With Shakespeare the dramatic resolution conveys us, beyond the man-made sphere of poetic justice, toward the ever-receding horizons of cosmic irony. This is peculiarly the case with Hamlet, for the same reasons that it excites such intensive empathy from actors and readers, critics and writers alike. There may be other Shakespearean characters who are just as memorable, and other plots which are no less impressive; but nowhere else has the outlook of the individual in a dilemma been so profoundly realized; and a dilemma, by definition, is an all but unresolvable choice between evils. Rather than with calculation or casuistry, it should be met with virtue or readiness; sooner or later it will have to be grasped by one or the other of its horns. These, in their broadest terms, have been—for Hamlet, as we interpret him—the problem of what to believe and the problem of how to act.
—Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet
Hamlet is almost certainly the world’s most famous play, featuring drama’s and literature’s most fascinating and complex character. The many-sided Hamlet—son, lover, intellectual, prince, warrior, and avenger—is the consummate test for each generation’s leading actors, and to be an era’s defining Hamlet is perhaps the greatest accolade one can earn in the theater. The play is no less a proving ground for the critic and scholar, as successive generations have refashioned Hamlet in their own image, while finding in it new resonances and entry points to plumb its depths, perplexities, and possibilities. No other play has been analyzed so extensively, nor has any play had a comparable impact on our culture. The brooding young man in black, skull in hand, has moved out of the theater and into our collective consciousness and cultural myths, joining only a handful of comparable literary archetypes—Oedipus, Faust, and Don Quixote—who embody core aspects of human nature and experience. “It is we,” the romantic critic William Hazlitt observed, “who are Hamlet.”
Hamlet also commands a crucial, central place in William Shakespeare’s dramatic career. First performed around 1600, the play stands near the midpoint of the playwright’s two-decade career as a culmination and new departure. As the first of his great tragedies, Hamlet signals a decisive shift from the comedies and history plays that launched Shakespeare’s career to the tragedies of his maturity. Although unquestionably linked both to the plays that came before and followed, Hamlet is also markedly exceptional. At nearly 4,000 lines, almost twice the length of Macbeth, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest and, arguably, his most ambitious play with an enormous range of characters—from royals to gravediggers—and incidents, including court, bedroom, and graveyard scenes and a play within a play. Hamlet also bristles with a seemingly inexhaustible array of ideas and themes, as well as a radically new strategy for presenting them, most notably, in transforming soliloquies from expositional and motivational asides to the audience into the verbalization of consciousness itself. As Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt has asserted, “In its moral complexity, psychological depth, and philosophical power, Hamlet seems to mark an epochal shift not only in Shakespeare’s own career but in Western drama; it is as if the play were giving birth to a whole new kind of literary subjectivity.” Hamlet, more than any other play that preceded it, turns its action inward to dramatize an isolated, conflicted psyche struggling to cope with a world that has lost all certainty and consolation. Struggling to reconcile two contradictory identities—the heroic man of action and duty and the Christian man of conscience—Prince Hamlet becomes the modern archetype of the self-divided, alienated individual, desperately searching for self-understanding and meaning. Hamlet must contend with crushing doubt without the support of traditional beliefs that dictate and justify his actions. In describing the arrival of the fragmentation and chaos of the modern world, Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold declared that “the calm, cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have disappeared, the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced.” Hamlet anticipates that dialogue by more than two centuries.
Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet makes strikingly original uses of borrowed material. The Scandinavian folk tale of Amleth, a prince called upon to avenge his father’s murder by his uncle, was first given literary form by the Danish writer Saxo the Grammarian in his late 12th century Danish History and later adapted in French in François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1570). This early version of the Hamlet story provided Shakespeare with the basic characters and relationships but without the ghost or the revenger’s uncertainty. In the story of Amleth there is neither doubt about the usurper’s guilt nor any moral qualms in the fulfillment of the avenger’s mission. In preChristian Denmark blood vengeance was a sanctioned filial obligation, not a potentially damnable moral or religious violation, and Amleth successfully accomplishes his duty by setting fire to the royal hall, killing his uncle, and proclaiming himself king of Denmark. Shakespeare’s more immediate source may have been a nowlost English play (c. 1589) that scholars call the Ur–Hamlet. All that has survived concerning this play are a printed reference to a ghost who cried “Hamlet, revenge!” and criticism of the play’s stale bombast. Scholars have attributed the Ur-Hamlet to playwright Thomas Kyd, whose greatest success was The Spanish Tragedy (1592), one of the earliest extant English tragedies. The Spanish Tragedy popularized the genre of the revenge tragedy, derived from Aeschylus’s Oresteia and the Latin plays of Seneca, to which Hamlet belongs. Kyd’s play also features elements that Shakespeare echoes in Hamlet, including a secret crime, an impatient ghost demanding revenge, a protagonist tormented by uncertainty who feigns madness, a woman who actually goes mad, a play within a play, and a final bloodbath that includes the death of the avenger himself. An even more immediate possible source for Hamlet is John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge (1599), another story of vengeance on a usurper by a sensitive protagonist.
Whether comparing Hamlet to its earliest source or the handling of the revenge plot by Kyd, Marston, or other Elizabethan or Jacobean playwrights, what stands out is the originality and complexity of Shakespeare’s treatment, in his making radically new and profound uses of established stage conventions. Hamlet converts its sensational material—a vengeful ghost, a murder mystery, madness, a heartbroken maiden, a fistfight at her burial, and a climactic duel that results in four deaths—into a daring exploration of mortality, morality, perception, and core existential truths. Shakespeare put mystery, intrigue, and sensation to the service of a complex, profound epistemological drama. The critic Maynard Mack in an influential essay, “The World of Hamlet,” has usefully identified the play’s “interrogative mode.” From the play’s opening words—“Who’s there?”—to “What is this quintessence of dust?” through drama’s most famous soliloquy—“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”—Hamlet “reverberates with questions, anguished, meditative, alarmed.” The problematic nature of reality and the gap between truth and appearance stand behind the play’s conflicts, complicating Hamlet’s search for answers and his fulfillment of his role as avenger.
Hamlet opens with startling evidence that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” The ghost of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, has been seen in Elsinore, now ruled by his brother, Claudius, who has quickly married his widowed queen, Gertrude. When first seen, Hamlet is aloof and skeptical of Claudius’s justifications for his actions on behalf of restoring order in the state. Hamlet is morbidly and suicidally disillusioned by the realization of mortality and the baseness of human nature prompted by the sudden death of his father and his mother’s hasty, and in Hamlet’s view, incestuous remarriage to her brother-in-law:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!
O God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah, fie! ’Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
A recent student at the University of Wittenberg, whose alumni included Martin Luther and the fictional Doctor Faustus, Hamlet is an intellectual of the Protestant Reformation, who, like Luther and Faustus, tests orthodoxy while struggling to formulate a core philosophy. Brought to encounter the apparent ghost of his father, Hamlet alone hears the ghost’s words that he was murdered by Claudius and is compelled out of his suicidal despair by his pledge of revenge. However, despite the riveting presence of the ghost, Hamlet is tormented by doubts. Is the ghost truly his father’s spirit or a devilish apparition tempting Hamlet to his damnation? Is Claudius truly his father’s murderer? By taking revenge does Hamlet do right or wrong? Despite swearing vengeance, Hamlet delays for two months before taking any action, feigning madness better to learn for himself the truth about Claudius’s guilt. Hamlet’s strange behavior causes Claudius’s counter-investigation to assess Hamlet’s mental state. School friends—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—are summoned to learn what they can; Polonius, convinced that Hamlet’s is a madness of love for his daughter Ophelia, stages an encounter between the lovers that can be observed by Claudius. The court world at Elsinore, is, therefore, ruled by trickery, deception, role playing, and disguise, and the so-called problem of Hamlet, of his delay in acting, is directly related to his uncertainty in knowing the truth. Moreover, the suspicion of his father’s murder and his mother’s sexual betrayal shatter Hamlet’s conception of the world and his responsibility in it. Pushed back to the suicidal despair of the play’s opening, Hamlet is paralyzed by indecision and ambiguity in which even death is problematic, as he explains in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy in the third act:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
