Introduction to Hamlet
Hamlet is one of the best plays of all time written by William Shakespeare. According to literary scholars, there has never been such a play by his predecessors and successors alike. It is known as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The play was published roughly between 1599 and 1602 and staged during the same period. Hamlet has proved a Mona Lisa of literature, evoking multiple interpretations and mesmerizing generations across the globe. It was also the time when ghosts were often part of the plays and literature. He depicted a simple, tragic saga of the Prince Hamlet and his struggle to avenge his father, King Hamlet. He tries to trap his uncle, Claudius, into a confession without any success. It leads to the deaths of not only the hero but also of the villain, along with various other characters.
Summary of Hamlet
The play opens with three soldiers standing on the guard of the castle of Elsinore. Along with Prince Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, the soldiers encounter a ghost. Horatio and soldiers believe it is King Hamlet’s ghost. When Hamlet listens to Horatio’s encounter, he joins him to confirm the truth. After the proof and visitation from the ghost, Hamlet is convinced that his uncle, Claudius murdered his father. He realizes that Claudius hastily married his mother and occupied the throne. The ghost request Hamlet to avenge his death. Hamlet has a thoughtful and over-philosophical nature. Hence, he decides not to take immediate revenge.
Hamlet pretends to be insane and suffers from acute depression at the same time. Here, his melancholiness is termed as depression in modern terms. Horatio and the guards are aware that Hamlet has “put an antic disposition on”.
Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, also worries about him. She checks on him with the help of Claudius and Polonius, the court attendant. Meanwhile, his university friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, arrive at the palace. Claudius and Gertrude ask their help to get the truth out of him. However, they find him very quizzical and mentally challenging. Also, Hamlet realizes that his mother and step-father sent them as a spy as well.
Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, and Hamlet shared an intimate relationship. Polonius is Claudius’ court advisor. Both Claudius and Polonius use Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. However, she fails to understand him and tells her father about Hamlet’s behavior. Hamlet also realizes that she has been trying to spy on him. He later insults her for returning love letters, and rejects her advances, leaving Ophelia in a state of distress. Polonius assumes that Hamlet’s lost his mind after breaking up with Ophelia. It is in this scene the famous ‘to be or not to be’ is spoken.
One day, a group of theatre actors visits Elsinore. Hamlet gets an idea of exposing his father’s murderer during the play. He asks the troupe to perform ‘The Murder of Gonzago’. The play is similar to King Hamlet’s murder. Hamlet wasn’t sure if he should believe in his father’s ghost. Hence. Hamlet believes that the play will reveal if Claudius was the murderer.
When the play starts and the moment of assassination arrives. In the play, the king dies as the poison is poured in the ear by the enemy. Panicked Claudius leaves the stage immediately. This incident helps Hamlet to conclude that Claudius was the murderer. Hamlet also listens while Claudius confesses to killing his own brother. Even though Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius, he hesitates. Hamlet wonders if Claudius will go to heaven if he receives forgiveness at the last minute.
Polonius is eavesdropping the conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet. While Hamlet is insulting Gertrude as she asks him the reason for his madness, Polonius, who is hidden behind the curtain, moves believing that Hamlet will attack his mother. Hamlet thinks it’s Claudius and stabs him through the curtain. Sadly, Polonius dies on the spot. The ghost of Hamlet’s father reappears to him one more time, chastising Hamlet to avenge his death quickly and not to be cruel to his mother. After Polonius’ death, Claudius plans to send Hamlet to England and have him killed.
Laertes, Polonius’ son, arrives from France. He blames Claudius for his father’s death and takes a mob to attack him at the palace. However, Claudius cunningly turns Laertes against Hamlet. Saddened by her father’s death Ophelia, goes mad commits suicide by drowning in the river. After Ophelia’s suicide, Laertes’s determination to kill Hamlet to avenge father’s and sister’s death gets stronger.
