachers and literary critics reduce suicide contagion and increase help-seeking behavior?

Chapter Fifteen Is Hamlet a Sexist Text? Overt Misogyny vs. Unconscious Bias

Students and fans of Shakespeare’s Hamlet persistently ask a question scholars and critics of the play have not yet definitively answered: is it a sexist text? The author of this text has been described as everything from a male chauvinist pig to a trailblazing proto-feminist, but recent work on the science behind discrimination and prejudice offers a new, better vocabulary in the notion of unconscious bias. More pervasive and slippery than explicit bigotry, unconscious bias involves the subtle, often unintentional words and actions which indicate the presence of biases we may not be aware of, ones we may even fight against. The Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet exhibited an unconscious bias against women, I argue, even as he sought to critique the mistreatment of women in a patriarchal society. The evidence for this unconscious bias is not to be found in the misogynistic statements made by the characters in the play. It exists, instead, in the demonstrable preference Shakespeare showed for men over women when deciding where to deploy his literary talents. Thus, Shakespeare's Hamlet is a powerful literary example – one which speaks to, say, the modern corporation – showing that deliberate efforts for egalitarianism do not insulate one from the effects of structural inequalities that both stem from and create unconscious bias.

Chapter Sixteen Style and Purpose in Acting and Writing

Purpose and style are connected in academic writing. To answer the question of style ( How should we write academic papers? ) we must first answer the question of purpose ( Why do we write academic papers? ). We can answer these questions, I suggest, by turning to an unexpected style guide that’s more than 400 years old: the famous passage on “the purpose of playing” in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet . In both acting and writing, a high style often accompanies an expressive purpose attempting to impress an elite audience yet actually alienating intellectual people, while a low style and mimetic purpose effectively engage an intellectual audience.

Chapter Seventeen 13 Ways of Looking at a Ghost

Why doesn’t Gertrude see the Ghost of King Hamlet in Act III, even though Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, Marcellus, and Prince Hamlet all saw it in Act I? It’s a bit embarrassing that Shakespeare scholars don’t have a widely agreed-upon consensus that explains this really basic question that puzzles a lot of people who read or see Hamlet .

Chapter Eighteen The Tragedy of Love in Hamlet

The word “love” appears 84 times in Shakespeare’s Hamlet . “Father” only appears 73 times, “play” 60, “think” 55, “mother” 46, “mad” 44, “soul” 40, “God" 39, “death” 38, “life” 34, “nothing” 28, “son” 26, “honor” 21, “spirit” 19, “kill” 18, “revenge” 14, and “action” 12. Love isn’t the first theme that comes to mind when we think of Hamlet , but is surprisingly prominent. But love is tragic in Hamlet . The bloody catastrophe at the end of that play is principally driven not by hatred or a longing for revenge, but by love.

Chapter Nineteen Ophelia’s Songs: Moral Agency, Manipulation, and the Metaphor of Music in Hamlet

This chapter reads Ophelia’s songs in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the context of the meaning of music established elsewhere in the play. While the songs are usually seen as a marker of Ophelia’s madness (as a result of the death of her father) or freedom (from the constraints of patriarchy), they come – when read in light of the metaphor of music as manipulation – to symbolize her role as a pawn in Hamlet’s efforts to deceive his family. Thus, music was Shakespeare’s platform for connecting Ophelia’s story to one of the central questions in Hamlet : Do we have control over our own actions (like the musician), or are we controlled by others (like the instrument)?

Chapter Twenty A Quantitative Study of Prose and Verse in Hamlet

Why does Hamlet have so much prose? Did Shakespeare deliberately shift from verse to prose to signal something to his audiences? How would actors have handled the shifts from verse to prose? Would audiences have detected shifts from verse to prose? Is there an overarching principle that governs Shakespeare’s decision to use prose—a coherent principle that says, “If X, then use prose?”

Chapter Twenty-One The Fortunes of Fate in Hamlet : Divine Providence and Social Determinism

In Hamlet , fate is attacked from both sides: “fortune” presents a world of random happenstance, “will” a theory of efficacious human action. On this backdrop, this essay considers—irrespective of what the characters say and believe—what the structure and imagery Shakespeare wrote into Hamlet say about the possibility that some version of fate is at work in the play. I contend the world of Hamlet is governed by neither fate nor fortune, nor even the Christianized version of fate called “providence.” Yet there is a modern, secular, disenchanted form of fate at work in Hamlet—what is sometimes called “social determinism”—which calls into question the freedom of the individual will. As such, Shakespeare’s Hamlet both commented on the transformation of pagan fate into Christian providence that happened in the centuries leading up to the play, and anticipated the further transformation of fate from a theological to a sociological idea, which occurred in the centuries following Hamlet .

Chapter Twenty-Two The Working Class in Hamlet

There’s a lot for working-class folks to hate about Hamlet —not just because it’s old, dusty, difficult to understand, crammed down our throats in school, and filled with frills, tights, and those weird lace neck thingies that are just socially awkward to think about. Peak Renaissance weirdness. Claustrophobicly cloistered inside the castle of Elsinore, quaintly angsty over royal family problems, Hamlet feels like the literary epitome of elitism. “Lawless resolutes” is how the Wittenberg scholar Horatio describes the soldiers who join Fortinbras’s army in exchange “for food.” The Prince Hamlet who has never worked a day in his life denigrates Polonius as a “fishmonger”: quite the insult for a royal advisor to be called a working man. And King Claudius complains of the simplicity of "the distracted multitude.” But, in Hamlet , Shakespeare juxtaposed the nobles’ denigrations of the working class as readily available metaphors for all-things-awful with the rather valuable behavior of working-class characters themselves. When allowed to represent themselves, the working class in Hamlet are characterized as makers of things—of material goods and services like ships, graves, and plays, but also of ethical and political virtues like security, education, justice, and democracy. Meanwhile, Elsinore has a bad case of affluenza, the make-believe disease invented by an American lawyer who argued that his client's social privilege was so great that it created an obliviousness to law. While social elites rot society through the twin corrosives of political corruption and scholarly detachment, the working class keeps the machine running. They build the ships, plays, and graves society needs to function, and monitor the nuts-and-bolts of the ideals—like education and justice—that we aspire to uphold.

Chapter Twenty-Three The Honor Code at Harvard and in Hamlet

Students at Harvard College are asked, when they first join the school and several times during their years there, to affirm their awareness of and commitment to the school’s honor code. But instead of “the foundation of our community” that it is at Harvard, honor is tragic in Hamlet —a source of anxiety, blunder, and catastrophe. As this chapter shows, looking at Hamlet from our place at Harvard can bring us to see what a tangled knot honor can be, and we can start to theorize the difference between heroic and tragic honor.

Chapter Twenty-Four The Meaning of Death in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

By connecting the ways characters live their lives in Hamlet to the ways they die – on-stage or off, poisoned or stabbed, etc. – Shakespeare symbolized hamartia in catastrophe. In advancing this argument, this chapter develops two supporting ideas. First, the dissemination of tragic necessity: Shakespeare distributed the Aristotelian notion of tragic necessity – a causal relationship between a character’s hamartia (fault or error) and the catastrophe at the end of the play – from the protagonist to the other characters, such that, in Hamlet , those who are guilty must die, and those who die are guilty. Second, the spectacularity of death: there exists in Hamlet a positive correlation between the severity of a character’s hamartia (error or flaw) and the “spectacularity” of his or her death – that is, the extent to which it is presented as a visible and visceral spectacle on-stage.

Chapter Twenty-Five Tragic Excess in Hamlet

In Hamlet , Shakespeare paralleled the situations of Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras (the father of each is killed, and each then seeks revenge) to promote the virtue of moderation: Hamlet moves too slowly, Laertes too swiftly – and they both die at the end of the play – but Fortinbras represents a golden mean which marries the slowness of Hamlet with the swiftness of Laertes. As argued in this essay, Shakespeare endorsed the virtue of balance by allowing Fortinbras to be one of the very few survivors of the play. In other words, excess is tragic in Hamlet .


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Interesting Literature

A Summary and Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

To attempt an analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a single blog post: surely a foolhardy objective if ever there was one. So here we’ll try to focus on some of the key points of Hamlet and analyse their significance, homing in on some of the most interesting as well as some of the most notable aspects of Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet is a long play, but it’s also a fascinating one, with a ghost, murder, mistaken identity, family drama, poison, pirates, duels, skulls, and even a fight in an open grave. What more could one ask for?

Hamlet is a long play – at just over 30,000 words, the longest Shakespeare wrote – so condensing the plot of this play into a shortish plot summary is going to prove tricky. Still, we’ll do our best. Here, then, is a very brief summary of the plot of Hamlet , perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

The play begins on the battlements at Elsinore Castle in Denmark one night. The ghost of the former king, Hamlet, is seen, but refuses to speak to any of the soldiers on guard duty. At the royal court, Prince Hamlet (the dead king’s son) shows disgust at his uncle, Claudius, who is king, having taken the throne after Hamlet’s father, Claudius’ brother, died.