The arrival of a traveling theatrical group provides Hamlet with the empirical means to resolve his doubts about the authenticity of the ghost and Claudius’s guilt. By having the troupe perform the Mousetrap play that duplicates Claudius’s crime, Hamlet hopes “to catch the conscience of the King” by observing Claudius’s reaction. The king’s breakdown during the performance seems to confirm the ghost’s accusation, but again Hamlet delays taking action when he accidentally comes upon the guilt-ridden Claudius alone at his prayers. Rationalizing that killing the apparently penitent Claudius will send him to heaven and not to hell, Hamlet decides to await an opportunity “That has no relish of salvation in’t.” He goes instead to his mother’s room where Polonius is hidden in another attempt to learn Hamlet’s mind and intentions. This scene between mother and son, one of the most powerful and intense in all of Shakespeare, has supported the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet’s dilemma in which he is stricken not by moral qualms but by Oedipal guilt. Gertrude’s cries of protest over her son’s accusations cause Polonius to stir, and Hamlet finally, instinctively strikes the figure he assumes is Claudius. In killing the wrong man Hamlet sets in motion the play’s catastrophes, including the madness and suicide of Ophelia, overwhelmed by the realization that her lover has killed her father, and the fatal encounter with Laertes who is now similarly driven to avenge a murdered father. Convinced of her son’s madness, Gertrude informs Claudius of Polonius’s murder, prompting Claudius to alter his order for Hamlet’s exile to England to his execution there.
Hamlet’s mental shift from reluctant to willing avenger takes place offstage during his voyage to England in which he accidentally discovers the execution order and then after a pirate attack on his ship makes his way back to Denmark. He returns to confront the inescapable human condition of mortality in the graveyard scene of act 5 in which he realizes that even Alexander the Great must return to earth that might be used to “stop a beer-barrel” and Julius Caesar’s clay to “stop a hole to keep the wind away.” This sobering realization that levels all earthly distinctions of nobility and acclaim is compounded by the shock of Ophelia’s funeral procession. Hamlet sustains his balance and purpose by confessing to Horatio his acceptance of a providential will revealed to him in the series of accidents on his voyage to England: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Roughhew them how we will.” Finally accepting his inability to control his life, Hamlet resigns himself to accept whatever comes. Agreeing to a duel with Laertes that Claudius has devised to eliminate his nephew, Hamlet asserts that “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”
In the carnage of the play’s final scene, Hamlet ironically manages to achieve his revenge while still preserving his nobility and moral stature. It is the murderer Claudius who is directly or indirectly responsible for all the deaths. Armed with a poisonedtip sword, Laertes strikes Hamlet who in turn manages to slay Laertes with the lethal weapon. Meanwhile, Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup Claudius intended to insure Hamlet’s death, and, after the remorseful Laertes blames Claudius for the plot, Hamlet, hesitating no longer, fatally stabs the king. Dying in the arms of Horatio, Hamlet orders his friend to “report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied” and transfers the reign of Denmark to the last royal left standing, the Norwegian prince Fortinbras. King Hamlet’s death has been avenged but at a cost of eight lives: Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencranz, Guildenstern, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius, and Prince Hamlet. Order is reestablished but only by Denmark’s sworn enemy. Shakespeare’s point seems unmistakable: Honor and duty that command revenge consume the guilty and the innocent alike. Heroism must face the reality of the graveyard.
Fortinbras closes the play by ordering that Hamlet be carried off “like a soldier” to be given a military funeral underscoring the point that Hamlet has fallen as a warrior on a battlefield of both the duplicitous court at Elsinore and his own mind. The greatness of Hamlet rests in the extraordinary perplexities Shakespeare has discovered both in his title character and in the events of the play. Few other dramas have posed so many or such knotty problems of human existence. Is there a special providence in the fall of a sparrow? What is this quintessence of dust? To be or not to be?