Themes Issues Concerns Values

Issues, Concerns, Themes, Values

The meanings of a play emerge indirectly or implicitly via the vicarious personal involvement or identification and empathy of us the responders.

Meaning can also be derived from recurring Motifs which unify the plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design.

Shakespeare’s plays are a rich minefield of layers and layers of meaning and we can often find recurring concerns developed in similar or differing ways. Variations upon a theme will reinforce the message.  Motifs help to foster textual integrity.   Hamlet is full of recurring references, allusions, images and language that provide a pattern of meaning, including Providence (are we the masters of our own identity?) Deception,  Betrayal,  Loyalty……

Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities.  As John Bell states: *“he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance….he didn’t have to believe anything.  His great objectivity lead to ambivalence because life is ambiguous. *

Unifying Motifs in Hamlet:** **** **Motifs are recurring images, ideas or variations on themes that emphasize or reinforce overriding concerns of the composer.  They also help to provide unity to a large scale work.

1.     Appearance and reality, Duplicity  or Deception- things not as they “seem”.  The word *“seem” * is used repeatedly.  Gertrude seems virtuous, Claudius seems legitimate.  Is Hamlet all that he seems?

Hamlet to his mother:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.'

*For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show; *  I.ii,

Polonius to Ophelia

*We are oft to blame in this,–
‘Tis too much proved–that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.   *                                     

From the late 1590’s, Shakespeare appears to have changed tact.  Perhaps it was the death of his 11 year old son, Hamnet, from pestilence that ushered in a darker perspective on life.  Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear take a much more dimmer view of humanity.  Rhodri Lewis, in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, contends that Shakespeare adopts a contrary view of the norm being good, to a portrait of “refractory moral dislocation”.  “

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right”.

*Shakespeare became disillusioned with the humanist moral philosophy as a measure of human experience. “T**here are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/  Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.


Hamlet resolves to be nice to his mother.

*will speak daggers to her, but use none; 
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;    *

Yet later he questions:

What devil was’t
That thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?

Hamlet to Ophelia on Women’s faces: Hamlet accuses all women of affectations and cosmetic ruses to seduce men.

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God
has given you one face, and you make yourselves
another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp,


Ophelia, walk you here. Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves.


Read on this book;
That show of such an exercise may colour
Your loneliness. We are oft to blame in this,–
‘Tis too much proved–that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.


“The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art

Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

Than is my deed to my most painted word

O heavy burthen!"

Hamlet to Horatio

Why should the poor be flatter’d?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning


Laertes, was your father dear to you?*
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?*

**2.    **Is Hamlet mad? 

T.S. Eliot claims that “that the “madness” of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully manage to kill a king who is well guarded”

To his mother Hamlet claims sincerity:

“Seems madam? Nay it is, I know not seems.”

To Horatio he admits: 

“I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on-“

To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he dissembles:** **


Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? you
do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if
you deny your griefs to your friend.


Sir, I lack advancement.


How can that be, when you have the voice of the king
himself for your succession in Denmark?


Ay, but sir, ‘While the grass grows,'–the proverb
is something musty.


To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is*
southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.*

To Gertrude:

*Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. *

3.  Misogyny:


T.S Eliot suggests that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, .. is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son  Hamlet appears to put more blame on his mother for betraying his father than anyone else. 

–Frailty, thy name is woman!–*
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.*

At the Performance of the Play:


………………………………for, look you, how cheerfully my*
mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.*


Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord.


*So long?………. . O heavens! die two
months ago, and not forgotten yet? Then there’s
hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half
a year: *

Later as she comments on the Prologue of the Play:

**         OPHELIA**

‘Tis brief, my lord.


As woman’s love.

Men prove to be just as fickle as women.

4.     Providence**

A prevalent concern raised in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies is the question of Providence or destiny: is life pre-deterministic (predestination) or open, free, random, capricious,

Hamlet assumes a rational moral order in the universe where Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution or poetic justice.  Hamlet searches for the ultimate meaning of life in what is basically an irrational world through most of his soliloquies which dwell on his existential quest to understand life. The universal question revolves around whether the universe makes sense or not. 

Existentialists assume a universe governed by chance; an indifferent and purposeless universe where free will reigns and anything can happen.

