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One the reasons why Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play is that its title character Prince Hamlet talks so much. Yet no one in drama has revealed so little of himself while saying such a lot.
Like his creator, Hamlet is an actor (“I perchance hereafter shall … To put an antic disposition on”, 1.5) and a playwright (“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”, 2.2).
Blocked from returning to the life he loved at Wittenberg University, the prince faces “a sea of troubles” (3.1) and is “benetted round with villainies” (5.2). Such is his despair that by the second scene he wishes he could write himself out of the drama in which the Shakespeare has cast him—“How weary / His law ’gainst self slaughter” (1.2).
The “Who’s there?” question posed in the opening line is one the prince asks of himself all through the play. Who is Hamlet, and does he “win at the odds” (5.2)?
The characters of Prince Hamlet and King Claudius provide examples of both external and internal conflict. They are two individuals at war with each other—and themselves.
Claudius is a scheming cynic with a conscience, who is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”, 3.1). His nephew is an anguished idealist with a violent streak, who is haunted by the murder he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”, 2.2).
Both share a love and capacity for play-acting: one in theater, the other in politics. Hamlet’s happiest moment is the Players’ arrival (“there did seem in him a kind of joy”) in 3.1. In 4.7, Claudius delights in conspiring “a little shuffling” with Laertes: a sharpened, tainted sword and—in the event of a “bad performance”—a poisoned wine goblet.
Their relationship begins with mutual suspicion, escalates into a psychological battle, and ends with defeat for both and victory for the rival kingdom of Norway.
Hamlet is the journey of two young men from revenge, through madness and anger, to forgiveness. The play contains two revenge stories, the second triggered by the first halfway through.
At the end, an accidental swapping of swords between Laertes and Hamlet is followed by a genuine exchange of forgiveness. And a dying Hamlet surrenders Denmark to the son of the man his own father slew and whose lands he gained on the day the prince was born. By so doing, he atones for old King Hamlet’s sins and grants peace to his restless, “doomed … to walk the night” spirit (1.5).
Hamlet is a warning both against revenge and against revenge plays. For the cycle of vengeance begins with the title character staging a play about revenge (“a knavish piece of work … writ in choice Italian”, 3.2) that so engages him with blind fury he kills the wrong man (“Dead for a ducat”, 3.4). In so doing, Prince Hamlet succeeded only in creating another revenge-obsessed son, Laertes, like himself.
No two figures in Hamlet are further apart in character and outlook than Prince Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. He is an anguished seeker of truth and meaning; she a contented, status-loving materialist.
Hamlet torments himself that his continual “Looking before and after” (4.4) is but an excuse for cowardice. The live-in-the-moment Gertrude (“all that is I see … / Nothing but ourselves”, 3.4) is puzzled why her son struggles to do the same.
What Gertrude admits is her “o’erhasty marriage” (2.2) to her brother-in-law Claudius overshadows the relationship between mother and son. Ultimately, it dooms both their lives and brings to an end the royal dynasty of the Hamlet family.
Prince Hamlet’s parting words of “Wretched queen, adieu” (5.2) seem a harsh farewell to a mother went to her death in the belief that her last act on earth was to save the life of her son: “O my dear Hamlet—The drink, the drink! I am poison’d.” (5.2)
‘Kill your uncle, ignore your mother, avoid losing your sanity, and don’t worry about my suffering in the afterlife’—in simple terms, these are the Ghost’s instructions in 1.5 to the title character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. By the play’s end, Hamlet has broken every one of the directions issued by the “apparition” (1.1) who appears in the “questionable shape” (1.4) like “the king that’s dead” (1.1).
But, after many “purposes mistook” (5.2), and mirroring Laertes’ journey from revenge to forgiveness, the prince finds another way to keep his promise to his late father’s memory: “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit” (1.5).
The pre-play murder in the palace orchard has resulted in the suffering of two brothers’ souls. Old King Hamlet died with his sins unconfessed (“all my imperfections on my head”, 1.5) and must so endure afterlife punishment “for a certain term” (1.5). An eternity of hellfire awaits his brother, Claudius; it is the price he knows he must pay for his stolen crown and queen: “O, heavy burden” (3.1).
In his one act as king, a dying Hamlet surrenders Denmark to the son of his father’s old rival. In so doing he grants his “dear father” (2.2) something more than vengeance: atonement for his land-grabbing, “Extorted treasure in the womb of earth” (1.1) sins and with it escape from his afterlife torment in the “prison house … fires” (1.5).
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is fundamentally a story about story-telling: the stories we tell others (the murderously deceitful Claudius: “a little shuffling”, 4.7); the stories we tell ourselves (the opportunistically delusional Gertrude: “All that is I see”, 3.4); and also about seeking guidance and motivation for proper action in stories (Prince Hamlet: “The play's the thing”, 2.2).
Hamlet also offers a poignant portrayal of the limits of human choice. Prince Hamlet can neither return to the university life he loved nor move forward to claim his expected kingship. His “fair Ophelia” (3.1) too is trapped in a situation over which she has no control.
But even the “dread lord” (1.2) Claudius and his “seeming-virtuous queen” (1.5) must, in the end, submit to a power greater than that of earthly monarchs. For as the play’s tragic prince declares: “Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men's eyes” (1.2).
