Shakespeare is revered partly for his exceptionally masterful use of language—his genius for creative and above all economical, efficient use of language to convey characters, thoughts, and emotions with brilliant clarity. Shakespeare's greatness lies also in what John Keats called his "negative capability," a writer's ability to get so inside the heads of his or characters that they seem to live and breathe as truly unique people so fully realized that the writer's own personality is effectively "negated." It is a testament to his artistry that so many of Shakespeare's greatest characters are so vividly real to readers four centuries after their creation—characters such as Falstaff, Iago, Lady Macbeth, and of course, Hamlet, just to name a few—yet we can glean only precious little about Shakespeare, the man himself, through his writings. Probably the most essential aspect of Shakespeare's greatness resides in his wide-ranging grasp of human nature in its most fundamental terms. In comedies, history plays, and tragedies throughout his career, Shakespeare deals in themes that strike resonating chords in the very souls of readers and playgoers throughout all time: Shakespeare's characters and themes are compellingly, intensely relevant to audiences in every era. Ben Jonson's famous remark that Shakespeare was "not of an age, but for all time!" was uncannily prophetic. Surely Shakespeare himself would be amazed to know that so many of his plays remain in virtually perpetual production and are revered by legions of other great writers, by all the critics and scholars, and also by the general public. It's astonishing to realize how thoroughly Shakespeare still thrives not just in the classroom, but on stage and in film throughout the world, with no apparent end in sight. Dozens of his plays are in production annually across the globe, and film versions of his plays appear with no less amazing regularity.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and King Lear are often considered the greatest plays written after the classical period in Greece. Both belong to the genre of tragedy and work within the basic patterns of that genre, the pattern we saw with Sophocles earlier in the semester. Scholars suggest that the genre evolved out of sacrificial rituals, and some associate it with kingly sacrifice. Until the modern age, tragedy was always about a noble or prominent person who is destroyed, such as Oedipus the King, Prince Hamlet, or King Lear. Part of this tradition is based upon the idea of their cultural significance: it makes relatively little difference to the culture as a whole if someone inconsequential to the society is destroyed. (The modern age changes this genre norm; thus we have tragedies of "commoners" such as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.) The sacrificial theory also suggests that tragedy was associated with the death of nature—in autumn—and the death of the year (in winter). Thus on stage we are presented with the destruction of an entire dispensation of power: the death or destruction of a royal family and its heirs.
Hamlet is a particular type of tragedy, a revenge tragedy, a genre that was popular in Shakespeare's day. The revenge motif is central to this play and its action. Hamlet is charged by his father's ghost with killing Claudius, the murderer of Hamlet Sr. This is not an easy thing for Hamlet Jr. to do: he is not by nature a murderer. Much of the play is concerned with this difficulty. The revenge motif is also present in other places. Fortinbras is attempting to set something right in his own family: to regain lands lost by his father in a fight to the death between the elder Hamlet and his own father. Similarly, Laertes must avenge the death of his father, Polonius, by Prince Hamlet. At the end of the play, all the revenge strands converge and are satisfied.
As was standard practice in the era, Shakespeare frequently took plots from other sources, usually stories familiar to his audience, amending them to suit the specific talents of his troupe of actors and to develop specific themes he found important or intriguing. The story of Hamlet originated in Norse pagan mythology, conveyed in the tale of Amleth by the Danish chronicler, Saxo Grammaticus, in the late twelfth century. In this original version, the hero is a grim, ruthless, and single-minded avenger of his father's murder who feigns madness to accomplish his mission. This story, however, came to Shakespeare in later and different forms, most notably a play probably written by Thomas Kyd, in which Shakespeare himself may have acted circa 1594. Kyd added the ghost (absent in Saxo's version) and other supernatural "machinery" from Greek and Roman mythology. The hero of Kyd's play is more legitimately "mad" or neurotic than the original Amleth, though he, too, ends up achieving vengeance in the end.
Shakespeare's Hamlet, however, is neither bloodthirsty pagan avenger nor the thoroughly neurotic hero of Kyd's version of the story, and Shakespeare's Hamlet is far less involved with supernatural "machinery." In fact, Shakespeare's play is less a straightforward revenge tragedy and more a philosophical examination of humanity's ambiguous position in relation to both life and death, and Hamlet is much more concerned with the intellectual perception of what seems without the absolute certainty of objectively knowable "Truth." The relativity of our perception of reality is encapsulated in Hamlet's declaration that "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." So, concurrent with the revenge motif in Shakespeare's play is an in-depth exploration of the theme of illusion vs. reality: of deceptive appearances that sometimes obscure a frustratingly elusive objective truth.
