Hamlet is a tragedy Shakespeare wrote between 1599 and 1602. A revenge play, it is his longest, lasting about four hours if performed uncut. It is also his most experimental, since its hero is a self-doubting thinker given to long-winded speeches, not a doer. In spite of how long it takes him finally to avenge his murdered father and kill his uncle, Hamlet has always been one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.
The play is profoundly philosophical, touching on such issues as existentialism; and the reason for Prince Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle, the usurping King Claudius, is one of the great mysteries of literature, for which many theories have been proposed. Some of these, as well as one of my own, will be examined below.
Hamlet is a goldmine of famous quotes. Here are but a few:
1. “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 65
2. “Frailty, thy name is woman!” –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 146
3. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 75
4. “This above all–to thine own self be true.” –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 78
5. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” –Marcellus, Act I, Scene iv, line 90
6. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 166-167
7. “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!” –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 189-190
8. “…brevity is the soul of wit,…” –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, line 90
9. “Words, words, words.” –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, line 191
10. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, lines 203-204
11. “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 249-250
12. “I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, how 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! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.” –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, about lines 295-309
13. “O! what a rogue and peasant slave am I!/Is it not monstrous that this player here,/But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/Could force his soul so to his own conceit/That from her working all his visage wann’d;/Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,/A broken voice, and his whole function suiting/With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!/For Hecuba!/What’s Hecuba to him or him to Hecuba,/That he should weep for her? What would he do,/Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,/And cleave the general ear with horrid speech;/Make mad the guilty, and appal the free,/Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed/The very faculties of eyes and ears./Yet I,/A dull and muddy-mettl’d rascal, peak,/Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,/And can say nothing; no, not for a king/Upon whose property and most dear life/A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward?/Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,/Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,/Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’ th’ throat/As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?/Ha!/’Swounds, I should take it; for it cannot be/But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall/To make oppression bitter, or ere this/I should ‘a fatted all the region kites/With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!/Remoreseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/O, vengeance!/Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,/That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,/Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,/And fall a-cursing like a very drab,/A scullion! Fie upon’t! foh!/About, my brains. Hum–I have heard/That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,/Have by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaim’d their malefactions;/For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players/Play something like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;/I’ll tent him to the quick. I ‘a do blench,/I know my course. The spirit that I have seen/May be a devil; and the devil hath power/T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds/More relative than this. The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 543-601
14. “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? To die, to sleep–/No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause. There’s the respect/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,/When he himself might his quietus make/With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,/To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/But that the dread of something after death–/The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns–puzzles the will,/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of?/Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/And thus the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pitch and moment,/With this regard, their currents turn awry/And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!/The fair Ophelia.–Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins rememb’red.” –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, lines 56-90
15. “Get thee to a nunnery.” –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, 121
16. “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipp’d for o’erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.” –Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii, lines 1-14
17. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” –Gertrude, Act III, Scene ii, line 225
18. “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” –Claudius, Act III, Scene iii, lines 97-98
19. “Let it work./For ’tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard; and’t shall go hard/But I will delve one yard below their mines/And blow them at the moon.” –Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv, lines 205-209
20. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies,/But in battalions!” –Claudius, Act IV, Scene v, lines 75-76
21. “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.” –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, about lines 179-180
22. “Let Hercules himself do what he may./The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.” –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, lines 285-286
23. “Not a whit, we defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come–the readiness is all.” –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, about lines 211-216
24. “The rest is silence.” –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, line 350
25. “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” –Horatio, Act V, Scene ii, 351-352
There are so many themes in this great play as almost to overwhelm the analyst, so we will start by listing those that will be looked at here. They are the following: sons avenging fathers; death–in the forms of murder (including regicide) and suicide; madness (real and feigned); action vs. inaction; and the uselessness of words vs. the need for action.
Hamlet isn’t the only son avenging his father’s murder. So is Laertes, who zealously wishes to avenge the murder of his father, Polonius, at Hamlet’s rash hand. Elsewhere, young prince Fortinbras wishes to avenge his father by taking back for Norway all the territory that Old Hamlet took from Old Fortinbras (Old Hamlet also killed Old Fortinbras). Then there is Pyrrhus who, as recounted by the First Player in his “passionate speech”, avenged the murder of his father, Achilles, by killing King Priam during the sacking of Troy.
Death is an extensively explored theme in this play. One poignant example is when Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull and, with Horatio in the graveyard scene (see Quote 21), meditates on the dead jester’s life. It saddens Hamlet to contemplate how this jester, so dear and beloved to Hamlet when he was a child, is now reduced to nothing by death…and Hamlet is now actually holding Yorick’s skull in his hand!
Similarly, great men of history, like Alexander the Great, are now each reduced to a skull and bones, no better than a beggar. Also, it astonishes Hamlet that the First Clown (the gravedigger) can so coolly, and disrespectfully, pat with a spade the skulls of men who once may have been lawyers or other respectable men of society. Death makes us all equal.
Moving over to more particular forms of death, there is much murder, especially regicide, in Hamlet. Old Hamlet was the king of Denmark until his murder, before the play begins. Prince Hamlet must avenge him by killing Claudius, the prince’s uncle and usurping king. And by killing his uncle, Hamlet will be as guilty of regicide as Claudius is.
These aren’t the only regicides, though. Old Fortinbras was killed by Old Hamlet. Then there’s the First Player’s recounting of Pyrrhus’ killing of King Priam. Also, Polonius mentions portraying, when he was young, Julius Caesar in a play, killed by Brutus; now, though Caesar was a dictator rather than a king, his assassination is close enough to be at least a variation on regicide. It’s certainly no less a murder.
