Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - cover image

The Main Themes of Hamlet: Sample Essays

A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.

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Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

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Introduction

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).

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#Hamlet - to both on-stage characters and audience it can seem more baffling mystery than tragedy.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Appearance and reality drift ever further apart in a story of a secret murder concealed by deception, deception corroding innocence and exploiting grief, and ultimately, rebounding back on itself: “as a woodcock to mine own springe” (5.2).
  • The theatrically-minded, Shakespeare-like Prince Hamlet struggles to understand what type of story destiny has cast him in.
  • No more than dramatic characters can rewrite their playwright’s script, Prince Hamlet is not free to “carve for himself” (1.3) his own life.

Key Supporting Quotes

19
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Appearance versus reality: “Who’s there?”

“He that plays the king shall be welcome”, Prince Hamlet remarks in 2.2 on hearing of the Players’ arrival. But Hamlet the play reveals what tragic consequences follow for people and country when the throne is seized by a man driven only by amoral ambition concealed with “a little shuffling” (4.7). The self-deluding “hoodman-blind” (3.4) Queen Gertrude is forced to confront the true character of her second husband only when it is too late for her and her son.

Bernardo and the other castle lookouts of the first act were watching in the wrong direction. In the end, Denmark was not conquered by an invading foreign army; it collapsed under a domestic web of deception.

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#Hamlet: "My lord, you once did love me... what is your cause of distemper?"

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Polonius sends a spy Reynaldo to Paris to spread malicious lies about Laertes – “Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth” (2.2).
  • Claudius exiles Hamlet to England “for thine especial safety” (4.3). In reality, he is sending his nephew to his death.
  • Other characters do not know what Hamlet knows; but even the prince himself cannot be sure of the difference between what ‘seems’ and what ‘is’.

Key Supporting Quotes

21
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Revenge and remembrance: “Where is thy father?”

Revenge and remembrance are present in legacies of three fathers to their sons: a reckless lust for territorial conquest (Young Fortinbras); an overvaluing of social rank and reputation (Laertes); and a soul-damning “dread command” (3.4) for vengeful murder (Prince Hamlet).

Hamlet’s through-a-curtain stabbing of Polonius sets in motion a second revenge plot which recasts the prince as a target rather than an agent of revenge. Always quick to see theatrical parallels, the prince later says to Laertes: “I’ll be your foil” (5.2).

The interwoven revenge stories end with the son of Norway’s old King Fortinbras, who had been killed by King Hamlet on the day the prince was born, succeeding to the throne of Denmark.

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"Where is thy father?" - Would #Hamlet have answered his question to Ophelia any more honestly?

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Prince Hamlet, rather than revenging King Hamlet’s murder, creates another vengeance-seeking, fatherless son, Laertes.
  • The Ghost’s revelations send Hamlet retreating inward into isolation. Polonius’ son instead reaches outward to lead a revolt against the king.
  • Claudius manipulates Laertes into a rigged fencing duel – “show yourself in deed your father’s son” (4.7).
  • Denmark’s throne falls to the son of the man King Hamlet killed on the day his own son was born.

Key Supporting Quotes

25
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Madness and insanity: “Taint not thy mind”

Hamlet claims to Laertes that he was by “madness … from himself be ta’en away” (5.2). But was the ever-theatrical prince ever really insane? Or is what the king calls his “turbulent and dangerous lunacy” (3.1) merely a means to help him cling to his sanity—and avoid immediate execution for Polonius’ murder?

Hamlet’s acting out of his antic disposition—and the very real rage it both conceals and reveals—is the cause of actual madness in Polonius’ daughter: “Poor Ophelia / Divided from herself and her fair judgment” (4.5). When “driven to desperate terms” (4.7) by Elsinore’s false world, Ophelia too finds a way to speak her truth: in songs of lost love and the symbolic language of flowers.

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

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Hamlet’s put-on madness helps him avoid immediate execution for the “so capital in nature” (4.7) murder of Polonius.
  • Hamlet’s stabbing of her only parent sends Ophelia first into madness (“Her mood will needs be pitied”, 4.5) and then to apparent suicide.
  • Ophelia’s surrender to her watery death foreshadows the suicidal return of Hamlet to Elsinore where, as he must know, Claudius has some fatal “exploit” (4.7) planned for him.

Key Supporting Quotes

26
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Corruption, decay and death: “an unweeded garden”

At a time when a country’s health and security were seen as linked with the moral legitimacy of its monarch, Hamlet’s description in 1.2 of Denmark as “an unweeded garden” reflects his opinion of Claudius as a bestial “satyr.”

Hamlet and Claudius speak of each other in the language of sickness, disease and death that is all-present throughout Hamlet. To Claudius, his nephew is “like the hectic in my blood” (2.4). Hamlet calls his uncle a “canker of our nature” (5.2). In a play where the only scene set outside the castle is in a graveyard, the prince’s obsessive speaking of decay and rottenness—“we fat ourselves for maggots” (4.3)—reflects his disgust at the corruption he sees around him.

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#Hamlet - because of Yorick, the prince is drama's only tragic hero with a sense of humor.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • When Hamlet asks of the sexton “How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?” (5.1), his reply suggests some are already rotten in life.
  • Claudius’ admission “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven” (3.3) echoes the prince’s earlier description of Denmark: “things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2).
  • The king worries that rumors of Polonius’ death are spreading plague-like in “pestilent speeches”.

Key Supporting Quotes

21
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion: “The fall of a sparrow”

Deception unmasked, comeuppance for all, and death everywhere. In the final scene of 5.2 Laertes achieves redemption by exposing Claudius’ plot (“the king’s to blame”), and by seeking and receiving Hamlet’s pardon (“Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet”).

The prince does kill Claudius, who had “Thrown out his angle for my proper life”—but is it in revenge for his father’s murder or his own? The prince is in death as he was in life: a puzzle.

With control of Denmark passing to Norway, the assembled nobles too receive their comeuppance—for choosing brother to succeed brother rather than son to succeed father.

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#Hamlet: deception unmasked, comeuppance for all and death everywhere. The grave-diggers will be busy.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Duplicitous to the very last, Claudius attempts to pass off Gertrude’s fainting as a reaction to the fencing duel: “She swoons to see them bleed” (5.2).
  • Gertrude, who did not make it a condition of her marriage to Claudius that her son succeed to the kingship, dies on the queenly throne Ophelia could have instead occupied.
  • The play that begins with a question ends with much left unsaid: “Had I but time… O, I could tell you” (5.2).

Key Supporting Quotes

24
quotations from the play to support your statements.