of Work .
Prince of Denmark
is a tragedy. A tragedy is a dignified work in which the main character
undergoes a struggle and suffers a downfall. In Shakespeare's plays, the
main character of a tragedy is usually a person of noble heritage. A flaw
in his personality, sometimes abetted by fate, brings about his downfall.
Prince of Denmark is also sometimes characterized as a revenge play
in the tradition of the Roman playwright Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.)
Dates: (1) 1603 as part of the First Quarto, a pirated, unreliable
version; (2) 1604-1605 as part of the Second Quarto; (3) 1623 as part of
the First Folio, an authorized collection of all of Shakespeare's plays
except those of questionable authorship.
key source for Shakespeare was the third book of Gesta Danorum (The
Deeds of the Danes), a Latin work by Saxo Grammaticus (1150?-1220?).
Christiern Pedersen (1480-1554), a Danish humanist writer, published the
first edition of Gesta Danorum in Paris in 1514 but with a different
title: Historia Danica. Saxo was the secretary of Absalon (1128?-1201),
archbishop of Lundunder the control of Denmark but now part of Sweden1177
or 1178 to 1201. He wrote Gesta Danorum at Absalon's request.It
recounts the stories of 60 kings of Danish lands in Books 1 to 9 of the
16-volume work. Book 3 tells the tale of Amleth (the model for Hamlet)
as he avenges the murder of his father, Horwendil, at the hands of Feng.
Grammaticus' tale, Amleth lives on and becomes King of Jutland. It is possible
that Saxo Grammaticus based his tale on an Icelandic saga called
The Amleth tale was retold in
by François de Belleforest.
may also have drawn upon a lost play by Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), referred
to as Ur-Hamlet (the prefix ur means original) and
a surviving Kyd play, The Spanish Tragedy (also spelled The Spanish
Tragedie), in which the presentation of the character Hieronimo could
have inspired Shakespeare's probing analysis of Hamlet. Regarding Ur-Hamlet,
Shakespeare critic and scholar Peter Alexandereditor of a popular edition
of the complete works of Shakespeare, first published in 1951maintains
that Ur-Hamlet was actually written by Shakespeare between 1587
and 1589 as a draft of the final version. Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom
supports this contention in a 2003 book entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited
(Riverhead Books, New York, Page 124) but offers little hard evidence to
buttress his position. Possible additional sources for Hamlet, Prince
of Denmark are a 10th Century Celtic tale about a warrior named
Amhlaide and an 11th Century Persian tale from The Book of Kings
(Shah-nameh), by Abu Ol-qasem Mansur.
main setting is Elsinore Castle in eastern Denmark, on the Øresund
strait separating the Danish island of Sjælland (Zealand) from the
Swedish province of Skåne and linking the Baltic Sea in the south
to the Kattegat Strait in the north. Elsinore is a real town. Its Danish
name is Helsingør. In Shakespeare's time, Elsinore was an extremely
important port that fattened its coffers by charging a toll for ship passage
through the Øresund strait.
Elsinore, or Helsingør, is directly west of a Swedish city with
a similar name, Helsingborg (or Hälsingborg). Within the city limits
of Elsinore is Kronborg Castle, said to be the model for the Elsinore Castle
of Shakespeare' play. Construction on the castle began in 1574, when Shakespeare
was ten, and ended in 1585, when Shakespeare was twenty-one. It is believed
that actors known to Shakespeare performed at Kronborg Castle. Other settings
in Hamlet are a plain in Denmark, near Elsinore, and a churchyard
near Elsinore. Offstage action in the play (referred to in dialogue) takes
place on a ship bound for England from Denmark on which Hamlet replaces
instructions to execute him (see the plot summary below) with instructions
to execute his traitorous companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and
on a pirate ship that returns him to Denmark.
Characters . Protagonist: Hamlet Antagonist: Claudius Foils of Hamlet:
Laertes, Fortinbras, Polonius
Son of a murdered Danish king (who was also named Hamlet) and nephew of
the present king, Claudius. Hamlet suffers great mental anguish over the
death of his father, the marriage of his mother to the suspected murderer
(Claudius), and the clash between his moral sense and his desire for revenge
against his father's murderer. To ensnare the killer, Hamlet pretends madness.
Some Shakespeare interpreters contend that he really does suffer a mental
breakdown. Hamlet is highly intelligent and well liked by the citizens,
although at times he can be petty and cruel.
The new King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle. He becomes king after Hamlet's
father, the previous king, is found dead in his orchard. Hamlet suspects
that Claudius murdered him.
Queen of Denmark, Hamlet's mother, and widow of the murdered king. Her
marriage to Claudius within two months after the late king's funeral deeply
of Hamlet's Father, old King Hamlet. Polonius:
Bootlicking Lord Chamberlain of King Claudius.
Daughter of Polonius. She loves Hamlet, but his pretended madnessduring
which he rejects herand the death of her father trigger a pathological
reaction in her.
Hamlet's best friend. Horatio never wavers in his loyalty to Hamlet. At
the end of the play, he recites immortal lines: "Good night, sweet
prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (5. 2. 304-305).
Son of Polonius, brother of Ophelia. Circumstances make him an enemy of
Hamlet, and they duel to the death in a fencing match at the climax of
the play. As
a man who reacts to circumstances quickly, with a minimum of reflection
on the meaning and possible outcome of his actions, Laertes contrasts sharply
with the pensive and indecisive Hamlet and, thus, serves as his foil.
Guildenstern Courtiers and friends of Hamlet who attended school with
him. They turn against him to act as spies for Claudius and agents in Claudius's
scheme to have Hamlet murdered in England. Hamlet quickly smells out their
deception and treachery.
Bernardo: Officers who are the first to see the ghost of Hamlet's father.
Cornelius, Osric: Courtiers who bear messages for the king. Osric informs
Hamlet of the fencing match arranged for him and Laertes.
Servant of Polonius..