Hamlet also resents his mother, Gertrude – who, not long after Hamlet Senior’s death, remarried … to Claudius. Claudius gives the young man Laertes, the son of the influential courtier Polonius, leave to return to France to study there. At the same time, Claudius and Gertrude entreat Hamlet not to return to his studies in Germany, at the University of Wittenberg. Hamlet agrees to remain at court.

Laertes leaves Denmark for France, bidding his sister Ophelia farewell. He tells her not to take Hamlet’s expressions of affection too seriously, because – even if Hamlet is keen on her – he is not free to marry whom he wishes, being a prince. Polonius turns up and gives his son some advice before Laertes leaves; Polonius then reiterates Laertes’ advice to Ophelia about Hamlet, commanding his daughter to stay away from Hamlet.

Hamlet’s friend Horatio tells Hamlet about the Ghost, and Hamlet visits the battlements with his friend. The Ghost reappears – and this time, he speaks to Hamlet in private, telling him that he is the prince’s dead father and that he was murdered (with poison in the ear, while he lay asleep in his orchard) by none other than Claudius, his own brother.

He tells his son to avenge his murder by killing Claudius, the man who murdered the king and seized his throne for himself. However, he tells Hamlet not to kill Gertrude but to ‘leave her to heaven’ (i.e. God’s judgment). Hamlet swears Horatio and the guards to secrecy about the Ghost.

Hamlet has vowed to avenge his father’s murder, but he has doubts over the truth of what he’s seen. Was the ghost really his father? Might it not have been some demon, sent to trick him into committing murder? Claudius may disgust Hamlet already, but murdering his uncle just because he married Hamlet’s mum seems a little extreme.

But if Claudius did murder Hamlet’s father, then Hamlet will gladly avenge him. But how can Hamlet ascertain whether the Ghost really was his father, and that the murder story is true? To buy himself some time, Hamlet tells Horatio that he has decided to ‘put an antic disposition on’: i.e., to pretend to be mad, so Claudius won’t question his scheming behaviour because he’ll simply believe the prince is just being eccentric in general.

Polonius sends Reynaldo off to spy on his son, Laertes, in France. His daughter Ophelia approaches him, distressed, to report Hamlet’s strange behaviour in her presence. Polonius is certain that Hamlet’s odd behaviour springs from his love for Ophelia, so he rushes off to tell the King and Queen, Claudius and Gertrude, about it.

Claudius and Gertrude welcome Hamlet’s childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to court and charge them with talking to Hamlet to try to find out what’s the matter with him. Polonius arrives and tells the King and Queen that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia, and produces a love letter Hamlet wrote to her as proof.

As Hamlet approaches, Polonius hatches a plan: he will talk to Hamlet while the King and Queen listen in secret from behind an arras (tapestry). Sure enough, Hamlet talks in riddles to Polonius, who then leaves, convinced he is right about the cause of Hamlet’s madness. Hamlet talks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who tell him that the actors are on their way to court.

Hamlet is suspicious that his friends were sent for by Claudius and Gertrude to spy on him (as indeed they were); he confides to his old friends that he is not necessarily really mad; he implies he’s putting it on and still has his wits about him. The actors arrive, and Polonius returns, prompting Hamlet to start answering him with cryptic responses again, to keep up the act of being mad.

To determine Claudius’ guilt, Hamlet turns detective and devises a plan to try to get Claudius to reveal his crime, inadvertently. Hamlet persuades the actors to perform a play, The Murder of Gonzago , including some specially inserted lines he has written – in which a brother murders the king and marries the king’s widow.

Hamlet’s thinking is that, when Claudius witnesses his own crime enacted before him on the stage, he will be so shocked and overcome with guilt that his reaction will reveal that he’s the king’s murderer.

Claudius and Gertrude ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what they made of Hamlet’s behaviour, and then the King and Queen, along with Polonius, hide so they can observe Hamlet talking with Ophelia. At one point, in an aside, Claudius talks of his ‘conscience’, providing the audience with the clearest sign that he is indeed guilty of murdering Old Hamlet.

This is significant because one of the main reasons Hamlet is being cautious about exacting revenge is that he’s having doubts about whether the Ghost was really his father or not (and therefore whether it spoke truth to him). But we, the audience, know that Claudius almost certainly is guilty.

After he has meditated aloud about the afterlife, suicide, and the ways in which thinking deeply about things can make one less prompt to act (the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy ), Hamlet speaks with Ophelia. He tells her he never loved her, and orders her to go to a nunnery because women do nothing but breed men who are sinners.

Ophelia is convinced Hamlet is mad for love, but Claudius believes something else is driving Hamlet’s behaviour, and resolves to send Hamlet to England, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission to get the tribute (payment) England owes Denmark.

Sure enough, Claudius responds to the performance of The Murder of Gonzago (or, as Hamlet calls this play-within-a-play, The Mousetrap ) by exclaiming and then walking out, and in doing so he convinces Hamlet that he is indeed guilty and the Ghost is right.

Now Hamlet can proceed with his plan to murder him. However, after the play, he catches Claudius at prayer, and doesn’t want to murder him as he prays because, if Claudius killed while speaking to God, he will be sent straight to heaven, regardless of his sins.

So instead, Hamlet visits Gertrude, his mother, in her chamber, and denounces her for marrying Claudius so soon after Old Hamlet’s death. The Ghost appears (visible only to Hamlet: Gertrude believes her son to be mad and that the Ghost is ‘the very coinage of [his] brain’), and spurs Hamlet on.

Hearing a sound behind the arras or tapestry, Hamlet lashes out with his sword, stabbing the figure behind, believing it to be Claudius. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, it is Polonius, having concealed himself there to spy on the prince. Polonius dies.

Claudius asks Hamlet where Polonius is, and Hamlet jokes about where he’s hid the body. Claudius dispatches Hamlet to England – ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, but in reality the King has arranged to have Hamlet murdered when he arrives in England. However, Hamlet realises this, escapes, has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, and returns to Denmark.

Laertes returns from France, thinking Claudius was responsible for Polonius’ death. Claudius puts him right, and arranges for Laertes to fight Hamlet using a poisoned sword, with a chalice full of poisoned wine prepared for Hamlet should the sword fail.

As they are plotting, Gertrude comes in with the news that Polonius’ death has precipitated Ophelia’s slide into madness and, now, her suicide: Ophelia has drowned herself.

Laertes and Hamlet fight in Ophelia’s open grave, and then Hamlet challenges Laertes to a duel at court. Unbeknown to Hamlet, and as agreed with Claudius earlier on, Laertes will fight with a poisoned sword.

However, during the confusion of the duel, Hamlet and Laertes end up switching swords so both men are mortally wounded by the poisoned blade. Gertrude, in making a toast to her son and being unaware that the chalice of wine is poisoned, drinks the deadly wine.

Laertes, as he lies dying, confesses to Hamlet that Claudius hatched the plan involving the poisoned sword and wine, and Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, forcing him to drink the wine for good measure too – thus finally avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet dies, giving Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, his dying vote as the new ruler of Denmark. Fortinbras arrives to take control of Denmark now the Danish royal family has been wiped out, and Horatio prepares to tell him the whole sorry tale.

Analysis of the play’s sources – and their significance

Although it’s often assumed that there must be some link between Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (who died aged 11, in 1596) and the playwright’s decision to write a play called Hamlet , it may in fact be nothing more than coincidence: Hamnet was a relatively common name at the time (Shakespeare had in fact named his son after a neighbour), he didn’t write Hamlet until a few years later, and there had already been at least one play about a character called Hamlet performed on the London stage some years earlier.

None of this rules out the idea that Shakespeare was transmuting personal grief over the death of Hamnet into universal art through writing (or, more accurately, rewriting) Hamlet , but it does need to be borne in mind when advancing a biographical analysis of Shakespeare’s greatest play.

This earlier play called Hamlet , which is referred to in letters and records from the time, was probably not written by Shakespeare but by one of his great forerunners, Thomas Kyd, master of the English revenge tragedy, whose The Spanish Tragedy  had had audiences on the edge of their seats in the late 1580s. Unfortunately, no copy of this proto- Hamlet  has survived – and we cannot be sure that Kyd was definitely the author (although he is the most likely candidate).

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are based on earlier stories or historical chronicles, and many are even based on earlier play-texts, which Shakespeare used as the basis for his own work. Indeed, very few of Shakespeare’s plays have no traceable source. But for some, in the case of Hamlet the relationship between Shakespeare’s play and the source-text is a problematic one.

The modernist poet T. S. Eliot argued in an essay of 1919 that Shakespeare’s  Hamlet was ‘an artistic failure’ because the Bard was working with someone else’s material but attempting to do something too different with the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude.

essay over hamlet

Whether we side with Empson or Eliot or with neither, the fact is that this earlier, sadly lost version of the ‘play about Hamlet’ wasn’t itself the origin of the Hamlet story, which is instead found in a thirteenth-century chronicle written by Saxo Grammaticus. In this chronicle, Hamlet is ‘Amleth’ and is only a little boy – and it’s common knowledge that his uncle has killed his father.

