The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of
Set around 1050 A.D.
(approx. the same time as Macbeth)
less historical than Macbeth
Elsinore Castle - Denmark
King Hamlet ---->
(Dead king of Denmark)
<---- Claudius - New King
(King Hamlet's Brother)
Driven by Lust for Power
Formerly Student at Wittenberg
Counselor to the King
Laertes --------------- Ophelia (Prince Hamlet's Girlfriend[?])
Most of Play in France
the men in her life
Quick to Action
Horatio (Hamlet's Best Friend - Wittenberg)
Rosencrantz & Gildenstern
Puppet-like "friends" of Hamlet's
King Fortinbras of Norway
(killed by King Hamlet)
(leader of Norway's army - fighting Poland)
Aristotle’s definition of tragedy:
When a “great” person, because of
in his or her character, suffers great
While critics tend to agree that Hamlet "is not perfect" and that his
tragedy is "partially his own fault," they differ greatly on just what
constitutes his "tragic flaw."
Here are just a few of the candidates for that honor:
* Excessive intellectualism-- Hamlet thinks too much.
* Infantilism-- Hamlet has never grown up. He can't face the reality of a
mother with sexual needs and a world that sometimes requires us to
make compromises with evil.
* Hamlet is the victim of an Oedipus Complex.
* Hamlet is manic-depressive. (Put him on Prozac, and he'd go back to
school and behave himself.).
* Hubris-- Hamlet has delusions of grandeur. He thinks he can stagemanage the affairs of the kingdom and toy with his uncle and his mother.
On a dark winter night, a ghost walks the ramparts
of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Discovered first by
a pair of watchmen, then by the scholar Horatio,
the ghost resembles the recently deceased King
Hamlet, whose brother Claudius has inherited the
throne and married the king’s widow, Queen
Gertrude. When Horatio and the watchmen bring
Prince Hamlet, the son of Gertrude and the dead
king, to see the ghost, it speaks to him, declaring
ominously that it is indeed his father’s spirit, and
that he was murdered by none other than Claudius.
Ordering Hamlet to seek revenge on the man who
usurped his throne and married his wife, the ghost
disappears with the dawn.
Prince Hamlet devotes himself to avenging his father’s death, but,
because he is contemplative and thoughtful by nature, he delays,
entering into a deep melancholy and even apparent madness.
Claudius and Gertrude worry about the prince’s erratic behavior
and attempt to discover its cause. They employ a pair of Hamlet’s
friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch him. When
Polonius, the pompous Lord Chamberlain, suggests that Hamlet
may be mad with love for his daughter, Ophelia, Claudius agrees
to spy on Hamlet in conversation with the girl. But though Hamlet
certainly seems mad, he does not seem to love Ophelia: he orders
her to enter a nunnery and declares that he wishes to ban
A group of traveling actors comes to Elsinore, and Hamlet
seizes upon an idea to test his uncle’s guilt. He will have the
players perform a scene closely resembling the sequence by
which Hamlet imagines his uncle to have murdered his
father, so that if Claudius is guilty, he will surely react.
When the moment of the murder arrives in the theater,
Claudius leaps up and leaves the room. Hamlet and Horatio
agree that this proves his guilt. Hamlet goes to kill Claudius
but finds him praying. Since he believes that killing
Claudius while in prayer would send Claudius’s soul to
heaven, Hamlet considers that it would be an inadequate
revenge and decides to wait. Claudius, now frightened of
Hamlet’s madness and fearing for his own safety, orders
that Hamlet be sent to England at once.
Hamlet goes to confront his mother, in whose
bedchamber Polonius has hidden behind a tapestry.
Hearing a noise from behind the tapestry, Hamlet
believes the king is hiding there. He draws his sword and
stabs through the fabric, killing Polonius. For this crime,
he is immediately dispatched to England with
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, Claudius’s plan
for Hamlet includes more than banishment, as he has
given Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sealed orders for the
King of England demanding that Hamlet be put to death.
In the aftermath of her father’s death, Ophelia goes mad with
grief and drowns in the river. Polonius’s son, Laertes, who has
been staying in France, returns to Denmark in a rage. Claudius
convinces him that Hamlet is to blame for his father’s and sister’s
deaths. When Horatio and the king receive letters from Hamlet
indicating that the prince has returned to Denmark after pirates
attacked his ship en route to England, Claudius concocts a plan to
use Laertes’ desire for revenge to secure Hamlet’s death. Laertes
will fence with Hamlet in innocent sport, but Claudius will
poison Laertes’ blade so that if he draws blood, Hamlet will die.
As a backup plan, the king decides to poison a goblet, which he
will give Hamlet to drink should Hamlet score the first or second
hits of the match. Hamlet returns to the vicinity of Elsinore just as
Ophelia’s funeral is taking place.
The sword-fighting begins. Hamlet scores the first hit, but
declines to drink from the king’s proffered goblet. Instead,
Gertrude takes a drink from it and is swiftly killed by the
poison. Laertes succeeds in wounding Hamlet, though Hamlet
does not die of the poison immediately. First, Laertes is cut by
his own sword’s blade, and, after revealing to Hamlet that
Claudius is responsible for the queen’s death, he dies from the
blade’s poison. Hamlet then stabs Claudius through with the
poisoned sword and forces him to drink down the rest of the
poisoned wine. Claudius dies, and Hamlet dies immediately
after achieving his revenge.
At this moment, a Norwegian prince named Fortinbras, who
has led an army to Denmark and attacked Poland earlier in the
play, enters with ambassadors from England, who report that
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras is stunned
by the gruesome sight of the entire royal family lying sprawled
on the floor dead. He moves to take power of the kingdom.
