In full Hamlet, Prince
of Denmark, a tragedy in five acts, first performed in 1600-01 and published
in a quarto edition in 1603 from a reported text, with reference to an
earlier play. The First Folio version, taken from a second quarto (published
from "foul papers") with reference to a promptbook and with
authorial and theatrical additions.
Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark is probably
the best known of William Shakespeare's works, and may well be the most
famous English-language play ever written. Categorized as one of Shakespeare's
"later tragedies," Hamlet and its namesake hero display fully
the mature Bard's extraordinary talents. But while Hamlet has been the
subject of admiring critical commentary since Elizabethan times, it has
also developed a reputation as a difficult work to analyze, one that features
a very complicated central character, addresses many complex themes, and
presents the reader with a multi-layered text which defies easy interpretation.
Shakespeare's telling of the story of Prince
Hamlet, who after much indecision avenges the murder of his father, derives
from several sources, notably from books 3 and 4 of Saxo Grammaticus'
12th-century Gesta Danorum, and from volume 5 (1570) of Histoires tragiques,
a free translation of Saxo by François de Belleforest. It is possible
that Saxo drew on a (lost) Icelandic saga of Amlódji, mentioned
by a 10th-century Icelandic poet, for his information. It also has been
argued that Saxo's Amleth was originally a product of Geatish tradition
as it developed in Jutland. One scholar has suggested that the Hamlet
story has its origins in the East, being similar to a tale in the 11th-century
Shah-nameh ("Book of Kings") by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. Others
have posited a Celtic origin, pointing to the warrior Amhlaide, who is
named as the slayer of King Niall Glúndub in the Irish Annals under
the year 917.
Shakespeare's play was evidently preceded
by another play of Hamlet, now lost, and usually referred to as the Ur-Hamlet,
of which Thomas Kyd is a conjectured author. The Hystorie of Hamblet,
an English version of Belleforest's work, was published in London in 1608.
The trait that characterizes Shakespeare's Hamlet, however, is unique
to the author.
The character of Hamlet is one of the most
compelling characters to ever rise from the pages of English literature.
He has been subjected to numerous interpretations and studies over the
centuries, his actions and thoughts analyzed and analyzed again. And this,
probably more than anything else, is the reason for Hamlet's enduring
appeal. As a reader, you can come to any number of reasonable conclusions
about Hamlet, but coming to a firm conviction about this complex character
is a difficult task
As Shakespeare's play opens, Hamlet is mourning
his father, who has been killed, and lamenting the behaviour of his mother,
Gertrude, who married his uncle Claudius within a month of his father's
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 dead 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, poisoned by none other
than Claudius. Ordering Hamlet to seek revenge upon the man who usurped
his throne and married his wife, the ghost disappears with the coming
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.
Driven by a guilty conscience, Claudius and Gertrude worry about the prince's
erratic behaviour and attempt to discover its cause, in an attempt to
do so, they employ a pair of Hamlet's friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
to watch him. Hamlet quickly sees through the scheme and begins to act
the part of a madman in front of them. 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, Despite Ophelia's loyalty to him,
Hamlet thinks that she, like everyone else, is turning against him; he
feigns madness with her he does not seem to love Ophelia: he orders her
to enter a nunnery and declares that he wishes to ban marriages.
A group of travelling 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 theatre, 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
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
justly fearing for his own life, Claudius sends Hamlet 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 Hamlet put to death. When Hamlet
discovers the orders, he alters them to make his two friends the victims
In the aftermath of her father's death, Ophelia
loses her own sanity; 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. Stricken with grief, he attacks Laertes
and declares that he had in fact always loved Ophelia. Back at the castle,
he tells Horatio that he believes one must be prepared to die, since death
can come at any moment. A foolish courtier named Osric arrives on Claudius's
orders to arrange the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes.
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
in the castle 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, steps forward to tell him Hamlet's tragic story. Fortinbras orders
that Hamlet be carried away in a manner befitting a fallen soldier.
Judged by its reception, Hamlet must be regarded
as Shakespeare's most successful play. It has unceasing theatrical vitality,
and the character of Hamlet himself has become a figure of literary mythology.
For a time during the 20th century, many critics argued that in Hamlet
Shakespeare did not make a psychologically consistent play out of a plot
that retained much of the crudity of an earlier kind of "revenge"
drama--which he was trying to transform a barbaric "revenge"
hero into a subtle Renaissance prince but did not succeed.
Even if this opinion has become unacceptable,
it nevertheless taught critics to search out elements such as Shakespeare's
artistic balance in presenting the play's moral problems. It is likely
that an artist will make his work more interesting if he leaves a dilemma
morally ambiguous rather than explicit. The revenge situation in Hamlet,
moreover, is one charged with emotional excitement as well as moral interest.
Simply put, the good man (Hamlet) is weak, and the bad man (Claudius)
is strong. The good man has suffered a deep injury from the bad man, and
he cannot obtain justice because justice is in the hand of the strong
bad man. Therefore the weak good man must go around and around in order
to achieve a kind of natural justice; and the audience watches in suspense
while the weak good man by subtlety attacks and gets his own back upon
the strong bad man and the strong bad man spends his time evading the
weak good man. Hamlet is given a formidable opponent: Claudius is a hypocrite,
but he is a successful one. He achieves his desired effect on everybody.
His hypocrisy is that of a skilled politician. He is not dramatically
shown as being in any way unworthy of his station--he upholds his part
with dignity. He is a "smiling villain" and is not exposed until
the final catastrophe. The jealous Hamlet heaps abuse upon him, but Shakespeare
makes Claudius the murderer self-controlled. Thus, theatrically, the situation
is much more exciting.