Because Danish tradition expects the son to avenge his father’s death, the uncle starts to keep a close eye on little Amleth, waiting for the boy to strike in revenge. To avert suspicion and make his uncle believe that he, little Amleth, has no plans to seek revenge, Amleth pretends to be mad – the ‘antic disposition’ which Shakespeare’s Hamlet will also put on.

essay over hamlet

Because the ‘antic disposition’ no longer makes as much sense to the plot in Shakespeare’s version – why would Hamlet’s uncle have to watch his back when he murdered Hamlet’s father in secret and Hamlet surely (at least according to Claudius) has no idea that he’s the murderer? – Hamlet becomes a more complex and interesting character than he had been in the source material.

There is not as clear a reason for Hamlet to ‘put an antic disposition on’ as there had been in the source material, where pretending to be slow-witted or mad could save young Amleth’s life.

The textual variants of Hamlet

There’s more than one Hamlet . The play we read depends very much on the edition we read, since the play has been edited in a number of different ways. The problem is that the play survives in three very different versions: the First Quarto printed in 1603 (the so-called ‘Bad’ Quarto), the Second Quarto from a year later, and the version which appeared in the First Folio in 1623.

Q1 – the First or ‘Bad’ Quarto – is well-named. It was most probably a pirated edition of Shakespeare’s text, perhaps hastily written down from the (rather faulty) memory of a theatregoer or perhaps even one of the actors.

To give you a sense of just how bad the Bad Quarto was, in Q1 the play’s most famous line, ‘To be or not to be: that is the question’, which begins his famous soliloquy in which he muses on the point of life and contemplates suicide, is rendered quite differently – as ‘To be or not to be, I there’s the point’.

It also appears at a different point in the play, just after Polonius (who is called ‘Corambis’) in this version – has hatched the plot to arrange a meeting between Hamlet and Polonius’ (sorry, Corambis’) daughter, Ophelia.

What does Hamlet the play actually mean ?

What is Hamlet telling us – about revenge, about mortality and the afterlife, or about thinking versus taking action about something? The play is ambivalent about all these things: deliberately, thanks to Shakespeare’s deft use of Hamlet’s own soliloquies (which often see him thrashing out two sides of a debate by talking to himself) and the clever use of doubling in the play.

Revenge is supposed to be left to God (‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord), but both Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character imply that it’s expected in Danish society of the time that the son would take vengeance into his own hands and avenge his murdered father: he is ‘Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell’, as he says in his soliloquy at the end of II.2.

Christopher Ricks, the noted literary critic, has talked about how many great works of literature are about exploring the tension between two competing moral or pragmatic principles. Perhaps the two contradictory principles which we most clearly see in tension in Hamlet are the two axioms ‘look before you leap’ and ‘he who hesitates is lost’.

If Hamlet had been less a thinker and more a man of action, he would have made a snap judgment regarding Claudius’ guilt and then either taken revenge or resolved to leave it up to God.

But if he’d been wrong, he would have condemned an innocent man to death. However, if he’d been right, he would have spared everyone else who gets dragged into his quest for vengeance and destroyed along the way: Polonius (killed in error by Hamlet), Ophelia (killed by her own hand, but in response to her father’s death at Hamlet’s hands), Laertes (killed trying to avenge Polonius’ murder), and even – against the express wishes and commands of the Ghost himself – Hamlet’s own mother, who only drinks the poisoned wine by accident because she wants to wish her son good luck in the duel he’s fighting with Laertes.

This habit of Hamlet’s, his tendency to think things over, is both one of his most appealingly humane qualities, and yet also, in many ways, his undoing – and, ultimately, the end of the whole royal house of Denmark, since Fortinbras can come in and reclaim the land that was taken from his father by Old Hamlet all those years ago.

essay over hamlet

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The Folger Shakespeare

A Modern Perspective: Hamlet

By Michael Neill

The great Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold used to maintain that “if all the plays ever written suddenly disappeared and only Hamlet miraculously survived, all the theaters in the world would be saved. They could all put on Hamlet and be successful.” 1 Perhaps Meyerhold exaggerated because of his frustration—he was prevented from ever staging the tragedy by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who apparently thought it too dangerous to be performed—but Meyerhold’s sense of Hamlet ’s extraordinary breadth of appeal is amply confirmed by its stage history. Praised by Shakespeare’s contemporaries for its power to “please all” as well as “to please the wiser sort,” 2 it provided his company with an immediate and continuing success. It was equally admired by popular audiences at the Globe on the Bankside, by academic playgoers “in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford,” and at court—where it was still in request in 1637, nearly forty years after its first performance.

In the four centuries since it was first staged, Hamlet has never lost its theatrical appeal, remaining today the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s tragedies. At the same time, it has developed a reputation as the most intellectually puzzling of his plays, and it has already attracted more commentary than any other work in English except the Bible. Even today, when criticism stresses the importance of the reader’s role in “constructing” the texts of the past, there is something astonishing about Hamlet ’s capacity to accommodate the most bafflingly different readings. 3

In the early nineteenth century, for instance, Romantic critics read it as the psychological study of a prince too delicate and sensitive for his public mission; to later nineteenth-century European intellectuals, the hero’s anguish and self-reproach spoke so eloquently of the disillusionment of revolutionary failure that in czarist Russia “Hamletism” became the acknowledged term for political vacillation and disengagement. The twentieth century, not surprisingly, discovered a more violent and disturbing play: to the French poet Paul Valéry, the tragedy seemed to embody the European death wish revealed in the carnage and devastation of the First World War; in the mid-1960s the English director Peter Hall staged it as a work expressing the political despair of the nuclear age; for the Polish critic Jan Kott, as for the Russian filmmaker Gregori Kozintsev, the play became “a drama of a political crime” in a state not unlike Stalin’s Soviet empire; 4 while the contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney found in it a metaphor for the murderous politics of revenge at that moment devouring his native Ulster:

I am Hamlet the Dane,

skull handler, parablist,

smeller of rot

in the state, infused

with its poisons,

pinioned by ghosts

and affections

murders and pieties 5

Even the major “facts” of the play—the status of the Ghost, or the real nature of Hamlet’s “madness”—are seen very differently at different times. Samuel Johnson, for example, writing in the 1760s, had no doubt that the hero’s “madness,” a source of “much mirth” to eighteenth-century audiences, was merely “pretended,” but twentieth-century Hamlets onstage, even if they were not the full-fledged neurotics invented by Freud and his disciple Ernest Jones, were likely to show some signs of actual madness. Modern readings, too, while still fascinated by the hero’s intellectual and emotional complexities, are likely to emphasize those characteristics that are least compatible with the idealized “sweet prince” of the Victorians—the diseased suspicion of women, revealed in his obsession with his mother’s sexuality and his needless cruelty to Ophelia, his capacity for murderous violence (he dies with the blood of five people on his hands), and his callous indifference to the killing of such relative innocents as Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.

Hamlet ’s ability to adapt itself to the preconceptions of almost any audience, allowing the viewers, in the play’s own sardonic phrase, to “botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” ( 4.5.12 ), results partly from the boldness of its design. Over the sensationalism and rough energy of a conventional revenge plot is placed a sophisticated psychological drama whose most intense action belongs to the interior world of soliloquy: Hamlet agrees to revenge his father’s death at the urging of the Ghost, and thus steps into an old-fashioned revenge tragedy; but it is Hamlet’s inner world, revealed to us in his soliloquies (speeches addressed not to other characters but to the audience, as if the character were thinking aloud), that equally excites our attention. It is as if two plays are occurring simultaneously.

Although Hamlet is often thought of as the most personal of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Shakespeare did not invent the story of revenge that the play tells. The story was an ancient one, belonging originally to Norse saga. The barbaric narrative of murder and revenge—of a king killed by his brother, who then marries the dead king’s widow, of the young prince who must pretend to be mad in order to save his own life, who eludes a series of traps laid for him by his wicked uncle, and who finally revenges his father’s death by killing the uncle—had been elaborated in the twelfth-century Historiae Danicae of Saxo Grammaticus, and then polished up for sixteenth-century French readers in François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques. It was first adapted for the English theater in the late 1580s in the form of the so-called Ur- Hamlet , a play attributed to Thomas Kyd (unfortunately now lost) that continued to hold the stage until at least 1596; and it may well be that when Shakespeare began work on Hamlet about 1599, he had no more lofty intention than to polish up this slightly tarnished popular favorite. But Shakespeare’s wholesale rewriting produced a Hamlet so utterly unlike Kyd’s work that its originality was unmistakable even to playgoers familiar with Kyd’s play.

