Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - cover image

The Character of Hamlet: Sample Essays

Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in.

Ebook $9.99  |  Paperback: $19.99

Introduction

One of 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). Yet the prince faces such “a sea of troubles” (3.1) 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 and audiences have wondered about ever since. Who is Hamlet? And does he “win at the odds” (5.2)?

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet: Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

Some Key Essay Topics

  • The Denmark his father ruled for three decades is now his son’s “prison” (2.2) from which the prince is allowed no escape.
  • Trapped between feelings of inadequacy in this world (“Am I a coward”, 2.2) and fear of damnation in the next, the tormented Hamlet is “from himself be ta’en away” (5.2).
  • Hamlet takes refuge in a put-on “antic disposition” (1.5) that reflects Claudius’ false act of kingship, and that both hides and expresses the prince’s inner turmoil.
  • Hamlet’s delight at the Players’ arrival (“Buzz, buzz”, 2.2) reveals the joy he had in his life before his mother colluded in his confinement at Elsinore in the “cheer and comfort” (1.2) of Claudius’ watchful eye.

Key Supporting Quotes

29
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Revenge and forgiveness: “Alas, poor ghost!”

We, the audience, hear Claudius’ confession (“O heavy burden!”, 3.1). But what if, like Hamlet, we had not? What would we do? Lacking certain knowledge, no amount of “thinking too precisely on th’ event” (4.4) helps Hamlet, a man of reason, to reason his way to a solution. He “cudgels” his “brains” (5.2) in vain.

For Christians, vengeance belonged only to God, but as Hamlet asks Horatio, might a Christian not also “in perfect conscience” take a life to prevent “further evil” (5.2)?

In the end, Hamlet is both killed and forgiven by Laertes, the avenger Hamlet’s desire for revenge created. And he surrenders Denmark to the son of the man his own father slew and whose lands he took 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).

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet grants his father not the revenge he demanded but the atonement his suffering soul needed more.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet does not promise to avenge the Ghost, only never to forget him: “Remember me. / I have sworn ’t” (1.5).
  • Inflamed by the Players’ “knavish piece of work … in choice Italian”, Hamlet rashly stabs Polonius (“Dead for a ducat”, 3.4).
  • Hamlet’s “double business” (3.3) is to reunite in the afterlife his mother and father: “Up, sword … My mother stays”, 3.3). He seeks first to rescue his mother’s soul before sending his uncle’s to hell.
  • Laertes’ words of “a noble father lost, / A sister driven into desperate terms” (4.7) echo Hamlet’s appraisal of his own situation: “a father killed, a mother stained” (3.4).
  • Cunningly, Claudius sets the two sons of murdered fathers against each other in the rigged fencing match of the final scene.

Key Supporting Quotes

33
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Madness: “Losing his wits … here in Denmark”

“But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue”, the anguished prince declares in 1.2. When he decides shortly afterward to put on an “antic disposition” (1.5), it is at least in part because such a talkative figure cannot remain silent for very long. What the king calls his “turbulent and dangerous lunacy” (3.1) provides a convenient license for his Elsinore-confined nephew to vent his rage and despair.

Hamlet’s pretend madness not only helps him to cling to his sanity; it also helps save his life. The prince’s foolery with Polonius’ dead body is a shrewd theatrical performance intended to avoid immediate execution for a crime later described by Laertes as “so capital in nature” (4.7).

Although described by Claudius as “free from all contriving” (4.7), the “I know not seems” (1.2) Hamlet is the play’s most contriving character.

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

"How came he mad?" - #Hamlet asks about himself to the grave-digger.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

Some Key Essay Topics

  • “How came he mad?” (5.1), Hamlet inquires about himself to the gravedigger who is unaware it is the prince he is speaking with. “On account of losing his wits … here in Denmark” is the unhelpful reply.
  • Horatio questions Hamlet’s rashness: firstly, his desire to speak with the Ghost, and later to enter the fencing duel. But his trusted friend never doubts the prince’s sanity.
  • Hamlet’s antic behavior never impairs his ability to see through the falsity in others. All attempts to “board” (2.2) the prince are quickly and scornfully repelled.
  • Hamlet admits to his mother “That I essentially am not in madness / I am but mad in craft” (3.4).
  • In 5.2, Hamlet is “indifferent honest” (3.1) with Laertes when he uses his earlier “madness” to excuse his murder of Polonius.