Prince of Norway, who is on the march with an army. In battlefield combat
(referred to in the play but not taking place during the play), old King
Hamlet slew the father of Fortinbras and annexed Norwegian territory. Fortinbras
Actors who arrive at Elsinore to offer an entertainment. Hamlet directs
one of them, called the First Player, to stage a drama called The
Mouse-trap, about a throne-seeker who murders a king. Hamlet hopes
the play will cause Claudius to react in a way that reveals his guilt as
the murderer of old King Hamlet. As the play unfolds on a stage at Elsinore,
the actors are referred to as the following:
Actor presenting a one-sentence prologue to the play.
portraying the king (whom Hamlet refers to as Gonzago, the Duke of Vienna).
portraying the queen (whom Hamlet refers to as Baptista, the Duchess of
Actor portraying the king's nephew and his murderer.
(Gravediggers): Two men who dig Ophelia's grave.
Court jester of old King Hamlet. He amused and looked after Hamlet when
the latter was a child. Yorick is dead during the play, but his skull,which
a gravedigger exhumes in Act V, Scene I, arouses old memories in Hamlet
that provide a glimpse of his childhood. The skull also helps to develop
Hamlet's morbid preoccupation with death.
Characters: Captain, English ambassadors, lords, ladies, officers,
soldiers, sailors, messengers, attendants.
midnight on the battlements of Elsinore castle in eastern Denmark, an officer
named Bernardo arrives to relieve Francisco, another officer who has been
standing guard in the frigid air during an uneventful watch. "Not a mouse
stirring," (1. 1. 13) Francisco reports as he leaves. Two other men, Horatio
and Marcellus, arrive a moment later. Marcellus inquires, "What, has this
thing appeared again to-night?" (1. 1. 31). The "thing" is a ghost that
Marcellus says has appeared twice on the battlements to him and Bernardo.
Horatio doubts the story, believing the specter is a child of their imaginations. .......While
Bernardo attempts to convince Horatio of the truth of the tale, the apparition
appears againa ghost in the form of the recently deceased King Hamlet,
outfitted in the armor he wore when warring against Norway and slaying
its king, Fortinbras. Horatio questions the phantom. But just as quickly
as it appeared, it disappears. Horatio, grown pale with fright, says, "This
bodes some strange eruption to our state," (1. 1. 85). His words foreshadow
all the tragic action to follow. The ghost reappears, then disappears again. .......Prince
Hamlet, the son of the late king, learned of the death of his father while
studying at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. When he returns to
Denmark to attend the funeral, grief smites him deeply. The king's brother,
Claudius, has assumed the throne, even though Hamlet has a claim on it
as the son of the deceased king. In addition, he has married the late king's
widow, GertrudeHamlet's motherin little more than a month after old Hamlet
died, a development that deeply distresses Hamlet. In a soliloquy, Hamlet
expresses his opposition to the marriage, his loathing of Claudius, and
his disappointment in his mother in his mother:
little month, or ere those shoes were old
which she follow'd my poor father's body,
all tears:why she, even she
God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
have mourn'd longermarried with my uncle,
father's brother, but no more like my father
I to Hercules: within a month:
yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
left the flushing in her galled eyes,
married. O, most wicked speed, to post
such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (1. 2. 151-161)
words incestuous sheets in Line 161 reflect the belief, prevalent
in Europe at and before Shakespeare's time, that marriage between in-lawsClaudius
had been Gertrude's brother-in-law before he married herwas a form of
a first priority as king, Claudius prepares to thwart an expected invasion
of Norwegian troops under Prince Fortinbras, the son of the Norwegian king
slain in battle years earlier by old King Hamlet. Fortinbras apparently
has a double goal: to avenge the death of his father (old King Fortinbras)
and to win back territory lost to the Danes.
the meantime, Hamlet's best friend Horatio tells the young prince the amazing
story of the ghost. He says two guards, Bernardo and Marcellus, have reported
seeing on two nights an apparition of old King Hamlet on the battlements
of the royal castle. On the third night, Horatio says, he accompanied the
guards and himself saw the apparition.
will watch to-night,'' Hamlet says (1. 2. 260).
young man at ElsinoreLaertes, son of the king's lord chamberlain, Poloniusis
preparing to leave for France to study at the University of Paris. Before
debarking, he gives advice to his sister, Ophelia, who has received the
attentions of Hamlet from time to time, attentions that Ophelia apparently
welcomes. Laertes advises her that Hamlet's
attentions are a passing fancy; he is merely dallying with her.
For Hamlet and the trifling
of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a
toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of
Forward, not permanent,
sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance
of a minute;
No more. (1. 3. 8-13)
In other words, Laertes says,
Ophelia should be wary of Hamlet's courtesies and flirtations. They are,
Laertes maintains, mere trifles that are sweet but not lasting"The perfume
and suppliance of a minute; No more." Laertes then receives parting advice
from his father:
Neither a borrower nor a
For loan oft loses both
itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the
edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine
ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the
night the day,
Thou canst not then be false
to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season
this in thee! (1. 3. 82-88)
Laertes leaves and day yields to night, Hamlet meets on the battlements
of the castle with Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo at his side. By and
by, Hamlet sees the Ghost but is uncertain whether it is the spirit of
his father or the devil in disguise:
Be thou a spirit
of health or a goblin damn'd
Bring with thee airs from
heaven or blasts from hell,
thy interests wicked or charitable,
comest in such a questionable shape
I will speak to thee. (1. 4. 46-50).
When Hamlet questions the Ghost,
it says, "I am thy father's spirit, / Doom'd
for a certain term to walk the night" (1. 5. 16). The Ghost tells him to
revenge a "foul and most unnatural murder" (1. 5. 31) committed by Claudius.
