History of Literature

William Shakespeare


 illustration by Eugene Delacroix and H. C. Selous


W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration by Eugene Delacroix


William Shakespeare - Biography





W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix



Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: с 1200
Locale: Elsinore, Denmark
First presented: 1602

W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix


One of the most popular and highly respected plays ever written, Hamlet owes its greatness to the character of the Prince, a man of thought rather than action, a philosophical, introspective hero who is swept along by events rather than exercising control of them. Through the medium of some of the most profound and superb poetry ever composed, Shakespeare transforms a conventional revenge tragedy into a gripping exploration of the universal problems of mankind. In Hamlet's struggle with duty, morality, and ethics are mirrored the hopes, fears, and despair of all mankind.

W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix


Principal Characters

Hamlet (ham'tot), prince of Denmark. Generally agreed to be Shakespeare's most fascinating hero, Hamlet has been buried under volumes of interpretation, much of it conflicting. No brief sketch can satisfy his host of admirers nor take into account more than a minute fraction of the commentary now in print. The character is a mysterious combination of a series of literary sources and the phenomenal genius of Shakespeare. Orestes in Greek tragedy is probably his ultimate progenitor, not Oedipus, as some critics have suggested. The Greek original has been altered and augmented by medieval saga and Renaissance romance; perhaps an earlier "Hamlet," written by Thomas Kyd, furnished important material; however, the existence of such a play has been disputed. A mixture of tenderness and violence, a scholar, lover, friend, athlete, philosopher, satirist, and deadly enemy, Hamlet is larger than life itself. Torn by grief for his dead father and disappointment in the conduct of his beloved mother, Hamlet desires a revenge so complete that it will reach the soul as well as the body of his villainous uncle. His attempt to usurp God's prerogative of judgment leads to all the deaths in the play. Before his death he reaches a state of resignation and acceptance of God's will. He gains his revenge but loses his life.
Claudius (klo'di-us), king of Denmark, husband of his brother's widow, Hamlet's uncle. A shrewd and capable politician and administrator, he is courageous and self-confident; but he is tainted by mortal sin. He has murdered his brother and married his queen very soon thereafter. Although his conscience torments him with remorse, he is unable to repent or to give up the throne or the woman that his murderous act brought him. He has unusual self-knowledge and recognizes his unrepentant state. He is a worthy and mighty antagonist for Hamlet, and they destroy each other.
Gertrude, queen of Denmark, Hamlet's mother. Warmhearted but weak, she shows deep affection for Hamlet and tenderness for Ophelia. There are strong indications that she and Claudius have been engaged in an adulterous affair before the death of the older Hamlet. She loves Claudius, but she respects Hamlet's confidence and does not betray him to his uncle when he tells her of the murder, of which she has been obviously innocent and ignorant. Her death occurs after she drinks the poison prepared by Claudius for Hamlet.
Polonius (рэ-16'ni-us), Lord Chamberlain under Claudius, whom he has apparently helped to the throne. An affectionate but meddlesome father to Laertes and Ophelia, he tries to control their lives, He is garrulous and self-important, always seeking the devious rather than the direct method in politics or family relationships. Hamlet jestingly baits him but he apparently has some affection for the officious old man and shows real regret at killing him. Polonius' deviousness and eavesdropping bring on his death; Hamlet stabs him through the tapestry in the mistaken belief that Claudius is concealed there.
Ophelia, Polonius' daughter and Hamlet's love. A sweet, docile girl, she is easily dominated by her father. She loves Hamlet but never seems to realize that she is imperiling his life by helping her father spy on him. Her gentle nature being unable to stand the shock of her father's death at her lover's hands, she loses her mind and is drowned.
Laertes (la-flr'tez), Polonius' son. He is in many ways a foil to Hamlet. He also hungers for revenge for a slain father. Loving his dead father and sister, he succumbs to Claudius' temptation to use fraud in gaining his revenge. This plotting brings about his own death but also destroys Hamlet.
Horatio (ho-ra'-shi-б), Hamlet's former schoolmate and loyal friend. Well balanced, having a quiet sense of humor, he is thoroughly reliable. Hamlet trusts him implicitly and confides in him freely. At Hamlet's death, he wishes to play the antique Roman and die by his own hand; but he yields to Hamlet's entreaty and consents to remain alive to tell Hamlet's story and to clear his name.
Ghost of King Hamlet. Appearing first to the watch, he later appears to Horatio and to Hamlet. He leads Hamlet away from the others and tells him of Claudius' foul crime. His second appearance to Hamlet occurs during the interview with the queen, to whom he remains invisible, causing her to think that Hamlet is having hallucinations. In spite of Gertrude's betrayal of him, the ghost of murdered Hamlet shows great tenderness for her in both of his appearances.
Fortinbras (for'tin-bras), prince of Norway, son of old Fortinbras, the former king of Norway, nephew of the present regent. Another foil to Hamlet, he is resentful of his father's death at old Hamlet's hands and the consequent loss of territory. He plans an attack on Denmark, which is averted by his uncle after diplomatic negotiations between him and Claudius. He is much more the man of action than the man of thought. Hamlet chooses him as the next king of Denmark and expresses the hope and belief that he will be chosen. Fortinbras delivers a brief but emphatic eulogy over Hamlet's body.