A marriage of mutual interest. He wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; she had something (the role of queen) she wanted to hold onto. Would Claudius have murdered her first husband had he not believed she would accept him as her second husband within “a little month?”
The on-stage royal relationship is far removed from the unrestrained sensuality which King Hamlet’s Ghost luridly imagines. It more resembles that of a middle-aged, married couple which, of course, Claudius and Gertrude actually are.
Neither king nor queen succeeds in winning Prince Hamlet’s support for their marriage. He believes that “Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh” (4.3). As long as she is joined in marriage to him, and they share throne and bed, she is one person with Claudius.
In the final scene, Gertrude dies by the same means her second husband Claudius used to murder her first: poison.
Horatio’s relationship with Prince Hamlet is a genuine friendship in an Elsinore where other relationships are poisoned by deception and betrayal. Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted companion in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.
However, each friend is selective in what he shares with the other. Horatio does not mention to the prince his interpretation of the Ghost as an “omen” that “bodes some strange eruption to our state” (1.1). Hamlet does not disclose to his friend why he puts on his “antic disposition” (1.5) and never discusses with Horatio his relationship with Ophelia.
Hamlet admires Horatio’s Stoic detachment from the concerns of the world: “As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing” (3.2). But the prince’s political position means he cannot opt to be only a passive observer of events, “for on his choice depends / The safety and health of this whole state” (1.3).
And does Horatio’s “sweet prince” (5.2) exploit his friend’s loyalty with his seeking to be remembered with a heroic if improbable tale of divinely-inspired rescue by pirates?
At Elsinore, appearance and reality are as maddeningly far apart as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are comically similar. Hamlet is an extended triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to perform in theater, and to play a false role.
Claudius masquerades as a legitimate monarch; in reality, he is a murderous usurper. Polonius presents himself as an honorable if sometimes bumbling old man; in fact, he is a cynic devoid of either moral scruples in politics or human feeling towards his two children.
No one is more skilled at pretense than Hamlet, whose ‘antic disposition’ helps him avoid immediate execution for Polonius’ murder. He is also a harsh critic of other characters’ insincere performances. But his theatrics are not enough to unseat Claudius or remove Gertrude from his side.
‘Have you eyes?’ (3.4), Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. The relationship between old King Hamlet’s widow and the villainous Claudius is a tragic tale of evil exploiting self-deluding naivety.
The person that Prince Hamlet most bitterly accuses of fickle disloyalty (“Frailty thy name is woman”, 1.2) in fact remains steadfastly at the side of her second husband. In 4,5. she confronts the mob-leading, sword-wielding Laertes when she fears the throne she shares with Claudius is under threat (“Laertes shall be king!”), and defends her husband from any part in Polonius’ death (“But not by him”).
But Gertrude’s “o‘erhasty marriage” (2.2) dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her. Her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale descends into a nightmare and ends in a bloodbath.
At the play’s beginning, Ophelia says Hamlet “hath importuned me with love / In honorable fashion” (1.3). Yet we also learn that the prince wishes to leave Elsinore. So, we may well wonder with Polonius’ daughter: “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1.2).
Their relationship then becomes one of “purposes mistook” (5.2). Ophelia mistakenly believes her rejection of the prince has caused his insanity. Hamlet mistakenly thinks his pretend madness is the cause of her rejection. Who is “the more deceived” (3.1)?
Hamlet, through theater, and Ophelia, through the symbolic language of flowers, each exposes Elsinore’s dark secret: that the king and queen owe their position to a secret murder followed by politically convenient marriage.
Ophelia’s surrender to death in a “weeping brook” (4.7) recalls Hamlet’s earlier despairing wish that his “flesh would … resolve itself into a dew” (1.2). Her death is followed by Hamlet’s expression of love and duel with Laertes (“I loved Ophelia … I will fight with him upon this theme”, 5.1) in which both Ophelia’s brother and lover meet their deaths.
More than any other character, Claudius brings about—and entirely deserves —his own downfall. Cast by the playwright of Providence as a secondary figure in the shadow his brother, Claudius rewrites the script so that he now shares the throne and bed of Queen Gertrude.
As the play unfolds, Claudius’ poison metaphorically spreads outward until the natural human relationships of friendship and romantic love are corroded by mistrust.
Claudius finds he must plot a second murder to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next “exploit” (4.7) leads to the death of the woman he loves. When Gertrude reaches for the poisoned goblet, his need to conceal his murderous scheme against her son means Claudius can only manage to utter a half-hearted “Gertrude, do not drink” (5.2).
Ophelia’s sanity is overwhelmed by Elsinore’s maddening world of deception and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” (1.2) is her revenge against everyone who dismissed, silenced and humiliated her.
Is it only obedience to her father that motivates Ophelia to collude in the “’twere by accident” (3.1) scheme to “sift” (2.2) Hamlet in the so-called ‘nunnery scene’ of 3.1? Or, by encouraging the prince to recall his past love for her (“words of so sweet breath composed”), does she hope also to rekindle it?
Through fragments of traditional songs, but more vividly through the symbolic language of flowers, in 4.5 the traumatized Ophelia expresses her clear recognition of the dark truths beneath the surface of the Danish court.
If only with “maimed rites”, Ophelia is buried in a Christian graveyard on the “great command” of the king and against the wishes of the “churlish priest” (5.1). But even at her own funeral she is overshadowed by two male characters who jump into her grave and fight over who loved her more.