“Hamlet” is among Shakespeare’s most revered plays. Indeed, it is among the most revered plays by any writer in history. Why is this? Part of the answer lies in the language, the poetry. Whether or not you know the play well, you will likely recognise line after line because so much of it is now part of everyday speech – from “To be or not to be” to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and many more sayings and phrases that have entered the language and stayed put over four centuries.
Equally important is the character of the protagonist. Before Shakespeare, drama prioritised action and events. “Hamlet” does this but is also a study in character, in personality – its depths, its contradictions, its anxieties, its certainties, its doubts. For example, Hamlet is known for his prevarications, but in some respects he’s a man of action. Sent to England to be killed, he escapes his jailers, sends them to their death, and before long is back in Elsinore.
More often, though, he is a man of indecision, of uncertainty. With the failure to avenge his father’s death comes self-criticism and doubt. At times he is cruel, at other times funny – and often both, as in his dealings with Polonius. A man for all seasons, he loathes the times he lives in and craves to change them yet is often powerless to act. To escape scrutiny he seems to hide behind a façade of madness that makes his character still more elusive and enigmatic.
Little wonder that this is the part most actors see as the ultimate test of their craft.
Scene by Scene
ACT ONE SCENE ONE
In front of the castle, the guards nervously discuss the ghost that has appeared twice already.
They refer to it as “the thing” – Horatio reveals that he is sceptical that it exists at all.
The ghost appears and Horatio demands to know why it resembles the late King of Denmark.
The ghost retreats, leaving Horatio convinced of its existence and shocked at what he has seen.
Horatio explains why the Danish state appears to be preparing for war with Norway.
Previous kings battled one another for land, and Denmark won; now Norway seeks restitution.
Horatio reports that bad omens have been observed in the Danish heavens lately.
The ghost reappears but then retreats when the cock crows, indicating morning is breaking.
Horatio believes the ghost will speak to “young Hamlet” and they will tell him what has happened.
ACT ONE SCENE TWO
Claudius announces that he has married “our sometime sister, now our queen”, Hamlet’s mother.
Claudius despatches messengers to Norway demanding the old King rein in Fortinbras.
Laertes has his father’s permission to return to France, and now asks the same of Claudius.
Gertrude encourages Hamlet to be optimistic following his father’s death, but he is reluctant.
Claudius rebukes Hamlet for continuing to mourn his father and suggests himself as a replacement.
Unlike Laertes, Hamlet is not to be permitted to return to university at Wittenberg.
In his first soliloquy, Hamlet recollects his parents’ devotion to one another, and wishes he could die.
Hamlet’s friend Horatio arrives and they joke that the wedding followed the funeral very quickly.
Horatio reveals to Hamlet that along with Marcellus and Bernardo, he has seen his father’s ghost.
Hamlet satisfies himself that the story is true and resolves to join them later tonight.
ACT ONE SCENE THREE
Laertes advises his sister not to trust Hamlet’s emotions because as a prince, “his will is not his own”.
In particular she must not her “chaste treasure open” – instead she should be cautious and reserved.
Polonius bids Laertes farewell, advising him to act conservatively, honourably and with self-respect.
Polonius rebukes Ophelia for believing Hamlet’s overtures to her, and forbids her to speak to him.
ACT ONE SCENE FOUR
From within the castle the sound of partying reaches Hamlet and his peers looking out for the ghost.
The ghost appears, and Hamlet, immediately recognising it as “King, father, royal Dane”, follows it.
ACT ONE SCENE FIVE
Elsewhere in the castle, the ghost reveals he is in purgatory at present but cannot reveal more.
He tells Hamlet he was murdered by his brother Claudius, denounced as a traitor and adulterer.
The ghost repeats Hamlet’s earlier observations about the depth of the love between the parents.
Time is short and the ghost recalls how he was murdered in his sleep with poison poured in his ears.
The ghost repeats how dying while unblessed and “sent to my account” is a double injustice.
He instructs Hamlet to take revenge but to leave Gertrude to pay for her own sins in the next life.
The ghost retreats, leaving Hamlet ready to give up everything to carry out the ghost’s instructions.
Rejoined by his friends, Hamlet affects “an antic disposition” while swearing them to silence.