Horatio, fulfilling Hamlet’s last request, tells him Hamlet’s
tragic story. Fortinbras orders that Hamlet be carried away in a
manner befitting a fallen soldier.
IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?
“... What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Is but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” -- Hamlet
“To be, or not to be..” -- Hamlet
We've all asked this question. Shakespeare offers no pat answer, only
Hamlet's courage and dignity in accepting the human condition, saying "No!" to
corruption, and in meeting his own task and his own death.
Hamlet is called to his revenge "by heaven and hell", i.e., something that
Shakespeare thought of as more fundamental than "the struggle between good
and evil". Hamlet talks a great deal about the nature of human beings,
characterizes himself as "indifferent[ly] honest" and "could accuse" himself of
things for which it would have been better if he hadn't been born. We are left to
wonder what these are.
The morality plays that preceded Shakespeare showed examples of good and
bad people, and heroes that had a clear choice and made it. Shakespeare seems
to be telling us in "Hamlet" that we can and should try to live well, but that both
good and bad are inherent in the human condition. Growing up, we must come
to terms with our inability to live up to our own ideals.
IS HAMLET CRAZY?
Hamlet is already distraught, and in times of emotional distress,
we do wrong things without thinking. Afterwards, Hamlet (who
is "indifferent honest"), blames his "madness" for the killing of
Polonius. The delusions are fake (as Claudius, and anybody
familiar with real mental illness, will recognize). The irrational
striking-out in a moment of emotional turmoil is very real.
Shakespeare's play focused on the mind of a man who's
profoundly distraught and who is asking himself whether life is
worth living. Having Hamlet also pretend to be insane was
central to the source story, but not to Shakespeare's play. Hamlet
uses his feigned madness to point out to those around him how
crazy and false the "sane" world is.
Since Sophocles's ultra-coldblooded "Electra", revenge plays have
been among the favorite genre for theater and movies. Why?
First, a revenge play presumes that to right a wrong, somebody is
forced to take the law into his or her own hands. This showcases one
of the most important and serious of human concerns -- how do we
maintain good law (i.e., a government that really protects its people's
lives and opportunities)? It's the central question of civilization.
Second, the avenger must overcome obstacles to revenge. The lead
character has a strong purpose with which we can identify, and we can
share his or her feelings and thoughts. There is a satisfaction when
revenge is finally won.
Hamlet's "revenge" isn't so much simply the killing of the king, as it
is the purging of all the rottenness in the the Danish court. And
although it costs him his life, he succeeds.
"I know not 'seems'..." -- Hamlet.
For many young adults, the biggest life-issue is, "What has happened to
most forty-year-olds that caused them to lose the ideals and the
authenticity of youth?" For many forty-year-olds, the biggest life-issue is,
"How did I lose the ideals and authenticity that made me who I was when
I was twenty?"
Teenaged Holden Caulfield ("Catcher in the Rye") described the shams
of the "phony" society of the wealthy, and heard Hamlet had talked about
the same theme. He plans to read the play eventually.
Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" uses another young person to
comment on the falsity of adult society. Huck lives fairly well, as Hamlet
does. Huck speaks only by his actions, without Hamlet's eloquence. Mark
Twain uses humor and irony to show how much finer Huck is than his
At some time, we all consider how much wrong there is in the world.
"Hamlet" gives us a chance to watch an ordinary person consciously
choose to say "No!" to the world's wrongness and phoniness, and to strike
back with intelligence and power.
Does Hamlet Hesitate?
The debate about Hamlet being "unable to make up his mind" begins with his
own speeches after hearing the Player King's speech on Hecuba (he berates
himself for hesitating), and especially after talking to Fortinbras's soldier
("thinking too precisely on the event" -- i.e., people who obsess a lot are the ones
who do the least).
But the truth is that Hamlet has no opportunity to kill the king and then justify
his action, until the final disaster, when Laertes reveals "The king's to blame". In
the case, "providence" provides the opportunity. Heroes of earlier revenge plays
soliloquize about having to delay, and criticize themselves for it. But revenge
plays require that the revenge take time and planning -- or there would be no
Now, when Hamlet expresses regrets that he's not completed his revenge, he
compares himself unfavorably to the Player King (who has just recited a
ridiculous, bombastic speech) and to Fortinbras (who is getting thousands of
people killed for no good reason at all). It is no coincidence that both the Player
King and Fortinbras are pursuing stupid, vain goals.
Green Eggs and Hamlet
I ask to be or not to be.
That is the question I ask of me.
This sullied life, it makes me shudder.
My uncle's boffing dear sweet mother.
Would I, could I take my life?
Could I, should I end this strife?
Should I jump out of a plane?
Or throw myself before a train?
Should I from a cliff just leap?
Could I put myself to sleep?
Shoot myself ot take some poison?
Maybe try self immolation?
To shudder off this mortal coil,
I could stab myself with a fencing foil.
Slash my wrists while in the bath?
Would it end my angst and wrath?
To sleep, to dream, now there's the rub.
I could drop a toaster in my tub.
Would all be glad if I were dead?
Could I perhaps kill them instead?
This line of thought takes considerationFor I'm the king of procrastination.
Is Ophelia pregnant with Hamlet's baby?
Hamlet was romantically interested in Ophelia,
and she in him, and they lived in the same castle.
Hamlet jokes with Polonius about how his
daughter might become pregnant, a pregnant rich
girl might be sent for secrecy's sake to a convent
("nunnery") and the child given for adoption, and
Ophelia sings about lost virginity.