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England, Elizabethan Period; perhaps written around 1599; First Quarto text: 1603, Second Quarto text: 1604-1605; Folio text: 1623

Language & Form

English original; tragedy. Mix of verse and prose. Sources: Saxo Grammaticus's History of the Danes (Historiae Danicae) and a lost play of the same subject.


Danish Prince Hamlet grieves the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, and the marriage of his mother, Gertrude, to his uncle, now King Claudius. The ghost of King Hamlet appears to young Hamlet and reveals that he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius. Plotting revenge, Hamlet pretends to be mad, in the process alienating his love Ophelia, accidentally killing her father Polonius, and causing Claudius to become suspicious. Claudius seeks to get rid of Hamlet, sending him to England where he expects him to die. Hamlet discovers the plot, reversing Claudius's instructions and ensuring the death of his escorts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the meantime Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself in a nearby river. After his return to Denmark, Hamlet fights a duel with Ophelia's brother, Laertes, who has secretly poisoned his sword, expecting to kill Hamlet. Both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded with the poisoned blade; Gertrude accidentally drinks poisoned wine which Claudius had intended for Hamlet. Hamlet wounds Claudius with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink the remains of the wine. With their last breath, Laertes and Hamlet exchange forgiveness. Prince Fortinbras of Norway arrives and, seeing everyone dead, takes over the kingdom of Denmark.

Main Issues

Shakespeare's critical view of life at the court; court seen as place of corruption and treachery.

Device of medieval Danish court and characters as a mirror of Renaissance English courts and historical figures.

Hamlet and Ophelia engulfed by and forced to participate in the evil around them.

Instability and uncertainty of love and loyalty.

A drama not of indecision but of misguided decisions, of ambition and inability to reject and escape from the place of danger (the court at Elsinore); the university at Wittenberg portrayed as possible place of escape for Hamlet.

Madness of Hamlet as both feigned and real--a strategic device intended to help in his fight against his enemies and an unintended effect of his decision to stay in Elsinore and avenge his father's murder.

Revenge and murder as central targets of Shakespeare's criticism. The obsession with revenge is portrayed as diametrically opposed to genuine Christian virtue and becomes the reason for Hamlet's downfall.

The ultimate problem which Shakespeare tackles is that of the critique of worldly ambition--Hamlet's participation in the tragic action appears to be secretly motivated by his own desire to be king. The drama is then one of struggle for power and of what people are capable of in the pursuit of that power.

In his desire for revenge and for the throne, Hamlet is not all that different from the villainous Claudius and is forced to descend to his own level: lying, scheming, and murdering in order to accomplish his ends.

Study Questions

What kind of a man was King Hamlet, young Hamlet's father? What do we know of his character and behavior before his untimely death?

When was young Hamlet born? Why does the gravedigger claim that he began digging graves on the day of Hamlet's birth? What else happened on that day?

Is there any significance to the manner in which King Hamlet is said to have been killed? Why poison in the ear? Is poison in other forms present in the story? What does poison symbolize? Who dies/kills by poison?

What does the ghost want? Why does he speak only to Hamlet? Are there any significant differences in the ways in which Horatio and Hamlet address the ghost? Are those differences related to the reasons why the ghost won't speak to Horatio? What are the implications concerning the nature of the ghost? What does the ghost symbolize?

Is Hamlet mad? Is Hamlet indecisive? What does Hamlet want?

Does Hamlet have alternatives to his involvement in the court politics and intrigue at Elsinore? What are those alternatives? Where was Hamlet before his coming to Elsinore for his father's funeral and his mother's wedding? What does such a place represent?

Are there any similarities in the situations of Hamlet and Ophelia? How about the circumstances of their deaths? How does Ophelia die? What are the causes of her death (direct and indirect)? How does the clown/gravedigger characterize her death? Is there any sense to his interpretation? Does Ophelia have any alternatives? Can she avoid becoming entangled in the court politics and intrigue at Elsinore? How?

Are the deaths of Hamlet and Ophelia ultimately connected to their own actions and decisions? Are they innocent victims of the schemes of evil people?

In what ways is Hamlet different from or similar to the other courtiers at Elsinore? Does Hamlet lie, set traps for others and/or commit murder? What does that imply?

Why so many deaths by the end of the play? Is there justice in this ending?

Are there any similarities in the situations of young Fortinbras and young Hamlet? What is the significance of young Fortinbras's claiming the throne of Denmark at the end of the play? Who was young Fortinbras's father? How did he die? Is there a kind of justice enacted at the end? Is the ending in any way connected to the events of the beginning? When does it all begin? When does it end?


to come

Recommended Reading

"Murder and Kinship: Biblical Paradigms in Hamlet," Hamlet Studies 18 (1996): 85-93.


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