The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. Set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet exacts on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet, Claudius’s brother and Prince Hamlet’s father, and then succeeding to the throne and taking as his wife Gertrude, the old king’s widow and Prince Hamlet’s mother. The play vividly portrays both true and feigned madness—from overwhelming grief to seething rage—and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption.
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and among the most powerful and influential tragedies in English literature, with a story capable of “seemingly endless retelling and adaptation by others. ” The play was one of Shakespeare’s most popular works during his lifetime It has inspired writers from Goethe and Dickens to Joyce and Murdoch, and has been described as “the world’s most filmed story after Cinderella”. Shakespeare based Hamlet on the legend of Amleth, preserved by 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum as subsequently retold by 16th-century scholar Francois de Belleforest.
He may also have drawn on or perhaps written an earlier Elizabethan play known today as the Ur-Hamlet. He almost certainly created the title role for Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of Shakespeare’s time. In the 400 years since, the role has been performed by highly acclaimed actors and actresses from each successive age. Three different early versions of the play are extant, the First Quarto, the Second Quarto, and the First Folio . Each version includes lines, and even entire scenes, missing from the others.
The play’s structure and depth of characterisation have inspired much critical scrutiny. One such example is the centuries-old debate about Hamlet’s hesitation to kill his uncle, which some see as a mere plot device to prolong the action, but which others argue is a dramatization of the complex philosophical and ethical issues that surround cold-blooded murder, calculated revenge, and thwarted desire. More recently, psychoanalytic critics have examined Hamlet’s unconscious desires, and feminist critics have re-evaluated and rehabilitated the often maligned characters of Ophelia and Gertrude.
The protagonist of Hamlet is Prince Hamlet of Denmark, son of deceased King Hamlet and his wife, Queen Gertrude. The story opens on a chilly night at Elsinore, the Danish royal castle. Francisco, one of the sentinels, is relieved of his watch by Bernardo, another sentinel, and exits while Bernardo remains. A third sentinel, Marcellus, enters with Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend. The sentinels inform Horatio that they have seen a ghost that looks like the dead King Hamlet. After hearing from Horatio of the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet resolves to see the Ghost himself.
That night, the Ghost appears again. It leads Hamlet to a secluded place, claims that it is the actual spirit of his father, and discloses that he—the elder Hamlet—was murdered by his brother Claudius pouring poison in his ear. The Ghost demands that Hamlet avenge him; Hamlet agrees, swears his companions to secrecy, and tells them he intends to “put an antic disposition on” . Hamlet initially attests to the ghost’s reliability, calling him both an “honest ghost” and “truepenny. ” Later, however, he expresses doubts about the ghost’s nature and intent, claiming these as reasons for his inaction.
Polonius is Claudius’s trusted chief counsellor; Polonius’s son, Laertes, is returning to France, and Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, is courted by Hamlet. Both Polonius and Laertes warn Ophelia that Hamlet is surely not serious about her. Shortly afterward, Ophelia is alarmed by Hamlet’s strange behaviour, reporting to her father that Hamlet rushed into her room, stared at her, and said nothing. Polonius assumes that the “ecstasy of love” is responsible for Hamlet’s “mad” behaviour, and he informs Claudius and Gertrude.
Perturbed by Hamlet’s continuing deep mourning for his father and his increasingly erratic behaviour, Claudius sends for two of Hamlet’s acquaintances—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—to find out the cause of Hamlet’s changed behaviour. Hamlet greets his friends warmly but quickly discerns that they have been sent to spy on him. Together, Claudius and Polonius convince Ophelia to speak with Hamlet while they secretly listen. Hamlet enters, contemplating suicide . Ophelia greets him, and offers to return his remembrances, upon which Hamlet questions her honesty and furiously rants at her to “get thee to a nunnery.
Hamlet remains uncertain whether the Ghost has told him the truth, but the arrival of a troupe of actors at Elsinore presents him with a solution. He will have them stage a play, The Murder of Gonzago, re-enacting his father’s murder and determine Claudius’s guilt or innocence by studying his reaction to it. The court assembles to watch the play; Hamlet provides an agitated running commentary throughout. When the murder scene is presented, Claudius abruptly rises and leaves the room, which Hamlet sees as proof of his uncle’s guilt. Gertrude summons Hamlet to her closet to demand an explanation.
On his way, Hamlet passes Claudius in prayer, but hesitates to kill him, reasoning that death in prayer would send him to heaven. However, it is revealed that the King is not truly praying, remarking that “words” never made it to heaven without “thoughts. ” An argument erupts between Hamlet and Gertrude. Polonius, spying on the scene from behind an arras and convinced that the prince’s madness is indeed real, panics when it seems as if Hamlet is about to murder the Queen and cries out for help. Hamlet, believing it is Claudius hiding behind the arras, stabs wildly through the cloth, killing Polonius.