ACT TWO SCENE ONE
Polonius primes Reynaldo how to spy on Laertes in Paris by misleading his friends to reveal his vices.
Ophelia bursts in to inform Polonius that Hamlet has appeared in her closet in a distressed state.
Polonius diagnoses Hamlet’s behaviour as “the very ecstasy of love” and rushes to inform Claudius.
ACT TWO SCENE TWO
Claudius and Gertrude enlist Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet.
The King and Queen (as well as Polonius) seem convinced that Hamlet has genuinely lost his balance.
A request arrives from Norway that troops cross Danish territory on the way to attacking Poland.
Polonius now reveals the love letter from Hamlet which Ophelia has obediently passed to him.
It comes as a result (he claims) of his instruction to his daughter to avoid contact with Hamlet.
Polonius recommends that they spy on Hamlet after he has let “loose my daughter to him”.
In a confusing conversation with Hamlet, Polonius is further persuaded of Hamlet’s madness.
Nonetheless he senses there is “method” in the confusing responses Hamlet makes to him.
It is clear from Hamlet’s conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he trusts nobody.
But under pressure from Hamlet, they admit that they were “sent for” by the King to spy on him.
Hamlet reveals he trapped and depressed, and cares neither for the natural world nor the human.
His friends reveal that the “players” have arrived in Elsinore and Hamlet reverts to feigning madness.
But he concedes that his uncle and mother “are deceiv’d” if they believe he is permanently mad.
Hamlet encourages the players to act a scene from the fall of Troy, the death of the king and queen.
He commends them to Polonius’s hospitality, encouraging him to treat them respectfully.
Alone again, he rebukes himself that actors can affect so much emotion, and he seems paralysed.
His resentment of Claudius gives way to self-hatred that he has failed so far to avenge his father.
He will have the players perform the murder of a king by his brother, and study how Claudius reacts.
ACT THREE SCENE ONE
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Claudius that Hamlet is behaving with a “crafty madness”.
Claudius and Polonius have arranged for Ophelia to encounter Hamlet while they observe.
In his third soliloquy Hamlet reflects that life is so hard that death sometimes seems more desirable.
Yet because we know nothing about death, we prefer to bear the burdens of life as best we can.
Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia confuses and distresses her with its abrupt changes of course.
He denies he loved her, derides his own failings, advises against marriage and calls Polonius a fool.
Hamlet leaves Ophelia to bitterly regret his fall from grace – once so talented, now “quite down”.
Claudius, nervous about the danger Hamlet might pose, has arranged for him to be sent to England.
Polonius wants to arrange an interview between Hamlet and Gertrude, on which he will eavesdrop.
ACT THREE SCENE TWO
Hamlet advises the players to deliver their lines sensitively and avoid over-acting in their gestures.
The aim of acting, he says, is to hold “the mirror up to nature”, and to reflect what life is really like.
Hamlet welcomes Horatio – it becomes clear he has shared his suspicions about Claudius with him.
He welcomes the royal party to the performance, confusing Claudius and shocking Ophelia.
The dumb show proceeds to summarise the narrative the ghost told Hamlet in the first act.
When the spoken play (“The Mousetrap”) shows the poisoning, Claudius aborts the performance.
Alone with Horatio, Hamlet is persuaded by his reaction to the play that Claudius is guilty.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive to request Hamlet visit his mother, to which he agrees.
Alone he steels himself to be brave but not callous, “cruel, not unnatural”, as the ghost instructed.
ACT THREE SCENE THREE
Claudius meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to expedite Hamlet’s removal to England.
Polonius appears briefly to tell Claudius he will eavesdrop on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude.
In a soliloquy, Claudius laments the crime he committed in murdering his brother.
But he questions whether one can truly repent, yet still enjoy the benefits of the crime one regrets.
As Claudius kneels to pray, Hamlet has the chance to avenge his father, but passes up the moment.
If Claudius dies while praying, Hamlet reasons, he’ll go to Heaven. Better to await the right moment.
Claudius reveals that though he wants to pray, he can’t drag his mind away from the here-and-now.
ACT THREE SCENE FOUR
Polonius tells the Queen what she is to say to Hamlet, before taking up his position to eavesdrop.
Hamlet’s plain speech to his mother causes her to panic, fear for her life and cry for help.