The new tragedy preserved the outline of the old story, and took over Kyd’s most celebrated contributions—a ghost crying for revenge, and a play-within-the-play that sinisterly mirrors the main plot; but by focusing upon the perplexed interior life of the hero, Shakespeare gave a striking twist to what had been a brutally straightforward narrative. On the levels of both revenge play and psychological drama, the play develops a preoccupation with the hidden, the secret, and the mysterious that does much to account for its air of mystery. In Maynard Mack’s words, it is “a play in the interrogative mood” whose action deepens and complicates, rather than answers, the apparently casual question with which it begins, “Who’s there?” 6

“The Cheer and Comfort of Our Eye”: Hamlet and Surveillance

The great subject of revenge drama, before Hamlet , was the moral problem raised by private, personal revenge: i.e., should the individual take revenge into his own hands or leave it to God? Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (and, one assumes, his lost play about Hamlet as well) captured on the stage the violent contradictions of the Elizabethan attitudes toward this form of “wild justice.” The surprising thing about Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that it barely glances at the ethical argument raised by a hero’s taking justice into his own hands—an argument central to The Spanish Tragedy. Of course, the controversy about the morality of private revenge must have provided an important context for the original performances of the play, giving an ominous force to Hamlet’s fear that the spirit he has seen “may be a devil” luring him to damnation ( 2.2.628 ). But Shakespeare simply takes this context for granted, and goes on to discover a quite different kind of political interest in his plot—one that may help to explain the paranoiac anxieties it was apparently capable of arousing in a dictator like Stalin.

Turning away from the framework of ethical debate, Shakespeare used Saxo’s story of Hamlet’s pretended madness and delayed revenge to explore the brutal facts about survival in an authoritarian state. Here too the play could speak to Elizabethan experience, for we should not forget that the glorified monarchy of Queen Elizabeth I was sustained by a vigorous network of spies and informers. Indeed, one portrait of Elizabeth shows her dressed in a costume allegorically embroidered with eyes and ears, partly to advertise that her watchers and listeners were everywhere. Shakespeare’s Elsinore, too—the castle governed by Claudius and home to Hamlet—is full of eyes and ears; and behind the public charade of warmth, magnanimity, and open government that King Claudius so carefully constructs, the lives of the King’s subjects are exposed to merciless inquisition.

It is symbolically appropriate that the play should begin with a group of anxious watchers on the battlemented walls of the castle, for nothing and no one in Claudius’s Denmark is allowed to go “unwatched”: every appearance must be “sifted” or “sounded,” and every secret “opened.” The King himself does not hesitate to eavesdrop on the heir apparent; and his chief minister, Polonius, will meet his death lurking behind a curtain in the same squalid occupation. But they are not alone in this: the wholesale corruption of social relationships, even the most intimate, is an essential part of Shakespeare’s chilling exposure of authoritarian politics. Denmark, Hamlet informs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accurately enough, is “a prison” ( 2.2.262 ); and the treachery of these former school friends of Hamlet illustrates how much, behind the mask of uncle Claudius’s concern, his court is ruled by the prison-house customs of the stool pigeon and the informer. How readily first Ophelia and then Gertrude allow themselves to become passive instruments of Polonius’s and Claudius’s spying upon the Prince; how easily Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are persuaded to put their friendship with Hamlet at the disposal of the state. Even Laertes’s affectionate relationship with his sister is tainted by a desire to install himself as a kind of censor, a “watchman” to the fortress of her heart ( 1.3.50 ). In this he is all too like his father, Polonius, who makes himself an interiorized Big Brother, engraving his cautious precepts on Laertes’s memory ( 1.3.65 ff.) and telling Ophelia precisely what she is permitted to think and feel:

I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby. . . .

( 1.3.113 –14)

Polonius is the perfect inhabitant of this court: busily policing his children’s sexuality, he has no scruple about prostituting his daughter in the interests of state security, for beneath his air of senile wordiness and fatherly anxiousness lies an ingrained cynicism that allows him both to spy on his son’s imagined “drabbing” in Paris and to “loose” his daughter as a sexual decoy to entrap the Prince.

Hamlet’s role as hero at once sets him apart from this prison-house world and yet leads him to become increasingly entangled in its web of surveillance. To the admiring Ophelia, Hamlet remains “Th’ observed of all observers” ( 3.1.168 ), but his obvious alienation has resulted in his being “observed” in a much more sinister sense. He is introduced in Act 1, scene 2, as a mysteriously taciturn watcher and listener whose glowering silence calls into question the pomp and bustle of the King’s wordy show, just as his mourning blacks cast suspicion on the showy costumes of the court. Yet he himself, we are quickly made to realize, is the object of a dangerously inquisitive stare—what the King smoothly calls “the cheer and comfort of our eye” ( 1.2.120 ).

The full meaning of that silky phrase will be disclosed on Claudius’s next appearance, when, after Hamlet has met the Ghost and has begun to appear mad, Claudius engages Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to probe his nephew’s threatening transformation ( 2.2.1 –18). “Madness in great ones,” the King insists, “must not unwatched go” ( 3.1.203 ):

         There’s something in his soul

O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,

And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose

Will be some danger.                  ( 3.1.178 –81)

But of course Hamlet’s madness is as much disguise as it is revelation; and while the Prince is the most ruthlessly observed character in the play, he is also its most unremitting observer. Forced to master his opponent’s craft of smiling villainy, he becomes not merely an actor but also a dramatist, ingeniously using a troupe of traveling players, with their “murder in jest,” to unmask the King’s own hypocritical “show.”

The scene in which the Players present The Murder of Gonzago , the play that Hamlet calls “The Mousetrap,” brings the drama of surveillance to its climax. We in the audience become participants in the drama’s claustrophobic economy of watching and listening, as our attention moves to and fro among the various groups on the stage, gauging the significance of every word, action, and reaction, sharing the obsessional gaze that Hamlet describes to Horatio:

Observe my uncle. . . . Give him heedful note,

For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,

And, after, we will both our judgments join

In censure of his seeming.             ( 3.2.85 –92)

“The Mousetrap” twice reenacts Claudius’s murder of his brother—first in the dumb show and then in the play proper—drawing out the effect so exquisitely that the King’s enraged interruption produces an extraordinary discharge of tension. An audience caught up in Hamlet’s wild excitement is easily blinded to the fact that this seeming climax is, in terms of the revenge plot, at least, a violent anticlimax. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy had developed the play-within-the-play as a perfect vehicle for the ironies of revenge, allowing the hero to take his actual revenge in the very act of staging the villain’s original crime. Hamlet’s play, however, does not even make public Claudius’s forbidden story. Indeed, while it serves to confirm the truth of what the Ghost has said, the only practical effect of the Prince’s theatrical triumph is to hand the initiative decisively to Claudius. In the scenes that follow, Hamlet shows himself capable of both instinctive violence and of cold-blooded calculation, but his behavior is purely reactive. Otherwise he seems oddly paralyzed by his success—a condition displayed in the prayer scene ( 3.3.77 –101) where he stands behind the kneeling Claudius with drawn sword, “neutral to his will and matter,” uncannily resembling the frozen revenger described in the First Player’s speech about Pyrrhus standing over old Priam ( 2.2.493 ff.). All Hamlet can do is attempt to duplicate the triumph of “The Mousetrap” in his confrontation with Gertrude by holding up to her yet another verbal mirror, in which she is forced to gaze in horror on her “inmost part” ( 3.4.25 ).

Hamlet’s sudden loss of direction after the “Mousetrap” scene lasts through the fourth act of the play until he returns from his sea voyage in that mysteriously altered mood on which most commentators remark—a kind of fatalism that makes him the largely passive servant of a plot that he now does little to advance or impede. It is as if the springing of the “Mousetrap” leaves Hamlet with nowhere to go—primarily because it leaves him with nothing to say. But from the very beginning, his struggle with Claudius has been conceived as a struggle for the control of language—a battle to determine what can and cannot be uttered.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Hamlet and Memory

If surveillance is one prop of the authoritarian state, the other is its militant regulation of speech. As Claudius flatters the court into mute complicity with his theft of both the throne and his dead brother’s wife, he genially insists “You cannot speak of reason to the Dane / And lose your voice” ( 1.2.44 –45); but an iron wall of silence encloses the inhabitants of his courtly prison. While the flow of royal eloquence muffles inconvenient truths, ears here are “fortified” against dangerous stories ( 1.1.38 ) and lips sealed against careless confession: “Give thy thoughts no tongue,” Polonius advises Laertes, “. . . Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice . . . reserve thy judgment” ( 1.3.65 –75). Hamlet’s insistent warnings to his fellow watchers on the battlements “Never to speak of this that you have seen” ( 1.5.174 ) urge the same caution: “Let it be tenable in your silence still . . . Give it an understanding but no tongue” ( 1.2.269 –71). What for them is merely common prudence, however, is for the hero an absolute prohibition and an intolerable burden: “. . . break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” ( 1.2.164 ).

Hamlet has only two ways of rupturing this enforced silence. The “pregnant” wordplay of his “mad” satire, as Polonius uneasily recognizes ( 2.2.226 –27), is one way, but it amounts to no more than inconclusive verbal fencing. Soliloquy is a more powerful resource because, since it is heard by no one (except the audience), its impenetrable privacy defines Hamlet’s independence from the corrupt public world. From his first big speech in the play, he has made such hiddenness the badge of his resistance to the King and Queen: “I have that within which passes show” ( 1.2.88 ), he announces. What is at issue here is not simply a contrast between hypocrisy and true grief over the loss of his king and father: rather, Hamlet grounds his very claim to integrity upon a notion that true feeling can never be expressed: it is only “that . . . which passes show ” that can escape the taint of hypocrisy, of “acting.” It is as if, in this world of remorseless observation, the self can survive only as a ferociously defended secret, something treasured for the very fact of its hiddenness and impenetrability. Unlike Gertrude, unlike Ophelia, unlike those absorbent “sponges” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet must insist he is not made of “penetrable stuff.”

