By Dr Oliver Tearle
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. 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?
Hamlet is a long play – at just over 30,000 words, the longest Shakespeare wrote – so condensing the plot of this play into a shortish plot summary is going to prove tricky. Still, we’ll do our best. Here, then, is a very brief summary of the plot of Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
The play begins on the battlements at Elsinore Castle in Denmark one night. The ghost of the former king, Hamlet, is seen, but refuses to speak to any of the soldiers on guard duty. At the royal court, Prince Hamlet (the dead king’s son) shows disgust at his uncle, Claudius, who is king, having taken the throne after Hamlet’s father, Claudius’ brother, died. Hamlet also resents his mother, Gertrude – who, not long after Hamlet Senior’s death, remarried … to Claudius. Claudius gives the young man Laertes, the son of the influential courtier Polonius, leave to return to France to study there. At the same time, Claudius and Gertrude entreat Hamlet not to return to his studies in Germany, at the University of Wittenberg. Hamlet agrees to remain at court.
Laertes leaves Denmark for France, bidding his sister Ophelia farewell. He tells her not to take Hamlet’s expressions of affection too seriously, because – even if Hamlet is keen on her – he is not free to marry whom he wishes, being a prince. Polonius turns up and gives his son some advice before Laertes leaves; Polonius then reiterates Laertes’ advice to Ophelia about Hamlet, commanding his daughter to stay away from Hamlet.
Hamlet’s friend Horatio tells Hamlet about the Ghost, and Hamlet visits the battlements with his friend. The Ghost reappears – and this time, he speaks to Hamlet in private, telling him that he is the prince’s dead father and that he was murdered (with poison in the ear, while he lay asleep in his orchard) by none other than Claudius, his own brother. He tells his son to avenge his murder by killing Claudius, the man who murdered the king and seized his throne for himself. However, he tells Hamlet not to kill Gertrude but to ‘leave her to heaven’ (i.e. God’s judgment). Hamlet swears Horatio and the guards to secrecy about the Ghost.
Hamlet has vowed to avenge his father’s murder, but he has doubts over the truth of what he’s seen. Was the ghost really his father? Might it not have been some demon, sent to trick him into committing murder? Claudius may disgust Hamlet already, but murdering his uncle just because he married Hamlet’s mum seems a little extreme. But if Claudius did murder Hamlet’s father, then Hamlet will gladly avenge him. But how can Hamlet ascertain whether the Ghost really was his father, and that the murder story is true? To buy himself some time, Hamlet tells Horatio that he has decided to ‘put an antic disposition on’: i.e., to pretend to be mad, so Claudius won’t question his scheming behaviour because he’ll simply believe the prince is just being eccentric in general.
Polonius sends Reynaldo off to spy on his son, Laertes, in France. His daughter Ophelia approaches him, distressed, to report Hamlet’s strange behaviour in her presence. Polonius is certain that Hamlet’s odd behaviour springs from his love for Ophelia, so he rushes off to tell the King and Queen, Claudius and Gertrude, about it.
Claudius and Gertrude welcome Hamlet’s childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to court and charge them with talking to Hamlet to try to find out what’s the matter with him. Polonius arrives and tells the King and Queen that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia, and produces a love letter Hamlet wrote to her as proof. As Hamlet approaches, Polonius hatches a plan: he will talk to Hamlet while the King and Queen listen in secret from behind an arras (tapestry). Sure enough, Hamlet talks in riddles to Polonius, who then leaves, convinced he is right about the cause of Hamlet’s madness. Hamlet talks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who tell him that the actors are on their way to court. Hamlet is suspicious that his friends were sent for by Claudius and Gertrude to spy on him (as indeed they were); he confides to his old friends that he is not necessarily really mad; he implies he’s putting it on and still has his wits about him. The actors arrive, and Polonius returns, prompting Hamlet to start answering him with cryptic responses again, to keep up the act of being mad.