When Polonius calls for help, Hamlet draws his sword, mistakes him for Claudius and stabs him.
Hamlet, alone with his mother, ruthlessly compares the merits of the two brothers she has married.
His father’s ghost appears suddenly to remind Hamlet that revenge should focus on Claudius.
Hamlet begs his mother to confess her crimes to Heaven, and not join Claudius in his bed tonight.
He reminds her that he is being sent to England, but does not trust his “two schoolfellows”.
He pronounces Polonius “a foolish prating knave” and drags him away from his mother’s room
ACT FOUR SCENE ONE
Gertrude in a distressed state tells Claudius about Hamlet’s killing of Polonius behind the arras.
Claudius concludes that if he had been behind the curtain, Hamlet would have killed him instead.
He fears that he will be blamed for Hamlet’s behaviour, and compares him to a “foul disease”.
He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Polonius’s body and take it to the chapel.
ACT FOUR SCENE TWO
Hamlet confuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and accuses them of being in the pay of the King.
ACT FOUR SCENE THREE
Claudius’s options in dealing with Hamlet are limited because of his popularity with the public.
Hamlet appears, his “antic disposition” revived, to reveal where Polonius’s body may be found.
Claudius informs Hamlet that he is to be sent to England, a decision Hamlet seems to welcome.
Alone again, Claudius reveals that he is sending letters to arrange the “present death of Hamlet”.
ACT FOUR SCENE FOUR
Near Elsinore, Fortinbras at the head of his army requests safe passage across Danish territory.
Hamlet is surprised to find the Norwegian army is to fight for a piece of Polish land of no value.
Alone, he rebukes himself that, though he is capable of avenging his father, he has failed to do so.
Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras and his troops, who seem willing to fight and die for so little.
ACT FOUR SCENE FIVE
Ophelia appears before the King and Queen to reveal she has lost her balance with Polonius’s death.
Claudius laments the “battalions” of “sorrows” pressing on him and reveals King Hamlet was “slain”.
He also reveals that Laertes has arrived back “in secret” from Paris and seeks revenge for his father.
A messenger delivers the news that the Danish public are calling for Laertes to be crowned King.
Laertes bursts in, calling on the “foul king” to reveal the whereabouts of Polonius’s dead body.
Claudius manages Laertes’s determination to avenge his father, revealing he is not responsible.
Ophelia appears, having lost her balance, her songs referencing Polonius’s death, to Laertes’s grief.
Claudius persuades Laertes to be guided by him in taking his revenge on the person responsible.
ACT FOUR SCENE SIX
Letters arrive at Elsinore to reveal that Hamlet, kidnapped by pirates, has escaped.
However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain on course for England and their fate there.
ACT FOUR SCENE SEVEN
Claudius tells Laertes it was Hamlet who killed Polonius, but also wanted to kill the King himself.
Claudius cannot kill him both because of Gertrude’s love for him and because the public respect him.
Laertes announces he will avenge his father’s death, and Claudius tells him they will speak further. Hamlet’s letter mentioned in 4.6 reveals that he is back in Denmark and on his way to the court.
Claudius begins to manage Laertes’s anger by quoting a French friend praising his skills in fencing.
Tomorrow, says Claudius, we will organise a fencing match in which one foil will be “unbated”.
Laertes agrees and will add a poison bought recently which with one scratch will be enough to kill.
Claudius agrees and will prepare a drink which will despatch him if Laertes’s poison fails to work.
The queen appears, with news that Ophelia has drowned leaving Laertes distressed and angry.
ACT FIVE SCENE ONE
The clowns argue that Ophelia is given a Christian burial only because she was of a noble family.
Hamlet and Horatio observe the grave being dug and speculate on the life led by the skull’s owner.
Hamlet talks to the grave-digger and discovers that he was sent to England to recover his wits.
The grave-digger shows him Yorick’s skull – ironically he was once the most amusing company.
The Priest says that, as her death may have been suicide, she cannot be given a full Christian burial.
As Laertes rebukes the priest, Gertrude reveals she had hoped Ophelia would marry Hamlet.
When Laertes leaps into the grave to hold Ophelia, Hamlet emerges to wrestle with him in the grave.
