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A Bluffer's Guide To Great Books: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Updated on March 17, 2015
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Kevin was born in Stevenage New Town, UK in the summer of 1959, and graduated from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge in 1980.


Almost every English-speaking adult will know at least one of the following quotes from Shakespeare's Hamlet:

  • O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
    Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew
  • How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
    Seem to me all the uses of this world.
  • Frailty, thy name is woman!
  • Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
  • I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams
  • To be, or not to be, — that is the question
  • Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio

To this extent, most of us have already had an introduction to Hamlet, and may know of the title-figure as a brooding, melancholy, maddened avenger. For those for whom this is the extent of their knowledge, the following should serve as a more extensive introduction.

A poster, ca. 1884, for an American production of Hamlet (starring Thomas W. Keene), showing several of the key scenes
A poster, ca. 1884, for an American production of Hamlet (starring Thomas W. Keene), showing several of the key scenes

The Plot

Hamlet's father, the King of Denmark, has died.

The King's brother, Claudius, succeeds him.

The Ghost of the King appears to Hamlet, informing him that he was murdered by Claudius and seeks revenge.

Hamlet, already depressed, has the extra burden of avenging his father, which, for one reason or another he finds impossible to do. He does however accidentally kill Polonius (an old stalwart of the court), and ruffles the new King in attempting to expose his crime.

Off-balance in any case, Hamlet assumes an 'antic dispostion' (feigns madness), causes his lover Ophelia to lose her mind and is shipped off to England by Claudius (ostensibly to get him out of the picture - actually to have him murdered).

Hamlet returns to find Ophelia has committed suicide and fights with Laertes (his friend and the brother of Ophelia). It is arranged that the dispute should be decided more formally by means of a duel, during which, (due mainly to Claudius's machinations) all the key characters meet their end.

To Read or Not To Read ...

Unusually for a work of literature, the film of the book is probably to be preferred to the text. The reason is obvious - this is a play; it was written as a play and should be appreciated as such.

Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that a reading of the text is not a good idea - it's a great idea! Shakespeare was a very subtle writer and by reading you can take the play at your own pace, allowing you time to consider its subtleties and ambiguities.

An annotated text is to be preferred and there are plenty of these available. Some words for instance will have you completely stumped, and a book with a glossary and notes will illuminate matters.

Alternatively get hold of Onions' Shakespeare Glossary and you are covered for all the plays and poems.

What's The Big Deal?

Hamlet is still a popular play some 400 years after its composition. There are various reasons why. Like all of Shakespeare's plays, it is full of action, comedy, tragedy, subtle word-play and very memorable speeches.

Hamlet himself is an attractive and fascinating character - highly intelligent, witty and troubled he is indisputably at the centre of the play (in a way that Julius Caesar isn't in Shakespeare's eponymous play). It's hard not to get caught up in Hamlet's turmoil, empathising with him in his private reflections and at the same time feeling the tension and frustration at his repeated failures to 'get the job done'.

But, as ever with Shakespeare, it is the language that will engross the attentive playgoer or reader. Not because it is Elizabethan, but because it is poetic - in Shakespeare's own words, 'rich and strange'.

Hamlet himself is a master of the language, whether he is speaking movingly and engrossingly of his troubles, or twitting those around him who ought to know better. Indeed one of my favourite passages is where Hamlet, in answer to the question "What are you reading?" replies, peremptorily, dismissively, sarcastically and illuminatingly "Word, words, words", an allusion to the vacuity and insincerity of those around him and of his own inability to act.

The Speeches

These speeches are some of the finest things written in the English language. They really should be appreciated within their context (i.e. the play as a whole) and yet they stand alone.

Click on the following links for some of the most memorable:

To be or not to be

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth

[Note: Hamlet is not the only master orator in Shakespeare - there are enough fine speeches to make a book of their own, just as Ted Hughes realised. See his Faber & Faber Selected Verse of Shakespeare]

Some Themes

We can never know whether Shakespeare wrote with any particular themes in mind, but in Hamlet the following are discernible:

  • Oedipus and indecision
  • Being and nothingness
  • Madness and melancholy
  • Wordplay

Oedipus and indecision: Hamlet's prevarication has been studied ever since Hamlet was first critically examined. The question arises "Why doesn't Hamlet just get on with it?" The fact that he doesn't is all too clear, even to himself, and while he makes excuses, his inaction turns into just one more 'fardel' that he must bear:

"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.--"

He pulls back from killing Claudius when he has the chance on the grounds that by killing the King in the midst of prayer, he will send him straight to Heaven, avoiding the purgatorial tortures that his father must endure.

Since Freud introduced his theory of the Oedipal Complex, other critics have suggested that this is something from which Hamlet is suffering. It is his violent verbal assault on his mother, Queen Gertrude that most clearly indicates that this may be the case - his but his indecisive attitude to taking his revenge on Claudius is rather more problematic - any full-blooded Oedipus would have dispatched the King with little hesitation, but it's an interesting theory that probably deserves further investigation.

Being and nothingness: It is all too clear that Hamlet would rather be dead than anything else. Distressed by his father's death and disturbed by his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, Hamlet yearns for the 'velvety blackness' that death might afford him, but cannot bring himself to end it all. In a number of soliloquies he addresses this age old problem in a way that makes him a kind of exemplar of the suicidal.

Madness and melancholy: That Hamlet is depressed (or melaqncholic) is clear, but the question has often arisen, "Is he mad?" He certainly behaves as if he is, but it is reasonable to assume that he is really just intensely unhappy, and that his 'antic disposition' is a cover. Ophelia on the other hand quite clearly loses her mind and ends her own life - an act that Hamlet is too rational to seriously consider.

Wordplay: It would be an unusual Shakespeare play in which there wasn''t a lot of wordplay, but in Hamlet we have a character who revels in it. He plays with others conceptions of him while simultaneously exploring the ambiguities of his position. As Polonius says:

"How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of"

And if you can tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw then you are some way towards understanding Hamlet and the play.

Hamlet: BBC production

© 2013 KevinStantonMcClintockMACantab

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