William Shakespeare

Background Information

Hamlet was written during the midpoint of Shakespeare's playwriting career, around 1601. The tragedy was written while Shakespeare's company was resident in their built theater, the Globe. Shakespeare's plays were arranged in double columns on pages nearly a foot high. This large page was called "folio", as opposed to the smaller page titled "quarto". John Heminges and Henry Condell published the first folio in 1623. There were seven different editions of the play before 1642. The first quarto was published by Valentine Simmes for Nicholas Ling and John Trundell in 1603.

Historical Context

Because there is such little remaining documents, diaries, and letters left, we only have a limited amount of information about Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Hamlet was written in Elizabethan times and in fact is based on a play that was written prior to his, The History of Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus. While some say that a major inspiring factor of characters was his son, Hamnet, whom had passed away many years before. The play is based on Danish history, and Hamlet includes many references to the background of political figures and time periods. For example, the Essex Rebellion is often mentioned. Also, around the time Shakespeare wrote the play, Queen Elizabeth I was fairly old. She did not have children, nor was she married. Shakespeare raises many references about the Queen as well.

Major Characters

Hamlet: The main character of the play. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and son of Gertrude and King Hamlet. Due to his father's murder (by Claudius, King Hamlet's brother),and Claudius' new relationship with Queen Gertrude, Hamlet is stuck in a stage of depression, hatred, and revulsion. His strong emotions and thoughts ultimately create a new, irrational Hamlet whom often acts without thinking, although Hamlet happens to be very educated and intellectual.
: Hamlet's mother, Queen of Denmark. After her husband's death, Gertrude marries Claudius, disregarding Hamlet's sadness. Gertrude is often concerned with power, money, and status.
Claudius: Prince Hamlet's uncle, and King Hamlet's brother. He is the "villain" in the play. Claudius murders his brother to become King himself. Claudius marries Gertrude and like her, is determined by power, politics, and sexual relations with the Queen. In the play, however, a vulnerable side of Claudius is revealed, as he starts feeling guilty for his actions.
Ophelia: The daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes. With qalities such as young, beautiful, and innocent, Ophelia is Hamlet's love interest. She is often overwhelmed by the natural authority of men over women, and becomes a part of her father's spying-on-Hamlet plan. Although Ophelia loves Hamlet, his odd behavoir leads her to confusion and madness. Ophelia dies by drowning.
Polonius: An old man, father of Ophelia and Laertes. He is very sneaky in the way that he thinks and communicates with others. Polonius is also a significant figure in Claudius' court.
Horatio: Horatio lives to tell the story of Hamlet's life. Horatio has a close and true relationship with Hamlet. He was educated at the same university as Hamlet.
Laertes: The son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. He often contrasts with Hamlet. After hearing his fathers death, Laertes wants revenge on Hamlet. Laertes kills Hamlet with poison. The death of Polonius and Ophelia was Hamlet's fault (in the mind of Laertes).
Ghost: The ghost of Hamlet's father who often tells "his story" of his murder by Claudius. The ghost asks Hamlet to get even, or revenge with Claudius. Hamlet is confused whether or not the ghost is really his father, or if he is sent to make Hamlet crimeful.
Fortinbras: Fortinbras is the Prince of Norway. His father, also named Fortinbras, was the King of Norway, until King Hamlet (Hamlet's father) killed him. Fortinbras seeks revenge, just like Hamlet. His way of doing so, is to attack Denmark, where Hamlet's family rules.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: These two men have been friends with Prince Hamlet ever since they were young boys. They studied together at the same university. Because they know Hamlet so well, The King and Queen send for them to study Hamlet's bizzare behavoir, with hopes that they discover the problem with Hamlet.

The Central Conflict

The central conflict in Hamlet is known to be Hamlet's struggle and character. Throughout the play, Hamlet is practically obsessed with revenge. His close relationship with both his father and God are factors that drive him to punish those who have hurt him. With the visits of the ghost, Hamlet is indecisive, confused, and hesitant. Hamlet is driven into madness and ultimately is his own antagonist.
When evaluating this general conflict of tragedy themed plot, we can separate the conflict into external and internal. External conflicts, such as antagonists, character foils, and the influence of other characters play a big role in Hamlet. Internal conflicts such as self, morality, and justice were driving forces that helped Hamlet become insane. Hamlet's desire for revenge and holding grudges were steps to the central conflict, influenced by other characters. However, Hamlet's inner self drives him out of sane. His lack of control and his thoughts on God and morality take over his mind, body, and soul. While this internal conflict is more or less the basis for Hamlet, qualities of his external conflict combine to create this tragic hero character. Shakespeare does this intentionally. Rather than historical or political conflicts, Shakespeare creates a character with personal conflict. Hamlet as a character is relatable to a common reader in many ways.