Hamlet survives the pirate attack and returns home to Denmark. Upon his return, Claudius and Laertes devise to murder Hamlet. After Ophelia’s funeral, Claudius wagers a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes poisons the tip of his blade and Claudius poisons the wine. Unfortunately, Gertrude drinks that glass of wine and dies. During the duel, Laertes and Hamlet are fatally wounded. Laertes confesses that the idea of poisoning his to death. Hamlet kills Claudius and exchanges forgiveness with Laertes before taking his last breath.
As Hamlet lies dying, the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, comes with his army. He’s the son of King Hamlet’s rival. In the end, Fortinbras orders a worthy burial for Hamlet and assumes the throne.
Major Themes in Hamlet
Hamlet has been the most discussed play written by Shakespeare. It has a few heightened controversies and interpretations as well. The play is also a mystery for a few literary critics. Hamlet’s themes offer theoretical perspectives and a variety of meanings. Some of the major themes from the play are discussed below.
- Political Conspiracies: If you read the play carefully, Hamlet is a political drama. Prince Hamlet is a victim of conspiracies by his uncle, Claudius. Claudius kills King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father to win the throne and marries Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Knowing that Hamlet will eventually avenge his father’s death, Claudius conspires with Lord Polonius to spy on Hamlet. Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia, is used by her father to report Hamlet’s behavior. Hamlet and Ophelia were in love with each other until Hamlet banishes her from his life. The play ends when conspiracies reach their pinnacles, with the deaths of Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, and the main antagonist, King Claudius.
- Religious Theme: Hamlet is also a religious drama. There are a couple of essential incidents that show theological interpretations. The first one is the marriage of Claudius with Gertrude. According to Christian theology, it is forbidden to marry a brother’s wife. The second is the case of suicide. Hamlet is depressed and suicidal since his father’s death. However, he controls his impulses because of his faith in Christianity. Also, after the play, The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet hears Claudius’ confession in his prayers. The confession stops Hamlet from murdering Claudius at that moment because, as a praying man, Claudius will go to heaven.
- Familial Relationships: Familial relationships is another theme of the play, Hamlet, which runs parallel to political and religious themes. Hamlet is the son of King Hamlet, nephew of Claudius and son of Gertrude, the Queen. Though Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, after murdering his brother, he marries Gertrude to take over the throne. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, also the son of Polonius, grieves the loss of his family. He decides to avenge their deaths by killing Hamlet.
- Revenge Play: Hamlet is also a revenge play. The entire plot of Hamlet is about exacting revenge from Claudius for killing his father. Polonius’ son, Laertes is also motivated to avenge his father’s and sister’s Ophelia’s death. The arrival of Fortinbras is also part of revenge. It is revealed that Claudius once attacked his country during his father’s rule.
- Madness: Hamlet either was mad, or he was not. While Hamlet puts on a charade the has lost his mind, after watching his father’s ghost, Hamlet’s personality is changed. He remains mad throughout the play to take revenge on his uncle, Claudius for killing his father. Ophelia also displays the characteristics of madness. Her low esteem, heartbreak, and hopeless drive her to commit suicide.
- Procrastination or Inaction: Hamlet’s delay in taking action makes another thematic strand of the play. While procrastination gives some benefit to the rest of the characters in the play, the delay causes unnecessary deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, and Laertes. However, it is important to note that Hamlet delayed justice to his dead father because he was seeking for the truth. He didn’t want to kill Claudius without proof. Procrastination also points to Hamlet’s positive traits – intelligence, self-discipline, and control.
Major Characters in Hamlet
- Hamlet: Hamlet is the protagonist of the play. He is also remembered as a tragic hero. The entire storyline revolves around him. He goes through unsurmountable suffering due to the assassination of his father. He loses his right to be the only heir. Hamlet is an educated and contemplative young man. He wants to take revenge, but he controls his anger and delays the ghost requests. Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius without proof. Hamlet arranges an elaborate play that reveals the real murderer. Once he gets the evidence, he hesitates when he sees Claudius pray and confess. Hamlet feigns madness drives Ophelia to despair and suicide. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, while he was spying on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude. Later, Hamlet and Laertes fall into Claudius’ trap and agree for the duel match. However, during their last moments of life, Hamlet kills Claudius and meets his tragic end.