When he realises that he has killed Ophelia’s father, he is not immediately remorseful, but calls Polonius “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool. ” Yet shortly after speaks remorse, “I repent: but heaven hath pleased it so. ” The Ghost appears, urging Hamlet to treat Gertrude gently, but reminding him to kill Claudius. Unable to see or hear the Ghost herself, Gertrude takes Hamlet’s conversation with it as further evidence of madness. Claudius, now fearing for his life, finds a legitimate excuse to get rid of the prince: he sends Hamlet to England on a diplomatic pretext, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Alone, Claudius discloses that he is actually sending Hamlet to his death. Prior to embarking for England, Hamlet hides Polonius’s body, ultimately revealing its location to the King. Upon leaving Elsinore, Hamlet encounters the army of Prince Fortinbras en route to do battle in Poland. Upon witnessing so many men going to their death on the brash whim of an impulsive prince, Hamlet declares, “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! ” At Elsinore, further demented by grief at her father Polonius’s death, Ophelia wanders the castle, acting erratically and singing bawdy songs.
Her brother, Laertes, returns from France, horrified by his father’s death and his sister’s madness. She appears briefly to give out herbs and flowers. Claudius convinces Laertes that Hamlet is solely responsible; then news arrives that Hamlet is still alive—a story is spread that his ship was attacked by pirates on the way to England, and he has returned to Denmark. Claudius swiftly concocts a plot to kill his nephew but make it appear to be an accident, taking all of the blame off his shoulders. Knowing of Hamlet’s jealousy of Laertes’ prowess with a sword, he proposes a fencing match between the two.
Laertes, enraged at the murder of his father, informs the king that he will further poison the tip of his sword so that a mere scratch would mean certain death. Claudius, unsure that capable Hamlet could receive even a scratch, plans to offer Hamlet poisoned wine if that fails. Gertrude enters to report that Ophelia has drowned. In the Elsinore churchyard, two “clowns”, typically represented as “gravediggers,” enter to prepare Ophelia’s grave, and although the coroner has ruled her death accidental so that she may receive Christian burial, they argue that it was a case of suicide.
Hamlet arrives with Horatio and banters with one of them, who unearths the skull of a jester whom Hamlet once knew, Yorick . Ophelia’s funeral procession approaches, led by her mournful brother Laertes. Distraught at the lack of ceremony and overcome by emotion, Laertes leaps into the grave, cursing Hamlet as the cause of her death. Hamlet interrupts, professing his own love and grief for Ophelia. He and Laertes grapple, but the fight is broken up by Claudius and Gertrude. Claudius reminds Laertes of the planned fencing match. Later that day,
Hamlet tells Horatio how he escaped death on his journey, disclosing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to their deaths instead. A courtier, Osric, interrupts to invite Hamlet to fence with Laertes. Despite Horatio’s warnings, Hamlet accepts and the match begins. After several rounds, Gertrude toasts Hamlet—against the urgent warning of Claudius—accidentally drinking the wine he poisoned. Between bouts, Laertes attacks and pierces Hamlet with his poisoned blade; in the ensuing scuffle, Hamlet is able to use Laertes’s own poisoned sword against him.
Gertrude falls and, in her dying breath, announces that she has been poisoned. In his dying moments, Laertes is reconciled with Hamlet and reveals Claudius’s murderous plot. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, and then forces him to drink from his own poisoned cup to make sure he dies. In his final moments, Hamlet names Prince Fortinbras of Norway as the probable heir to the throne, since the Danish kingship is an elected position, with the country’s nobles having the final say.
Horatio attempts to kill himself with the same poisoned wine but is stopped by Hamlet, so he will be the only one left alive to give a full account of the story. When Fortinbras arrives to greet King Claudius, he encounters the deadly scene: Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet are all dead. Horatio asks to be allowed to recount the tale to “the yet unknowing world,” and Fortinbras orders Hamlet’s body borne off in honour. Sources Hamlet-like legends are so widely found that the core “hero-as-fool” theme is possibly Indo-European in origin.
Several ancient written precursors to Hamlet can be identified. The first is the anonymous Scandinavian Saga of Hrolf Kraki. In this, the murdered king has two sons—Hroar and Helgi—who spend most of the story in disguise, under false names, rather than feigning madness, in a sequence of events that differs from Shakespeare’s. The second is the Roman legend of Brutus, recorded in two separate Latin works. Its hero, Lucius, changes his name and persona to Brutus, playing the role of a fool to avoid the fate of his father and brothers, and eventually slaying his family’s killer, King Tarquinius.
