Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has remained the most perplexing, as well as the most popular, of William Shakespeare’s tragedies. Whether considered as literature, philosophy, or drama, its artistic stature is universally admitted. To explain the reasons for its excellence in a few words, however, is a daunting task. Apart from the matchless artistry of its language, the play’s appeal rests in large measure on the character of Hamlet himself. Called upon to avenge his father’s murder, he is compelled to face problems of duty, morality, and ethics that have been human concerns through the ages. The play has tantalized critics with what has become known as the Hamlet mystery, that of Hamlet’s complex behavior, most notably his indecision and his reluctance to act.
Freudian critics have located Hamlet’s motivation in the psychodynamic triad of the father-mother-son relationship. According to this view, Hamlet is disturbed and eventually deranged by his Oedipal jealousy of the uncle who has done what, Freud claimed, all sons long to do themselves. Other critics have taken the more conventional tack of identifying as Hamlet’s tragic flaw the lack of courage or moral resolution. In this view, Hamlet’s indecision is a sign of moral ambivalence that he overcomes too late.
Both of these views presuppose a precise discovery of Hamlet’s motivation. However, Renaissance drama is not generally a drama of motivation, either by psychological character or moral predetermination. Rather, the Renaissance tendency is to present characters with well-delineated moral and ethical dispositions who are faced with dilemmas. It is the outcome of these conflicts, the consequences rather than the process, that normally holds center stage. What Shakespeare presents in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is an agonizing confrontation between the will of a good and intelligent man and the uncongenial role—that of avenger—that fate calls upon him to play.
The role of avenger is a familiar one in Renaissance drama. In the opening description of Hamlet as bereft by the death of his father and distressed by his mother’s hasty marriage, Shakespeare creates an ideal candidate to assume such a role. Hamlet’s despondency need not be Oedipal to explain the extremity of his grief. His father, whom he deeply loved and admired, is recently deceased, and he himself seems to have been robbed of his birthright. Shakespeare points to Hamlet’s shock at Gertrude’s disrespect to the memory of his father, rather than his love for his mother, as the source of his distress. Hamlet’s suspicion is reinforced by the ghostly visitation and the revelation of murder.
If Hamlet had simply proceeded to act out the avenger role assigned to him, the play would have lacked the moral and theological complexity that provides its special fascination. Hamlet has, after all, been a student of theology at Wittenberg, and his knowledge complicates the situation. His accusation of incest is not an adolescent excess but an accurate theological description of a marriage between a widow and her dead husband’s brother. Moreover, Hamlet’s theological accomplishments do more than exacerbate his feelings. For the ordinary avenger, the commission from the ghost of a murdered father would be more than enough, but Hamlet is aware of the unreliability of otherworldly apparitions and consequently reluctant to heed the ghost’s injunction to perform an action that to him seems objectively evil. In addition, the fear that his father was murdered in a state of sin and is condemned to hell not only increases Hamlet’s sense of injustice but also, paradoxically, casts further doubt on the reliability of the ghost’s exhortation, for the ghost may be an infernal spirit goading him to sin.
Hamlet’s indecision is therefore not an indication of weakness but the result of his complex understanding of the moral dilemma with which he is faced. He is unwilling to act unjustly, yet he is afraid that he is failing to exact a deserved retribution. He debates the murky issue until he becomes unsure whether his own behavior is caused by moral scruple or cowardice. His ruminations stand in sharp contrast with the cynicism of Claudius and the verbose moral platitudes of Polonius, just as the play stands in sharp contrast with the moral simplicity of the ordinary revenge tragedy. Through Hamlet’s intelligence, Shakespeare transformed a stock situation into a unique internal conflict.
Hamlet believes that he must have greater certitude of Claudius’s guilt if he is to take action. The device of the play within a play provides greater assurance that Claudius is suffering from a guilty conscience, but it simultaneously sharpens Hamlet’s anguish. Seeing a re-creation of his father’s death and Claudius’s response stiffens Hamlet’s resolve to act, but once again he hesitates when he sees Claudius in prayer. Hamlet’s inaction in this scene is not the result of cowardice or even of a perception of moral ambiguity but rather of the very thoroughness of his commitment: Having once decided on revenge, he wants to destroy his uncle body and soul. It is ironic that Hamlet is thwarted this time by the combination of theological insight with the extreme ferocity of his vengeful intention. After he leaves Claudius in prayer, the irony of the scene is intensified, for Claudius reveals to the audience that he has not been praying successfully and was not in a state of grace after all.
That Hamlet loses his mental stability is arguable from his behavior toward Ophelia and his subsequent meanderings. Circumstance has forced upon the prince a role whose enormity has overwhelmed the fine emotional and intellectual balance of a sensitive, well-educated man. Gradually, he is shown regaining control of himself and arming himself with a cold determination to do what he has decided is the just thing. Even then, it is only in the carnage of the concluding scenes that Hamlet finally carries out his intention. Having concluded that “the readiness is all,” he strikes his uncle only after he has discovered Claudius’s final scheme to kill him.
The arrival of Fortinbras, who has been lurking in the background throughout the play, superficially seems to indicate that a new, more direct and courageous order will prevail in the place of the evil of Claudius and the weakness of Hamlet. Fortinbras’ superiority is only superficial, however. He brings stasis and stability back to a disordered kingdom but does not have the self-consciousness and moral sensitivity that destroy and redeem Hamlet.
Gerald Else has interpreted Aristotle’s notion of catharsis to be not a purging of the emotions but a purging of the moral horror, pity, and fear ordinarily associated with them. If that is so, then Hamlet, by the conflict of his ethical will with his role, has purged the avenger of his bloodthirstiness and turned the stock figure into a self-conscious hero in moral conflict.