Act I introduces the main characters and gives us the situation in Denmark. In the first scene (I.i), the ghost of King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet's father, appears to the castle guards in the company of the "scholar" Horatio, whom we later learn is Prince Hamlet's close friend. Horatio is skeptical and may not believe in ghosts. He has apparently been brought by the guards to see for himself. As the ghost appears, Horatio, and presumably the audience, are convinced that the ghost is real. The appearance of the ghost gives a sense of foreboding, a sense that something is seriously wrong. The next scene introduces King Claudius, Laertes and his father, Polonius, Queen Gertrude, and Hamlet. We learn of the relationship of the royal couple and Hamlet's dissatisfaction with the hasty marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet despairs at the state of affairs in Denmark and his mother's apparent lack of control in marrying his ignoble uncle so quickly after his noble father died. He also stresses that it is incestuous: in Shakespeare's time, people believed that marriage to an in-law was like marriage to a member of the immediate family. It should also be noted that Gertrude is violating another taboo as well: in order to honor the dead husband, there was a mild taboo against her remarrying at all. Hamlet sees her marriage as a dishonoring of his father. His soliloquy ends in another example of the foreboding that spreads throughout the act: "it cannot come to good" (1.2.157). In this act also Ophelia is introduced, and we learn of the romance between Ophelia and Hamlet. Polonius, her father, orders her to refuse the prince’s advances, and she, a good daughter, must obey. The act closes as Hamlet is charged by the ghost with avenging his murder, and Hamlet swears Horatio and his comrades to absolute secrecy.
In Act II, Scene 1 Polonius sets in motion a plan to spy on his son, Laertes, when he is away in Paris to discover if he is prone to particular vices, and a distraught Ophelia informs her father of Hamlet's apparent madness, which Polonius assumes is a "love-sickness" caused by her rejection of Hamlet's advances. The second scene in Act II reveals the king's plan to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two companions of Hamlet's youth, spy upon him to discover the truth of his madness. Polonius reveals Hamlet's pursuit of Ophelia to the king, and he, too, plans to spy on Hamlet to see if Ophelia is indeed the cause of his madness. Hamlet does appear mad when he meets Polonius, though Polonius notes that there is a curious wisdom in the seeming nonsense of Hamlet's words. Also in this scene Hamlet gets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to confess that they have been asked by Claudius to stay in Elsinore to watch him. The second act ends with Hamlet in soliloquy condemning his lack of firmness in following the ghost's command to avenge his murder. Hamlet reveals the fear that the ghost may be a trick of the devil, and he plots to have a troupe of traveling actors perform a play at court about a man murdering his brother, in hopes that the king's reaction might indicate whether he is in fact guilty of killing Hamlet Sr.
A few matters and motifs to ponder as you read the first two acts:
- The importance of family, and family relationships
- The supernatural
- Court politics, and political intrigue or "politicianly" behavior
- The burdens of leadership
- Treatment of women and women’s roles
- The imagery of nature, health, and sickness
The action gets fast and furious--relatively speaking--as the third and fourth acts build on the conflicts established in the first two: Hamlet acts like a lunatic and gets proof that Claudius is indeed guilty, the king plots to have Hamlet killed, Hamlet is brutally frank with his mother and then kills Polonius by accident, Hamlet still drags his feet in avenging his father, Laertes returns in a passion to avenge his own father's death, Ophelia loses her mind and dies, the king comes up with plan B and plan C to kill Hamlet--lots of passion here, lots of plot, and lots of plotting!
Hamlet's character is established pretty thoroughly in the opening two acts, but Acts III and IV do develop his dilemma and his thought processes substantially. One of the "problems" commentators have had with Hamlet is the determination of his "tragic flaw": since he is a tragic hero, tradition dictates that he must needs have the essential hamartia (as we noted in Aristotle's defining the genre of tragedy with Oedipus the King as the prime example, the specific mistake or flaw that leads to the hero's undoing). One perception is that Hamlet's primary flaw or weakness may be his indecision, his "thinking too much" instead of simply acting. He seems to fear death though he wishes for it at one point, but then he seems to fear living and acting upon the ghost's commandment of revenge also. In the soliloquy closing Act II we saw Hamlet upbraiding himself for not having followed the ghost's command immediately. In Act III Hamlet receives confirmation of Claudius's guilt in his reaction to the play Hamlet has staged for this purpose, but he still does not act. He has a golden opportunity when he comes upon Claudius alone, trying to pray, but still he doesn't act. As you read, be pondering these questions: Why doesn't Hamlet just grit his teeth and do it--avenge his father's death? What are his thought processes regarding his "mission"? And what, indeed, is his tragic flaw, if he must have one?