According to the Ghost's tale, Claudius poured
a vial of poison extracted from a plant (probably henbane2,
also called hemblane, ) into old King Hamlet's
ear while the king was asleep, robbing him, "of life, of crown, of
queen" (1. 5. 83). Claudius had committed the murder when King Hamlet had
sin on his soul, the better to send him to the fiery regions of purgatory3. .......Hamlet
makes Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus swear on the hilt of his sword (where
the handle and a protective bar intersect, forming a cross suitable for
oath-taking) never to reveal what they saw. While attempting to verify
the ghost's story, Hamlet tells the others he will pretend to be mad, putting
on an "antic disposition" (1. 5. 194). .......It
is Ophelia, Hamlet's beloved, who first reports that Hamlet has been acting
strangely. She tells her father, Polonius, the nosy lord chamberlain, that
Hamlet had burst in upon her while she was sewing. His face white, his
eyes crazed, he took her by the wrist, peered into her eyes, then left
the room. Polonius runs to King Claudius and repeats Ophelia's report.
Claudius suspects there is something sane and threatening behind Hamlet's
strange behavior. So he directs two school acquaintances of Hamlet, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, to watch the prince to find out the truth. .......When
roving actors come to Elsinore to entertain, Hamlet engages them to stage
a play, which he calls The Mousetrap. In the play, a throne-seeker
uses poison to murder a king named Gonzago. Claudius's reaction to the
play will reveal his guilt, Hamlet believes, "For murder, though it have
no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ" (2. 2. 427-428)and
thus confirm that the ghost was indeed telling the truth. .......Meanwhile,
Fortinbras sends word that he will not make war on Denmark if King Claudius
allows him to march through the country to invade Poland. Claudius agrees. .......After
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to fathom the meaning of Hamlet's "madness,"
Claudius and Polonius secretly observe Hamlet conversing with Ophelia.
During the conversation, Hamlet rejects and insults Ophelia as his "madness"
apparently worsens. His words deeply wound her, and there is a question
whether he is transferring to poor, frail Ophelia the loathing and anger
he feels toward his mother for her marriage to Claudius. Claudius, unsure
whether Hamlet pretends insanity to disguise a scheme or is really mad,
decides to rid the court of his unsettling presence by sending him to England
on a contrived political mission. There, while conducting the court's business,
he will be murdered. .......While
the actors present the play, they stage a murder in which an actor pours
''poison'' into the ear of another actor playing Gonzago. The scene so
unnerves King Claudius that he rises and ends the play abruptly. His reaction
convinces Hamlet of Claudius's guilt: He killed Hamlet's father; there
can be no doubt of it. .......Later,
Queen Gertrude reproves Hamlet for upsetting Claudius by staging the play.
Hamlet in his turn rebukes her for her hasty marriage. Polonius, meanwhile,
has positioned himself out of sight behind a wall tapestry (called an arras)
to eavesdrop. When Hamlet sees the tapestry move, he stabs through it and
kills Polonius, thinking he is Claudius..After
Hamlet discovers his fatal mistake, the ghost reappears to remind Hamlet
of his duty. When Hamlet speaks with the apparition, Gertrude cannot see
the ghost and concludes that her son is indeed insane. Later she tells
Claudius that Hamlet, in a fit of madness, killed Polonius. .......Claudius
sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry sealed
papers ordering Hamlet's execution after the ship's arrival. At sea, Hamlet
discovers the papers in a sealed packet while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are sleeping and writes a new commission ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, then re-seals the papers and places them in the packet.
The next day, pirates attack the ship, and Hamlet escapes and hitches a
ride with them back to Denmark. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive
in England and present the sealed papers, they are executed. .......Meantime,
Ophelia, distraught over her father's death and the apparent loss of Hamlet's
love, drowns in a brookat first floating until her clothing, heavy with
water, pulls her down. She apparently committed suicide, or was her death
an accidentor the work of a sinister hand? .......After
Hamlet meets up with Horatio, they pass through a cemetery where two men
are digging a grave. The first gravedigger sings as he digs and throws
out a skull. Shocked, Hamlet tells Horatio, "That skull had a tongue in
it, and could sing once; how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it
were Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder!" (5. 1. 34). The man continues
to dig and throws out another skull. Hamlet says, "There's another; why
may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his
quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this
rude knave now to knock him about . . . ?" (5. 1. 40). After Hamlet strikes
up a conversation with the gravedigger, that latter tells him that the
second skull was that of Yorick, old King Hamlet's jester when Hamlet was
a child. Holding the skull, Hamlet recites a short speech about Yorick
that underscores Hamlet's preoccupation with death. .......A
funeral procession approaches. Hamlet is unaware that the body being borne
aloft is Ophelia's. It is she who will be lowered into the grave. When
Hamlet sees her face, and when Laertes sees the face of Hamlet, the two
men grapple, tumbling into the grave. Laertes means to avenge the death
of his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Attendants part them,
and Hamlet declares,
loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
not, with all their quantity of love,
up my sum. (5. 1. 155-157)
in secret, Laertes and Claudius plot against Hamlet and poison the tip
of a sword Laertes is to use against Hamlet in a fencing match designed
as an entertainment. For good measure, Claudius prepares poisoned wine
he will offer Hamlet during the match. Osric, a courtier and messenger
of the king, informs Hamlet of the details of the matchalthough, of course,
Hamlet is unaware of the deadly plot against him. .......During
the competition, Hamlet performs brilliantly, and Claudius offers him the
cup of wine. But Hamlet and Laertes fight on. Meanwhile, Gertrude takes
the cup, telling Hamlet, "The queen carouses to thy fortune" (5. 1. 224)
and, before the king can stop her, she drinks the wine. .... Laertes
grazes Hamlet with the poisoned rapier,4
breaking his skin and envenoming his bloodstream. Swords wave and poke
wildly, and the fencers drop their weapons and accidentally exchange them.