If Hamlet’s “antic disposition” is the guardian of his rebellious inwardness, soliloquy is where this inwardness lives, a domain which (if we except Claudius’s occasional flickers of conscience) no other character is allowed to inhabit. Hamlet’s soliloquies bulk so large in our response to the play because they not only guarantee the existence of the hero’s secret inner life; they also, by their relentless self-questioning, imply the presence of still more profoundly secret truths “hid . . . within the center” ( 2.2.170 –71): “I do not know / Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do ’t” ( 4.4.46 –49). The soliloquies are the focus of the play’s preoccupation with speaking and silence. Hamlet is set apart from those around him by his access to this region of private utterance: in it he can, as it were, “be bounded in a nutshell and count [himself] a king of infinite space” ( 2.2.273 –74).

Yet there is a paradox here: the isolation of soliloquy is at once his special strength and the source of peculiar anguish. It saves him from the fate of Ophelia, who becomes “Divided from herself and her fair judgment” ( 4.5.92 ) by her grief at Polonius’s death and hasty burial; accustomed to speak only in the voice that others allow her, dutifully resolved to “think nothing, my lord” ( 3.2.124 ), she is left with no language other than the disconnected fragments of her madness to express outrage at a murder which authority seems determined to conceal. Hamlet, by contrast, finds in soliloquy an arena where the unspeakable can be uttered. But the very fact that these are words that others do not hear also makes soliloquy a realm of noncommunication, of frustrating silence—a prison as well as a fortress in which the speaker beats his head unavailingly against the walls of his own cell. Thus the soliloquy that ends Act 2 reproaches itself for a kind of speechlessness—the mute ineffectuality of a “John-a-dreams,” who, unlike the Player, “can say nothing”—and at the same time mocks itself as a torrent of empty language, a mere unpacking of the heart with words ( 2.2.593 –616). For all their eloquence, the soliloquies serve in the end only to increase the tension generated by the pressure of forbidden utterance.

It is from this pressure that the first three acts of the play derive most of their extraordinary energy; and the energy is given a concrete dramatic presence in the form of the Ghost. The appearance of a ghost demanding vengeance was a stock device borrowed from the Roman playwright Seneca; and the Ur- Hamlet had been notorious for its ghost, shrieking like an oysterwife, “Hamlet, revenge!” But the strikingly unconventional thing about Shakespeare’s Ghost is its melancholy preoccupation with the silenced past and its plangent cry of “Remember me” ( 1.5.98 ), which makes remembrance seem more important than revenge. “The struggle of humanity against power,” the Czech novelist Milan Kundera has written, “is the struggle of memory against forgetfulness”; and this Ghost, which stands for all that has been erased by the bland narratives of King Claudius, is consumed by the longing to speak that which power has rendered unspeakable. The effect of the Ghost’s narrative upon Hamlet is to infuse him with the same desire; indeed, once he has formally inscribed its watchword—“Remember me”—on the tables of his memory, he is as if possessed by the Ghost, seeming to mime its speechless torment when he appears to Ophelia, looking “As if he had been loosèd out of hell / To speak of horrors” ( 2.1.93 –94).

For all its pathos of silenced longing, the Ghost remains profoundly ambivalent, and not just because Elizabethans held such contradictory beliefs about ghosts. 7 The ambivalence is dramatized in a particularly disturbing detail: as the Ghost pours his story into Hamlet’s ear (the gesture highlighted by the Ghost’s incantatory repetition of “hear” and “ear”), we become aware of an uncanny parallel between the Ghost’s act of narration and the murder the Ghost tells about:

’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forgèd process of my death

Rankly abused. . . .

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole

With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leprous distilment. . . .               ( 1.5.42 –71)

If Claudius’s propaganda has abused “the whole ear of Denmark” like a second poisoning, the Ghost’s own story enters Hamlet’s “ears of flesh and blood” (line 28) like yet another corrosive. The fact that it is a story that demands telling, and that its narrator is “an honest ghost,” cannot alter the fact that it will work away in Hamlet’s being like secret venom until he in turn can vent it in revenge.

The “Mousetrap” play is at once a fulfillment and an escape from that compulsion. It gives, in a sense, a public voice to the Ghost’s silenced story. But it is only a metaphoric revenge. Speaking daggers and poison but using none, Hamlet turns out only to have written his own inability to bring matters to an end. It is no coincidence, then, that he should foresee the conclusion of his own tragedy as being the product of someone else’s script: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” ( 5.2.11 –12).

“To Tell My Story”: Unfinished Hamlet

In the last scene of the play, the sense that Hamlet’s story has been shaped by Providence—or by a playwright other than Hamlet—is very strong: the swordplay with Laertes is a theatrical imitation of dueling that becomes the real thing, sweetly knitting up the paralyzing disjunction between action and acting; at the same time, revenge is symmetrically perfected in the spectacle of Claudius choking on “a poison tempered by himself,” Laertes “justly killed with his own treachery,” and the Queen destroyed in the vicious pun that has her poisoned by Claudius’s “union.” Yet Hamlet’s consoling fatalism does not survive the final slaughter. Instead, he faces his end tormented by a sense of incompleteness, of a story still remaining to be told:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,

That are but mutes or audience to this act,

Had I but time (as this fell sergeant, Death,

Is strict in his arrest), O, I could tell you—

But let it be.                                     ( 5.2.366 –70)

Within a few lines Hamlet’s distinctive voice, which has dominated his own tragedy like that of no other Shakespearean hero, will be cut off in midsentence by the arrest of death—and “the rest is silence” ( 5.2.395 ).

The play is full of such unfinished, untold, or perhaps even untellable tales, from Barnardo’s interrupted story of the Ghost’s first appearance to the Player’s unfinished rendition of “Aeneas’ tale to Dido” and the violently curtailed performance of The Murder of Gonzago. In the opening scene the Ghost itself is cut off, before it can speak, by the crowing of a cock; and when it returns and speaks to Hamlet, it speaks first about a story it cannot tell:

                 But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy

 young blood . . .                   ( 1.5.18 –21)

Even the tale it is permitted to unfold is, ironically, one of murderous interruption and terrible incompleteness:

Cut off , even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,

No reck’ning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.

( 1.5.83 –86)

Act 5 at last produces the formal reckoning of this imperfect account, yet it leaves Hamlet once again echoing the Ghost’s agony of frustrated utterance.

But what, we might ask, can there be left to tell, beyond what we have already seen and heard? It seems to be part of the point, a last reminder of Hamlet’s elusive “mystery,” that we shall never know. The Prince has, of course, insisted that Horatio remain behind “to tell my story”; but the inadequacy of Horatio’s response only intensifies the sense of incompleteness. All that his stolid imagination can offer is that bald plot summary of “accidental judgments [and] casual slaughters,” which, as Anne Barton protests, leaves out “everything that seems important” about the play and its protagonist. 8 Nor is Fortinbras’s attempt to make “The soldier’s music and the rite of war / Speak loudly for [Hamlet]” ( 5.2.445 –46) any more satisfactory, for the military strongman’s cannon are no better tuned to speak for Hamlet than the player’s pipe.

It would be a mistake, of course, to underestimate the dramatic significance of Horatio’s story or of the “music and the rite of war”—these last gestures of ritual consolation—especially in a play where, beginning with the obscene confusion of Claudius’s “mirth in funeral” and including Polonius’s “hugger-mugger” interment and Ophelia’s “maimed rites,” we have seen the dead repeatedly degraded by the slighting of their funeral pomps. In this context it matters profoundly that Hamlet alone is accorded the full dignity of obsequies suited to his rank, for it signals his triumph over the oblivion to which Claudius is fittingly consigned, and, in its gesture back toward Hamlet’s story as Shakespeare has told it (so much better than Horatio does), it brings Hamlet’s story to a heroic end.

“The Undiscovered Country”: Hamlet and the Secrets of Death

How we respond to the ending of Hamlet —both as revenge drama and as psychological study—depends in part on how we respond to yet a third level of the play—that is, to Hamlet as a prolonged meditation on death. The play is virtually framed by two encounters with the dead: at one end is the Ghost, at the other a pile of freshly excavated skulls. The skulls (all but one) are nameless and silent; the Ghost has an identity (though a “questionable” one) and a voice; yet they are more alike than might at first seem. For this ghost, though invulnerable “as the air,” is described as a “dead corse,” a “ghost . . . come from the grave,” its appearance suggesting a grotesque disinterment of the buried king ( 1.4.52 –57; 1.5.139 ). The skulls for their part may be silent, but Hamlet plays upon each to draw out its own “excellent voice” (“That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once”; 5.1.77 –78), just as he engineered that “miraculous organ” of the Ghost’s utterance, the “Mousetrap.”

