William Shakespeare


William Shakespeare
Written between 1600-1602
First publication: 1603


Historical Context
Elsinore, Denmark

The setting of the play takes place in Elsinore in Eastern Denmark. There is not much evidence to support that Hamlet was written in repsonse to a worldly event at the time but more of a personal event in Shakespeare's own life. A few years prior to the publishing of Hamlet the plague had taken over Stafford-upon-Avon and killed Shakespeare's only son Hamnet.The character Hamlet is therefore suspected to have been named after Hamnet, who Shakespeare sometimes called Hamlette. [3]

Literary Movement

Hamlet is linked to the Humanistic literary movement.

Humanism in General:
Renaissance humanism was based upon Greek and Latin texts. This movement represented the shift from a “contemplative life” to an “active life”. Therefore, humanism stressed an importance among being involved publically, morally, and politically rather than being focused on religious devotion and meditation. Renaissance humanism generated great fascination in human’s experience. The senses were also an important aspect of this movement. Human beings were known as social creatures in which their lives depended upon their association with other human beings. Crucial elements to humanists were individual achievement, extent of knowledge, and personal aspiration. Humanists purpose to developing reason behind human’s experience was to understand how to act when placed in different situations. Knowing this, it would lead to greater benefits in society for them. As humanism progressed into different countries, different people began to examine the movement. Michel de Montaigne was also interested in human experience. He pointed out that human experience is dependent upon the truth that lies within it. Therefore, an experience is not legitimate unless one truly knows the “realities” of it. [1]

Humanism in Hamlet:
A major part of humanism that Shakespeare incorporates into Hamlet is the idea of knowing the “realties” of a situation. The characters in the play are constantly searching for the truth within each other.

Hamlet for example does not display his actual emotions as he “puts on an act” regarding his sanity. Another aspect of humanism is individualism. This is evident in Hamlet because Hamlet is only concerned with getting what he wants, rather than the people he hurts along the way.

“So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word. It is “adieu, adieu, remember me.” I have sworn’t” (Act 1, Scene 5). [2]
This quotation is when Hamlet finds out that Claudius is the one that poisoned his father. The fact that Hamlet immediately wants to kill his uncle without question shows that he does not think about other people. He does not think how this would affect anyone else, yet he only thinks how it would better himself by killing Claudius.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals” (Act 2, Scene 2)
. [2]

This quotation reinstates many of Montaigne's ideas. It is clear that this important quote echo’s his belief regarding the “realities” among humans. Here,
Hamlet is trying to piece together what exactly the human is like. It is difficult for Hamlet to describe the many qualities and reasoning’s behind each individual and their experiences. Evidently, this directly parallels with the humanistic approach to understanding human reasoning.

King Claudius also represents aspects of humanism.

"I like him not, nor stand it safe with us to let his madness rage. Therefore prepare you...the terms of our estate may not endure hazard so dangerous as doth hourly grow out of his lunacies" (Act 3, Scene 3). [2]
Through his desire to get rid of Hamlet he shows how his lack of religious devotion and his lack of moral involvement. He is only concerned with his own well-being and will do anything to keep himself in power without competition. Without really knowing what Hamlet is up to he automatically judges Hamlet's act of insanity and perceives him as a threa to his power and decides to do anything, even to the point of killing him, in order to eliminate whatever competition Hamlet provides to his throne.

Major Characters

Hamlet: Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is the son of the Queen, Gertrude and the late King of Denmark, and the nephew of the present King, Claudius. After Hamlet learns that Claudius is the one that killed his father, he immediately wants to kill Claudius. Right away, Hamlet is depressed and extremely angry at his mother for moving on so quickly after his father's death, as well as bitter that she married his uncle. These strong feelings towards Claudius ultimately create a "new" Hamlet, one who acts extremely irrationally. His impulsive actions reflect the fact that he often does not think rationally before doing something.

Claudius: Claudius is the King of Denmark and is married to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. Claudius killed Hamlet's father by placing poison into his ear simply to take his place as the King. He is the villain of the play as he is only concerned with maintaining control and power. Claudius is very self-centered and has a hunger for power and ruling over others.

Polonius: The father of Laertes and Ophelia. He has a well-established position in the court as being the counselor to the King. His personality is manipulative by the way he communicates and interacts with the other characters.

Laertes: The son of Polonius and Ophelia's brother. Laertes blames the death of both Polonius and Opehelia on Hamlet and therefore wants revenge on Hamlet. He eventually gains his revenge by wounding Hamlet with his blade, which was poisoned by Claudius, but dies when Hamlet stabs him with the same blade.

