To attempt an analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a single blog post: surely a foolhardy objective if ever there was one. So here we’ll try to focus on some of the key points of Hamlet and analyse their significance, homing in on some of the most interesting as well as some of the most notable aspects of Shakespeare’s play. Before you read our analysis of Hamlet below, you might find it useful to read our summary of the play. Hamlet is a long play, but it’s also a fascinating one, with a ghost, murder, mistaken identity, family drama, poison, pirates, duels, skulls, and even a fight in an open grave. What more could one ask for?
Analysis of the play’s sources – and their significance
Although it’s often assumed that there must be some link between Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (who died aged 11, in 1596) and the playwright’s decision to write a play called Hamlet, it may in fact be nothing more than coincidence: Hamnet was a relatively common name at the time (Shakespeare had in fact named his son after a neighbour), he didn’t write Hamlet until a few years later, and there had already been at least one play about a character called Hamlet performed on the London stage some years earlier. None of this rules out the idea that Shakespeare was transmuting personal grief over the death of Hamnet into universal art through writing (or, more accurately, rewriting) Hamlet, but it does need to be borne in mind when advancing a biographical analysis of Shakespeare’s greatest play.
This earlier play called Hamlet, which is referred to in letters and records from the time, was probably not written by Shakespeare but by one of his great forerunners, Thomas Kyd, master of the English revenge tragedy, whose The Spanish Tragedy had had audiences on the edge of their seats in the late 1580s. Unfortunately, no copy of this proto-Hamlet has survived – and we cannot be sure that Kyd was definitely the author (although he is the most likely candidate).
Most of Shakespeare’s plays are based on earlier stories or historical chronicles, and many are even based on earlier play-texts, which Shakespeare used as the basis for his own work. Indeed, very few of Shakespeare’s plays have no traceable source. But for some, in the case of Hamlet the relationship between Shakespeare’s play and the source-text is a problematic one. The modernist poet T. S. Eliot argued in an essay of 1919 that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was ‘an artistic failure’ because the Bard was working with someone else’s material but attempting to do something too different with the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude. Or, as Harold Bloom more pithily puts it in Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, ‘Hamlet appears too immense a consciousness for Hamlet’: the character is ‘too big’ for the play in which he appears. It’s as if someone put Homer’s Achilles in an episode of Eastenders. Other critics, such as William Empson, argued provocatively (see William Empson: Essays on Shakespeare) that many of the more intense moments in Hamlet’s speeches were intended to be comical – that Shakespeare was sending up the bombastic nature of earlier revenge tragedy, much as we laugh (not in a good way) at the corniness of old sitcoms with their outdated jokes.
Whether we side with Empson or Eliot or with neither, the fact is that this earlier, sadly lost version of the ‘play about Hamlet’ wasn’t itself the origin of the Hamlet story, which is instead found in a thirteenth-century chronicle written by Saxo Grammaticus. In this chronicle, Hamlet is ‘Amleth’ and is only a little boy – and it’s common knowledge that his uncle has killed his father. Because Danish tradition expects the son to avenge his father’s death, the uncle starts to keep a close eye on little Amleth, waiting for the boy to strike in revenge. To avert suspicion and make his uncle believe that he, little Amleth, has no plans to seek revenge, Amleth pretends to be mad – the ‘antic disposition’ which Shakespeare’s Hamlet will also put on.
In his excellent biography of Shakespeare, Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt argues that Hamlet marks an interesting development in Shakespeare’s art: Hamlet is the play where Shakespeare embarks on a new approach to character in his writing. Because the ‘antic disposition’ no longer makes as much sense to the plot in Shakespeare’s version – why would Hamlet’s uncle have to watch his back when he murdered Hamlet’s father in secret and Hamlet surely (at least according to Claudius) has no idea that he’s the murderer? – Hamlet becomes a more complex and interesting character than he had been in the source material. There is not as clear a reason for Hamlet to ‘put an antic disposition on’ as there had been in the source material, where pretending to be slow-witted or mad could save young Amleth’s life.
The textual variants of Hamlet
There’s more than one Hamlet. The play we read depends very much on the edition we read, since the play has been edited in a number of different ways. The problem is that the play survives in three very different versions: the First Quarto printed in 1603 (the so-called ‘Bad’ Quarto), the Second Quarto from a year later, and the version which appeared in the First Folio in 1623.
Q1 – the First or ‘Bad’ Quarto – is well-named. It was most probably a pirated edition of Shakespeare’s text, perhaps hastily written down from the (rather faulty) memory of a theatregoer or perhaps even one of the actors. To give you a sense of just how bad the Bad Quarto was, in Q1 the play’s most famous line, ‘To be or not to be: that is the question’, which begins his famous soliloquy in which he muses on the point of life and contemplates suicide, is rendered quite differently – as ‘To be or not to be, I there’s the point’. It also appears at a different point in the play, just after Polonius (who is called ‘Corambis’) in this version – has hatched the plot to arrange a meeting between Hamlet and Polonius’ (sorry, Corambis’) daughter, Ophelia.
What does Hamlet the play actually mean?
What is Hamlet telling us – about revenge, about mortality and the afterlife, or about thinking versus taking action about something? The play is ambivalent about all these things: deliberately, thanks to Shakespeare’s deft use of Hamlet’s own soliloquies (which often see him thrashing out two sides of a debate by talking to himself) and the clever use of doubling in the play. Revenge is supposed to be left to God (‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord), but both Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character imply that it’s expected in Danish society of the time that the son would take vengeance into his own hands and avenge his murdered father: he is ‘Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell’, as he says in his soliloquy at the end of II.2.
Christopher Ricks, the noted literary critic, has talked about how many great works of literature are about exploring the tension between two competing moral or pragmatic principles. Perhaps the two contradictory principles which we most clearly see in tension in Hamlet are the two axioms ‘look before you leap’ and ‘he who hesitates is lost’. If Hamlet had been less a thinker and more a man of action, he would have made a snap judgment regarding Claudius’ guilt and then either taken revenge or resolved to leave it up to God. But if he’d been wrong, he would have condemned an innocent man to death. However, if he’d been right, he would have spared everyone else who gets dragged into his quest for vengeance and destroyed along the way: Polonius (killed in error by Hamlet), Ophelia (killed by her own hand, but in response to her father’s death at Hamlet’s hands), Laertes (killed trying to avenge Polonius’ murder), and even – against the express wishes and commands of the Ghost himself – Hamlet’s own mother, who only drinks the poisoned wine by accident because she wants to wish her son good luck in the duel he’s fighting with Laertes.
This habit of Hamlet’s, his tendency to think things over, is both one of his most appealingly humane qualities, and yet also, in many ways, his undoing – and, ultimately, the end of the whole royal house of Denmark, since Fortinbras can come in and reclaim the land that was taken from his father by Old Hamlet all those years ago.