Hamlet at a glance
William Shakespeare's Hamlet follows the young prince Hamlet home to Denmark to attend his father's funeral. Hamlet is shocked to find his mother already remarried to his Uncle Claudius, the dead king's brother. And Hamlet is even more surprised when his father's ghost appears and declares that he was murdered. Exact dates are unknown, but scholars agree that Shakespeare published Hamlet between 1601 and 1603. Many believe that Hamlet is the best of Shakespeare's work, and the perfect play.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Type of Work: Play
First Published: Between 1601 and 1603
Main Characters: Hamlet; King Claudius; Queen Gertrude; Polonius; Ophelia; Laertes; Horatio
Major Thematic Topics: fate; free will; revenge; political instability; mortality; madness
Motifs: incest; hearing/ears
The three most important aspects of Hamlet:
· The most famous of the five soliloquies delivered by Hamlet over the course of the play begins "To be, or not to be? That is the question." Here, Hamlet is considering suicide. He finally decides against doing so, however, reasoning that as difficult as life can sometimes be, it is preferable to death, which might be even worse.
· Hamlet's central characters are Hamlet himself, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horatio. But only Horatio survives when the curtain falls at the end of Shakespeare's play. Another central character, Hamlet's father King Hamlet, appears only as a ghost — he has been dead since before the play began.
· If the character of Hamlet has a tragic flaw, it may be his inability to act decisively. On the other hand, his occasional impulsiveness — for example, in rejecting Ophelia and stabbing Polonius — results in death and destruction as well.
Prince Hamlet is depressed. Having been summoned home to Denmark from school in Germany to attend his father's funeral, he is shocked to find his mother Gertrude already remarried. The Queen has wed Hamlet's Uncle Claudius, the dead king's brother. To Hamlet, the marriage is "foul incest." Worse still, Claudius has had himself crowned King even though Hamlet was his father's heir to the throne. Hamlet suspects foul play.
When his father's ghost visits the castle, Hamlet's suspicions are confirmed. The Ghost complains that he is unable to rest in peace because he was murdered. Claudius, says the Ghost, poured poison in King Hamlet's ear while the old king napped. Unable to confess and find salvation, King Hamlet is now consigned, for a time, to spend his days in Purgatory and walk the earth by night. He entreats Hamlet to avenge his death, but to spare Gertrude, to let Heaven decide her fate.
Hamlet vows to affect madness — puts "an antic disposition on" — to wear a mask that will enable him to observe the interactions in the castle but finds himself more confused than ever. In his persistent confusion, he questions the Ghost's trustworthiness. What...