A pivotal scene in Hamlet is the “play within a play,” designed to entrap Claudius. But many of the characters are “play-acting,” and many other scenes echo the dominant theme of illusion and deceit. Trace the motif of acting, seeming, illusion, and deceit as opposed to sincerity, being, reality, and honesty, as these qualities are evidenced throughout the play.
I. Thesis Statement: Many of the characters in Hamlet are involved in duplicity designed to deceive, betray, or destroy others. The recurring motif of acting, seeming, illusion, and deceit as opposed to sincerity, being, reality, and honesty illustrates this underlying duplicity throughout the play.
II. Act I
A. The sentinels debate whether the Ghost is real or “but our fantasy.”
B. Hamlet tells Gertrude his grief is genuine: “I know not ‘seems.’”
C. Laertes and Polonius both warn Ophelia that Hamlet’s words and “tenders of love” toward her may be false.
D. The Ghost refers to Gertrude as “my most seeming-virtuous queen.”
III. Act II
A. Polonius instructs Reynaldo to use indirection to learn how Laertes is comporting himself in Paris.
B. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Polonius and Claud¬ius are all trying to find out through devious means what is bothering Hamlet.
C. Hamlet notes the fickle nature of the populace, who once ridiculed Claudius, but who now pay dearly for his “picture in little.”
D. Hamlet laments that he, who has cause, cannot avenge his father, while the actor is able to convincingly portray the emotions over imaginary characters and actions.
IV. Act III
A. Claudius and Polonius set Ophelia as bait to Hamlet, to try to learn the cause of his madness.
B. Claudius refers to the discrepancy between his deed and “[his] most painted word.”
C. Hamlet instructs the Players to “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”
D. Hamlet is totally honest with Horatio about the Mousetrap plot because Horatio is beyond flattering, or being beguiled by falseness.
E. “The Mousetrap” and dumb show are “acting” or “seeming,” and Hamlet’s motive in having it performed is ulterior.
F. Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they are “playing” him like a flute, and are not being honest with him.
G. Hamlet says his “tongue and soul in this be hypocrites” as he goes to speak with Gertrude, with whom he is very distraught.
H. Claudius discovers that his true thoughts cannot give way to his desired action of praying; yet Hamlet is fooled by the appearance of Claudius at prayer and does not murder him.
I. Hamlet tells Gertrude that her deeds have belied her vows; he urges her to “assume a virtue” if she does not actually have it.
V. Act IV
A. Claudius tells Gertrude of the necessity of making themselves appear blameless in Polonius’ death.
B. Hamlet continues the pretense of madness as he teases Claudius about Polonius’ corpse and his own departure for England.
C. Claudius reveals the fencing plot to Laertes, and says even Hamlet’s mother will be convinced his death is an accident.
D. Claudius asks Laertes if he loved Polonius, “Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, / A face without a heart what would you undertake / To show yourself in deed your father’s son More than in words?”
E. Claudius says they would be better off not to attempt the plot against Hamlet, since if it fails “And . . . our drift look through our bad performance.”
VI. Act V
A. Hamlet and Horatio, discussing the similarity of all skulls despite the owner’s station in life, says not even makeup can keep a lady from looking just like Yorick’s skull.
B. Hamlet criticizes Laertes’ show of grief as inferior to his own grief and love for Ophelia, and leaps into the grave also, so that his actions match his feelings.
C. Hamlet’s use of his father’s signet made the letters appear to be legitimate.
D. The sword fight appears to be legitimate, but is rigged against Hamlet’s success.
Characters who parallel yet contrast one another are said to be foils. Authors often use foils to clarify character traits as well as issues in stories and plays. Discuss Shakespeare’s use of foils, focusing on the parallels and contrasts of any one of these pairs of characters: Hamlet and Laertes; Hamlet and Horatio; Hamlet and Fortinbras; Laertes and Horatio; Claudius and Hamlet’s father; Gertrude and Ophelia; Polonius and Claudius; Polonius and Hamlet.
I. Thesis Statement: Shakespeare clarifies character traits as well as central issues in Hamlet by the use of foils, characters who parallel yet contrast one another. One such pair is ________.
II. Hamlet and Laertes
A. Both men seek to avenge a father’s death.
B. Both love Ophelia and mourn her death.
C. Laertes moves to seek immediate redress, while Hamlet hesitates.
D. Laertes is fooled by Claudius’ duplicity, and endures Polonius’ pomposity; Hamlet sees Claudius’ treachery, and mocks Polonius.
III. Hamlet and Horatio
A. Hamlet praises Horatio as a just and temperate man, who “is not passion’s slave,” who suffers life’s ups and downs with equanimity.
B. Hamlet is tormented, confused, and appears insane to nearly everyone who witnesses his behavior or hears him speak.
C. Although Horatio does not have the elements to contend with that Hamlet does, the suggestion is that Horatio would have responded very differently and more effectively, had he faced them.
IV. Hamlet and Fortinbras
A. Like Laertes, Fortinbras seeks immediate redress for his father’s death, and is curbed only by the intervention of his uncle, King of Norway.
B. Hamlet must be prompted and later reminded by his father’s Ghost to get on with the task of avenging the murder.
C. Hamlet’s endorsement of Fortinbras as the new king of Denmark indicates Hamlet’s approval of Fortinbras’ character and demeanor.
V. Laertes and Horatio
A. Laertes is a lesser version of Horatio, made so because of Laertes’ gullibility in the face of Claudius’ manipulative flattery.
B. Hamlet notes that Horatio is above flattery, and thus unable...