 Quotes on Destiny:

At first Hamlet questions his free choice:

“Our wills and fates do so contrary run,

That our devices still are overthrown,

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own (III 2  210)

Later he accepts his fate:

                            “and that should learn us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

*Rough-hew them how we will”                   *       (V 2 9 )

*There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow   *(V 2 217)

5.   Motifs:  (recurring ideas, themes, symbols)

(recurring ideas or situations, repetition and variation of themes)  Motifs unify the  plot and provide clues to the composer’s underlying concerns in creating meaning through patterns of design. #

  1. Unify play providing cohesion and reinforcement for major themes
  • Play as in drama in the theatre
  • Play within the Play,  .

A passing troupe of Players perform the Murder of Gonzago as a device to determine Claudius’s guilt.

  • Played upon as a pipe

HAMLET** *I do not well understand that. Will you play upon**
this pipe?*


My lord, I cannot.


I do beseech you.


I know no touch of it, my lord.


‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with*
your lingers and thumb, give it breath with your
mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music.
Look you, these are the stops.*


But these cannot I command to any utterance of*
harmony; I have not the skill.*


Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of*
me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am
easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
cannot play upon me.*

  • Play sport a fencing duel *For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer/ **Hoist with his own petard: *(Hamlet to his mother)

In a contradictory play, the duel is symmetrical and well structured. It is a clever device of Shakespeare, that he can resolve the problem through Sport; a formula of heroic violence which leaves the hero untainted.  Hamlet has no choice, therefore no blame. 

Claudius is not a sporting man; everything he does is tinged with evil; he is guilty of a foul, “most unnatural murder*”*, and now he is a cheat relying on poison and an unbuttoned sword to make it a duel to the death for four of the main characters.

Hamlet is genuinely heroic in that rather than revenge, he seeks Leartes’ forgiveness.

“That I have shot my arrow over

* the house and killed my brother”.*

Hamlet is freed from guilt in that apology and by the fact that he is killing through a sporting feature in which he has no choice to do anything else.

            “Hoist by their own petard”

             They are also killed by their own poison


Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric*;
I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.*



He is justly served*;
It is a poison temper’d by himself.


  • R&G killed by their letter

4.   Betrayal: #

A betrayal of trust can be a most traumatising experience. Some interpretations see the main cause of the relationship breakdown between Hamlet and Ophelia as a mutual feeling of mistrust - betrayal; Hamlet feels she is assisting her father in spying on him, while Ophelia feels that his coolness towards her indicates his lack of constancy. 

Hamlet also feels betrayed by his childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because he feels they are not wholly honest with him.

Claudius has betrayed the trust of old Hamlet, while Gertrude’s over hasty marriage to Claudius is seen by Hamlet as a fundamental betrayal of her marriage vows. 

By spying on Leartes, Polonius reveals his lack of trust, yet on his death, Leartes feels compelled to demonstrate his loyalty and seek revenge. 

Fortinbras too feels a betrayal of trust in an agreement his father had with Old Hamlet that is not reinstated until the end of the play.

The people feel a betrayal in the fourth act of Hamlet, when the mob bursts through the doors of Elsinore:

They cry, “Choose we! Laertes shall be king!”

Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds:

“Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!”

Choose we—we get to decide who will be king. These are not mere followers; they see themselves as kingmakers. So did the Capitol invaders: Choose we! Trump shall be president!

I. Exponents (motifs) in the Play HAMLET #

The prevailing atmosphere of the play is one of fear and insecurity.  Everyone is distrustful of others; there is little sense of shared empathetic community.  Like Orwell in 1984**, or today, surveillance is the norm.