A 17th-century Nordic scholar, Torfaeus, compared the Icelandic hero Amlodi and the Spanish hero Prince Ambales to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Similarities include the prince’s feigned madness, his accidental killing of the king’s counsellor in his mother’s bedroom, and the eventual slaying of his uncle. Many of the earlier legendary elements are interwoven in the 13th-century Vita Amlethi by Saxo Grammaticus, part of Gesta Danorum. Written in Latin, it reflects classical Roman concepts of virtue and heroism, and was widely available in Shakespeare’s day.
Significant parallels include the prince feigning madness, his mother’s hasty marriage to the usurper, the prince killing a hidden spy, and the prince substituting the execution of two retainers for his own. A reasonably faithful version of Saxo’s story was translated into French in 1570 by Francois de Belleforest, in his Histoires tragiques. Belleforest embellished Saxo’s text substantially, almost doubling its length, and introduced the hero’s melancholy. According to a popular theory, Shakespeare’s main source is believed to be an earlier play—now lost—known today as the Ur-Hamlet.
Possibly written by Thomas Kyd or even William Shakespeare himself, the Ur-Hamlet would have been in performance by 1589 and the first version of the story known to incorporate a ghost. Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, may have purchased that play and performed a version for some time, which Shakespeare reworked. Since no copy of the Ur-Hamlet has survived, however, it is impossible to compare its language and style with the known works of any of its putative authors. Consequently, there is no direct evidence that Kyd wrote it, nor any evidence that the play was not an early version of Hamlet by Shakespeare himself.
This latter idea—placing Hamlet far earlier than the generally accepted date, with a much longer period of development—has attracted some support, though others dismiss it as speculation. The upshot is that scholars cannot assert with any confidence how much material Shakespeare took from the Ur-Hamlet, how much from Belleforest or Saxo, and how much from other contemporary sources . No clear evidence exists that Shakespeare made any direct references to Saxo’s version. However, elements of Belleforest’s version which are not in Saxo’s story do appear in Shakespeare’s play.
Whether Shakespeare took these from Belleforest directly or through the Ur-Hamlet remains unclear. Most scholars reject the idea that Hamlet is in any way connected with Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet Shakespeare, who died in 1596 at age eleven. Conventional wisdom holds that Hamlet is too obviously connected to legend, and the name Hamnet was quite popular at the time. However, Stephen Greenblatt has argued that the coincidence of the names and Shakespeare’s grief for the loss of his son may lie at the heart of the tragedy.
He notes that the name of Hamnet Sadler, the Stratford neighbour after whom Hamnet was named, was often written as Hamlet Sadler and that, in the loose orthography of the time, the names were virtually interchangeable. Sadler’s first name is spelled “Hamlett” in Shakespeare’s will. Scholars have often speculated that Hamlet’s Polonius might have been inspired by William Cecil —Lord High Treasurer and chief counsellor to Queen Elizabeth I. E. K. Chambers suggested Polonius’s advice to Laertes may have echoed Burghley’s to his son Robert Cecil.
John Dover Wilson thought it almost certain that the figure of Polonius caricatured Burleigh, while A. L. Rowse speculated that Polonius’s tedious verbosity might have resembled Burghley’s. Lilian Winstanley thought the name Corambis did suggest Cecil and Burghley. Harold Jenkins criticised the idea of any direct personal satire as “unlikely” and “uncharacteristic of Shakespeare”, while G. R. Hibbard hypothesized that differences in names between the First Quarto and other editions might reflect a desire not to offend scholars at Oxford University.
Date Any dating of Hamlet must be tentative”, cautions the New Cambridge editor, Phillip Edwards. The earliest date estimate relies on Hamlet’s frequent allusions to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, itself dated to mid-1599. The latest date estimate is based on an entry, of 26 July 1602, in the Register of the Stationers’ Company, indicating that Hamlet was “latelie Acted by the Lo: Chamberleyne his servantes”. In 1598, Francis Meres published his Palladis Tamia, a survey of English literature from Chaucer to its present day, within which twelve of Shakespeare’s plays are named.
Hamlet is not among them, suggesting that it had not yet been written. As Hamlet was very popular, Bernard Lott, the series editor of New Swan, believes it “unlikely that he would have overlooked … so significant a piece”. The phrase “little eyases” in the First Folio may allude to the Children of the Chapel, whose popularity in London forced the Globe company into provincial touring. This became known as the War of the Theatres, and supports a 1601 dating. A contemporary of Shakespere’s, Gabriel Harvey, wrote a marginal note in his copy of the 1598 edition of Chaucer’s works, which some scholars use as dating evidence.
Harvey’s note says that “the wiser sort” enjoy Hamlet, and implies that the Earl of Essex—executed in February 1601 for rebellion—was still alive. Other scholars consider this inconclusive. Edwards, for example, concludes that the “sense of time is so confused in Harvey’s note that it is really of little use in trying to date Hamlet”. This is because the same note also refers to Spenser and Watson as if they were still alive, but also mentions “Owen’s new epigrams”, published in 1607.
January 9, 2018
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