Hamlet and Laertes are separated, only for Hamlet to reveal that he loved her as much as Laertes.
Claudius enjoins Laertes to remember their plan for Hamlet, and tells his wife to monitor her son.
ACT FIVE SCENE TWO
Hamlet reveals that letters accompanying him to England instructed that he should be executed.
He tells Horatio that he forged new instructions that the bearer of the letter be put to death.
So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and Hamlet says he has a clear conscience about that.
He accuses Claudius of usurping his throne, having intruded “between th’election and my hopes”.
He adds that he regrets fighting Laertes because he recognises they have both lost a loved father.
Osric reveals that the King has laid a bet on the outcome of a duel between Laertes and Hamlet
Hamlet agrees to the duel and dismisses Horatio’s reservations about the possible outcome.
Hamlet apologises to Laertes while underlining that in offending him his madness was responsible.
They begin the duel, and Gertrude mistakenly toasts her son with the poisoned cup.
Hamlet is wounded, then they wrestle. The rapiers get mixed up, and Laertes is wounded in turn.
As the Queen collapses having drunk the poison, Laertes sees his own wound is what he deserved.
He tells Hamlet that he too is doomed, explaining what has happened and blaming Claudius.
Hamlet stabs the King and as he dies, Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness of one another.
Hamlet prevents Horatio from drinking the poison tells him to speak up on his behalf in future.
As he dies, Hamlet throws his weight behind Fortinbras to succeed to the throne of Denmark.
The English Ambassador arrives to announce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
Hamlet is borne away from the scene as Fortinbras claims his crown as the canons fire.
Act One of the play introduces the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father. Ghosts appear in five of Shakespeare’s plays: “Richard III”, “Julius Caesar”, “Macbeth”, “Cymbeline” and here in “Hamlet”. In two of these plays the ghosts appear in dreams, and in a third (“Macbeth”) the ghost does not speak. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, by contrast, is seen by various guards as well as Horatio and by Hamlet himself. What the ghost has to say is of course central to what follows.
Hamlet’s father was evidently (we learn in the first scene) a warrior, who “combated” Norway and “sledded” Poland. Now, with his death, and with young Fortinbras’s forthcoming invasion, the state of Denmark is threatened with conflict, aggression and defeat. This sub-plot involving Fortinbras and Norway is revived in the next scene, in 2.2, in 4.4 and at the play’s conclusion, 5.2.
The events recorded in 2.2 are particularly interesting, since they reveal that the King of Norway requests safe passage through Denmark for his nephew’s army to attack Poland. This exceptionally suspicious request meets with Claudius’s approval: “It likes us well,” he comments. Later, in 4.4, Fortinbras functions as a contrast with Hamlet: the former belligerent and militaristic, the latter inclined to reflection and delay.
Claudius’s usurpation of his older brother’s throne recalls similar incidents of sibling rivalry in “As You Like It” (Duke Senior and Duke Frederick) and “The Tempest” (Prospero and Antonio), “King Lear” (Edmund and Edgar) and “Much Ado About Nothing” (Don Pedro and Don John). Shakespeare himself was the oldest of four brothers.
Claudius’s marriage to the late King’s widow recalls Henry VIII’s fateful marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Henry’s older brother Arthur was heir to the throne, but died aged 15 in 1502. Henry succeeded to the throne in 1509).
In their first interactions, Claudius addresses Hamlet as ‘you’ – the detached, respectful form of the pronoun. By contrast, Gertrude addresses her son as ‘thou’. When he speaks to Laertes, Claudius uses ‘you’ initially, then ‘thou’. In Shakespeare’s time, “you” was formal and hierarchical, whereas “thou” was familiar and intimate.
In their conversations with Ophelia in 1.3, both Laertes and Polonius focus to an extraordinary degree on Ophelia’s virginity and its importance. Laertes’s advice in particular seems almost embarrassing, urging his sister to protect her “chaste treasure” from Hamlet. In “The Tempest” (1611), Prospero has a similar discussion with his daughter Miranda. In general, Laertes and Polonius have plenty in common: Laertes tells Ophelia to act cautiously; Polonius gives similar advice (though in greater detail) to Laertes. By contrast, Hamlet and his father (though they share the same name) appear to be very different from one another: the father militaristic, so it seems, the son artistic and reflective.
