Hamlet, baby, Hamlet! You gotta love him, and the play that's named after him!
Get ready to check out the original rebel with a cause, the great Dane himself, you know him, you don't know himI give you the one, the only, world-famous man of a thousand facesPrince Hamlet!
But First, A Little Disclaimer About Shakespeare
Hey, you might not love Shakespeare as much as the Standard Deviants do (especially not as much as Neilhe wrote that first part), but, with a little bit of help, you can learn to understand and appreciate his work.
There are as many ways to approach and interpret Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare scholars. You may agree with some of the Standard Deviants' interpretations and you may disagree with some of them. That's okay. The important thing is to start thinking about the plays and discovering all the great things they contain. We hope our approach will give you a good foundation to develop your own ideas about Shakespeare's plays.
Okay, Now Back to Hamlet!
One of the most popular plays ever written, Hamlet has been made into a movie more than twenty-five times; has been the subject of parodies; has been produced entirely in mime; and the title character has been performed by women. The possibilities of the play's production and interpretation seem to know no limits. (Hey, what's up? Sometimes it's "Hamlet," and sometimes it's "Hamlet." What gives? Well, it's like this: Hamlet is the character, and Hamlet is the play he's in. Can we move on now?)
Let's Move On to the Plot
At Elsinore, the royal castle of Denmark, several sentries have seen a strange apparition. They believe it to be the ghost of Hamlet's father, the former king. The sentries bring Hamlet to the castle walls, where the ghost appears before them. This spirit claims to be Hamlet's father, and that his brother, Claudius, killed him while he was sleeping by pouring poison in his ear. Finally, the ghost tells Hamlet that he must avenge this murder. Hamlet swears to it.
In Act Two, Hamlet tries to deflect Claudius's suspicions about him by pretending to be insane. The king's advisor, Polonius, believes Hamlet's madness to be lovesickness. You see, Hamlet had gone out with Polonius's daughter, Ophelia, but Polonius forced her to break up with Hamlet. So, Polonius thinks this separation may have caused the young man's madness.
Two of Hamlet's school buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, arrive at the castle. Now, the pretend to support Hamlet, but they're actually there to spy on him for Claudius. At about the same time, a company of actors arrives, and Hamlet persuades them to perform a play for the court that night. Hamlet says he'll give them a few extra lines to insert in the playlines that Hamlet will write. His ideas is to get the actors to put on a play that re-enacts his father's murder. Hamlet will watch Claudius to see how he reacts. If he reacts guiltily, Hamlet will know that he committed the foul murder.
Later on, Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet as he speaks to Ophelia. This conversation clinches it for them: the young prince seems quite insane.
That night, the players perform the scene that mirrors the good king's death. As Hamlet watches, Claudius becomes distressed and leaves hastily. Hamlet is now positive that Claudius killed his father. Hamlet goes off to see his mother, Gertrude, but on the way, he sees Claudius alone and defenseless. Now is the perfect opportunity to avenge his father's death! Hamlet hesitates, however, because he sees that Claudius is praying. Hamlet believes that if he kills the murderer now, Claudius will go to heaven. But Hamlet wants him to go to Hell, so he leaves Claudius unharmed.
As Hamlet speaks to his mother in her room, Polonius hides behind a curtain and eavesdrops. Hamlet hears a sound behind the curtain and thrusts his sword through itthinking it's Claudius. Polonius falls dead. Ouch!
The king hears about Hamlet killing his spy Polonius. He immediately sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, along with a letter. This letter instructs the English to kill Hamlet when he arrives. Yow!
Now, a little bit of time passes. Hamlet sends letters to the royal court and to his buddy Horatio, that basically say that his ship was captured by pirates, but that they let him go and he has returned to Denmark.
