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Hamlet Essay, Research Paper
William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a prosperous leather merchant in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, England. He attended grammar school, married an older woman named Anne Hathaway, and eventually left Stratford for London to pursue a career in the theater. Legend has it that Shakespeare began his career by holding the reins of horses for theater patrons; in any event, he quickly worked his way up the ranks of his chosen profession. By the early seventeenth century, he had written some of the greatest plays the world has ever seen, and was, along with Ben Jonson, the most popular writer in England. He owned his own theater, the Globe, and amassed enough wealth from this venture to retire to Stratford as a wealthy gentleman. He died in 1616, and was hailed by Jonson and others as the apogee of theater during the Renaissance of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare’s plays were in reality written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars. Today, Shakespeare is remembered for the wealth of magnificent poetry and drama he left the world: for his 154 sonnets, for Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and many other plays–including the most celebrated work of literature in the English language, Hamlet.
Written during the first part of the seventeenth century and at the close of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Hamlet was probably performed first in July, 1602; it was first published in written form in 1603, and appeared in an enlarged edition in 1604. Shakespeare often appropriated ideas and stories from earlier literary works into his own plays, as was common practice during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; he likely knew the story of Hamlet from an earlier German play, and from a prose work called Hystorie of Hamblet translated from Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, and from an ancient history of Denmark, written by Saxo Grammaticus in the twelfth century. What Shakespeare then made of this raw material–the story of a Danish prince whose father is murdered by his uncle, whom his mother then marries–may have been informed by a much more personal tragedy: Shakespeare’s young son (whose name was Hamnet) died in Stratford shortly before the play was written, which has led many critics to speculate that Shakespeare’s grief for his son found expression in Hamlet’s grief for his father. Of course, Shakespeare’s intentions are entirely undocumented, and all assertions about his inspirations and influences, as with so many claims about Shakespeare, can only be speculation.
Hamlet – The Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the son of the late King Hamlet, and the nephew of the present king, Claudius. At the start of the play, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, has recently married Claudius, her dead husband’s brother. When Hamlet learns from his father’s ghost that Claudius murdered his father before marrying his mother, the discovery propels the action of the play, as the young prince grapples with the question of whether or not he should seek revenge. A reflective and thoughtful young man who has studied at Wittenberg, Hamlet is also prone to fits of passion and impulsive action.
Claudius – The King of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle, and the play’s antagonist. The villain of the play, he murdered Hamlet’s father in order to obtain the throne, then promptly married Hamlet’s mother, the widowed Queen Gertrude. Claudius is a robust, scheming man driven by his appetites and a lust for power, but he occasionally shows signs of guilt and human feeling–his love for Gertrude, for instance, seems entirely sincere.
Gertrude – The Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother. At the beginning of the play, shortly after the death of her husband (Hamlet’s father), Gertrude has married Claudius, the new king and her dead husband’s brother. Gertrude loves Hamlet deeply, but she is a shallow, weak woman who seeks affection and status more urgently than moral truth. She refuses to listen to Hamlet when he attempts to persuade her of Claudius’s wrongdoing, instead persisting in her belief that her son has gone mad.
Polonius – The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius’s court, a pompous, conniving old man. Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia; Hamlet accidentally kills him as he hides behind a tapestry in Gertrude’s chamber, spying on the queen’s meeting with her son.
Horatio – Hamlet’s close friend, who studied with the prince at the university in Wittenberg. Horatio is loyal and helpful to Hamlet throughout the play; after Hamlet’s death at the end of the play, Horatio remains alive to tell Hamlet’s story.
Ophelia – Polonius’s daughter, a beautiful young woman with whom Hamlet has been in love. As the play opens, however, Hamlet’s grief over his father’s death drives thoughts of love from his mind, and his disgust over his mother’s marriage to his uncle makes him deeply cynical about women in general. Ophelia is a sweet and innocent young girl, who obeys her father and her brother Laertes. She gives in to Polonius’s schemes to spy on Hamlet. When Hamlet kills her father, she lapses into madness, singing songs about flowers and finally drowning in the river, amid the flower garlands she had gathered.