Ophelia: The daughter of Polonius and the sister to Laertes. Ophelia is a young and beautiful woman who finds herself in a relationship with Hamlet. However, when Hamlet transforms his personality, she becomes overwhelmed and shocked by his moods. As one who will listen to whatever he father says, she agrees to spy on Hamlet when he is considered to have gone mad. Ophelia herself becomes mad after the death of her father and she eventually dies by drowning.

Fortinbras: Fortinbras is the Prince of Norway. Hamlet's father killed Fortinbras's father (also named Fortinbras). Fortinbraexternal image 3159417.jpg?v=1&c=ViewImages&k=2&d=5BCEFAA07678B603AD9E30870410286EA55A1E4F32AD3138s's revenge upon Hamlet parallels to Hamlet's revenge upon Claudius. They are both concerned with avenging their father's death. In the end, Hamlet appoints Fortinbras as his heir.

The Ghost: The ghost of Hamlet's father appears in Act One and he tells his story of how he was killed and who killed him. This sparks Hamlet's impulsiveness to kill Claudius.

Gertrude: She is the Queen of Denmark and Hamlet's mother. Shortly after her husband's death, she marries Claudius. Although she loves Hamlet dearly, she ignores his strong opposition to the marriage. As a character, she is more concerned with her wealth and status than moral views. She dies when she drinks from a cup in which Claudius has put poison.

Horatio: Horatio is one of Hamlet's closest friend's and remains the only one loyal to him throughout the play. When Hamlet dies, Horatio remains to explain to people the life of Hamlet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: These men were long time friends of Hamlet. Knowing this, the King and Queen sent them to spy on Hamlet's bizzare in hopes of discovering what's wrong. They are carrying a letter that has instructions to kill Hamlet. However, Hamlet gets a hold of the letter and switches their names in place of his.

Central Conflict

"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?

The central conflict in Shakespeare's Hamlet revolves around this significant quote; every character is faced with a decision between action and contemplation when unfavorable circumstances are put before them. In the case of Fortinbras, the sudden death of his father galvanizes him into action, and he hastily embarks on a bloody path of revenge, instead of taking the time to map out a plan. Hamlet, on the contrary, spends the play plotting revenge against his uncle, and ultimately dies before have the chance to avenge his father's death. Laerte's, whose father Polonius is accidentally slain by Hamlet, seems to be the example of a middle path, and is the only one to achieve his ultimate goal- he both plans his course of action, by poisoning the tip of his rapier and planting poison in the cup of drink, and follows through with the action, scratching Hamlet enough to poison and kill him. The conflict pervading the text as a whole, then, is that of action versus contemplation- whether it is "nobler in the mind to suffer," or to "take arms against a sea of troubles." All three sons, Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes, are presented with the same circumstances, and each reacts in a different way, showing all the potential responses to this internal conflict. Fortinbras's rash actions lead him through his own hardships, and he reaches Denmark too late to perform his duty to his father. Hamlet's lengthy contemplation, and subsequent lack of actions, render him unable to kill the king by his own design; rather, his uncle's death, as well as the death of Laertes are strokes of fate. Only Laertes, who both planned his actions and executed them, was able to kill Hamlet, though he died an untimely death in the process. Thus, Shakespeare's view seems to be that the solution to this central conflict lies in performing both halves of the equation, acting and planning.

Central Themes

The need for revenge can lead a person to their own ending
Revenge is a central idea in the play as Hamlet is seeking to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle Claudius. When he sees his father in the form of a ghost, Hamlet is told by his father to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Act 1, Scene 5). [2] In order to avert the suspicions of others, Hamlet decides that he will pretend to be mad so that his actions are less questionable. When an acting troupe arrives, Hamlet comes up with a plot to stage a play that reenacts his father’s death with the hope of getting Claudius to confess to the murder. After his mother calls him to her room wanting a reason for his actions that night, Hamlet and Gertrude end up in a confrontation. When he hears a noise behind a curtain, Hamlet suspects that Claudius is spying and in due course kills Polonius, who really was behind the curtain. Laertes, the son of Polonius, is outraged by the death of his father and decides to seek revenge on Hamlet. In the final moments of the play, Laertes wounds Hamlet with a poisoned blade, but ends up wounding himself in the process.
The revenge that Hamlet and Laertes both tried to seek ultimately led both of them to their deaths. Hamlet decides to seek his revenge by trying to kill Claudius, but kills Polonius by mistake, setting off Laertes on his quest for his revenge. Hamlet causes his own ending by performing an act of madness that leads Laertes to kill Hamlet, as well as himself.
One's fatal flaw can ultimately lead to his demise

Hamlet's fatal flaw is considered to be his hesitation. When Gertrude calls for Hamlet to come to her room after he stages a play reenacting the murder of his father, he passes Claudius as he makes his way to speak with his mother. As Claudius was praying at the moment, Hamlet decides not to fulfill his need for revenge by killing his uncle as he believes killing someone while he is praying will send that person to heaven. Because Hamlet hesitates and doesn't kill Claudius, he accidentally kills Polonius, which puts Laertes on his quest to kill Hamlet. Hesitation ultimately leads Hamlet to his demise as he is killed by Laertes, which would not have happened if he followed through with killing Claudius when he had a chance.