  1. ** Guarded space intruded upon unexpectedly:**

a)  Scene I, the guards at every change of the guard display their fear.

b)  the ghost on the guards and later on Hamlet

c)  Polonius— continually eaves dropping

d)  Hamlet on Ophelia in her room

e)  Hamlet and Laertes in Ophelia’s grave

f)   Pirates on ship to England

g)  Fortinbras on Denmark

**2. Advice freely given:
**Paternalistic and patronising advice is given by all and sundry to make the advisor look good.

a) Polonius to Laertes and Ophelia

               OPHELIA :

*               I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,*

*               As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,*

*               Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,*

*               Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;*

*               Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,*

*               Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,*

*               And recks not his own rede.*

b) Ghost to Hamlet

c) Claudius & Queen Gertrude to Hamlet

d) Hamlet to Ophelia and Gertrude

e) Claudius to Laertes

**3. Revenge Theme (Son of his father)
**Revenge is an instinctual and basic impulse – a reaction, not a considered and Christian response.

a) Pyrrhus of Achilles

b) Hamlet of Hamlet

c) Laertes of Polonius

d) Fortinbras of his father (Fortinbras)

4. Allusions to traps (people trapped like animals)

a) Polonius to Ophelia – I, iii 1. 120

ay, springes to catch woodcocks”.

b) Mousetrap — play to catch the conscience of the king

c) Claudius feels that he is trapped — III. iii 11. 70—72

          “Oh limed soul that struggling to be free

*          Art more engaged”*

d) Hamlet to plotters: V. ii. 31

“Being thus benetted round with villainies,”

e) Laertes to Osric — V. ii.. 11.319-321

**                   **“ a woodcock to mine own springe”

5. Love — contrast between brutish and noble love

a)  hatred of uncle paradoxically motivated by love of father

b)  love for mother disillusions him creating emotional turmoil - Oedipus Complex?

c)  Romantic love centered on Ophelia but thwarted

i) Polonius forbids Ophelia to respond

ii) Ghost demands revenge

iii)  reasons of state demand he marry elsewhere

iv)          Ophelia’s lie (where her father is)  convinces Hamlet of her duplicity and betrayal.  Hamlet tells her
Get thee to a nunnery”

Eventually he rejects all women

“Frailty thy name is woman”

d)  Hamlet’s friendship with Horatio III.ii.54—75

Platonic, ideal full of high noble virtue

e)  Brutish love — lust between Claudius & Gertrude

Ghost: of  Cl. incestuous and adulterate beast

Claudius: “rank — smells to high heaven”

Queen: sees her soul ”such black and grained spots

Hamlet: Scolds mother for living:

In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,

Stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love

***Over the nasty sty’ ***(III. iv. 11. 99—102)

Hamlet as he kills Claudius:

Here thou incestuous murderous damned Dane” (V.ii.339)

**6. Conflict between Man’s animal and higher nature

**Shakespeare’s cynicism about human nature:


….will you see the players well* bestowed? *

* *


My lord, I will use them according to their desert.


God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man*
after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.*

“What a piece of work is man?” (II.ii 316…)

What is a man ….? (IV.i.. 11. 35 — 45)

7.  Irrationality and reason:

Ophelia – state after father’s death and her gibberish.

Polonius senility

Hamlet’s feigned ? madness

Fortinbras attack on Poland

8.  Tension between thought and action

a)       ”To be or not to be”                          III.i.

b)       “Now I am alone…”                           II ii.

That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,*
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!*

c)       “How all occasions do inform ..”      IV.iv

d)       To Laertes in Ophelia’s grave    (V.i.262,3)

e)       Claudius to Laertes —               IV. iv 127 — 129

**9. The use of the word “conscience” as it occurs - what light it sheds on the meaning of the play:

Performing to a Christian audience**

a)  *The play’s the thing *

*Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.    *   II 2 609

b)  How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! III i 50

c) *Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.           *          III i 83

d) Now must your conscience my acquaintance seal             IV 7 1

e)    *   They are not near my conscience                      *              V 2 58

f)          *Is’t not perfect Conscience  *

To quit him with this arm:                                              V 2 6

g)      *And yet ‘tis almost ‘gainst my conscience         * V 2 294

10.  Obedience, loyalty, unquestioned submission, compliance #

Allegiance to your superiors was an unwritten code of pre modern times and so your followed orders without question, unless you were prepared to lose your head.

Hamlet to his mother:


Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:*
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.*


I shall in all my best obey you, madam.    Act I

** **

Contrast this with how he chastises her in Act III



What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue*
In noise so rude against me?*

Hamlet to the Ghost:



Where wilt thou lead me? speak; I’ll go no further.


Mark me.


I will.

Polonius to the King

*          “Take this from that if it be not so.”*

Horatio to Hamlet;
          “E’en so my Lord”

Leartes to the King and his father


“Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord”

Contrast this when Laertes vows to revenge his father’s death.