Laertes – Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother, a young man who spends much of the play in France. When Polonius is killed by Hamlet, Laertes returns to Denmark in a fury, and collaborates with Claudius (or is used by Claudius) in a scheme to murder Hamlet. Passionate and quick to action, Laertes is a clear foil for the reflective prince.
Fortinbras – The young Prince of Norway, whose father the king (also named Fortinbras) was killed by Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet). Now Fortinbras wishes to attack Denmark to avenge his father’s honor, making him a natural foil for Prince Hamlet.
The Ghost – The specter of Hamlet’s recently deceased father, who appears on the ramparts of Elsinore Castle late at night. The ghost tells Hamlet (the only character to whom he speaks) that he was murdered by Claudius, who poured poison into his ear while he napped in the castle orchard. Later, the ghost appears to Hamlet during his confrontation with Gertrude.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – Two slightly bumbling courtiers, former friends of Hamlet from Wittenberg, who are summoned by Claudius and Gertrude to discover the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior. Hamlet’s realization that they are acting as the servants of the king and queen strains their relationship; in the end, they are sent to accompany Hamlet to England, bearing a letter from Claudius instructing the English king to execute his nephew. Hamlet switches the letter with one of his own devising, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are executed instead.
Osric – The foolish courtier who summons Hamlet to his duel with Laertes
Voltimand and Cornelius – Courtiers whom Claudius sends to Denmark, to persuade the king to prevent Fortinbras from attacking.
Marcellus and Bernardo – The officers who first see the ghost walking the ramparts of Elsinore, and who summon Horatio to witness it. Marcellus is present when Hamlet first encounters the ghost.
Francisco – A soldier and guardsman at Elsinore
Reynaldo – Polonius’s servant, who is sent to France by Polonius to check up on and spy on Laertes
In the 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 wears the visage and expression of the recently deceased King Hamlet, whose brother Claudius has inherited the throne and married the dead king’s widowed wife. When Horatio and the watchmen bring Prince Hamlet, the dead king’s son, to see the ghost, it speaks to him, declaring ominously that it is indeed his father’s spirit, and that it was murdered 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 of dawn.
Prince Hamlet devotes himself to avenging his father’s death, but, because he is contemplative and thoughtful by nature, his heart is not fully in the deed, and he delays, entering into a deep melancholy and even apparent madness. The king and queen (Hamlet’s mother Gertrude) worry about the prince’s erratic behavior, and attempt to discover its cause. They employ a pair of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch him. When Polonius, the pompous Lord Chamberlain, suggests that Hamlet may be mad with love for his daughter Ophelia, the king agrees to spy on him in conversation with the girl. But though Hamlet certainly seems mad, 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 itinerant 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; if Claudius is guilty, he will surely react. When the moment comes in the theater, 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; he decides that to kill him while in prayer would be to send his soul to heaven, and that to do so would be an inadequate revenge. He decides to wait. Claudius, now frightened of Hamlet’s madness and fearing for his own safety, orders that Hamlet be sent at once 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 the unseen Polonius. For this crime, he is immediately dispatched to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, Claudius’s plan for Hamlet includes more than banishment: he has given Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sealed orders for the King of England, demanding that Hamlet be put to death.
In the aftermath of Polonius’s death, Ophelia goes mad 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. At this point, 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’s desire for revenge as a tool with which to achieve Hamlet’s death: Laertes will fence with Hamlet in innocent sport, but Claudius will poison his blade, so that if Laertes draws blood, Hamlet will die. As a back-up 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; struck 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 could 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 he does not die of the poison immediately; meanwhile, 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 the ambassadors from England, who report that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras is stunned by the gruesome sight in the castle: the entire royal family lies 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.