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 III, Scene 1
  • This quotes contains the key to the central conflict within Hamlet, as it explains that Hamlet's main decision is that between planning revenge and actually taking action. It is apparent in Fortinbras that rash action without planning is illogical, but the character of Hamlet makes it evident that extensive planning without action is also illogical. It seems to be Laertes's middle path that leads to the desired outcome. (See Central Conflict for a deeper explanation)

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals” Act II, Scene 2.
  • This quote connects to the main idea of Humanism, and shows the idea of the era, that man was a creature unlike any other. Shakespeare's praise of mankind seems to coincide with the personalities of various characters in Hamlet. The infinite faculties of reason are clearly visible in Hamlet, and the aspect of action is present in Fortinbras. (See Literary Movement for a deeper explanation)

"Frailty, thy name is woman!" Act I, Scene 2
  • When analyzing the women in Hamlet, the connecting idea seems to be their frailty, and the ease in which they fall subject to circumstances. The Queen is easily wooed by her own brother-in-law, and cannot see his guilt and the hand he played in killing her husband. This frailty leads to their incestuous relationship, and is one of the underlying causes beneath Hamlet's madness. Ophelia, upon discovering Hamlet's apparent madness and her father's death, is unable to carry the burden, and drowns herself, once again showing the frailty of women.

"This above all: to thine own self be true." Act I, Scene 3
  • This quote shows Shakespeare's belief that ultimately, each one of us will fulfill the duties that our nature will allow us to fulfill. Each character in Hamlet performs his/her duty according to his/her ability and nature, and is thus true to themselves. Hamlet follows his tendency to overthink; Claudius kills his brother in order to be true to his own desires; the Queen remarries hastily to be true to her own needs, whether sexual or emotional; Fortinbras follows his action-oriented nature after his fathers' death, and so on.

Pivotal Scenes

Hamlet sees the ghost of his father
When Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, he can believe his eyes and is not sure if what he is seeing is just a figment of his imagination or if the ghost is actually there. In fact, there are a few occurances throughout the play that Hamlet still tries to figure out if he was deceived by the ghost. Hamlet's father puts Hamlet on the quest to avenge his murder. This scene is important as it sets the action for the rest of the play, which revolves around Hamlet trying to fulfill his need for revenge against Claudius and the events that occur as a result of Hamlet's actions. Had the ghost of King Hamlet not appeared, it is questionable to whether Hamlet would have seeked revenge for his father's murder in the capacity that he did and if the events in the play would have unfolded in the same way.

Hamlet kills Polonius
This scene is pivotal to the themes of the play as it shows how both a fatal flow and the need for revenge, can lead to one's demise. In the scene leading up to this one, Hamlet passes Claudius, who is praying, on the way to meet with his mother, but hesitates to killing him as he believes Claudius will end up in heaven if he is killed while in prayer. As he waits to kill Claudius, Hamlet ends up killing Polonius by accident after mistakenly identifying the noise behind the curtain in his mother's room to be Claudius, while it really is Polonius spying. After learning of his father's death, Laertes is furious and sets off on his own quest to seek revenge on Hamlet. In the end, Hamlet is wounded by Laertes poisoned sword, which Hamlet then kills Laertes with, and the both eventually die. Because his hesitation stopped him from killing Claudius when he had the chance, Hamlet ending up causing his own demise
The duel in the final scene
The duel in the final scene
because he killed Polonius which set off Laertes to kill him. The theme that the need for revenge can end up in one's demise is shown here as the need for revenge by Hamlet and Laertes ultimately causes them to kill each other in the end.

The final scene
The final scene in the play, where all the secrets have been revealed to those present and most of the characters end up dying, is important as it ties the story together and establishes the themes of the play. The quests for revenge by Hamlet and Laertes are both fulfilled when Hamlet kills Claudius and Laertes wounds Hamlet, causing his death. The theme that the need for revenge will ultimately cause one's own ending is also established because Laertes, while seeking the end of his quest, is wounded by his own blade, causing his death.

Works Cited

1. Melani, Lilia. "Humanism." Introduction to the Renaissance. 17 AUG 2000. 27 Apr 2008 <>.

2. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992.

3. "Hamlet." Wikipedia. 28 Apr 2008 <>.