W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix

Rosencrantz (ro-zen'kranz) and Guildenstern (gil'dan-stern), the schoolmates of Hamlet summoned to Denmark by Claudius to act as spies on Hamlet. Though hypocritical and treacherous, they are no match for him, and in trying to betray him they go to their own deaths.
Old Norway, uncle of Fortinbras. Although he never appears on the stage, he is important in that he diverts young Fortinbras from his planned attack on Denmark.
Yorick (yor'ik), King Hamlet's jester. Dead some years before the action of the play begins, he makes his brief appearance in the final act when his skull is thrown up by a sexton digging Ophelia's grave. Prince Hamlet reminisces and moralizes while holding the skull in his hands. At the time he is ignorant of whose grave the sexton is digging.
Reynaldo (ra-nol'do), Polonius' servant. Polonius sends him to Paris on business, incidentally to spy on Laertes. He illustrates Polonius' deviousness and unwillingness to make a direct approach to anything.
First Clown, a gravedigger. Having been sexton for many years, he knows personally the skulls of those he has buried. He greets with particular affection the skull of Yorick, which he identifies for Hamlet. He is an earthy humorist, quick with a witty reply.
Second Clown, a stupid straight man for the wit of the First Clown.
Osric (oz'rik), a mincing courtier. Hamlet baits him in much the same manner as he does Polonius, but without the concealed affection he has for the old man. He brings Hamlet word of the fencing match arranged between him and Laertes and serves as a referee of the match.
Marcellus (mar-seTus) and Bernardo (Ьэг-nar'do), officers of the watch who first see the Ghost of King Hamlet and report it to Horatio, who shares a watch with them. After the appearance of the Ghost to them and Horatio, they all agree to report the matter to Prince Hamlet, who then shares a watch with the three.
Francisco (fran-sis'ko), a soldier on watch at the play's opening. He sets the tone of the play by imparting a feeling of suspense and heartsickness.
First Player, the leader of a troop of actors. He produces "The Murder of Gonzago" with certain alterations furnished by Hamlet to trap King Claudius into displaying his guilty conscience.
A Priest, who officiates at Ophelia's abbreviated funeral. He refuses Laertes' request for more ceremony, since he believes Ophelia has committed suicide.
Voltimand (vol'M-mand) and Cornelius (kor-neTyus), ambassadors sent to Norway by Claudius.