There is a difference, however: Hamlet’s dressing up the skulls with shreds of narrative (“as if ’twere Cain’s jawbone . . . This might be the pate of a politician . . . or of a courtier . . . Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer”; 5.1.78 –101) only serves to emphasize their mocking anonymity, until the Gravedigger offers to endow one with a precise historical identity: “This same skull . . . was . . . Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester” ( 5.1.186 –87). Hamlet is delighted: now memory can begin its work of loving resurrection. But how does the Gravedigger know? The answer is that of course he cannot; and try as Hamlet may to cover this bare bone with the flesh of nostalgic recollection, he cannot escape the wickedly punning reminder of “this same skull” that all skulls indeed look frightfully the same. Ironically, even Yorick’s distinctive trademark, his grin, has become indistinguishable from the mocking leer of that grand jester of the Danse Macabre , Death the Antic: “Where be your gibes now? . . . Not one now to mock your own grinning?”; so that even as he holds it, the skull’s identity appears to drain away into the anonymous memento mori sent to adorn “my lady’s” dressing table. It might as well be Alexander the Great’s; or Caesar’s; or anyone’s. It might as well be what it will one day become—a handful of clay, fit to stop a beer barrel.

It is significant that (with the trivial exception of 4.4) the graveyard scene is the only one to take place outside the confines of Claudius’s castle-prison. As the “common” place to which all stories lead, the graveyard both invites narrative and silences it. Each blank skull at once poses and confounds the question with which the tragedy itself began, “Who’s there?,” subsuming all human differences in awful likeness: “As you are now,” goes the tombstone verse, “so once was I / As I am now, so shall you be.” In the graveyard all stories collapse into one reductive history (“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust”; 5.1.216 –17). In this sense the Gravedigger is the mocking counterpart of the Player: and the houses of oblivion that gravediggers make challenge the players’ memorial art by lasting “till doomsday” ( 5.1.61 ). Hamlet shares with the Gravedigger the same easy good-fellowship he extends to the play’s other great outsider, the First Player; but the Gravedigger asserts a more sinister kind of intimacy with his claim to have begun his work “that very day that young Hamlet was born” ( 5.1.152 –53). In this moment he identifies himself as the Prince’s mortal double, the Sexton Death from the Danse Macabre who has been preparing him a grave from the moment of birth.

If there is a final secret to be revealed, then, about that “undiscovered country” on which Hamlet’s imagination broods, it is perhaps only the Gravedigger’s spade that can uncover it. For his digging lays bare the one thing we can say for certain lies hidden “within” the mortal show of the flesh—the emblems of Death himself, that Doppelgänger who shadows each of us as the mysterious Lamord ( La Mort ) shadows Laertes. If there is a better story, one that would confer on the rough matter of life the consolations of form and significance, it is, the play tells us, one that cannot finally be told; for it exists on the other side of language, to be tantalizingly glimpsed only at the point when Hamlet is about to enter the domain of the inexpressible. The great and frustrating achievement of this play, its most ingenious and tormenting trick, the source of its endlessly belabored mystery, is to persuade us that such a story might exist, while demonstrating its irreducible hiddenness. The only story Hamlet is given is that of a hoary old revenge tragedy, which he persuades himself (and us) can never denote him truly; but it is a narrative frame that nothing (not even inaction) will allow him to escape. The story of our lives, the play wryly acknowledges, is always the wrong story; but the rest, after all, is silence.

  • Dmitri Shostakovich, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich , as related to and edited by Solomon Volkow, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (London: Faber, 1981), p. 84.
  • See F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion, 1564–1964 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), pp. 435, 209; see also pp. 262 and 403.
  • The most lucid guide to this critical labyrinth, though he deals with no work later than 1960, is probably still Morris Weitz, Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (London: Faber, 1964).
  • Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London: Methuen, 1964).
  • Excerpt from “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces” from Poems, 1965–1975 by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1975, 1980 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. Permission for use of these lines from North by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber and Faber Limited, is also acknowledged.
  • See Mack’s classic essay, “The World of Hamlet,” Yale Review 41 (1952): 502–23; Mack’s approach is significantly extended in Harry Levin’s The Question of Hamlet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).
  • The most balanced treatment of this and other contentious historical issues in the play is in Roland M. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
  • Introduction to T. J. B. Spencer, ed., Hamlet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), p. 52. See also James L. Calderwood’s To Be and Not To Be: Negation and Meta-drama in “Hamlet” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

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Essays About Hamlet: Top 5 Examples and 10 Prompts

To write or not to write? To discover interesting topic ideas for your next essay, see below our round-up of helpful essays about Hamlet and writing topic prompts. 

The tragedy of Hamlet , Prince of Denmark, is arguably the most famous work of William Shakespeare – or perhaps in the world of literature. A play revolving around love, betrayal, madness, and revenge, Hamlet is a masterpiece that opens with the murder of the King of Denmark. The ghost of the king will go on to appear before his son Hamlet throughout the play, seeking his help for vengeance by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle.

Written from 1600 to 1601 with five acts and published in a quarto edition, Hamlet has since been a beloved on the theatrical stages and modern film adaptations, becoming Shakespeare’s longest play and one of the most quoted in many art forms with its “To be or not to be” soliloquy. 

Read on to see our essays and prompts about Hamlet.

Top 5 Essay Examples

1. ”review: in a powerful ‘hamlet,’ a fragile prince faces his foes” by maya phillips, 2. “the concept of madness in hamlet by shakespeare” by cansu yağsız, 3. “analyzing the theme of religion in william shakespeare’s ‘hamlet’” by journey holm, 4. “ophelia, gender and madness” by ellaine showalter, 5. “the hamlet effect” by holly crocker, 1. the beginnings of hamlet, 2. was hamlet mad or not, 3. physicians’ diagnosis of hamlet, 4. feminism in the eyes of ophelia, 5. religion in hamlet, 6. oedipal complex in hamlet, 7. imageries in hamlet, 8. shakespeare’s language in hamlet, 9. an analysis of “to be or not to be” , 10. hamlet as a philosophical work.

“Hamlet” is one of the Shakespeare plays that most suffers from diminishing returns — adaptations that try too hard to innovate, to render a classic modern and hip.”

With the many theatrical adaptations of Hamlet, it may be a tall order for production companies to add new flairs to the play while being faithful to Shakespeare’s masterpiece. But Robert Icke, a theater director, stuns an audience with his production’s creative and technical genius, while Alex Lawther, his actor, offers a refreshing, charismatic portrayal of Hamlet.

“The cause of these three characters’ madness are trauma and unrequited love. They also have a spot in common: a devastating loss of someone significant in their lives… In my view, Shakespeare wrote about these characters’ madness almost like a professional about psychology, making the causes and consequences of their madness reasonable.”

Madness is the most apparent theme in Hamlet, affecting the main character, Hamlet, his love interest, Ophelia, and her brother, Laertes. The novel is most reflective of Shakespeare’s attraction to the concept of madness, as he was said to have personally studied its causes, including unrequited love, trauma from losses, and burnout.

“…I will argue that Hamlet’s hesitance to avenge his father’s death comes from something deeper than a meditation on another man’s life, a sort of faith. I will use three scenes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to establish that the reason for Hamlet’s hesitance is religion and the fear of his own eternal damnation in hellfire.”

The essay builds on a pool of evidence to prove the religiousness of Hamlet. But, mainly, the author underscores that it is Hamlet’s religious reflections, not his alleged mental incapacity, that stifle him from performing his duty to his father and killing his murderer.  

“Shakespeare gives us very little information from which to imagine a past for Ophelia… Yet Ophelia is the most represented of Shakespeare’s heroines in painting, literature and popular culture.”

The essay walks readers through the depictions of Ophelia in various stages and periods, particularly her sexuality. But the fascination for this heroine goes beyond the stage. Ophelia’s madness in the play has paved the way for constructive concepts on insanity among young women. She has also inspired many artists of the Pre-Rapahelite period and feminists to reimagine Hamlet through the lens of feminism. 

“… [A]s the shame-and-troll cycle of Internet culture spins out of control, lives are ruined. Some of these lives are lesser, we might think, because they are racist, sexist, or just unbelievably stupid. Shakespeare’s Hamlet cautions us against espousing this attitude: it is not that we shouldn’t call out inane or wrong ideas… He errs, however, when he acts as if Polonius’s very life doesn’t matter.”

An English professor rethinks our present moral compass through the so-called “Hamlet Effect,” which pertains to how one loses moral standards when doing something righteous. Indeed, Hamlet’s desire for retribution for his father is justifiable. However, given his focus on his bigger, more heroic goal of revenge, he treats the lives of other characters as having no significance.

10 Writing Prompts For Essays About Hamlet

Essays About Hamlet written by Shakespeare

It is said that Shakespeare’s primary inspiration for Hamlet lies in the pages of François de Belleforest’s Histories Tragique, published in 1570 when Shakespeare was six years old. For your historical essay, determine the similarities between Belleforest’s book and Hamlet. Research other stories that have helped Shakespeare create this masterpiece.