As happens frequently in Shakespeare, we have a "play within the play" in Act III, where Hamlet arranges for the traveling acting company to perform a pantomime and then a full-blown play, both depicting someone poisoning a king and marrying his queen. Metadrama is the literary term describing a dramatic work that highlights or comments on the nature of drama itself--it's a self-conscious situation in which the audience is reminded that they are watching a play themselves: the actual audience see themselves mirrored onstage by another audience (of actors) watching another play (with actors pretending to be actors). There's tremendous irony here, as the writer reminds us that what we are watching or reading is actually a fiction or illusion, mere play. It's an irresistible temptation for many to wonder what the playwright may be saying about his or own work or genre in such instances of metadrama, and we might imagine that Hamlet's advice on acting to the players in act III, scene ii is advice given to actors in Shakespeare’s own company.
Illusion, reality, and irony
The play within the play is one of the boldest iterations of a predominant theme we have noticed already in the last unit's discussion: illusion vs. reality. Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Queen, Laertes, and other characters all act different roles at different points throughout the play. And with all the dissembling, or dissimulating, or out-and-out deceiving of others by different characters putting on various "acts," we find a tremendous amount of irony in the play, particularly dramatic irony, which if you recall our examination of Oedipus occurs whenever the audience has more knowledge of events and circumstances than specific characters have. We know that Hamlet isn't really so mad as he seems when he "acts" mad, for instance, but most other characters do not.
Other ironies blossom in Acts III and IV as well. Irony is rampant throughout this play. . . . It's, like, freakin' everywhere, man! There is "cosmic irony" or "irony of circumstance" in situations or events that are surprisingly contrary to what we might expect. For instance, it's ironic that while Hamlet "plays" mad, Ophelia really does go mad. It's similarly ironic that Hamlet thinks he is avenging his father's death when he stabs the man hiding in the curtains of his mother's room--Polonius--and then Laertes shows up wanting to kill Hamlet in revenge for his own father's murder. I'll leave more instances of irony for you to identify in this unit's discussion.
Act V begins with comic relief in the famous gravedigger scene. (Note that “clown” meant a person of low status in Shakespeare’s time.) Two "clowns," here gravediggers, discuss the Christian burial of a woman who apparently committed suicide. Suicides were, by church and civil law, denied burial in hallowed ground. As they solve the riddle of how she is permitted a Christian burial, they begin to play with other, more humorous riddles. Hamlet and Horatio enter and Hamlet begins to match wits with the gravedigger. He asks whose skull has been thrown from the grave and learns that it is Yorick's, the court jester's. Hamlet's great discussion on death begins as he remembers his childhood affection for Yorick. He is interrupted by a burial procession and recognizes members of the court. We learn that it is Ophelia's burial, and that the gravediggers' ideas concerning her suicide are probably accurate as Laertes and the First Priest argue over the limited rites performed at the grave. Hamlet and Laertes confront one another, with Hamlet indicating that he really has loved Ophelia all along. To end the scene, the king promises Laertes that he will get his revenge.
The closing scene wraps up the plot in tidy, efficient fashion. All three sons seeking vengeance for their fathers' deaths attain that revenge--i.e. Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. The corrupt influences in the court are purged--indeed, most of the entire court is "eradicated," from the "incestuous" king and queen down to Claudius's minions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--and with the promised installment of Fortinbras on the throne, Denmark appears to have a fresh start on the horizon.
There have been bits of humor earlier in the play--Hamlet's bantering with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at first and Hamlet's initial treatment of Polonius, e.g.--but in the first scene of Act V we find the most extended comic interlude. In works of great seriousness, we often find moments of levity or humor we consider comic relief because they momentarily suspend the intensity of our concentration upon the weighty, serious matters that all tragedies examine. Skillful writers ensure their readers' proper attentiveness and emotional participation in the events of serious works by providing such moments of respite or relief from the dramatic intensity so that we are not kept at too high a pitch of seriousness for too long a space--by allowing us to chuckle now and again, the skillful writer enables us to breathe easy for a brief time so that we are somewhat refreshed and better able to absorb the more serious matters when we return to them. Naturally, in as solemn a work as a tragedy we would not expect to find rollicking slapstick, which would be too drastically counter to the play's overall tone, but in the punning and witty wordplay, and the apparent misunderstandings of meanings that we find in the gravediggers’ interaction with Hamlet, we find suitable relief from the dramatic intensity through comedy which allows us to draw a figurative breath before we approach the gravest matters of all in the play's concluding scene.