W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix


The Story

Three times the ghost of Denmark's dead king had stalked the battlements of Elsinore Castle. On the fourth night Horatio, Hamlet's friend, brought the young prince to see the specter of his father, two months dead. Since his father's untimely death, Hamlet had been grief-stricken and in an exceedingly melancholy frame of mind. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his father had perplexed him; then too, his mother had married Claudius, the dead king's brother, much too hurriedly to suit Hamlet's sense of decency.
That night Hamlet saw his father's ghost and listened in horror to what it had to say. He learned that his father had not died from the sting of a serpent, as had been supposed, but that he had been murdered by his own brother. Claudius, the present king. The ghost added that Claudius was guilty not only of murder but also of incest and adultery. But the spirit cautioned Hamlet to spare Queen Gertrude, his mother, so that heaven could punish her.
The ghost's disclosures should have left no doubt in Hamlet's mind that Claudius must be killed. But the introspective prince was not quite sure that the ghost was his father's spirit, for he feared it might have been a devil sent to torment him. Debating with himself the problem of whether or not to carry out the spirit's commands, Hamlet swore his friends, including Horatio, to secrecy concerning the appearance of the ghost, and he told them not to consider him mad if his behavior seemed strange to them.
Meanwhile Claudius was facing not only the possibility of war with Norway, but also, and much worse, his own conscience, which had been much troubled since his hasty marriage to Gertrude. In addition, he did not like the melancholia of the prince, who, he knew, resented the king's hasty marriage. Claudius feared that Hamlet would take his throne away from him. The prince's strange behavior and wild talk made the king think that perhaps Hamlet was mad, but he was not sure. To learn the cause of Hamlet's actions—madness or ambition—Claudius commissioned two of Hamlet's friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on the prince. But Hamlet saw through their clumsy efforts and confused them with his answers to their questions.
Polonius, the garrulous old chamberlain, believed that Hamlet's behavior resulted from lovesickness for his daughter, Ophelia. Hamlet, meanwhile, had become increasingly melancholy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as Polonius, were constantly spying on him. Even Ophelia, he thought, had turned against him. The thought of deliberate murder was revolting to him, and he was constantly plagued by uncertainty as to whether the ghost were good or bad. When a troupe of actors visited Elsi-nore, Hamlet saw in them a chance to discover whether Claudius were guilty. He planned to have the players enact before the king and the court a scene like that which, according to the ghost, took place the day the old king died. By watching Claudius during the performance, Hamlet hoped to discover for himself signs of Claudius' guilt.

W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix

His plan worked. Claudius became so unnerved during the performance that he walked out before the end of the scene. Convinced by the king's actions that the ghost was right, Hamlet had no reason to delay in carrying out the wishes of his dead father. Even so, Hamlet failed to take advantage of his first real chance after the play to kill Claudius. He came upon the king in an attitude of prayer and could have stabbed him in the back. Hamlet did not strike because he believed that the king would die in grace at his devotions.
The queen summoned Hamlet to her chamber to reprimand him for his insolence to Claudius. Hamlet, remembering what the ghost had told him, spoke to her so violently that she screamed for help. A noise behind a curtain followed her cries, and Hamlet, suspecting that Claudius was eavesdropping, plunged his sword through the curtain, killing old Polonius. Fearing an attack on his own life, the king hastily ordered Hamlet to England in company with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carried a warrant for Hamlet's death. But the prince discovered the orders and altered them so that the bearers should be killed on their arrival in England. Hamlet then returned to Denmark.
Much had happened in that unhappy land during Hamlet's absence. Because Ophelia had been rejected by her former lover, she went mad and later drowned. Laertes, Polonius' hot-tempered son, returned from France and collected a band of malcontents to avenge the death of his father. He thought that Claudius had killed Polonius, but the king told him that Hamlet was the murderer and even persuaded Laertes to take part in a plot to murder the prince.
Claudius arranged for a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. To allay suspicion of foul play, the king placed bets on Hamlet, who was an expert swordsman. At the same time, he had poison placed on the tip of Laertes' weapon and put a cup of poison within Hamlet's reach in the event that the prince became thirsty during the duel. Unfortunately, Gertrude, who knew nothing of the king's treachery, drank from the poisoned cup and died. During the contest, Hamlet was mortally wounded with the poisoned rapier, but the two contestants exchanged foils in a scuffle, and Laertes himself received a fatal wound. Before he died, Laertes was filled with remorse and told Hamlet that Claudius was responsible for the poisoned sword. Hesitating no longer, Hamlet seized his opportunity to act, and fatally stabbed the king. Then the prince himself died. But the ghost was avenged.

