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Themes of Hamlet / Hamlet Themes Explained

Updated on September 1, 2019
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Themes in Hamlet
Themes in Hamlet | Source

Revenge as a Theme of Hamlet

Revenge is the most prominent theme of Hamlet. The whole story rotates around this theme. In the very beginning of the story, we observe that the ghost of Hamlet, the then King of Denmark, reveals to the Prince Hamlet that his father was not died due to a serpent’s sting. Rather, he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, by pouring poison into his ear, while he was sleeping in his orchard. The ghost of the King Hamlet orders him to take revenge on Claudius for murdering his father. Prince Hamlet takes the revenge as his prime duty and tries to murder the King, Claudius at any cost.

According to BBC,

"Revenge is the initial motivation for Hamlet's transformation into anger and madness. In Shakespeare's time, "Revenge Tragedies" were a popular form of entertainment for theatre goers. The Bible explicitly forbids revenge but human instinct often wants it."

Prince Hamlet is not a simple person like a soldier to obey the orders of the ghost blindly and without any solid proofs. He wants to confirm the revelation made by the ghost. For this purpose, he arranges a mock play to catch the conscience of the King. Hamlet terms this play as “The Murder of Gonzago.” The actors perform the play, showing similar events, which were revealed by the ghost to Hamlet. When the King sees the said event, he reacts, gets shocked and leaves the place. Hamlet and Horatio sees the reaction of the King and they come to know that the King has really murdered his father. Once he finds an opportunity to kill Claudius, while he was praying. But he suspends his decision on the plea that killing him, while he was praying, would be tantamount to sending him to heaven. He wants to kill him when he is committing a sin.

In the end, the theme of revenge is explicitly shown to the readers. The King arranges a plan to kill Hamlet through the aid of Laertes, who has come from England to take revenge upon Hamlet who has killed his father, Polonius. They face each other. The King offers a poisoned goblet to Hamlet, but Hamlet refuses to take it. The queen drinks that goblet and she dies at the spot. The fight begins between Laertes and Hamlet. Laertes is able to hit Hamlet with his poisoned sword, but he does not die swiftly. Rather, Laertes is killed with his own sword. While dying, he informs Hamlet about the plan made by the King. Hamlet returns to the King, stabs him with the poisoned sword, and he dies along with Hamlet. Hamlet is able to take revenge upon the King but at the cost of his own life.

Hamlet is going to kill Claudius, but he suspends his decision on the plea that killing Claudius while he is praying will send him direct to heaven instead of hell.
Hamlet is going to kill Claudius, but he suspends his decision on the plea that killing Claudius while he is praying will send him direct to heaven instead of hell. | Source

Procrastination as a Theme of Hamlet

Procrastination is another theme of Hamlet. The tragedy of Hamlet shows it very well. The fall of Prince Hamlet occurs due to his procrastinating nature. Had he been prompt and active, he would not have lost his life in the play. In the beginning of the play, the ghost informs the Prince Hamlet that the real murderer of his father is Claudius, who killed his father by pouring poison into his ear, while he was sleeping in the orchard. The ghost orders him to take revenge upon Claudius for killing his father. Hamlet is a philosophical kind of person and he does not blindly follow the orders of the ghost.

He wants to prove the guilt of the King. He arranges a play, wherein Hamlet comes to know about the reality of the words told by the ghost. Thereafter, he takes a strong determination to kill Claudius, but he does not succeed in his mission due to procrastinating nature of Hamlet. Once he finds an opportunity to kill Claudius, while he was praying. But he gets back from taking action on the plea that killing Claudius, when he is praying, would be tantamount to sending his direct to heaven. It shows us how procrastinating nature he has got. It is a lame excuse to take revenge upon the King. Any other character in the play would have delayed the killing of Claudius to such an extent.

In the end of the play, we observe that he is able to take revenge upon the King but at the cost of his life. Thus, the tragedy of Hamlet is certainly a play of procrastination.

Death as a Theme of Hamlet

Death is another recurring theme of Hamlet. It looms over the fabrics of the play from the very beginning to the end of the play. We are told trough the mouth of the ghost of Hamlet that King Hamlet was died not because of a serpent’s sting. Rather, he was killed by his brother, Claudius, by pouring poison into his ear, while he was sleeping in his orchard. G. Wilson Knight, in his essay, The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet, says that, “Death is over the whole play. Polonius and Ophelia die during the action, and Ophelia is buried before our eyes. Hamlet arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The plot is set in motion by the murder of Hamlet's father, and the play opens with the apparition of the Ghost.”

The soliloquy in the Nunnery Scene throws light on death as a theme of Hamlet. Death is the overwhelming element of this soliloquy. Hamlet is so confused that he doesn’t know what action he should initiate to get rid of mental agony. He is ready to commit suicide, but he refrains from doing so as he knows the consequences of suicide. Look at the following lines taken from the soliloquy in Nunnery Scene:

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Gravedigger Scene in Hamlet
Gravedigger Scene in Hamlet | Source

The Grave Digger Scene reflects the thoughts of Hamlet on mortality of human body. When the gravedigger is digging grave for Ophelia, Hamlet and Horatio come over there. Hamlet focuses his eyes on the skulls, which are being excavated by the gravedigger to make room for the dead body of Hamlet. The gravedigger does not know anything about Hamlet. He tells Hamlet that the skull he is excavating belongs to Yorick, who was once King Hamlet’s jester. Hamlet is greatly bewildered at the sight of the skull. He muses on the mortality of human beings. He says that great people just like Alexander and Julius Caesar will certainly turn into dust. Hamlet thinks that Julius Caesar has become a part of the dust. Look at the following lines:


Which one is the major theme of Hamlet?

See results

Let me see.
Takes the skull
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.
What's that, my lord?
Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'
the earth?
E'en so.
And smelt so? pah!

Incest as a Theme of Hamlet

Incest is another important theme of Hamlet. Many critics have asserted in this regard. There are many characters, when analyzed, we will come to know that there is actually an element of incest in Hamlet. Before the Protestantism in England, it was forbidden for the male family members to marry the wife of their deceased brother. That’s why; Hamlet is deeply grieved at the marriage of his mother with his uncle. He considers it as a great sin. In the very beginning of the play, the incestuous act of Claudius is lingering in his mind. Look at the following lines, wherein Hamlet expresses his anger over the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius:

She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

In the end of the play when Hamlet kills Claudius, he says, “ Here, thou inces’uous, mud’rous, dammed Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother.”

Some critics say that Hamlet is the victim of Oedipus Complex. They say that there are many instances which show that Hamlet loves his mother. But in my opinion, there is no clear cut instance in the play, which shows that Hamlet suffers from Oedipus Complex.

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq


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      5 years ago

      I don't agree with everything in this smmaury, but you do make some very good points. I'm very interested in this subject and I myself do alot of research as well. Either way it was a well thoughtout and nice read so I figured I would leave you a comment. Feel free to check out my website sometime and let me know what you think.


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