Commentary on the courtly
One thematic strand important throughout the play has been the "political" behavior of members of the court beyond the royal family. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's willingness to serve the king's wishes by spying on Hamlet and conveying him to England, where he is supposed to be murdered, is an instance of the "rottenness" inhabiting the court earlier in the play. Polonius is the greatest example of this sort of corruption, to Hamlet's way of thinking: his servile willingness to "kiss the butts" of morally corrupt superiors such as Claudius and even Hamlet himself is treated as reprehensible. We see Hamlet's contempt for Polonius's brown-nosing when Polonius agrees that the clouds resemble first a camel, then a weasel, then again a whale in III.ii.340-45. Earlier in the play Shakespeare highlights the emptiness of Polonius's character in the platitudes he offers his son, Laertes, as fatherly advice before he departs for France in I.iii.60-83, where his primary concern seems to involve appearances more than legitimate fatherly concern for his son. Be on the lookout for more in this same vein of contempt for courtiers with Osric in the final act.
As a literary term, foil indicates a character who possesses clear similarities to the protagonist or other main character but whose differences from the main character serve to highlight the contrast between the two. The term originated from the use of metallic foil (as in aluminum foil, e.g.) in the setting of a precious stone in a piece of jewelry to highlight the brilliance of the gem through its reflection in the metal setting. Laertes and Fortinbras are clearly two foils to Hamlet in this play, as they are both in circumstances closely paralleling Hamlet's: namely their both pursuing vengeance for wrongs done to their fathers. Laertes's impetuous eagerness to act in avenging Polonius's death provides a contrast with Hamlet's dallying around intellectualizing instead of acting immediately to avenge his father's murder. As you read the final act, consider how Fortinbras, too, provides both similarity and contrast with Hamlet, and more narrowly, consider how the differences between the two highlight or illuminate Hamlet's character in the end.
On rottenness, illusion, and health and disease:
- What different kinds of "rottenness" do you see in Denmark in the first two or three acts? What different "corruptions" or other troubles confront the nation as a whole? What various sorts of corruption or "rottenness" confront different specific characters?
- The conflict between illusion and reality begins with the opening scene and extends throughout the play. Point out and discuss as many instances as you can discover where there is some discrepancy between appearance and reality.
- More specifically, identify and discuss different instances of intentional deception (there are surprisingly many): explore the different motives characters have for deceiving others through various manipulative illusions.
- Point out and discuss different passages involving health or disease. Interpret these passages—say what meaning they convey through the metaphors.
On Polonius, Hamlet, and women:
- Examine the character of Polonius carefully: consider his roles both as parent and as advisor to the king. Consider especially the lines in Act III, Scene ii where Hamlet remarks on the shapes of clouds, but discuss Polonius's behavior in other places as well. How is he an important character in the play overall? How is Polonius himself "corrupt"? Or how is he part of the famous "rottenness" in Denmark?
- Why is Hamlet so disgusted with himself in the soliloquy closing Act 2? Discuss.
- In this play, there are more religious overtones than in others by Shakespeare. Can you point out any? What is their purpose?
- Discuss Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia. Presumably he once did love her. Why does he treat her as he does now?
- Discuss Hamlet's attitude towards women in general: consider the advice he gives to Ophelia that she should enter a nunnery and also his attitude towards his mother. Does Hamlet see women as inherently "corrupt" in addition to being "corrupting"? Explain.
- Explore Hamlet's "waffling." Where does he seem especially indecisive, and why does he find it so hard to make up his mind or to act? What specific reasons does he give for his delay? Are there ways he might really be mad after all?
- In the scene between Hamlet and his mother where Hamlet kills Polonius, Hamlet becomes aggressive if not downright abusive to his mother. Is Hamlet's attitude towards his mother justified? Why or why not? Why does the ghost appear? Is anything suggested about old Hamlet's relationship with Gertrude here?
- Discuss Hamlet's observations on the nature of death (and life) more generally, especially in V.i.57-188, but perhaps elsewhere as well.
- How is Laertes important in Shakespeare's illuminating or developing Hamlet's character as a “foil”? Compare and contrast Hamlet and Laertes: note both similarities and differences in their situations and in their responses to them. Also consider how Fortinbras operates as a foil to Hamlet as well.
- Discuss Hamlet's statement that there is "special providence" even in the "fall of a sparrow" (V.ii.193).