Most importantly, before Hamlet dies, he saves his friend, Horatio, from killing himself and entrusts the kingdom to Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. Despite suffering from depression and driven to take revenge by the ghost, Hamlet displays bravery. He is a tragic hero who remains chivalrous and noble until his death.
- Claudius: Claudius is the main antagonist of Hamlet. He murders his own brother, King Hamlet, and marries Gertrude – a marriage not allowed in Christian theology. Therefore, his image as a king does not fit in the predominant ethical framework. Since the death of King Hamlet, Claudius plots to kill Hamlet to remove him as an heir. After the elaborate play arranged by Hamlet, Claudius is found praying and confessing. He uses Polonius, Ophelia, Hamlet’s friends to spy on him. He unsuccessfully plots Hamlet’s execution. In the end, Claudius succeeds in arranging a duel between Laertes and Hamlet. After the fencing duel, when Laertest reveals the plot of poisoning, Hamlet kills him. Claudius is a perfect example of a corrupt individual, with little remorse for the crimes he commits.
- Gertrude: She is Hamlet’s mother and the wife of King Hamlet. After King Hamlet’s murder, she marries Claudius, King Hamlet’s brother. She tries her best to cheer up Hamlet, worries about his well-being. She genuinely loves Ophelia and is heartbroken when she commits suicide. Sadly, she becomes a tool in the hands of Claudius as she tries to spy on Hamlet. As a mother and also a spy, she tries her best to figure out Hamlet’s problems. Though she is insulted by Hamlet, her son, she remains kind and benevolent. King Hamlet’s ghost describes her as a virtuous woman. She accidentally drinks poison-laced wine during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Though Hamlet’s death was inevitable, it’s worth mentioning that she took the drink intended for him and dies in place of her son. Having lost of her husband, King Hamlet, her death saves her the agony of watching Hamlet and Claudius die.
- Polonius: He is the Lord Chamberlain and confidant of King Claudius. Polonius is the co-conspirator in King Hamlet’s death and plotting young Hamlet’s demise. He appears as one of the talking characters in the play. His daughter, Ophelia, loves Hamlet. He uses her to spy on Hamlet to know the exact cause of Hamlet’s madness. He eavesdrops Hamlet’s and Gertrude’s arguments while hiding behind the tapestry. He is killed by Hamlet as he is mistaken for Claudius. His son Laertes, later, fights a duel with Hamlet at the provocation of Claudius to avenge his death.
- Ophelia: Ophelia is romantically attracted to Hamlet. She always yearns for attention. Sadly, as Hamlet mourns his father’s heart, he doesn’t accept her love. Secretly, Hamlet does love Ophelia, but he is consumed with the anger of his father’s death. Ophelia also becomes a tool in her father’s and Claudius’ hands. She spies on Hamlet and tells them about his behavior. Hamlet suspects her for spying. He rejects her advances and breaks her heart with insults, which includes asking her to join a brothel (nunnery was slang for brothel). After her father is accidentally killed by Hamlet, she commits suicide and is mourned by Hamlet though she does not receive proper Christian burial.
- Horatio: Horatio is Hamlet’s close confidant and his best friend. He is also the main counselor whenever Hamlet is in some confusion. Before Hamlet’s Horatio witnesses the ghost’s haunting along with the guards. He is stopped by Hamlet from killing himself. Horatio, who is mostly an observer of the events, becomes an orator telling the tales of Hamlet to the public after the tragedy.
- Laertes: Laertes, son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, is a headstrong but analytical character. He warns his sister Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. He returns to Denmark after hearing about his father’s death. After first, he falls into Claudius trap and decides to avenge his father’s death by killing Hamlet. However, during the duel, he instantly sees a plot and reveals everything to Hamlet. Sadly, Laertes and Hamlet are mortally wounded and it was too late to save themselves. Laertes is presented as a naïve character in the beginning. Before his death, he exchanges forgiveness with Hamlet and dies an honorable death.