Hamlet is the most fascinating of Shakespeare’s heroes for the complexity of his character, desire, and existential struggle. But is Hamlet sane or insane? That question has been at the center of debates in the literary world. To answer this, pore over Hamlet’s seven soliloquies and find lines that most reveal Hamlet’s conflicting thoughts and feelings. 

Physicians have long mused over Hamlet’s characters like real people. They have even turned the cast into subjects of their psychiatric work but have come up with different diagnoses. For this prompt, dig deep into the ever-growing pool of psychoanalysis commentaries on Hamlet. Then, find out how these works affect future adaptations in theaters. 

Throughout the play, Ophelia is depicted as submissive, bending to the whims of male characters in the play. In your essay, explain how Ophelia’s character reflects the perception and autonomy of women in the Elizabethan era when the play was created. You can go further by analyzing whether Shakespeare was a misogynist trapping his heroine into such a helpless character or a feminist exposing these realities. 

Hamlet was written at a time London was actively practicing Protestantism, so it would be interesting to explore the religious theme in Hamlet to know how Shakespeare perceives the dominant religion in England in his time and Catholicism before the Reformation. First, identify the religions of the characters. Then, describe how their religious beliefs affected their decisions in the scenes. 

Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud proposes that Hamlet is hesitant to kill Claudius due to his Oedipus Complex, which grows with him in his adult years. An Oedipus Complex pertains to a male infant’s repressed desire to take possession of his mother from his father, who is viewed as a rival. First, write your analysis on whether you agree with Freud’s view. Then, gather evidence from passages of the play to agree or argue otherwise. 

Hamlet in an “inky cloak” to signify his grief, a Denmark under Claudius linked to corruption and disease — these are just some imageries used in Hamlet. Find other imageries and explain how they achieved their dramatic effect on highlighting the moods of characters and scenes. 

During Shakespeare’s time, playwrights are expected to follow the so-called Doctrine of Decorum which recognizes the hierarchy in society. So the gravediggers in Hamlet spoke in prose, as Hamlet does in his mad soliloquies. However, Shakespeare breaks this rule in Hamlet. Find dialogues where Shakespeare allowed Hamlet’s characters to be more distinct and flexible in language. 

In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates suicide. Why do you think these lines continue to be relevant to this day even after centuries since Shakespeare? Answer this in your essay by elaborating on how Hamlet, through these lines, shares the suffering of the “whips and scorns of time” and our innate nature to endure. 

In your essay, evaluate the famous philosophies that resound in Hamlet. For example, with the theme of suicide, Hamlet may echo the teachings of Seneca and the movement of Stoicism , who view suicide as freedom from life’s chains. One may also find traces of Albert Camus’s lessons from the Myth of Sisyphus, which tells of a human’s ability to endure. 

Interested in learning more? Check out our essay writing tips . If you’re still stuck, check out our general resource of essay writing topics .

essay over hamlet

Yna Lim is a communications specialist currently focused on policy advocacy. In her eight years of writing, she has been exposed to a variety of topics, including cryptocurrency, web hosting, agriculture, marketing, intellectual property, data privacy and international trade. A former journalist in one of the top business papers in the Philippines, Yna is currently pursuing her master's degree in economics and business.

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by William Shakespeare

Hamlet essay questions.

Hamlet is widely hailed as the first modern play in the English language. Which characteristics of its central character might account for this label?

Hamlet is considered the first modern play partly because of the psychological depth of its main character -- Hamlet suffers from melancholy, self-doubt, and even delusions. The audience never quite knows what Hamlet is thinking, or what is real. In fact, Hamlet himself declares again and again that he doesn't understand his doubts either ("I have of late, but wherefore I know not , lost all my mirth.")

Death is a constant presence in this play. Does Hamlet's speech to Yorick's skull represent a philosophy of death? How does his attitude toward death differ from that of the gravediggers?

Death was a much more ordinary presence in Elizabethan England than it is in the modern world. Infant mortality was high and plagues swept whole nations. In this sense, the gravediggers exhibit a much more realistic approach to death than most people. Hamlet uses the occasion for a more general examination of mortality. His attitude toward death is not necessarily inconsistent with that of the gravediggers, but it is different in his emphasis on metaphysical rather than physical implications of death.

Does the text hold up to a Freudian reading of Hamlet's relationship with his mother? How does Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia support, complicate or work against an Oedipal interpretation of the play?

Certainly Hamlet does visit his mother's bedchamber, and is immensely interested in her sexual relationships with other men, both of which are classic elements of an Oedipal complex. Freud's reading of the play may have influenced his sexual theories—but it is important to remember the order of events, especially because scholars tend to label Hamlet "Freudian." Better stated, Freud is Shakespearean, not the other way around.

"To be or not to be" is the famous question that Hamlet poses in Act Three, Scene One. Explore this speech. What does he mean by this famous question? What events of the play prompt this speech?

Hamlet is musing about death, but whose death, or what kind of death, is frustratingly difficult to pin down. He is perhaps contemplating suicide, perhaps thinking about the risks he must run in order to fulfill the task of revenge. He has an audience of Ophelia, Polonius and Claudius, who are eavesdropping on him; but he most likely does not realize that they are present.

The play within a play, the long soliloquies wherein Hamlet faces the audience and speaks to them directly, the vivid discussions of whether or not Hamlet is "acting" mad -- there are many elements of Hamlet that call attention to its status as a play, rather than reality. By showing the trappings of theater and non-reality, does Shakespeare make Hamlet's suffering seem more acute or more distant? How?

"Life's but a stage," another Shakespearean character proclaims, and the playwright recognized quite well the dramatic trappings of life and the life-like elements of staged productions. Soliloquies are modern in that they break what is much later termed the "fourth wall" separating audience from stage; the character speaks directly to the audience. Although the whole atmosphere seems patently false and theatrical, this serves to draw Hamlet somehow closer. Somehow, the effect of such "metatheatrical" gestures is to show not how different acting is from life, but how similar life is to acting.

In terms of the usual categorizations, Shakespeare's tragedies end in death, his comedies in marriage. By this measure, Hamlet is a tragedy. But Shakespeare's best plays are a tragicomic mix. Choose and discuss two comical or farcical elements in Hamlet.

The scene with gravediggers is a good example of tragedy mixed with comedy. The work is morbid, but the workers joke and sing as they go about their business. They seem totally unaware of the majestic tragedy unfolding itself in the castle nearby. On a smaller level, Yorick's skull embodies the tragicomic dichotomy; it is a gruesome, deathly object that once belonged to a joker. There are several other comic scenes, including much of Hamlet's dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and most of Polonius' scenes before his death. This gruesome mixture of pathos and humor is the essence of Shakespearean theater.

Define revenge. Is Hamlet a traditional revenge play? What other forces are at work in Hamlet's psyche?

Revenge is traditionally the cold-blooded pursuit to make up for one hurt with a strike against its perpetrator. Revenge is usually violent. Hamlet is hardly a traditional play of revenge, because the main character is so uncertain and ambivalent about both the original strike and what he should do about it. Melancholy and uncertainty play just as large a role in Hamlet's character as the desire for revenge.

Discuss the setting of Hamlet. What effect does setting the psycho-drama in a bleak northern castle -- similar to that in Macbeth -- have on the characters and audience?

From the script, the audience gathers that Elsinore Castle is a remote place in northern Europe. Not much else is known: there were no sets in Shakespeare's time. But the setting certainly matches Hamlet's melancholy mood, and the isolation of the place helps make the violence and implied incest believable.

The play begins with the fantastical appearance of a ghost. Are we meant to believe that this is really Hamlet's father, or is he a figment of Hamlet's imagination? If he is imagined, is the rest of the play imagined as well?

Hamlet struggles with the question of whether the ghost is his father and decides that he must be who he says he is. The audience remains in doubt, however, because of the ghost's claim that he comes from Purgatory (blasphemous in Elizabethan England), and the fact that Gertrude is unable to see it when it appears to Hamlet in her chamber. One of the moral questions of the play is resolved, however, when it becomes clear that Claudius is a murderer. Whether the ghost is Old Hamlet or a demon, he has told the truth about Claudius' guilt.

Can a healthy state be presided over by a corrupt ruler? Shakespeare draws frequent comparisons between the moral legitimacy of a leader and the health of a state. Is Denmark's monarchy responsible for the demise of the state in this play?

At the end of the tragedy, it is not only Hamlet and most of the characters who die. The entire state of Denmark fails after Norway invades, and the health of the nation seems very much wrapped up with the moral state of the leader. This accords with the medieval idea of the "body politic" with the leader making up the head, literally, and the people the body of a personified state.

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Hamlet Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Hamlet is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

Describe Fortinbras based on what Horatio says.

Do you mean in Act 1? Based upon Horatio's description, young Fortinbras is bold, inexperienced, and willing to do anything to regain his father's lost lands.

Why is a clock mentioned in Hamlet. There weren’t any clock’s in Hanlet’s time.

Yes I've heard this question before. This is called an anachronism. It is an inconsistency in some chronological arrangement. In this case, there were clocks in Shakespeare’s time but not in Hamlet's. Shakespeare wrote it in because he thought it...

