Deception, revenge, madness, corruption, death – all shaped by the playwright of destiny.
Three full sample essays on the main themes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
No more than fictional characters can rewrite their author’s script, Hamlet is not free to choose his own destiny.
reality: “Who’s there?”
Elsinore‘s guards were watching in the wrong direction. Denmark's threat came from the inside.
Revenge: “Where is
Dead fathers cast a dark shadow over the children of the Hamlet, Polonius and Fortinbras families.
Madness: “Taint not
Horatio never doubts his friend‘s sanity. No one questions Ophelia‘s madness.
Decay and death:
“an unweeded garden”
The prince‘s obsessive speaking of rottenness reflects his disgust at what he sees around him.
Conclusion: “The fall
of a sparrow”
Deception unmasked, comeuppance for all, and death everywhere. The grave-diggers will be busy.
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).
#Hamlet - to both on-stage characters and audience it can seem more baffling mystery than tragedy.
“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.
#Hamlet: "My lord, you once did love me... what is your cause of distemper?"
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.
"Where is thy father?" - Would #Hamlet have answered his question to Ophelia any more honestly?
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.
"How came he mad?" - #Hamlet asks about himself to the grave-digger.
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.
#Hamlet - because of Yorick, the prince is drama's only tragic hero with a sense of humor.
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.
#Hamlet: deception unmasked, comeuppance for all and death everywhere. The grave-diggers will be busy.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as both the tragic hero and victim of a story he did not want to be in.
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.
As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her self-drowning is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.
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.
The relationship between uncle and nephew 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 frien’s loyalty with his improbable tale of 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.
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.