Meanwhile, unhinged by her father's death, Ophelia's behavior becomes more and more bizarre. Her brother, Laertes, is hopping mad. That's because Hamlet killed his father Polonius, and Laertes wants revenge. Claudius seizes on his anger and suggests a plot: Laertes will engage Hamlet in a supposedly friendly fencing match with blunt swords. But that Claudius, he's devious. He tells Laertes that he'll provide him with a sharp sword. And, for good measure, Laertes says he will add poison to the tip. And as if that's not enough, Claudius will poison a glass of wine that he'll offer to Hamlet when the match has made him thirsty.
Act Five begins near a cemetery. Seeing two grave diggers working on a fresh grave, Hamlet, now accompanied by Horatio, muses on death. The grave turns out to be Ophelia's, who, in her insanity, has drowned herself.
This is the big finish, so get out your score cards; the bodies really pile up. At the fencing match that Claudius arranged, everyone pretends to be friends. The co-conspirators carry out their plan Laertes prepares his sword and Claudius prepares the poisoned wine. Hamlet and Laertes begin to duel. The queen, toasting to Hamlet, drinks from the cup, not knowing it to be poisoned. Laertes wounds Hamlet with the deadly point, and in the confusion of the duel, their swords are exchanged. Hamlet then wounds Laertes with the poisoned saber. The queen, crying that she's been poisoned, falls and dies. Laertes, dying from his wound, reveals Claudius's wicked plot and tells Hamlet that they have both been mortally wounded. Hearing this, Hamlet stabs Claudius and makes him drink the poisoned wine. Claudius dies. Hamlet and Laertes forgive each other and Laertes dies.
Hamlet then dies and Horatio eulogizes over his corpse. Finally, Fortinbras enters, takes command of Denmark and orders a military funeral for Hamlet.
A Play of Questions
"Who's there?" These words begin Hamlet. It's fitting that the play should begin with a question, for Hamlet is a play of questions, a wonderfully enigmatic riddle of a play.
Written right around 1600, Hamlet is not only Shakespeare's most famous work, it's probably the most famous work of literature in the Western world. As such, it may have been studied more than anything written, except the Bible.
And that's a tad intimidating. But, there are a few observations we can make about the play that will help us understand it and its unending popularity. We'll take a look at five elements of the play: mystery, Hamlet's character, philosophy, and tragedy.
Here are the opening lines of Hamlet, a conversation between two sentries, one who is relieving the other:
Barnardo: "Who's there?"
Francisco: "Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself."
Barnardo: "Long live the King!"
The "Who's there?" is spoken by the relief sentinel, Barnardo, as he approaches his post. But he knows where he's going and supposedly who he's going to meet, so why does he ask, "Who's there?" Well, little by little, we find out that these guys fear the appearance of the ghost.
There's another mystery for youwhat's with that freaky ghost? Who or what is the spirit? Is it the ghost of Hamlet's father? If so, why is he still walking on the earth? It says it was murdered by his brother, but the question is, can it be trusted or will he trick Hamlet?
After Hamlet encounters the ghost, the he asks his companions to swear silence about what they have seen, and about any fake madness Hamlet might adopt, which he calls an "antic disposition." Let me ask you something here: do you go up to your buddies and say, "I'm going to pretend to go off the deep end for a couple of weeks, but don't tell anybody"? Didn't think so.
The answers to all these questionswho's there?; what's there?; what happened?; what will happen?; and is Hamlet a crazy loon or not?unfold over the five acts of the play. In fact this unfolding is the play itself. In addition to mystery, it's a play of questions. Plus spying and intrigue.
First, spying. Polonius gets this guy Reynaldo to spy on his son Laertes; Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet; Hamlet's old friend's, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern check up on him secretly; Hamlet has a play of murder mounted to surreptitiously watch Claudius's reaction. Doesn't anybody trust anybody in Denmark? And if not, why not?
Hovering over the entire play are the questions about Hamlet's father's death. Did Claudius, the current King do it, and if so what's Hamlet gonna do about it? And when will he do it? Right away? Never?
Maybe if we dig into what this Hamlet guy is all about, we'll get a better handle on the play.