Hamlet then wounds Laertes with the same poisoned rapier. Both men are
bleeding. A short while later, the queen keels over. To divert attention
from the drink and himself, Claudius says Gertrude has fainted from the
sight of blood. But Gertrude, drawing her last breath before dying, says,
"The drink, the drink; I am poison'd." .......Everyone
now knows that Claudius had offered Hamlet poisoned wine. .......Before
Laertes dies, he reconciles with Hamlet and implicates Claudius in the
scheme to undo Hamlet. Hamlet then runs Claudius through. As Hamlet lies
mortally wounded, Prince Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore with his army after
his conquest of Poland. Hamlet tells Horatio that he wishes the Crown of
Denmark to pass to Fortinbras. Then Hamlet dies. Ambassadors from England
arrive to report the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horatio
announces that he will inform the world of the events leading up to the
deaths of Hamlet and the others. While soldiers bear off the bodies in
a solemn procession, canons fire a salute.
Hamlet has an obligation to avenge his fathers murder, according to the
customs of his time. But he also has an obligation to abide by the moral
law, which dictates, Thou shalt not kill. Consequently, Hamlet has great
difficulty deciding what to do and, thus, hesitates to take decisive action.
In his famous critiques of Shakespeares works, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(1772-1834) has written:
He [Hamlet] is all dispatch and resolution as far as words and present
intentions are concerned, but all hesitation and irresolution when called
upon to carry his words and intentions into effect; so that, resolving
to do everything, he does nothing. He is full of purpose but void of that
quality of mind which accomplishes purpose. . . . Shakespeare wished to
impress upon us the truth that action is the chief end of existencethat
no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable,
or indeed otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from or rend
us repugnant to action, and lead us to think and think of doing until the
time has elapsed when we can do anything effectually.
Sin and Corruption: Humans are fallen creatures, victims of the
devils trickery as described in Genesis. Allusions or direct references
to Adam, the Garden of Eden, and original sin occur throughout the play.
In the first act, Shakespeare discloses that King Hamlet died in an orchard
(Garden of Eden) from the bite of a serpent (Claudius). Later, Hamlet alludes
to the burdens imposed by original sin when he says, in his famous To
be, or not to be soliloquy, that the flesh is heir to tribulation in
the form of heart-ache and a thousand natural shocks (3. 1. 72-73).
In the third scene of the same act, Claudius compares himself with the
biblical Cain. In Genesis, Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, kills his
brother, Abel, the second son, after God accepts Abels sacrifice but not
Cains. Like Cain, Claudius kills his brother, old King Hamlet. Claudius
recognizes his Cain-like crime when he says:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse5
A brothers murder. (3. 3. 42-44)
Act V, the second gravedigger tells the first gravedigger that Ophelia,
who apparently committed suicide, would not receive a Christian burial
if she were a commoner instead of a noble. In his reply, the first gravedigger
refers directly to Adam: "Why, there thou sayest: and the more pity that
great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves
more than their even Christian. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen
but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adams profession"
(5. 1. 13). After the gravedigger tosses Yoricks skull to Hamlet, the
prince observes: That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how
the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cains jaw-bone, that did
the first murder! (5. 1. 34). All of these references to Genesis seem
to suggest that Hamlet is a kind of Everyman who inherits the slings and
arrows of outrageous fortunethat is, the effects of original sin.
Seeking Revenge: Young Fortinbras seeks revenge against Elsinore
because King Hamlet had killed the father of Fortinbras, King Fortinbras.
Hamlet seeks to avenge the murder of his father, King Hamlet, by Claudius,
the kings brother and Hamlets uncle. Laertes seeks revenge against Hamlet
for killing his father, Polonius, the lord chamberlain.
Deception makes up a major motif in Hamlet. On the one hand, Claudius conceals
his murder of Hamlets father. On the other, Hamlet conceals his knowledge
of the murder. He also wonders whether the Ghost is deceiving him, pretending
to be old King Hamlet when he is really a devil. Polonius secretly tattles
on Hamlet to Claudius. Hamlet feigns madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
pretend to have Hamlets best interests at heart while attempting to carry
scheme to kill Hamlet. After that scheme fails, Claudius and Laertes connive
to kill Hamlet during the fencing match. However, that scheme also goes
awry when Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup prepared for Hamlet.
Claudius so covets the throne that he murders his own brother, King Hamlet,
to win it. In this respect he is like Macbeth and Richard III in other
Shakespeare plays, who also murder their way to the Crown. Whether Claudiuss
ambition to be king was stronger than his desire to marry Gertrude is arguable,
but both were factors, as he admits to himself in Act III, Scene III, when
he reflects on his guilt: I am still possessed / Of those effects for
which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition and my queen. . .
Hamlet is loyal to his fathers memory, as is Laertes to the memory of
his father, Polonius, and his sister, Ophelia. Gertrude is torn between
loyalty to Claudius and Hamlet. Horatio remains loyal to Hamlet to the
end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, school pals of Hamlet, betray Hamlet
and spy on him.
Coincidence, and Serendipity: Hamlet just happens to kill Polonius.
Pirates just happen to rescue Hamlet. Hamlet just happens to come across
Ophelias funeral upon his return to Denmark. Hamlet and Laertes just
happen to exchange swordsone of them with a poisoned tipin their duel.
Gertrude just happens to drink from a poisoned cup meant for Hamlet.
Fate, or unabashed plot contrivance, works its wonders in this Shakespeare
Hamlet: Hamlet is like Christ, George Bernard Shaw has observed,
in that he struggles against the old order, which requires an eye for and
eye, as Christ did.
Madness, pretended or real, wears the mask of sanity. In his attempt to
prove Claudiuss guilt, Hamlet puts on an antic dispositionthat is,
he pretends madness. But is he really mentally unbalanced? Perhaps.
Satan: Imagery throughout the play dwells on Satans toxic influence on
Elsinore and its inhabitants. Particularly striking are the snake metaphors.