To determine Claudius’ guilt, Hamlet turns detective and devises a plan to try to get Claudius to reveal his crime, inadvertently. Hamlet persuades the actors to perform a play, The Murder of Gonzago, including some specially inserted lines he has written – in which a brother murders the king and marries the king’s widow. Hamlet’s thinking is that, when Claudius witnesses his own crime enacted before him on the stage, he will be so shocked and overcome with guilt that his reaction will reveal that he’s the king’s murderer.
Claudius and Gertrude ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what they made of Hamlet’s behaviour, and then the King and Queen, along with Polonius, hide so they can observe Hamlet talking with Ophelia. At one point, in an aside, Claudius talks of his ‘conscience’, providing the audience with the clearest sign that he is indeed guilty of murdering Old Hamlet. This is significant because one of the main reasons Hamlet is being cautious about exacting revenge is that he’s having doubts about whether the Ghost was really his father or not (and therefore whether it spoke truth to him). But we, the audience, know that Claudius almost certainly is guilty.
After he has meditated aloud about the afterlife, suicide, and the ways in which thinking deeply about things can make one less prompt to act (the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy), Hamlet speaks with Ophelia. He tells her he never loved her, and orders her to go to a nunnery because women do nothing but breed men who are sinners. Ophelia is convinced Hamlet is mad for love, but Claudius believes something else is driving Hamlet’s behaviour, and resolves to send Hamlet to England, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission to get the tribute (payment) England owes Denmark.
Sure enough, Claudius responds to the performance of The Murder of Gonzago (or, as Hamlet calls this play-within-a-play, The Mousetrap) by exclaiming and then walking out, and in doing so he convinces Hamlet that he is indeed guilty and the Ghost is right. Now Hamlet can proceed with his plan to murder him. However, after the play, he catches Claudius at prayer, and doesn’t want to murder him as he prays because, if Claudius killed while speaking to God, he will be sent straight to heaven, regardless of his sins.
So instead, Hamlet visits Gertrude, his mother, in her chamber, and denounces her for marrying Claudius so soon after Old Hamlet’s death. The Ghost appears (visible only to Hamlet: Gertrude believes her son to be mad and that the Ghost is ‘the very coinage of [his] brain’), and spurs Hamlet on. Hearing a sound behind the arras or tapestry, Hamlet lashes out with his sword, stabbing the figure behind, believing it to be Claudius. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, it is Polonius, having concealed himself there to spy on the prince. Polonius dies.
Claudius asks Hamlet where Polonius is, and Hamlet jokes about where he’s hid the body. Claudius dispatches Hamlet to England – ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, but in reality the King has arranged to have Hamlet murdered when he arrives in England. However, Hamlet realises this, escapes, has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, and returns to Denmark. Laertes returns from France, thinking Claudius was responsible for Polonius’ death. Claudius puts him right, and arranges for Laertes to fight Hamlet using a poisoned sword, with a chalice full of poisoned wine prepared for Hamlet should the sword fail.
As they are plotting, Gertrude comes in with the news that Polonius’ death has precipitated Ophelia’s slide into madness and, now, her suicide: Ophelia has drowned herself.
Laertes and Hamlet fight in Ophelia’s open grave, and then Hamlet challenges Laertes to a duel at court. Unbeknown to Hamlet, and as agreed with Claudius earlier on, Laertes will fight with a poisoned sword.
However, during the confusion of the duel, Hamlet and Laertes end up switching swords so both men are mortally wounded by the poisoned blade. Gertrude, in making a toast to her son and being unaware that the chalice of wine is poisoned, drinks the deadly wine. Laertes, as he lies dying, confesses to Hamlet that Claudius hatched the plan involving the poisoned sword and wine, and Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, forcing him to drink the wine for good measure too – thus finally avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet dies, giving Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, his dying vote as the new ruler of Denmark. Fortinbras arrives to take control of Denmark now the Danish royal family has been wiped out, and Horatio prepares to tell him the whole sorry tale.
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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.