Key Supporting Quotes

30
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Acceptance or action: “To be or not to be”

In his “To be or not to be—that is the question” soliloquy of 3.1, Hamlet generalizes his particular circumstances into a universal and timeless dilemma. For its concerns trouble every “fellow … crawling between earth and heaven” (3.1)

Is it “nobler in the mind” to rather “bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” Should we endure the world as it is, with all the “slings and arrows”? Or should we take on “a sea of troubles” by seeking to change the world for the better? For doing so may imperil more than our lives; it may also damn our souls if we are tempted into committing a wrong to achieve a rightful goal.

It is a soliloquy that ends without a conclusion, but also one that begins without a question mark.

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet's "To be or not to be" (3.1): Ends without a conclusion; begins without a question mark.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

Some Key Essay Topics

  • That Hamlet delivers this soliloquy after he has committed to staging the play-within-a-play reveals he is still undecided about his correct, “nobler in the mind” course of action.
  • The alternative to life is not suicide, but the suicide mission—and possibly soul-damning consequences—of fighting “a sea of troubles”.
  • The words are more Wittenberg Hamlet than Elsinore Hamlet, such as might be spoken at a university debate. What does Denmark’s aristocratic prince know what it means “to grunt and sweat under a weary life”?
  • Hamlet can hardly complain about “the law’s delay” when shortly afterward he evades punishment for murdering the king’s lord chamberlain.

Key Supporting Quotes

28
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Tragic hero or player prince: “Who’s there?”

Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes are all doomed by their own faults. But Prince Hamlet seems less a tragic hero than a reluctant figure in a tragedy of fate rather than a tragedy of character. In the king’s words: “He cannot choose but fall” (4.7).

That the prince was born on the same day that Fortinbras lost his father and Elsinore’s clownish gravedigger began his work suggests that the play’s ending is the unfolding of an inevitable destiny.

Fate never allowed the prince to follow the fatherly advice received by Laertes: “To thine own self be true” (2.2). His one moment of playing “Hamlet the Dane” (5.1) is when he uses his father’s signature and seal on board ship—an ironic moment of authentic forgery when the title character of a play filled with play-acting impersonates himself.

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet - A play-long pun on the verb 'to act': to do and to play a false role.

CLICK TO TWEET!  

Some Key Essay Topics

  • The Players arrive at an Elsinore where almost everyone already is putting on or directing a performance.
  • Hamlet is fundamentally a play-long, triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action; to play a false role; and to perform in theater. In the words of the gravedigger: “an act hath three parts” (5.1)
  • The falsity of others’ hides their true nature. In contrast, Hamlet’s put-on acting actually reveals his real character.
  • Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (1.5) expresses his genuine anger and despair. As for his forgery on board ship, he truly is “Hamlet the Dane” (5.1) in contrast to the false “king of shreds and patches” (3.4).

Key Supporting Quotes

32
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion: “Remember me”

Prince Hamlet ends the play much as old King Hamlet began it: as a ghost, suspended between this world and the next, fearing his life will be forgotten and the truth forever hidden. “Remember me” (1.5), asked the father; “Report me and my cause aright” (5.2), pleads the son.

Whereas the Ghost demanded remembrance in the form of revenge, all Prince Hamlet asks of Horatio is that his story is told. For the “wounded name” the prince leaves behind of “he that is mad and sent into England” (5.1) is an incomplete version of his tragic tale: of a prince who, like Yorick, was “a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy” (5.1), but who was also destined to kill a king rather than become one.

SHARE THE SHAKESPEARE

#Hamlet does "win at the odds"; usurper, justly killed (Claudius): soul, forgiven (Laertes); story, told (Horatio).

CLICK TO TWEET!  

Some Key Essay Topics

  • Laertes exposes Claudius’ guilt (“The king’s to blame”, 5.2) and his offered exchange of forgiveness finally ends the cycle of vengeful violence.
  • Hamlet kills Claudius without making any reference to vengeance for old King Hamlet.
  • Denmark’s crown passes to a figure old King Hamlet would have admired: a reckless territory-grabber who would risk his and other’s lives over “a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (4.4).
  • Has villainy been “justly served” by “providence” (5.2), or has the ending been just another turn of the “wheel” of “fortune” (2.2) of which the Players spoke?

Key Supporting Quotes

36
quotations from the play to support your statements.