It is the venom of a serpent (in the person of Claudius) that kills old
King Hamlet. Claudius, remember, had poured poison into the kings ear
as reported by the Ghost of the old king: While sleeping in mine orchard,
the Ghost says, A serpent stung me (1. 5. 42-43). It is a sworda steel
snake, as it werethat kills Polonius, Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius. (The
sword that kills Hamlet and Laertes is tipped with poison.) Moreover, it
is a poisoned drink that kills Gertrude. As for Ophelia, it is poisoned
words that kill her. The word poison and its forms (such as poisons, poisoner,
and poisoning) occur thirteen times in the play. Serpent occurs twice,
venom or envenom six times, devil nine times, and hell or hellish eleven
times. Garden (as a symbol for the Garden of Eden) or gardener occurs three
times. Adam occurs twice.
Spirit World: In Shakespeares time, ghosts were thought by some
people to be devils masquerading as dead loved ones. Their purpose was
to win souls for Satan. It is understandable, then, that Hamlet is reluctant
at first to assume that the Ghost on the castle battlements is really the
spirit of his father. Hamlet acknowledges his doubt at the end of Act II:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2. 2. 433-438)
Existence: Time and again, Hamlet bemoans the uselessness and emptiness
of life. He would kill himself if his conscience would let him. He considers
taking his life, as his To be, or not to be soliloquy reveals. But as
a Roman Catholic, he cannot go against the tenets of his religion, which
.. Climax . .......The
climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a
novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins
to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. The climax in Hamlet occurs, according
to the first definition, when Hamlet satisfies himself that Claudius is
indeed the murderer of his fatherthanks to Claudius's guilty response
to the players' enactment of The Mouse-trap (The Murder of Gonzago).
According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act
during and just after the sword fight, when Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius,
and Hamlet die.
Old Is Hamlet?
in the play, Shakespeare suggests that Hamlet is in his teens or perhaps
about twenty. But in the churchyard in Act V, Scene I, the first gravediggerholding
up the skull of the late King Hamlets jester, Yorick, who was Hamlets
childhood baby sittersays that this skull hath lain you i the earth
three-and-twenty years (5. 1. 73) Hamlets age when Yorick died was about
seven. Do the math and you discover that Hamlet should be about thirty.
going on? Probably this: In a quarto edition of the play published in the
early 1600s, the gravedigger says Yorick has been dead for only twelve
years, which would make Hamlet about nineteen. Here is the line spoken
by the gravedigger in that edition: Heres a scull [skull] hath bin here
this dozen yeare [year]. However, in the 1623 folio edition of the play,
Yorick has been dead for twenty-three years, as stated by the gravedigger.
Apparently, the eleven-year discrepancy between the two editions was the
result of an editing error. What it all means is that Hamlet is only nineteen
Women in Hamlet:Shrinking Violets
plays are well populated with strong women who lead or influence men. Examples
are Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra),
Volumnia (Coriolanus), Queen Elinor and Constance (King John),
and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing). However, in Hamlet,
Gertrude and Ophelia are both weaklings who are dominated by men.
Act I, Scene II, Hamlet, deeply disturbed that his mother (Gertrude) has
married Claudius a short time after the death of old King Hamlet, says,
Frailty, thy name is woman! (150). Hamlet well realizes that fickle Gertrude
wants, needs, requires marriageimpropriety notwithstandingto satisfy
her desire for attention. As the new Mrs. Claudius, she is totally submissive
to the king's will; to offer an original thought that might offend him
is out of the question. Ophelia also keeps her place. Like Gertrude, she
is totally dependent on a malein her case, her father. Even though she
loves Hamlet, she agrees to help her father spy on Hamlet. When Laertes
returns to Elsinore from France, she says, I would give you some violets,
but they withered all when my father died. In other words, Ophelia herself
withered; her spirit died.
Meaning of "To be, or not to be"
To be, or not to be soliloquy (3. 1. 66) is probably the most famous
passage in English dramaand may well be the most quoted. Its fame lies
partly in the attention it receives from the endless debates it has generated
about what it means. It is currently fashionable to oppose the traditional
view that the passage is a deliberation in which Hamlet is trying to decide
whether to commit suicide. Anti-suicide champions argue that Hamlet is
really deliberating what course of action to takeor not to taketo ravel
his sleeve of woe while retaining life and limb.
view is right? Probably the traditional viewthat Hamlet is contemplating
hara-kiri with his bare bodkin. However, because Shakespeare carried ambiguity
to the extreme in this passage instead of speaking his mind plainly, there
is plenty of room to argue otherwise. Leading his readers through the tangled
dendrites in Hamlets cerebrum, Shakespeare bewilders his audience. Admittedly,
though, it is jolly good fun to try to solve the passage. In the end, though,
it appears that Hamlet is indeed considering suicide in this passage.
20 centuries before the birth of Shakespeare, the Greek playwright Sophocles
(circa 497-406 B.C.) completed one of the finest plays in history, Electra,
about a young woman from Greek myth who resembles Hamlet in temperament
and who struggles against circumstances almost identical to Hamlets. Her
father, King Agamemnon, had been murdered by her mother, Clytemnestra,
and her lover, Aegisthus, who succeeds to the throne. (Hamlets father,
old King Hamlet, was murdered by Claudius, who succeeds to the throne and
marries the late kings wifeHamlets motherGertrude.) Like Hamlet, Electra
seeks to avenge her fathers death. But in plotting the deed with her brother,
Orestes, she suffers deep anguish, like Hamlet, marked by bouts of melancholy.