Polonius’s relationship with Ophelia recalls many another father / daughter interaction in Shakespeare – few of which serve as models for modern parenting. Polonius attempts to get control of Ophelia by insisting on obedience and by forbidding her to speak to Hamlet. Very different from his relationship with Laertes, which is thoughtful and respectful.
It’s a striking feature of Shakespeare’s plays how many daughters are dominated by overbearing fathers – and how many of these daughters lack a mother. Examples include (along with Ophelia / Polonius) Jessica / Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”, Desdemona / Brabantio in “Othello” and Miranda / Prospero in “The Tempest”. Fathers and daughters is emphatically a Shakespearean theme; mothers and daughters not so much. Meanwhile, Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude, in so far as it exists, is one of the very few mother / son relationships in Shakespeare.
Theologically, ghosts are a Roman Catholic doctrine, representing an unquiet soul abandoned in Purgatory, neither in Heaven nor Hell. When the ghost appears in 1.5, briefly liberated from Purgatory’s “sulph’rous and tormenting flames”, we learn that he is condemned to this state because he died unblessed, his sins unforgiven. Contemporary English-speakers familiar with the phrase “short shrift” may like to explore the religious / doctrinal origins of this phrase.
Later in this play, Hamlet will be presented with a chance to kill Claudius and will not take it because his victim would (according to the theology) go to Heaven. The contrast between the two fates is a reminder that several generations after the Reformation, Catholic theology remained pervasive.
At the same time, though the play may rely on elements of Catholic theology, it’s worth noting that Hamlet (as well as Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) are all students at the University of Wittenberg, which is the town where Martin Luther began the process of rebellion against the Catholic church that hastened the Reformation.
Hamlet’s flippant and high-spirited reactions to Claudius in 1.2 and to Horatio after he has spoken to the ghost confirm that from now on, he aims to avoid revealing his true self to them. He succeeds particularly well with Polonius, who misinterprets Hamlet’s mental state when he diagnoses romantic motives behind his apparent madness.
However we analyse Hamlet’s behaviour, it’s clear that he makes two decisions after he has heard that his father was murdered by his uncle: he will focus narrowly on avenging the murder (“thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain”); and he may sometimes act in ways that confuse others (“As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on”). Whether he fully carries out the former, he certainly remains true to the latter: Claudius describes it as a “transformation” in 2.2, and Gertrude calls him “My too much changed son”. Polonius settles for “lunacy” – a word Claudius himself employs in 3.3 when he registers his impatience with Hamlet’s “lunacies”.
Hamlet’s decision to adopt “an antic disposition” is one of a number of “performances” in the play. There is also Reynaldo’s projected performance in Paris, deceiving Laertes’s friends on Polonius’s behalf to find out more about his son’s life there. Next there is the performance the King and Queen require of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to learn more about Hamlet’s mental state, and report back. Hamlet’s performances in front of Polonius are followed by the arrival of the players, and the more formal performance of the fall of Troy. As further performances beckon, it seems that at Elsinore the contrast between (as Claudius puts it in a rare moment of candour) “my deed to my most painted word” is too wide to bridge. This endemic deception and dishonesty of life in the castle is diluted by the clarity of Hamlet’s soliloquies.
The question is often asked why Hamlet does not succeed to the throne of Denmark after his father’s death. It seems likely that the Denmark of Shakespeare’s imagination was governed by an elective monarchy, in which the king would need to have the support of the council or parliament to assume the throne. Later in the play Hamlet criticises Claudius because he “Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes” – a phrase that suggests that the late King’s brother was chosen ahead of the late King’s son.
Hamlet’s organising of the players when they arrive at Elsinore confirms that when he needs to be, he is sane and self-possessed. There is precious little evidence here of his “antic disposition”. On the contrary, he is coherent and persuasive.
Hamlet’s comments on acting are uniquely interesting because they may reflect Shakespeare’s own views. Three features stand out: first, that in Hamlet’s view, the aim of theatre is to reflect reality as we know it, to hold “the mirror up to nature” in an understated but recognisable way. Second, actors should avoid over-acting simply to please the “groundlings”, for whom it would seem Hamlet has scant respect (they “are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise”, he says). Third, whoever plays the clown in this company (every theatre company had a clown in Elizabethan theatre) should “speak no more than is set down for them”. This advice may be especially relevant to his own company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who around the time “Hamlet” was being written, parted company with their own clown, Will Kemp, possibly over a disagreement.