Central Themes

  • People can't always be certain, even of the things they take for granted- This theme is tied to Hamlet's indecision throughout the entire play. While in most stories a character such as the ghost would be believed without a second thought, in Hamlet we are led to question the ghost and its motives. While it may simply be the ghost of Denmark's former king earnestly wishing for his son to avenge him, the ghost could actually be misinformed about its own death, or even be a demon trying to cause havoc on Earth. Hamlet himself is aware of this, and tests Claudius before commiting to his revenge. However, the audience is never told how much they can trust Claudius's reaction to the play in the castle. Further, the audience is left to wonder if they can truly be certain about the details of a murder with no living witnesses.

  • Taking action can have consequences, but is also useless if it isn't done- Another theme that deals with Hamlet's indecisive nature. Throughout the play, Hamlet constantly procrastinates from making any significant moves, fearful of the consequences that may arise. Hamlet continues to be indecisive, even as we see other characters taking action. However, the actions taken by these characters often come back to them. Claudius kills the king and seizes the throne, but begins to feel intense guilt as the play continues. Laertes enacts his revenge on Hamlet, but it ultimatly costs him his life with the very weapon he planned to use against Hamlet. Failure to act is also shown negatively, as Hamlet's constant procrastination allows Claudius and Laertes enough time to plot his downfall.

  • Death is the ultimate end to everything- Throughout the play, death is shown to be the one thing that can truly close any scenario. Hamlet's quest for revenge and all quests for revenge occuring within the play both start and end with death. In Hamlet's case, his quest begins with the murder of his father and ends with the killing Claudius. In addition to tying up affairs such as these, death is also shown as an escape from the pain of the real world. Ophelia commits suicide when the pain of life becomes too much to bear, and Hamlet considers the implications of suicide as a means of escaping pain more than once. He eventually decides that all or at least most people would probably kill themselves to escape the pain of living were it not for the fear of death itself.

Literary Movement and key elements


Key Quotations

  • "To be, or not to be: that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?" (Act 3, Scene 1)- This quote ties in with the theme of death as the ultimate end of pain. In this quote, Hamlet considers the moral ramifications of suicide as a means of escaping pain. He debates whether it is better for a man to endure his pain and keep on living, or to bring his pain to a swifter close on purpose through suicide.

  • "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!" (Act 2, Scene 2)- This quote relates to the theme of action and the choice of whether of not to take it. Hamlet describes man as being like an angel in action, but like a god in apprehension. This is an obvious irony, since Hamlet proves himself to be more prone to apprehension and contemplation than action. Rather than claim this as a personal trait or flaw, however, he places it as a common problem in all of mankind.

  • "O that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d his canon ’gainst self-slaughter!" (Act 1, Scene 2)- Another line from Hamlet relating to suicide. In this quote, he first wishes that he could use suicide as a means to escape his pain. However, he sees suicide as being barred from his options due to religion. He wishes to God that he had not made suicide a sin so that he could escape the pain of the world.

  • "O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!" (Act 4 Scene 5)- Another quote relating to the theme of action versus inaction. Hamlet makes this quote after witnessing an army of twenty thousand men prepared to fight and die for a useless plot of land in Poland. After seeing this, he wonders why he can't convince himself to carry out his own cause, which he sees as being much greater. He vows to stop thinking and finally carry out his plan.

Pivotal scenes


Works Cited

"Hamlet." William Shakespeare. Royal Shakespeare Company. 28 Apr 2008 <http://www.rsc.org.uk/hamlet/teachers/home.html>.

"Hamlet: the play by Shakespeare." Hamlet: the play by William Shakespeare. 28 Apr 2008 <http://www.william-shakespeare.info/shakespeare-play-hamlet.htm>.

Spark Notes. 28 Apr 2008 http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/hamlet/.