At times Hamlet seems a carbon copy of Electra. There is no evidence suggesting
that Shakespeare used Sophocles as a source for Hamlet, but it would be
no great surprise if a historical document turned up suggesting that he
did. For further information, about Sophocles and Electra, click
in a Name?
first syllable of Hamlet's name appears to derive from a German word, hamm,
meaning enclosed area. Claudius, the name of King Hamlet's murderer,
derives from the Latin word claudus, meaning lame. In one
sense, Claudius is indeed lame. His evil deeds hamstring him, making him
incapable of ruling Elsinore while Hamlet is on the prowl. The origin of
the name Polonius, Claudius's lord chamberlain, is unclear; however,
the first three letters could well refer to his duplicitous and bootlicking
style of politics. Horatio, the name of Hamlet's loyal friend, is
of Latin origin and may well refer to the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus,
known as Horace, whose major themes include love and friendship. Fortinbras,
the level-headed Norwegian prince who arrives in Elsinore at the end of
the play to take command and bring stability, may be so-named to suggest
strength or "strong-arm" (Latin, fortis: strong; French, bras:
arm). Gertrude, the name of Hamlet's mother, who is Claudius's queen,
means in old German spear (Ger) and dear (Trut).
Gertrude, of course, wounds Hamlet by marrying Claudius (hence, Ger)
but remains special to him as his mother (hence, Trut).
Digression on the War of the Theaters
1599 and 1600, two companies of boy actorsPauls Boys and the Children
of the Chapelgained an enthusiastic following in London. In fact, so popular
did the boys become that they attracted large numbers of theatergoers away
from adult acting companies. But the boy companies were rivals not only
of their adult counterparts but also of each other. Ben Jonson, the chief
playwright for the Children of the Chapel, despised the chief playwright
for Pauls Boys, John Marston. They lambasted each other in allusions in
their plays, precipitating a war of the theaters. In Act II, Scene II,
of Hamlet, Shakespeare comments on the fascination with the boy
actors after a company of adult actors (tragedians) arrives at Elsinore
to stage an entertainmentactors whom Hamlet had already seen in stage
plays. When Hamlet asks Rosencrantz whether these adult actors remain as
popular as ever, Rosencrantz says no. Here is the dialogue:
HAMLET Do they
[the arriving adult actors] hold the same
estimation they did
when I was in the city? are they
No, indeed, are they not.
comes it? do they grow rusty?
Nay, their endeavour
keeps in the wonted pace:
but there is, sir,
of children, little eyases,.............................................[aery:
aerie, nest of bird of prey; eyases:
baby birds, baby hawks]
that cry out on the top
of question, and are most.....................[top
of the question: top of the voice, top of news on the theater
tyrannically clapped for't:
these are now the
fashion, and so berattle
the common stagesso they...............[berattle:
misuse, pervert, take over]
call themthat many wearing
rapiers are afraid of
and dare scarce come thither...............................[goose-quills:
are they children? who maintains 'em?
how are they
Will they pursue the quality no...............[escoted:
longer than they can sing?
will they not say
afterwards, if they should
grow themselves to common
playersas it is most like,
if their means are no
bettertheir writers do
them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own
'Faith, there has been much to do on
both sides; and the nation
holds it no sin to tarre them to..........[tarre:
goad, prod, spur]
controversy: there was,
for a while, no money bid
for argument, unless the
poet and the player went to
cuffs in the question.
O, there has been much throwing about of brains.
HAMLET Do the
boys carry it away?
Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too.....................[Hercules:
Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders, a symbol of the Globe Theatre]
readers and audiences often ask why Claudius acceded to the throne in Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark. Should not the crown have passed to the dead kings
son, Prince Hamlet?
necessarily. In Denmark, the setting of the play, an elective monarchy
held sway until 1660, when a hereditary monarchy replaced it. Therefore,
Shakespeares fictional Hamlet, based on a legendary Dane of the Middle
Ages, could not claim the crown as a birthright.
an elective monarchy, court officialsnoblemen in high standingselected
the new king by vote. The son of a king was, to be sure, the prime candidate
for the royal chair, and usually he won it. But the voting nobles had the
right to reject him in favor of another candidate. And that was precisely
what happened in fictional Elsinore. The nobles approved the kings brother,
Claudius. In a hereditary monarchy, the kings oldest son automatically
ascended the throne when his father died. But of course Danish laws
do not explain why the nobles chose Claudius over Hamlet. Shakespeare offers
no explanation of their vote. However, in Act V, Hamlet refers to the election
of Claudius, saying, He that hath killd my king and whord my mother,
/ Poppd in between the election and my hopes (5. 2. 71-72). These lines
appear in a passage in which Hamletconversing with his best friend, Horatiois
discussing Claudiuss murder plot against him and his moral right to kill
Claudius. The words my hopes may signify that Hamlet expected to succeed
his father. In the same scene of the same act, Hamletdying from the wound
inflicted by Laertes poisoned-tip swordagain refers to the Denmark
election system when he says Fortinbras should be the new king: But I
do prophesy the election lights / On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice
(5. 2. 300-301).
Hamlet did not gain accession after the murder of his father could have
been due to one or all of the following reasons: (1) Claudius actively
campaigned for the kingship, winning votes by promising political favors.
(2) Gertrude, eager to remarry and remain queen, campaigned on his behalf.
(3) The nobles perceived Hamlet as too young and callowand perhaps more
likely to support the views of the common people instead of their viewsand
thus denied him succession.
the tale on which Shakespeare based HamletAmleth, a Latin work
by Saxo Grammaticus (1150?-1220?)Feng (the character after whom Shakespeare
modeled Claudius) murders his brother, King Horwendil, out of jealousy.
The opening paragraph of Amleth explains the cause of the jealousy:
Horwendil, King of Denmark, married Gurutha, the daughter of Rorik, and
she bore him a son, whom they named Amleth. Horwendil's good fortune stung
his brother Feng with jealousy, so that the latter resolved treacherously
to waylay his brother, thus showing that goodness is not safe even from
those of a man's own house. And behold when a chance came to murder him,
his bloody hand sated the deadly passion of his soul.(Eton, Oliver, trans.
Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. London: David Nutt, 1894.)