It may be arguable whether Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest play, but it is undoubtedly his most famous and most influential. Hamlet is, without exaggeration, the most written-about, interpreted, and studied work of literature in English. It has been read and analyzed exhaustively, for its aesthetic, moral, political, psychological, historical, allegorical, logical, religious, and philosophical aspects; there are hundreds and even thousands of works devoted to each of these, and books devoted as well to its characters, backgrounds, plots, performances, and place in world theater as a whole. What this means, of course, is that Hamlet supports a massive variety of interpretations and understandings. There may be wrong ways to understand the tragedy, but there is no single right way to understand it: Hamlet is concerned with deep truths about the nature of humanity in the universe, and it is no more reducible to a set of simple themes than are the complicated questions arising from human experience itself.
That said, there are a number of clear, important themes that dominate the play and form the core of its interpretability. Hamlet’s struggle over the question of whether or not to murder Claudius presents Shakespeare with an opportunity to explore giant questions. First among these is the relationship in human life between thought and action; Hamlet’s reflective, contemplative nature often renders it impossible for him to act on his convictions, and many critics have described the imbalance between his active and passive natures as a “tragic flaw” that makes his wretched fate inevitable. Other important themes explored in Hamlet include: the nature of justice and revenge; the idea that sin must beget retribution; the line between sanity and madness; the nature of political power and the connection between the well-being of the state and the moral condition of its leaders (When Hamlet declares that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” that “something” is Claudius); the moral question of suicide in a malevolent universe (Hamlet longs to kill himself, but fears God’s wrath in the afterlife); the relationship between sons and fathers (Hamlet and the ghost, Laertes and Polonius, Fortinbras and the dead King of Norway); the nature of the family; the inevitability of death; and, against that inevitability, the question of truth, of what human beings can cling to in a painful, unjust, and hostile world–the question of what gives life meaning, of what lasts.
Hamlet, who is in love with learning, thought, and reason, is driven closer and closer to a kind of wild, unwilling nihilism, as every verity (religion, society, philosophy, love) fails him or proves false. The question of Hamlet’s sanity is one of the most hotly contested critical controversies surrounding the play: does he actually lose his mind, or does he only pretend to, as he claims? The answer is probably that his decision to feign madness is a sane one, a strategic move to confuse his enemies and conceal his intentions, but also that his mind is so troubled, confused, and desperate in the absence of any grounding truth that his pretense assumes the intensity of real madness, and something of its quality as well.
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Act I, Scenes i-ii
On a dark winter night outside Elsinore Castle in Denmark, an officer named Bernardo comes to relieve the watchman Francisco. Cold, tired, and apprehensive, Francisco thanks Bernardo, and hurries home to bed. As Francisco leaves, Bernardo is joined by Marcellus, another watchman, and Horatio, a friend of Prince Hamlet. In hushed tones, Marcellus and Bernardo discuss the apparition they have seen for the past two nights, and which they now hope to show Horatio: the ghost of the recently deceased King Hamlet, which they claim has appeared before them on the castle ramparts in the late hours of the night.
Horatio is skeptical, but the ghost suddenly appears–and just as suddenly, vanishes. Terrified, Horatio acknowledges that the specter does indeed resemble the dead King of Denmark–he says the ghost even wears the armor King Hamlet wore when he battled against the armies of Norway, and the same frown he wore when he fought against the Poles. Horatio declares that the ghost must bring warning of impending misfortune for Denmark, perhaps in the form of a military attack: he recounts the story of King Hamlet’s conquest of certain lands once belonging to Norway, saying that Fortinbras, the young prince of Norway, now seeks to re-conquer those forfeited lands. The ghost reappears, and Horatio tries urgently to speak to it. The ghost remains silent, however, and disappears again with the first hint of dawn. Horatio suggests that they tell Prince Hamlet, the dead king’s son, about the apparition; he believes the ghost will not refuse to speak to his beloved son.