The Character of Hamlet
Hamlet dominates the entire play, so if we can begin to understand him, you can begin to understand the play. Shakespeare gives us a clue here on how to do it. Each of the other major characters, in some small way, is a foil to Hamlet. In this way, Shakespeare sets up a series of oppositionsHamlet on one side and another character on the other.
Hamlet is a man of thought. Throughout the play he ruminates on life, death, and revenge. All these contrasts with HamletClaudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, and Fortinbrasset him off in high relief and helps us understand his character better.
So all these other characters allow Hamlet to display a full range of human emotions: anger, wisdom, wit, indignation, love, irony, humor, reflection, hurt, loyalty, creativity, courage, impetuosity, skepticism, vengeance, impatience, spiritualityin short, Hamlet is as human as any character in a play can be.
That's one reason why Hamlet is so popularPrince Hamlet is such an endlessly fascinating character, that everyone's interpretation is different. We can look at Hamlet and see ourselves; but what I see in him might not be what you see in him.
Like any good character, Hamlet changes throughout the play. In Act One, Scene Two, we see him as an angry young man, depressed about the things life has dumped on him.
Hamlet: "O that this too too sallied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter!"
Hamlet is not a happy camper. He's basically hoping that life ends that his defiled body (the too too sallied flesh) will just sort of disintegrate (melt into a dew). But Hamlet is conflicted, he knows that it's immoral to commit suicide, though he wishes it wasn't. That's what he means by, "the Everlasting had not fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter."
In Act Two, Hamlet's overall outlook may be despondent, but he does recognize humankind's potential.
Hamlet: "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?"
These are all the things Hamlet believes humankind potentially to be: a wonderful piece of work, knowledgeable, infinite in intelligence, commendable in achievements, a god, the beauty of the world, and the highest level of being. But what Hamlet finds in the world of Denmark is so far removed form this ideal that he feels that humankind is nothing but dust.
If we want to get an idea of how Hamlet sees himself, and how he has changed over the course of the play, we can take a look at the beginning of Act Five, Scene Two. Hamlet recounts how on the ship to England he switched the execution orders from his name to those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Hamlet: "Not a whit, we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will comethe readiness is all. Let be."
Hamlet sees the hand of providence in every event, no matter how small. He is content to let what will happen, happen. But he is prepared. As he said, "the readiness is all. Let be."
Okay, we've spoken of two important elements in the play Hamletmystery and intrigue, and the character of Hamlet. Now, let's move on to philosophy.
Shakespeare doesn't so much offer us one overall philosophy in Hamlet. Instead, he raises several philosophical questions but
he doesn't provide the answers. Three of the main questions of Hamlet are: How does moral man live in a corrupt world? How does intelligence and sensitivity co-exist with the pain and suffering of the world? What is the meaning of death?
Question number one: How does moral man exist in an immoral world? We've already said that Hamlet, ever struggling with what is right and wrong, lives in a world where almost everyone else aids that struggle. But Hamlet struggles against the immoral, the deceitful, and the disloyal, because he wants to live with honesty and integrity. So, not surprisingly, Hamlet is a little perturbed with the world he sees around him, which he feels to be dangerous and suspect.
Hamlet: "O God, God, how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on't, ah, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature possess it merely."
The second philosophical question of Hamlet is "How does an intelligent, sensitive individual co-exist with great pain and suffering?" Hamlet goes through a lot. He has lost his father. He found out his mother, because of her hasty remarriage, was corrupt. His friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are disloyal. His beloved, Ophelia, is used against him, then commits suicide. Not an uplifting winter.
The young prince rails against such conditions, but near the end he realizes that human beings can endure the suffering of the world. Or even that providence has a hand in it all. As he says to Horatio right before the duel with Laertes, "The readiness is all. Let be."