Amleth tale also says Feng gained favor with the nobles by telling lies:
"Nor did his smooth words fail in their intent; for at courts, where fools
are sometimes favored and backbiters preferred, a lie lacks not credit"
its history, Denmark has had three monarchical systems: .......First:
In 940, Harald Bluetooth became the first king of a unified Denmark under
an elective system requiring the monarch to sign a charter guaranteeing
a division of power between the king and the people. .......Second:
In 1660, Denmark adopted absolutism, granting the king full power, under
a hereditary system conferring the right of succession on the oldest son.
In 1665, a royal edict affirmed the hereditary system under the principle
of primogeniture, a legal term referring to the right of the oldest son
to inherit his fathers property. .......Third:
In 1849, Denmark abandoned its absolutist monarchy in favor of a constitutional
monarchy that invested government power mainly in the peoples representatives
while retaining the king as a ceremonial figure. In 1953, Denmark granted
women the right to accede to the throne. .
an 1899 book entitled Die Traumdeutung (Interpretation of Dreams)
Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis,
introduced the term Oedipus complex. This term describes a psychological
stage of development in which a male child desires sexual relations with
his mother or a female child desires sexual relations with her father.
The child also exhibits hostility toward the parent of the same sex. In
normal development, a child outgrows this desire. However, in abnormal
development, a child may retain his or her sexual fixation on the parent
of the opposite sex.
Freud coined the term Oedipus complex, Shakespeare scholars noted
that Hamlet exhibits the symptoms of this condition in his relationship
with his mother, Gertrude, and stepfather-uncle, Claudius. In a soliloquy
in Act I, Scene II, Hamlet condemns Claudius as a satyr (144) and agonizes
over his mothers hasty marriage to him, saying, O! most wicked speed,
to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (160). Ample evidence
exists elsewhere in the play to support the Freudian interpretation of
Hamlets character while buttressing the view that Hamlet is mentally deranged.
coining his term, Freud drew upon the story of Oedipus in Greek mythology.
Here is the story, in brief:
oracle warns King Laius of Thebes that his wife, Jocasta, will bear a son
who will one day kill him. After Jocasta gives birth to a boy, Laius acts
to defeat the prophecy. First, he drives a spike through the child's feet,
then takes him to Mount Cithaeron and orders a shepherd to kill him. But
the shepherd, taking pity on the baby, spares him after tying him to a
tree. A peasant finds the baby and gives him to a childless couplePolybus
(also Polybius), King of Corinth, and his wife, Periboea (also Merope).
They name the boy Oedipus (meaning swelled foot) and raise him to manhood.
day, when Oedipus visits the oracle at Delphi, the oracle tells Oedipus
that a time will come when he slays his father and marries his mother.
Horrified, Oedipus later strikes out from Corinth. He does not want to
live anywhere near his beloved parents, Polybus and Periboea, lest a trick
of fate cause him to be the instrument of their demise. What he does not
know, of course, is that Polybus and Periboea are not his real parents.
the road to Thebes, which leads away from Corinth, Oedipus encounters his
real father Laius, whom he does not recognize, and several attendants.
Laius, of course, does not recognize Oedipus either. Oedipus and Laius
quarrel over a trivialitywho has the right of way. The quarrel leads to
violence, and Oedipus kills Laius and four of his attendants.
Thebes, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a winged lion with the head of a
woman. The grotesque creature has killed many Thebans because they could
not answer her riddle: What travels on four feet in the morning, two at
midday, and three in evening? Consequently, the city lives in great terror.
No one can enter or leave the city.
Oedipus approaches the Sphinx, the beast poses the riddle. Oedipus, quick
of mind, spits back the right answer: man. Here is the explanation: As
an infant in the morning of life, a human being crawls on all fours; as
an adult in the midday of life, he walks upright on two legs; as an old
man in the evening of life, he walks on three legs, including a cane.
and outraged, the Sphinx kills herself. Jubilant, the people of Thebes
then offer this newcomer the throne. Oedipus accepts it and marries its
widowed queen, Jocasta. Jocasta is, of course, the mother of Oedipus, although
no one in Thebes becomes aware of this fact until much later. Thus, the
oracle's prophecy to Laius and Oedipus is fulfilled.
of course, does not marry his mother. But, according to Freudian interpreters
of the play, he does desire herat least subconsciously. What is more,
he solves a riddle of sorts, a homicide case, and kills his fatherthat
is, stepfather. However, unlike Oedipus, Hamlet does not live on to anguish
over the past.
Foils: "To one method of characterization Shakespeare seemed to have
been especially partial; it is that of providing his major characters with
contrasting opposites or foils designed to set them off. Sometimes the
contrast is physical; Falstaff is fat, Shallow is thin; Hermia is short
and dark, Helen is tall and fair. Usually, however, the contrast is one
of temperament. Thus Claudio is reserved and cold, Benedick is alert and
mercurial; Adriana is impatient and shrewish, her sister is calm and cool-headed....
Hamlet...the man who thinks without acting, delays; Laertes, the man who
acts without thinking, plunges".Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht.
of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (Page 32).
Production at Elsinore: Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh teamed up
to play Hamlet and Ophelia in a late 1930's production in the actual setting
of Shakespeare's play, Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark.
and Hell: The word heavenor a form of it, such as heavens
and heavenlyoccurs 56 times in Hamlet. The word hellor
a form of it, such as hellishoccurs 11 times. Virtue occurs
15 times, and sin occurs once.
Note: Edwin Booth, one of the 19th Century's greatest Shakespearean
actors, was the brother of actor John Wilkes Booth, assassin of the 16th
U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln. The Booth brothers were sons of Junius
Brutus Booth, an actor born in London. The latter's middle name was the
same as that of the most prominent assassin of Julius Caesar. Ironically,
Edwin and John Wilkes portrayed Brutus and Mark Antony in a production
of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Winter Garten Theatre in New
Study Guide in Book Form
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faces a moral dilemma. On the one hand, the ghost of his father urges him
to gain revenge by killing Claudius. On the other hand, Hamlet's conscience
tells him that killing is wrong. After all, he is a college boy who has
been exposed to the teachings of theologians, philosophers and other thinkers
who condemn revenge. What was the attitude of people in Hamlet's dayas
many as a thousand years agotoward law and order and revenge?
dilemma Hamlet faces is whether the ghost is trustworthy. Is it really
the ghost of his father? Is it a demon? Is there really a ghost at all?