- Guildenstern and Rosencrantz: These two young fellows are Hamlet’s classmates. They bring the theatre group and also become tools in Claudius’ hands and spy on Hamlet. They are perhaps killed in England while taking the letter to the king about Hamlet. The letter was given by Claudius to get Hamlet killed when he returns to England. However, Hamlet intercepts the message and exchanges with his own letter about their instant death.
Writing Style of Hamlet
Hamlet starts with in medias res (into the middle of a narrative) with guards watching the appearance of the ghost. They express their feelings of terror and horror. This is style is in contrast to the standard methods to tell a story and write plays. The play is written in mostly blank verse. Hence, Hamlet’s style shows the excellence of taking the argument to the pinnacles. Shakespeare brings the argument back to demonstrate the use of climax and anticlimax at the same time. Hamlet is a mixture of comic as well as tragic phrases. There has never been any play in the history of literature that has taken so much length and presented such a golden combination of literary devices. Here, each device seconds the other, presenting the text with multiple meanings and interpretations.
Analysis of Literary Devices in Hamlet
- Alliteration: A play written in blank verse, Hamlet has many examples of the use of alliterations. A few examples are given below:
- What we have two nights seen. (Act-I, Scene II, Line 32)
- To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy (Act-III, Scene-III, Line, 47)
- Look you lay home to him. (Act-III, Scene-IV, Line, 1)
The above-given lines taken from different acts show the use of alliteration that means the use of consonant sounds in quick succession in a line. For example, /w/, /l/ and /h/ sounds are used in the above lines.
2. Allegory: Hamlet is an allegory that shows the universal problems a man faces on this earth. These are the problems of good and evil in every era and generation. Hamlet faces both of these issues and reflects on himself whether he is doing good or bad. His final words to Horatio that he should justify his cause to the world show this allegorical nature of the play.
- For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come (Act-III, Scene-I, Line, 64)
- A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 112)
- 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. (Act-II, Scene-II, Lines 245-247)
In the above examples, vowel sounds appear after some pauses creating a sort of melodious impact in the verses. The sounds of long /e/, /i/ and /oo/ are used in the above examples.
4. Antagonist: Claudius is an antagonist in the play, as he weaves a plan to kill the protagonist, Hamlet, who is the representative of good, as compared to Claudius, the representative of evil in the play.
5. Allusion: The below lines show good use of allusion.
Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t,
A brother’s murder. (Act-III, Scene-III, Lines, 37-39)
These lines show a reference to the earliest murder in human history. It shows the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain, which has been used here as an allusion.
Suit the action to the word, the word to the
action—with this special observance, that you o’ erstep not
the modesty of nature. (Act-III, Scene-II, Lines 16-18)
7. Conflict: There are two types of conflicts in Hamlet. The first one is the physical conflict that is shown at two places; first, when Hamlet kills Polonius and second when Hamlet fights a duel with Laertes. The second is the mental conflict, which is seen throughout the play in Hamlet’s mind as well as his opponent, King Claudius.
- I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle. (Act-III, Scene-II, Lines, 74-76)
- You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend. (Act-III, Scene-II, Lines 321-322)
In both examples, different consonant sounds such as /th/, /t/, and /r/ have been repeated in quick succession that they create melodious impacts.
9. Dramatic Irony: Dramatic Irony occurs at several places in the play. For example, when Claudius is shown praying, he is actually not feeling sorry for killing his brother. This is a dramatic irony that though he is confession doesn’t show any guilt or remorse.
10. Deus Ex Machina: The appearance of a ghost is a good use of deus ex machina in the play. In fact, when the ghost appears, Marcellus, one of the guards, is right in saying that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
11. Foreshadowing: When Marcellus sees the ghost, he talks to Horatio and says that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. This line shows the use of foreshadowing that something terrible is going to happen. When Hamlet meets his father’s ghost, he learns that his uncle has killed him, and he utters, “O my prophet soul!” (Line 40) which is another use of foreshadowing. Here, Hamlet might have understood that either he or his uncle Claudius or both will kill each other.