W. Shakespeare "Hamlet" illustration from Eugene Delacroix


Critical Evaluation

Hamlet has remained the most perplexing, as well as the most popular, of Shakespeare's major tragedies. Performed frequently, the play has tantalized critics with what has become known as the Hamlet mystery. The mystery resides in Hamlet's complex behavior, most notably his indecision and his reluctance to act.
Freudian critics have located his motivation in the psy-chodynamic 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, we are to believe, all sons long to do themselves. Other critics have taken the more conventional tack of identifying Hamlet's tragic flaw as a lack of courage or moral resolution. In this view, Hamlet's indecision is a sign of moral ambivalence which he overcomes too late.
The trouble with both of these views is that they presuppose a precise discovery of Hamlet's motivation. However, Renaissance drama is not generally a drama of motivation either by psychological set or moral predetermination. Rather, the 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, which normally hold center stage. What we watch in Hamlet is an agonizing confrontation between the will of a good and intelligent man and the uncongenial role which circumstance calls upon him to play.
The disagreeable role is a familiar one in Renaissance drama—the revenger. The early description of Hamlet, bereft by the death of his father and the hasty marriage of his mother, makes him a prime candidate to assume such a role. One need not conclude that his despondency is Oedipal in order to sympathize with the extremity of his grief. His father, whom he deeply loved and admired, is recently deceased and he himself seems to have been finessed out of his birthright. Shakespeare, in his unfortunate ignorance of Freud, emphasized Hamlet's shock at Gertrude's disrespect to the memory of his father rather than love of mother as the prime source of his distress. The very situation breeds suspicion, which is reinforced by the ghastly visitation by the elder Hamlet's ghost and the ghost's disquieting revelation. The ingredients are all there for bloody revenge.
However, if Hamlet were simply to act out the role that has been thrust upon him, the play would be just another sanguinary potboiler without the moral and theological complexity which provides its special fascination. Hamlet has, after all, been a student of theology at Wittenberg. Hamlet's knowledge complicates the situation. First of all, he is aware of the fundamental immorality of the liaison between Gertrude and Claudius. Hamlet's 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.
Hamlet's theological accomplishments do more than exacerbate his feelings. For the ordinary revenger, the commission from the ghost of the murdered father would be more than enough to start the bloodletting. But Hamlet is aware of the unreliability of otherworldly apparitions, and consequently he is reluctant to heed the ghost's injunction to perform an action which is 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. Is the ghost, Hamlet wonders, merely an infernal spirit goading him to sin?
Thus, Hamlet's indecision is 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 and becomes unsure himself whether his behavior is caused by moral scruple or cowardice. He is in sharp contrast with the cynicism of Claudius and the verbose moral platitudes of Polonius. The play is in sharp contrast with the moral simplicity of the ordinary revenge tragedy. Hamlet's intelligence has transformed a stock situation into a unique internal conflict.
He believes that he must have greater certitude of Claudius' 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. Having seen a re-creation of his father's death and Claudius' response, Hamlet is able to summon the determination to act. However, he once again hesitates when he sees Claudius in prayer because he believes that the king is repenting and, if murdered at that moment, will go directly to heaven. Here Hamlet's inaction is not the result of cowardice nor even of a perception of moral ambiguity. Rather, after all of his agonizing, Hamlet once decided on revenge is so thoroughly committed that his passion cannot be satiated except by destroying his uncle body and soul. It is ironic that Claudius has been unable to repent and that Hamlet is thwarted this time by the combination of his theological insight with the extreme ferocity of his vengeful intention.
That Hamlet loses his mental stability is clear in his behavior toward Ophelia and in his subsequent mean-derings. Circumstance had enforced a role whose enormity has overwhelmed the fine emotional and intellectual balance of a sensitive, well-educated young man. Gradually he regains control of himself and is armed with a cold determination to do what he decides is the just thing. Yet, 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' final scheme to kill him and Laertes, but by then he is mortally wounded.
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. But Fortinbras' superiority is only apparent. He brings stasis and stability back to a disordered kingdom, but he does not have the self-consciousness and moral sensitivity which destroy and redeem Hamlet.
Gerald Else has interpreted Aristotle's notion of katharsis to be not a purging of the emotions but a purging of a role of the moral horror, the pity and fear, ordinarily associated with it. If that is so, then Hamlet, by the conflict of his ethical will with his role, has purged the revenger of his horrific bloodthirstiness and turned the stock figure into a self-conscious hero in moral conflict.



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