What was the attitude of people in Shakespeare's timehe was born in 1564
and died in 1616toward the supernatural: ghosts, witches, etc.? See Essay
Topic 2 below for additional information.
In Act I, Scene II, Claudius
refers to Gertrude as "our sometime sister." What does he mean by this
himself covet the throne? Why didn't hethe son of old King Hamletinherit
the throne? (Look for a clue in these lines: He that hath kill'd my
king and whored my mother, / Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
(Act V, Scene II, Hamlet speaking to Horatio). (4) The play is full of
deceit. Who attempts to deceive whom?
Before he leaves to study at
the University of Paris (Act I, Scene III), Laertes warns his sister, Ophelia,
to be wary of Hamlet's attentions toward her, saying Hamlet regards her
as little more than a "toy." Is it possible that Laertes is right, that
Hamlet really is not serious about Ophelia?
is angry because his mother married Claudius so soon after the death of
old King Hamlet. Was Gertrude having an affair with Claudius before her
husband's death? Was she in on the murder? Does Hamlet suffer from an Oedipus
puts on an "antic disposition"that is, he pretends to be insane. But is
he, in fact, insane or mentally unstable?
go insane? Does she commit suicide?
do Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras have in common? Do they share similar
and medieval times, ambitious men often murdered their way to the throne,
as Claudius did in Hamlet. Shakespeare was right on the mark in
IV Part II when he wrote, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the
crown." In other words, a ruler often had to sleep with one eye open to
watch for attempts on his life. What were some of the methods monarchs
used to protect themselves or uncover plots against them? For example,
did they employ spies or food tasters? Did they stay in the company of
that Elsinore represents the Garden of Eden after the serpent (Satan) does
his dirty work. In your argument, point out that the reason Elsinore is
corrupt is that it yielded toand continues to yield todiabolical influence.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses imagery that appears to support this
view. For example, old King Hamlet is poisoned in an Eden-like setting
by a "serpent" (Claudius). Later, Elsinore becomes a place of darkness
and deception; Hamlet is urged by a ghost (who could be the devil) to commit
a sin, revenge. Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, turn
against him. While researching the play, notice the many references to
the devil, as in this line spoken by Hamlet to Gertrude in Act 3, Scene
4: What devil was't that thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman blind?
In addition, consider the many references to hell, as in this line spoken
by Ophelia about Hamlet in Act 2, Scene 1: As if he had been loosed
out of hell / To speak of horrors,he comes before me.
an informative essay explaining the attitude of people in Shakespeare's
time toward supernatural phenomena and the occult. As part of this assignment,
you may wish to consider another Shakespeare play, Macbeth, in which
three witches play important roles. In Shakespeare's time, many people
believed in the power of witches. One was King James I, who succeeded Queen
Elizabeth I as the ruler of England. In 1591, when he was King of Scotland
during Elizabeth's reign, a group of witches and sorcerers attempted to
murder him. Their trial and testimony convinced him that they were agents
of evil. Thereafter, he studied the occult and wrote a book called Daemonologie
(Demonology), published in 1597. This bookand an earlier one called
Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer, 1486), describing the demonic
rites of witcheshelped inflame people against practitioners of sorcery.
Hamlet's mind. Get inside it and explore every niche and crevice. Then,
attempt to explain why he acts as he does. True, his behavior is in large
part a reaction to his father's death and his mother's marriage to Claudius.
But what else bothers Hamlet? Is he angry because he himself did not succeed
to the throne? Does the ghost cause him to dwell morbidly on the afterlife?
Does he suddenly hate all women because of what his mother did?
an essay entitled "Hamlet's Deepest Secrets." In this essay, argue that
Hamlet harbors disturbing secrets, such as the following: (1) as a child,
he was neglected by King Hamlet and Gertrude and, therefore, grew up resenting
them; (2) he believes he might really be the child of Claudius; and (3)
he is sexually attracted to his mother (Oedipus complex). Evidence appears
in the play to supportbut not provesuch theories.
extent does the main setting, Elsinore Castle, contribute to the atmosphere
of the play? To what extent does this setting affect the mindset of Hamlet
and/or other characters?
1. Niobe: In Greek mythology, Niobe
had bragged to the goddess Leto that she had six sons and six daughters.
Leto had only two children, the god Apollo and the goddess Diana (Greek:
Artemis). Because of Niobe’s boastfulness, Apollo killed her
sons, Diana killed her daughters, and Jupiter (Greek: Zeus) turned her
into a mass of stone on a mountain in present-day Turkey. The block of
stone cried tears ceaselessly as Niobe wept for her dead children.
2. Henbane (Hemblane): Poisonous
plant of the nightshade family that is native to Great Britain as well
as to the central and southern European continent and to western Asia.
3. Purgatory: In Roman Catholic
theology, a place where the souls of the dead undergo temporary punishment
that purges them of venial sins, which are less serious offenses. Once
purified, these souls can enter heaven. The souls of persons who die with
unforgiven serious offenses, such as murder, go to hell. The concept of
purgatory is derived from II Maccabees, an Old Testament book rejected
by Protestants and Jews, and from New Testament references.
4. Rapier: In their match Hamlet
and Laertes each use a rapier, a narrow sword designed for thrusting and
parrying (deflecting the lunging rapier of the opponent) rather than slashing
(as with the heavier broadsword). Before the match, the weapons are referred
to as foils, which are rapiers with blunted tips. However, the rapier of
Laertes has a pointed tip laced with poison.
5. Primal eldest curse: Allusion
to the curse on Cain after he killed Abel.