Claudius’s attempts to pray in 3.3 include his confession that he murdered his brother, so it seems that the account of the late King’s death given by the ghost to Hamlet in the first act is accurate. It is possible as a result to draw two conclusions about Shakespeare’s thinking here: first, ghosts are real, they exist and can be seen by more than one person (in this case Bernardo, Marcellus, Horatio etc.); second, they can communicate, and there is every chance that what they say is true. Thus when Hamlet speaks of death as being a place from which “No traveller returns”, one might want to modify the inconsistency by adding “except as a ghost”.
In 3.4, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears while Hamlet is with his mother. Once again he is able to communicate with the ghost – though Gertrude can see nothing (“Nothing at all,” she tells her son, “yet all that is I see”) and hear nothing (“nothing but ourselves”). This scene recalls a similar scene in “Macbeth”, in which the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth and no-one else: “When all’s done,” says Lady Macbeth to her husband in an echo of this scene from “Hamlet”, “You look but on a stool”.
Claudius’s soliloquy in 3.3 indicates that he is a man with a conscience, able to confront his own past actions and motives, and to reflect dispassionately on their morality. This speech is a reflection of his situation, a balance-sheet – but not a prayer (“Pray can I not” he concedes), and this is somewhat ironic because Hamlet has the chance to kill him here, but forgoes his opportunity because Claudius, he believes, is praying and will therefore go to heaven. No revenge in that, and the moment is lost.
Hamlet’s interview with Claudius in 4.3 in which they discuss the whereabouts of Polonius’s body (“Not where he eats, but where he is eaten”) is witty, evasive, disrespectful and at times profound. He has shown already that he’s an elusive conversationalist (with Polonius in 2.2 for example, or with Ophelia in 3.2), unwilling to put aside his “antic disposition” to co-operate in the basic laws of conversation. The contrast with the way he speaks to his mother in 3.4 (“O speak to me no more!” she begs him. “These words like daggers enter in mine ears”) is emphatic, full of passion and conviction.
Hamlet is routinely described as a character paralysed with indecision. But his escape from the clutches of his escorts to England suggests he can act dynamically when he needs to. His escape from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is outlined in the letter he sends to Horatio, received in 4.6: when the pirate ship attacked, he made good his escape – which must have come as some surprise to the pirates. A further surprise emerges in 5.2, when he reveals that he used his late father’s signet ring to confect instructions for the care (or otherwise) of his escorts. Once again, decisive action was called for, and delivered.
The consensus among the characters is that Ophelia loses her wits because of the demise of Polonius. As Claudius says, her mental distraction “is the poison of deep grief; it springs / All from her father’s death”. But there may also be an element of unrequited love in her madness. In “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, a play Shakespeare co-authored, the jailer’s daughter falls in love with Palamon, but again the affection is unrequited. In the end she has to be rescued from the river, having leapt into the water in an attempt to drown herself. Students of Shakespeare’s poetry may reflect here that the frustrated lover in “A Lover’s Complaint” is also to be found by a river, though in this case she is merely using the current to dispose of a number of love-tokens that are no longer wanted.
The irreverent banter of the grave-diggers in 5.1 – at a moment of sadness and tragedy in the story, following the death of Ophelia but before her burial – recalls the light-hearted example of the porter in “Macbeth” in 2.3. Duncan has been murdered but his body has not yet been found, so the audience is anxiously poised to discover how matters will play out. The humour, grossly inappropriate as it might seem, serves to prolong and intensify the agony.
It seems clear from the evidence of the grave-diggers and the priest that Ophelia’s death is regarded as no accident. The grave-diggers believe she is only being given a Christian burial because of her social status (“If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’Christian burial”) and the priest says he has done all he can (“Her obsequies have been as far enlarg’d / As we have warranty”). To recap briefly: suicide was regarded as unacceptable by the church – “the Everlasting … fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”, as Hamlet himself observes – presumably on the grounds that if God creates a person, they have no right to destroy what God has made. Impeccable logic, which has not perhaps always extended to enemies, wars, civil conflicts etc.