To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!*
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. *

Ophelia is completely subservient to her father whose cautionary advice represents the mistrust of the entire court.


Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,*
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
 From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley…….*


* Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile. This is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to’t, I charge you: come your ways.*


I shall obey, my lord.

* *

Queen Gertrude appears utterly subjugated until in the final scene she defies Claudius’s direction not to drink the poisoned wine and dies as a result: 


Gertrude, do not drink.


I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.

* *

11.  Absurdities in Hamlet: #

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite

That ever I was born to set it right. -

Hamlet’s reaction to the state of Denmark, there was a method to his madness:  His antic disposition.

Polonius has no qualms about spying on his own son using pragmatic tactics; by indirections find directions out.


he’s very wild;*
Addicted so and so:’ and there put on him
What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank
As may dishonour him; take heed of that;
But, sir, such wanton, wild and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty.*


As gaming, my lord.


Ay, or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling,*
Drabbing: you may go so far.*


My lord, that would dishonour him.


‘Faith, no; as you may season it in the charge*
You must not put another scandal on him,*

  • Ophelia’s  ramblings represent a mind no longer rational


  • How Fortinbras engaged in  senseless war mongering can represent restoration of order is beyond me.

Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake.

Samuel Johnson was shocked by the wars that were fought to acquire colonies and hold on to them. One of his most powerful pieces of writing is a 1771 pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands.

A crisis had flared up between Britain and Spain over that small archipelago, three hundred miles off the coast of Argentina. In the end war was averted (as it was not in 1982 when history repeated itself), and Johnson argued convincingly that there was no possible benefit to Britain in defending a barren territory that could produce nothing of value.  In 1982,  Margaret Thatcher declared war on Argentina for much of the same vacuous reasons, merely to consolidate her image as “The Iron Lady”.

  1. Shakespeare as revolutionary

The people feel a betrayal in the fourth act of Hamlet, when the mob bursts through the doors of Elsinore:

They cry, “Choose we! Laertes shall be king!”

Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds:

“Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!”

Choose we—we get to decide who will be king. These are not mere followers; they see themselves as kingmakers. So did the Capitol invaders: Choose we! Trump shall be president!

Is Shakespeare aware of the primal instinct of freedom?   (Fintane O’Toole - New York Review)

13.**  Consequences of the “Afterlife”**

Perhaps one of the more prevalent themes of the Play, death is dealt with both in a philosophical and abstract sense and in the real concrete world as most of the main characters are dead at the end: Old Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Hamlet, and insignificantly R&G.

Hamlet’s preoccupation with death stems from an ominous feeling he has once he realises he will have to be the scourge to “set things right”

Death:  Acknowledged in “to be or not to be” Soliloquy when Hamlet speculates on dreams “ah, there’s the rub,…. What dreams may come? .. the dread of something after death”.

Claudius concerned about his soul.

Yet what can it when one can not repent?*
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!*

**Hamlet **hesitates killing a shriven soul.

A villain kills my father; and for that,*
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,


Hamlet contemplates suicide; Ophelia commits it.

Death as equaliser in graveyard scene:

“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm..Thus a king may go in progress through the guts of a beggar.” - Hamlet to Claudius.

*Noble dust of Alexander or Caesar turned to dust, earth, loam to a bunghole stopper for a beer barrel. *

All attempts for a Hamlet II, have failed as there were not enough characters left alive for a sequel.


O, I die, Horatio;*
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:
…………………………The rest is silence.*


This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot So bloodily hast struck?

**Nature - Weeds  (**7 times)   Flowers #

Hamlet*: ‘tis an unweeded garden,*

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature.

Ghost I find thee apt;

And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed

That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,  (memory)

Wouldst thou not stir in this.


Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,

With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected,

**Hamlet: **

And do not spread the compost on the weeds,

Gertrude on Ophelia’s death: #

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook.

Ophelia’s flowers: #

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,

love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.

*There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue      *(flattery – rue regrets)

for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it

*herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with  *(rue – adultery/abortions)

*a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you             *(innocence and gentle)

*some violets, but they withered all when my father died      *(faithfulness and fidelity)