Hamlet’s obsession with the partying going on inside the castle while he stands watch with Horatio mainly suggests that he .

D. feels that King Claudius wants to hide his evil with merriment

Study Guide for Hamlet

Hamlet study guide contains a biography of William Shakespeare, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Hamlet
  • Hamlet Summary
  • Hamlet Video
  • Character List

Essays for Hamlet

Hamlet essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

  • Through Rose Colored Glasses: How the Victorian Age Shifted the Focus of Hamlet
  • Q to F7: Mate; Hamlet's Emotions, Actions, and Importance in the Nunnery Scene
  • Before the Storm
  • Haunted: Hamlet's Relationship With His Dead Father
  • Heliocentric Hamlet: The Astronomy of Hamlet

Lesson Plan for Hamlet

  • About the Author
  • Study Objectives
  • Common Core Standards
  • Introduction to Hamlet
  • Relationship to Other Books
  • Bringing in Technology
  • Notes to the Teacher
  • Related Links
  • Hamlet Bibliography

E-Text of Hamlet

The Hamlet e-text contains the full text of the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

  • List of Characters

Wikipedia Entries for Hamlet

  • Introduction

essay over hamlet

Home / Essay Samples / Literature / Books / Hamlet Revenge

Revenge in Hamlet by Shakespeare

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Plays , Books , Writers

Hamlet , Hamlet Revenge , William Shakespeare

  • Words: 1450 (3 pages)

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Introduction, the hamlet's revenge, the revenge of fortinbras, the revenge of laertes.

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Central Idea Essay

Is Hamlet really mad?

Hamlet may already be going mad when the play begins, and his later decision to fake madness may just be a cover for real insanity. The first line addressed to Hamlet is, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” (I.ii.): Claudius thinks it’s strange and unhealthy that Hamlet is still grieving for his father. In the same scene, Hamlet tells us that he is wearing “solemn black” and a “dejected ‘havior” (I.ii.), which audiences in Shakespeare’s time would have recognized as signs of “melancholy,” a condition which Renaissance doctors believed could lead to madness.

Although several characters see the Ghost during Act One, only Hamlet hears it speak, which opens the possibility that the Ghost’s speech is a hallucination of Hamlet’s. Later, Hamlet wonders the same thing, asking whether the Ghost’s story was a trick played on him by the Devil, “Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits” (II.ii.). The possibility that Hamlet is mad when the play begins forces us to question the truth of everything he says, making his character even more mysterious.

Hamlet’s misogynistic behavior toward Gertrude and Ophelia can be seen as evidence that Hamlet really is going mad, because these scenes have little to do with his quest for justice yet seem to provoke his strongest feelings. We see little evidence in the play that either Gertrude or Ophelia is guilty of any wrongdoing, and they both appear to feel genuine affection and concern for Hamlet. Yet he treats them both with paranoia, suspicion, and cruelty, suggesting he has lost the ability to accurately interpret other people’s motivations.

Hamlet describes Gertrude’s marriage as “incestuous” (I.ii.), but no one else in the play agrees with his opinion. Even though the Ghost instructs Hamlet not to “contrive against thy mother aught” (I.v), Hamlet’s disgust with his mother’s sex life mounts as the play continues: when he finally confronts Gertrude he paints a picture of her “honeying and making love over the nasty sty” (III.iii).

Hamlet demonstrates a similar attitude to Ophelia’s sexuality, telling her “Get thee to a nunnery” rather than become “a breeder of sinners” (III.i). After giving Ophelia a long list of what he sees as women’s faults, Hamlet confesses: “It hath made me mad” (III.i). The fact that Hamlet’s biggest emotional outbursts are directed against the sexual feelings of the women in his life suggests that his mad behavior is not just a ploy to disguise his revenge plans.

Despite the evidence that Hamlet actually is mad, we also see substantial evidence that he is just pretending. The most obvious evidence is that Hamlet himself says he is going to pretend to be mad, suggesting he is at least sane enough to be able to tell the difference between disordered and rational behavior. Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus that he plans to “put an antic disposition on” (I.v). His “mad” remarks to Polonius—“you are a fishmonger” (II.ii)—are too silly and sometimes too clever to be genuinely mad: even Polonius notes “How pregnant sometimes his replies are” (II.ii.).

Hamlet’s most mad-seeming outburst, against Ophelia, may be explained by the fact that Claudius and Polonius are spying on the conversation: if Hamlet suspects that he’s being spied on, he may be acting more deranged than he really is for the benefit of his listeners. If Hamlet does know that Claudius and Polonius are listening, the fact that he can instantly adjust his behavior points toward the idea that he has a firm grip on reality and his own mind.

Similarly, when Hamlet is sent to England, he acts skilfully and ruthlessly to escape, which suggests that even at this late stage in the play he is capable of perfectly sane behavior. For every piece of evidence that Hamlet is mad, we can also point to evidence that he’s sane, which contributes to the mystery of Hamlet’s character.

By making the audience constantly question whether Hamlet is really mad or just pretending, Hamlet asks us whether the line between reality and acting is as clear-cut as it seems. Hamlet tells us that he believes the purpose of acting is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to Nature” (III.ii), that is, to be as close to reality as possible. The First Player cries as he delivers a sad speech, and Hamlet asks whether the Player’s pretended feelings are stronger than his own real feelings, since Hamlet’s feelings are not strong enough to make him cry. Hamlet seems to believe that acting can be as real, or realer, than real-life emotion, which raises the possibility that by pretending to be mad, Hamlet has actually caused his own mental breakdown.

Another interpretation could be that Hamlet acts mad as a way to express the strong, troubling emotions he can’t allow himself to feel when he’s sane, just as the actor can cry easily when playing a role. Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles to determine which role he should play—thoughtful, reticent scholar, or revenge-minded, decisive heir to the throne—and by acting both parts, Hamlet explores what his true role should be. Hamlet forces us to question what the truth is: how can we tell between reality and pretense?

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‘Izzard Hamlet New York’ Review: A Solo Show That’s More Noble Than Wise

Eddie Izzard is a wildly witty ad-libber, but a play straitjackets this gift — especially in this new staging that is short of ideas.

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An actor in a black dress jacket and black leather pants performs onstage.

By Jason Zinoman

To laugh, or not to laugh? That is the question.

Or at least one you may consider early in Eddie Izzard’s “Hamlet,” in which the comic portrays all the roles herself.

Something is certainly a little silly about dramatizing Hamlet fighting with his mother by having a left hand wrestle with the arm of the right, evoking Peter Sellers’s scientist who struggles to restrain himself from raising his arm in Nazi salute in “Dr. Strangelove.” And solo sword fights have possibilities that a brilliant comedian like Izzard might exploit.

Yet, as Izzard darts around the stage, from role to role, hopscotching in and out of the audience declaiming speeches, what becomes clear is this frenetic staging is earnest, surprisingly traditional and deadly serious. A wildly witty ad-libber, Izzard can make two-hour monologues feel like a stream-of-conscious eruption. A play straitjackets this gift. Except for a few flourishes, this staging, directed by Selina Cadell, is short of ideas. (Imagine sock puppets without the socks and you get an idea of her Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)

Inside a modern, minimalist set (designed by Tom Piper) with no props, Izzard, who mounted a solo theatrical adaptation of “Great Expectations” last year, sometimes represents changing characters by spinning, other times by just moving a few feet. If there is method here, I did not detect it. If you don’t know “Hamlet,” there is no chance you are going to follow the play within a play. If you do, you might wonder why Izzard doesn’t spend more time playing the characters watching, not talking.

Among the occasionally overlooked qualities of the Danish prince is that he can be very funny, especially when mean. But you wouldn’t know it in this production, adapted by Izzard’s brother, Mark. Izzard is an even-keeled Hamlet. She doesn’t elongate vowels or spit out consonants, rarely yells or expresses contempt. She appears to be pacing herself throughout. Despite wearing dark vinyl pants, this is a very tweedy performance. The best Hamlets (like that of Andrew Scott, who, in a sign of a trend or maybe a growing need for inexpensive casts, recently performed a one-man “Uncle Vanya”) dramatize the act of thinking, but that interiority is lacking here.

Instead of taking Hamlet’s famous acting advice to not “saw the air” too much, Izzard favors gesticulating and thrusting her hips to indicate something sexual has been said. She adopts a working-class voice for the gravedigger scene, but otherwise doesn’t try dramatic shifts in accents, voice or physicality.

Izzard has famously picked up marathon running over the years, and even completed 32 in a month. It’s a remarkable feat, but this one might be tougher — and it shows. (On the night I attended, she flubbed several lines and appeared to be breathing hard during this endurance test of a play.) One comes away with the sense that Eddie Izzard didn’t perform “Hamlet” so much as become defeated by it.

Izzard Hamlet New York Through March 16 at Greenwich House Theater, Manhattan; eddieizzardhamlet.com . Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

Jason Zinoman is a critic at large for The Times. As the paper’s first comedy critic, he has written the On Comedy column since 2011. More about Jason Zinoman


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