The play is laced with macabre insights. Hamlet’s conversation with Claudius in 4.3, for example, when the king tries to discover what has happened to Polonius, is typically gruesome: “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king,” Hamlet observes, “and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm”. Similar insights are inspired by Yorick’s skull in 5.1: “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,” observes Hamlet, “Might stop a hole to keep the wind away”. So are the mighty fallen, and so the wheels of life and death keep turning.
Thoughtful and reflective, as his soliloquies suggest, if at times prone to melancholy – even perhaps drawn to suicide – he is also creative and artistic: witness his directing of the theatre troupe. Loyal to his father and driven by the overwhelming imperative of avenging him, he is ruthless in his dealings with Claudius and Polonius, and evidently less than impressed by his mother. His treatment of Ophelia is unsympathetic and thoughtless, and does him little credit, though it reflects his tendency to divide the world between friends and enemies.
A regicide and a fratricide, emphatically not to be trusted, and now presiding over a kingdom whose governing class is disintegrating. Credulous in his decision-making (he is quite happy to allow the Norwegian army onto his territory), he is hapless in his dealings with Hamlet, out-sourcing his murder in a way that the intended victim subverts with panache. His managing of Laertes’s anger suggests he has some idea of how to govern but the end result is a bloodbath.
Hamlet calls him a “foolish, prating knave”, but though he may be a fool, he is hardly a knave. Rather, he is a somewhat slow-witted but loyal retainer, long-winded and verbose, full of his own importance but anxious to please – witness how hard he tries to provide an explanation for Hamlet’s mental state early in the play. Continuously scheming, and not to be trusted, he meets the death he deserves, hiding behind a curtain listening in to a private conversation. His treatment of his daughter, to whom he is dismissive and overbearing, is perhaps no worse than the way most Shakespearean fathers treat their daughters. But it still grates.
Caring towards his sister, whose death he genuinely mourns, he is nonetheless comically pompous in his advice to her – the son of his father, perhaps. It seems likely that his character was intended by Shakespeare to provide a contrast to Hamlet but in the final scene their common fate effaces any divisions between them. Manipulated by Claudius, he goes the way of his father and sister, the victim like his father of his own dishonesty.
Many of Shakespeare’s young women seem too good to be true – Miranda, for example, or Rosalind – and many others – Juliet, perhaps, or Desdemona – end up as victims. Ophelia belongs in both categories. Evidently she was drawn to Hamlet (or it is hard to see why the advice she fields in 1.3 should have come her way) and her death may result from her sadness at his coldness towards her. But the consensus at Elsinore is that she dies because of grief at her father’s death, and her loyalty to him, her obedience and general good nature are more, perhaps, than he deserves.
- Where does Hamlet go to university?
- Laertes is leaving Elsinore. Where is he going?
- Give the name of the Norwegian prince who appears in the first and last scenes of the play.
- Where was Hamlet’s father sleeping when he was murdered?
- What is Hamlet’s reply when Polonius asks him in 2.2 what he is reading?
- What is the name of the play performed by the visiting theatre troupe?
- Where does Claudius direct Polonius’s body be taken after he has been killed by Hamlet?
- How does Hamlet authenticate the instructions he fakes en route to England?
- What role did Yorick once perform in the Danish court?
- Give the name of the courtier assigned by Claudius to oversee the fencing match in 5.2.
Words, words, words
His father’s signet ring
Shakespeare is renowned as the greatest of playwrights. But at first he was an actor, probably attracted to London from his home in Warwickshire by a visiting troupe of thespians who passed through Stratford, touring, perhaps, when the London stage was closed down due to plague.
Not much is known about his early days in London – when he was in his twenties. But by the time he reaches thirty, in 1594, though he has begun to write the plays that will make him famous (and very rich), he is better known at this stage as a poet. His “Venus and Adonis” (1593) was especially popular among university students, and sold so well that Shakespeare (according to a recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd) was the most popular poet in England.
Now he was able to turn his hand to writing drama, but he retained his love of appearing on the stage, and the story goes that he occasionally took part in performing in the plays he had written. In performances of “Hamlet”, it seems that he took the part of the ghost – not the most arduous of engagements, perhaps, but the spring of much of what follows.