The third philosophical question Hamlet raises is the question of death. There's no shortage of death in this play; and it comes in many forms. From Act Three, Scene One, here's Hamlet's most famous soliloquy, which, in part, concerns suicide and death.
Hamlet: "To be, or not to be, that is the question Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. To die, to sleepno more, and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dreamay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause."
The most concentrated treatment of death, however, takes place in the last act. Here, Hamlet is in a graveyard with grave diggers that treat death like the everyday occurrence that it is. In this scene, Hamlet literally and figuratively looks death in the face, as he finds the remains of the court jester, who had died many years before.
Hamlet: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your jibes now? To what base uses we may return, Horatio!"
Let's drop this discussion of death, shall we? It's too depressing. We can move on to something a little bit more upbeat
like revenge! Revenge! Ha, ha, now we're cooking.
Revenge was an important, though controversial issue during Elizabethan times.
Revenge as a topical issue found its way into the drama of the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare was just one of many playwrights who wrote what were known as "revenge plays." Hugely popular, these revenge plays were kinda like the action films or "buddy-cop" movies of our time.
Hamlet is Shakespeare's take on the revenge play, but he plays a few riffs on the genre. We can interpret the play as a whole as far as revenge and justice are concerned. Now, as we know, Hamlet does revenge his father in the general bloodbath of the final scene.
The first interpretation is that Hamlet is just a regular old-avenger, like the ones found in those revenge plays. These avengers always died in their attempts, so in this way of looking at it, Hamlet's death was justified.
Interpretation two: Hamlet is an agent of providence. Remember how Hamlet had resigned himself to the futurewhatever happens, happens? Well, in this view, when the Prince kills the corrupt Claudius, the universe (or whatever) is working through Hamlet to deliver justice in the world. Pretty heavy, eh?
Either interpretation can be justified; one, that Hamlet is merely fulfilling the pattern of the revenge play, or two, that Hamlet is an agent of providence This isn't a problem, because, as we said, this play is about questions, not answers.
Okay, we've discussed the mystery surrounding the play, the character of Hamlet, the philosophical questions of the play, and the issue of revenge. Now let's see how Hamlet works as a tragedy.
Hamlet as a Tragedy
Let's ask a few basic questions about Hamlet. Is he a great, noble figure? Does he suffer greatly? Does he experience a reversal of fortune? And, does he recognize the consequences of his actions?
A "yes" answer to each of those questions can certainly be justified. Hamlet is a magnificent character, richly textured, dynamic and multi-faceted. In fact, Hamlet may be the most interesting character ever created for the stage. And, he definitely suffers. As the play begins, he's already in a state of suffering, and throughout the play, he agonizes over the choices he must make.
Does Hamlet experience a reversal of fortune? Well, in the play, Hamlet loses everything, and almost everyone turns on him. As the play opens, he's already lost his father and his chance at the throne, and over the course of this tragedy, he loses his girlfriend, his mother, his friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and his peace of mind.
By the middle of the play, Hamlet is certainly at the bottom of the Wheel of Fortune. So, yes, Hamlet suffers a reversal of fortune. Does Hamlet recognize the consequences of his actions? Well, it seems he does nothing but think about the consequences of his potential revenge-taking, so yes, he does experience a reversal of fortune.
Now, one final bonus question: does Hamlet's suffering ennoble and enlarge us, the audience? For the answer to this, we can revisit the graveyard scene of Act Five. From the very beginning, and throughout the play, Hamlet confronts his mortality, as well as being torn between his duty to his father and his desire to reject simple revenge. In the graveyard scene, he is comfortable with death and his place in the world.
Hamlet: "No, faith, not a jot, but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away. O, that that earth which kept the world in awe should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw!"
Hamlet looks into the abyss with courage and insight, and in so doing, has transported us beyond our normal experienceennobling and enlarging us.
In the end, because the play is a puzzlea wonderful puzzle, the play Hamlet is a thinking person's tragedy, and Prince Hamlet is a thinking person's tragic figure.
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