- O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there. (Act-I, Scene-V, Line, 47)
- That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark. (Act-I, Scene V, Lines, 108-109)
- Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend
Which is the mightier. (Act-IV, Scene-I, Line, 7-8)
These lines show the sensory images that Shakespeare has used sparingly in the entire play. There are countless examples of excellent use of imagery that the readers have to use five senses to understand the underlying meanings.
- “To die: to sleep; / No more; and by a sleep to say we end / The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” (Act-III, Scene-I, Lines, 60-64)
- But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of? (Act-III, Scene-I, Lines, 77-83)
- The fair Ophelia! – Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered. (Act, III, Scene-I, Lines, 89-90)
The first and the second metaphors compare sleep with death and the world hereafter with the country that is undiscovered. In the third example, Hamlet compares Ophelia with a Nymph, a Grecian divine creature.
14. Mood: The entire play shows different moods according to the situation. When the play opens, the viewers and readers experience horrible and fearful in the foggy atmosphere of Elsinore. As the play progresses, the horror and terror encompass the whole atmosphere until the players arrive and bring some atmosphere of entertainment. A movement of tension and conflict reaches its point when the gravedigger provides comic relief. However, the light atmosphere is short-lived as the events turn grim, increasing more tension followed by duel.
15. Protagonist: Hamlet is the main protagonist of the play as he directs Horatio by the end of the play. Hamlet makes sure Horatio stays alive and becomes an orator to tell the public and justify his cause. Hamlet, indeed, stands for good in the play as compared to Claudius, who stands for evil.
16. Pun: Hamlet is also full of puns. For example,
- Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun. (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 67)
- I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me. (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 85).
- You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife. (Act-III, Scene-IV, Line, 15)
In both of these examples, Hamlet plays upon the word “sun” in the first line that means “son” and “ghost” in the second line that means that he would kill that person who stops him.
17. Paradox: The play also shows good use of paradoxes.
- “Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” (Act-I, Scene-II, Lines, 180-181).
- A little more than kin and less than kind.” (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 65).
These lines show paradoxes that mean to use contradictory ideas in the same statement. For example, in the first statement shows that the meat baked for the funeral was served in the marriage ceremony. The second statement indicates that Claudius is more than kin, but less kind toward him. Here, Hamlet means that Claudius is family; he is nothing like him or his father.
- “What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?” (Act-III, Scene-III, Lines, 54-66)
- How now! A rat? (Act-III, Scene-IV, Line, 24)
These examples show the use of rhetorical questions and mostly by Hamlet. They also show Shakespeare’s expertise in using rhetorical devices and couple them with literary devices to serve his purpose of multiple interpretations.
19. Simile: The play also contains plenty of similes. For example,
- In the same figure like the king that’s dead. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 41)
- And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 69)
- Wretched state! O bosom black as death! (Act-III, Scene-III, Line, 68)
- Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe. (Act-III, Scene-III, Line, 69)
Here are four similes used in Hamlet. In the first one, the figure is compared to the king. In the second example, the eyes are compared to the friend. In the third example, the black is compared to death. In the fourth example, the heart is compared to an innocent child.
20. Soliloquy: The play shows some memorable soliloquies. For example,
- O, that this too too solid flesh would melt (Act-I, Scene-II, Line, 129)
- O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I (Act-II, Scene-II, Line, 532)
- To be, or not to be (Act-III, Scene-I, Line, 56)
- Oh my offence is rank, it smells to heaven (Act-III, Scene-III, Line, 36)
Hamlet has delivered the first three examples. Claudius speaks the fourth one. These soliloquies shed some light on the mentality or conflict of the character. They also set the mood of the play.
- Not so, my lord. I am too much i’the sun. (Act-I, Scene-II, Line 66)
- Second is situational irony in that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to meet Hamlet to tell him that they have come to meet him to know what he is mad but his replies are very ironic.
- It is also ironic that play is being stated to entertain Hamlet, while Hamlet is using it to know Claudius’s crime.