Hamlet character analysis essay: Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, and tragic hero of a play he did not want to be in.
Three full sample essays on the character of Prince Hamlet.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king and be killed for it.
Revenge and forgiveness
Why does he ‘delay’? And is Claudius’ killing really revenge for his father?
Madness: “Losing his wits”
Is Hamlet’s ‘antic’ madness just an act by the theater-loving prince?
Acceptance or action: “To be or not to be?”
Should we endure the world as it is—or seek to change it for the better?
Tragic hero or player prince?: “Who’s there?”
A tragic hero? Or actor forced by a tragic fate to play an unwanted role?
Usurper, dethroned (Claudius); soul, forgiven (Laertes); and story told (Horatio).
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)?
#Hamlet: Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a 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).
#Hamlet grants his father not the revenge he demanded but the atonement his suffering soul needed more.
“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.
"How came he mad?" - #Hamlet asks about himself to the grave-digger.
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.
#Hamlet's "To be or not to be" (3.1): Ends without a conclusion; begins without a question mark.
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.
#Hamlet - A play-long pun on the verb 'to act': to do and to play a false role.
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.
#Hamlet does "win at the odds"; usurper, justly killed (Claudius): soul, forgiven (Laertes); story, told (Horatio).
His “ambition” for Denmark’s throne leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
Ophelia’s sanity is overwhelmed by Elsinore’s maddening world of deception and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge against everyone who dismissed, silenced and humiliated her.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
Their relationship begins with mutual suspicion and dislike, escalates into a psychological battle of wits and ends with defeat for both and victory for the rival kingdom of Norway.
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she to the water, he to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
A genuine friendship in an Elsinore poisoned by betrayal. But does Hamlet exploit his friend’s loyalty with his improbable tale of divinely-inspired rescue by pirates?
A marriage of practical interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the role of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
Deception, revenge, madness, corruption, decay, and death—all shaped by destiny. A prince is left with an impossible choice when his uncle chooses murder; his father, revenge; and his mother, self-delusion.
Two young men journey from revenge, through madness and anger, to forgiveness. An opportunist claims an empty throne. And a restless Ghost is granted atonement for his sins by his kingdom-surrendering son.
‘Seems’ and ‘is’ are as far apart as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are similar in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to play a false role, and to perform in theater.