That morning, the new king, the former king’s brother Claudius, gives a speech to his courtiers about his recent marriage to Gertrude, his brother’s widow and Hamlet’s mother. He says that he mourns his brother, but has chosen to balance Denmark’s mourning with the delight of his marriage. He says that young Fortinbras has written to him, rashly demanding the surrender of the lands King Hamlet won from Fortinbras’s father, and he dispatches Cornelius and Voltimand with a message for the King of Norway, Fortinbras’s elderly uncle.
His speech concluded, Claudius turns to Laertes, the son of the Lord Chamberlain Polonius, and asks what business he has from the court. Laertes answers that he wishes to return to France, where his stay was recently cut short by Claudius’s coronation. Polonius tells Claudius that Laertes has his permission to go, and Claudius jovially gives Laertes his consent as well. Turning to Hamlet, Claudius asks why “the clouds still hang” upon him: Hamlet is still wearing black in mourning for the dead king. Gertrude urges him to cast it off, but he replies bitterly that his inner sorrow is so great that his dour appearance is merely a poor mirror of it. Claudius declares that all fathers die, and that all sons must lose their fathers, and that to mourn for too long is unmanly and inappropriate. Gertrude asks Hamlet not to return to Wittenberg, where he had been studying at the university, and he stiffly agrees to obey her. Professing to be cheered by Hamlet’s decision to stay in Denmark, Claudius escorts Gertrude from the room; the court follows, leaving Hamlet alone.
Alone, Hamlet says that he longs to evaporate, and wishes that God had not made suicide a sin. Anguished, he laments his father’s death and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle. He remembers how deeply in love his mother and father had seemed, and curses the thought that now–only a month after the king’s death–she has married his far inferior brother. “Frailty,” he cries, “thy name is woman!”
Horatio enters with Marcellus and Bernardo, and Hamlet, happy to see his friend, asks why he has left Wittenberg. Horatio says that he came to see King Hamlet’s funeral, and Hamlet curtly argues that he came to see his mother’s wedding. Horatio agrees that the one followed closely on the heels of the other. He then tells Hamlet that he, Marcellus, and Bernardo have seen what appears to be his father’s ghost. Stunned, Hamlet agrees to keep watch with them after night falls, in the hopes that he will be able to speak to the apparition.
With masterful economy and grace Shakespeare sets his mood, introduces his major characters, presents his background information, begins his exploration of the play’s major themes, and sets his plot in motion, all within two short scenes. The only major plot strand not established in this section is that of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, who appears in the following scene. Other than that omission, these two scenes introduce all the major strands that will wind throughout the play. The appearance of the ghost affords the characters the opportunity to tell the audience about the recent death of King Hamlet and the history of his conflict with Poland (which in turn introduces the idea that Fortinbras has a grudge against Denmark), Claudius’s speech informs us of his marriage to Gertrude, and Hamlet’s bitterness toward Claudius and his subsequent soliloquy establishes his melancholy and desperation over those events. The revelation of the ghost’s appearance, and Hamlet’s decision to confront the apparition, sets in motion the main plot of the play, which will culminate in Hamlet’s death at the end of Act V.
The appearance of the ghost on a chilling, misty night outside Elsinore Castle introduces the element of the supernatural into the play, and indicates immediately that, as Hamlet puts it later, “the time is out of joint”: something is wrong in Denmark. Despite the apparent vitality of Claudius’s court, Shakespeare tells us, trouble is clearly on the horizon–Horatio interprets the ghost as a warning about Fortinbras. Hamlet, devastated by his father’s death and betrayed by his mother’s marriage, already feels that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”; his bitterness, his cynicism, his yearning for suicide, and the other characters’ remarks about his eccentric behavior indicate the extent to which Hamlet is not his usual self. In fact, nothing in Denmark is usual: the play opens immediately after the disruption of a very long, stable, and uneventful period under the reign of King Hamlet. One of the most extraordinary qualities of these first two scenes is their ability to convey that impression, and something of what the previous period itself was actually like, without ever showing it to us directly.
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