Introduction to Hamlet #

Hamlet is a Problem play that is not wholly resolved. That is, it may have a simple plot with many twists and turns, but it is full of rich ambiguity, many contradictions and multiple interpretations. Outstanding writers such as Goethe, Coleridge, Freud, Eliot have wrestled with the play throughout the ages without success.

As John Bellclaims, Shakespeare does not show his hand; he raises many issues, delineates both sides but then lets us the audience draw our own conclusions. With Shakespeare’s plays, there is always another interpretation.

“We can seldom be certain about anything. People want infallible answers; only liars or politicians have answers. Art should ask the questions” Michael Haneke, Film Director

Hamlet has been staged thousands of times, from 1599, over 400 years, as well as filmed many times in recent times. It is his most popular play.

Modern settings can make Shakespeare, our best playwright, relevant to old and new audiences. New adaptations can provide fresh insights and interpretations creating meaning for new times.

Aspects of the Play: (Double click on an item on the top left hand side bar menu to go to the topic:)

Hamlet’s predicament is a universal one; as Marcellus states, “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark” and Hamlet’s reflection, “O cursed spite that I was born to set it right” forms the basis of this play. Throughout history millions of people have faced similar situations of corruption. As Edmund Burke said “Evil can only exist if good people stand by and do nothing.” As usual, the reformer/whistle blower gets crucified.

Revenge is an instinctual and basic impulse – a reaction, not a considered and Christian response. Though set in pagan and barbaric Viking Denmark, the play’s audience is a Christian England one of the 17 th century where revenge is God’s retribution; not man’s respite. The play is problematic in that it raises several Anti-Christian and barbaric practices such as revenge and suicide and deceit.

The problem facing Shakespeare is how can he satisfy Hamlet’s need for revenge in a satisfactory Christian, heroic and artistic way? Rather than portraying Hamlet as impulsive (cf. Leartes) he comes across as the rational considered renaissance man who acts only after ascertaining all the evidence and weighing it in a balanced way. Shakespeare’s uses the sporting tactic of the duel as an heroic and artistic device to kill the King and solve the revenge problem.

While Shakespeare’s audience was “Christian in its ethos, it was well conditioned to the Horror mongering of the Gothic Revenge Tradition; Ghosts, supernatural, ghoulish skulls, graphic carnage and violence or the Black humour in the death of Polonius.

Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. When Shylock denounces the Christians for their slave trading, he is giving back as good as he got for their abuse of his usury. Despite some leaning towards monarchy, the plays contain more than enough regicide and Bad Kings to satisfy the staunchest Republican.

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.

We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values.
The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles. To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic, confusing and distressing.

Complications in Hamlet #

  1. Hamlet’s madness - or is he extremely sane? Is it merely a ruse to play for time? Can we trust Hamlet? He reveals his inner reflections to us the audience candidly, yet conceals his real self from most of the other characters. He is an actor, acting several roles.

  2. Hamlet lacks advancement “betwixt my election and my hopes”. His grievance is that his crown has been usurped by an uncle. Most dynasties practiced parricide.

  3. Hamlet’s transformation into melancholia, dementia - genuine or fake? - inconsequential answers

  4. Hamlet’s anger is turned inward - his soliloquies reveal his inner turmoil and reflections. Shakespeare digs deep into Hamlet’s psychological state.

  5. Hamlet’s misanthropic “antic disposition” - behaviour towards Ophelia

There is a “method in his madness” Polonius, or H. to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, or his apology to Leartes.

  1. Admits to his mother:

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

  1. Hamlet faces a fiendish situation: While the victim is his father, the perpetrator, Claudius, has become his step-father and the King.

  2. Hamlet needs to challenge a Higher authority - The King. He would be guilty of treason and both regicide and patricide if caught attempting to kill him.

  3. If Hamlet acted impulsively he could be accused of paranoia and peremptory justice; now he is depicted as neurotic, depressed, melancholic, or with an over reflective intellectualism?

• Are Claudius/Hamlet incestuous?

• Hamlet’s plight; a paralysis or overly agonizing or inhibited?

• Hamlet’s revenge; part of the grieving process?

• Oedipal instincts - Has Claudius done what Hamlet wanted to do? A favored interpretation from Freud until the 1990’s but not popular now.

Cause of delay in Hamlet’s action #

a) melancholia (mourning for father)

b) weakness of will

c) over—reflective intellectualism – His cerebral education drives him to investigate, evaluate and deliberate rather than spontaneously over-react in “hot blood”. A student of Wittenberg - where Luther nailed his theses on the Church door.

d) half—conscious revolt against morality of revenge. Shakespeare may be highlighting the tension between humanism and Christianity.

e) incestuous love of mother.

f) need to find objective proof of murder

The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play ’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Contrary to common belief Hamlet does act:

He is split between the purity of symbolic action and the physicality of real action.

a) seeks out the secret of Ghost

b) arranges play

c) kills Polonius

d) foils the emissaries

e) deals with the pirates

f) fights Laertes (twice)

g) kills Claudius

By the time Hamlet becomes aware that providence is watching over him he no longer indulges in self-laceration.

Suddenly after observing Fortinbras’ resolve, Hamlet becomes aware of the irrationality of the world and that reflective thinking is futile, What counts is action regardless of the consequences.

Foils to Hamlet: (a device used to depict a character by contrast) #

There appears to be a pairing of characters also acting as foils to each other - Ophelia to Leartes, Horatio (reflective) to Fortinbras (reactive) and the near indistinguishable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Each of the following act as a foil to Hamlet:

Leartes – Impulsive - Quick to attempt to revenge his father’s death.

Fortinbras – Man of action and resolution – willing to fight for meaningless causes.

Horatio, - Stoical, man of sober judgment Represents the Humanist philosophies of the Renaissance.

Pyrrhus, - Full or Passion and action

Lucianus - In the play Lucianus is nephew to the king.

Hamlet’s roles:

Hamlet represents the archetypal Renaissance eclectic man: As Ophelia pays tribute to him:

“O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown/The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword/The expectancy and rose of the fair state,/Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!” - Ophelia on Hamlet.

  1. scholar, 2. Dramatic critic, 3. Courtier, 4. Fencer, 5. Wit, 6. Son 7. Lover 8. Avenger

Hamlet’s dilemmas:

  1.   Is the Ghost true or a trick of devil?
  2.   Is his mother knowingly disloyal?
  3.   Is Claudius guilty of incest and murder?
  4.   Has Ophelia betrayed him?  *“are you honest are you fair?”*


Aristotle emphasised self-knowledge; Katharsis, transforming and cleansing us so that we feel emotionally purged. The hero’s suffering leads to Disclosure, (Anagnorisis) or self-recognition as they become aware of their true predicament, puncturing all their illusions of themselves. Self- knowledge leads to understanding - an apotheosis.

What are the steps to Hamlet’s self-awareness?