Other murders, accidental or deliberate, are those of Polonius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself.
From murder we move on to suicide, whether successfully (if accidentally) committed or merely contemplated. Ophelia drowns herself in a brook: at the very least, she, in her madness, fails to pull her head above water; at most, she deliberately drowns herself in her despair over losing Hamlet’s love (or so it seems to her), losing her father Polonius, and losing her sanity. The clownish gravediggers later debate, in a parody of legal language, whether or not she’s committed suicide, and therefore deserves a Christian burial.
Contemplations of suicide are done by Hamlet (“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 cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!”; see also Quote 14), and by Horatio at the end of the play, when he wishes to drink from the poisoned cup as he watches Hamlet dying.
From death we must move to the theme of madness. We’ve already briefly looked at Ophelia’s madness, she who sings bawdy songs and acts wildly after enduring (as she sees it) Hamlet’s madness, his ill-treatment of her, and his murdering of Polonius.
Then we have Hamlet’s madness. Presumably, he’s only faking it to distract everyone from his plotting to kill Claudius. Certainly he insists he’s only “mad in craft,” and, interesting first word here, “essentially…not in madness.”
Could he, however, really be mad? Hamlet himself wonders about that possibility from time to time (Raving abusively at poor Ophelia during his ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ rant in Act III, Scene i, he shouts, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.”). He has, after all, seen a ghost, and in the pre-modern world of this play, when people were ignorant of modern psychiatry, seeing a ghost is pretty much tantamount to being possessed by an evil spirit, and therefore to going mad. To be sure, Horatio and Marcellus warn Hamlet not to go alone with the ghost of Old Hamlet, for fear of the prince going mad (Horatio warns Hamlet in Act I, Scene iv, “What if it [the ghost] tempt you toward the flood, my lord, […]/And there assume some…horrible form,/Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness? Think of it…”).
Next, we must examine the theme of action versus inaction. We all know of Hamlet’s inability to act, except at the end of the play, when he knows he’s dying from the scratch of a poisoned rapier. (We will leave discussion of this famous mystery until the end of the analysis.) Other examples of this theme, from one extreme to the other, and with several intermediate points along the continuum, are worth exploring first.
Fortinbras represents the extreme of action; his name literally means, ‘strong arm’. The only thing that keeps him from achieving his goal, reached at the very end of the play, is geography: the Norwegian prince must travel a great distance with his army to reconquer the Polish lands, then conquer Denmark and become its new king. He is, nonetheless, firmly resolute in going after what he wants.
Perhaps only slightly less resolute is Pyrrhus, who briefly hesitates before striking down King Priam with his sword. (So recounts the First Player: “So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood/And, like a neutral to his will and matter,/Did nothing./[…] so, after Pyrrhus’ pause,/A roused vengeance sets him new a-work;/And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall/On Mars’s armour, forg’d for proof eterne,/With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword/Now falls on Priam.”)
Next, we have Laertes, who, though wildly resolute in avenging his father, even to the point of traitorously threatening Claudius, nonetheless cools off somewhat as he and Claudius plot the killing of Hamlet in a duel. Certainly Claudius wonders about Laertes’ commitment to revenge. (In Act IV, Scene vii, the king says, “Not that I think you did not love your father;/But that I know love is begun by time,/And that I see, in passages of proof,/Time qualifies the spark and fire of it./There lives within the very flame of love/A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;/And nothing is at a like goodness still;/For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,/Dies in his own too much. That we would do,/We should do when we would; for this ‘would’ changes,/And hath abatements and delays as many/As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;/And then this ‘should’ is like a spendthrift’s sigh/That hurts by easing.”)
Perhaps the crowning theme of this play is the uselessness of words versus the need for action. Hamlet isn’t Shakespeare’s longest play for nothing. Indeed, it is overloaded with words and very slow-moving action (see Quote 9), not that this apparent lop-sidedness detracts from the play’s worth, of course; for the whole message of the play can be summed up in the old cliche, ‘action speaks louder than words’.
Reference is constantly made to any character’s effusive or bombastic use of language. For example, when Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude what he believes to be the “very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy,” all he needs to say is that Hamlet has gone mad from Ophelia’s rejection of his love; instead, Polonius speaks in the most absurdly prolix manner, even hypocritically saying that being laconic is preferable to being loquacious (see Quote 8). Gertrude feels compelled to tell the chatterbox to use “More matter with less art.”
Earlier, he is similarly hypocritical with Laertes in advising his son to “Give everyone thy ear, but few thy voice.” Then there’s his disparaging of the First Player’s passionate speeches about Priam and Hecuba, his own interrupting words angering Hamlet (Polonius: “This is too long.” Hamlet snaps, “It shall to the barber’s, with your beard.”).
Another example of needlessly pompous language is towards the end of the play, when Osric tells Hamlet of Laertes’ challenge to a sword duel. (The foppish courtier says, “Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, of very soft society and great showing. Indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.”) Indeed, Hamlet and Horatio comment on what a pretentious fool Osric is, right to his face.
During the same scene, Hamlet tells Horatio of when he was on the boat to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He forged letters replacing the original order to kill him with one to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and he, for a change, made practical use of the grandiloquent writing style, overloaded with similes and metaphors, that is the convention used in such letters. (“I sat me down/Devis’d a new commission; wrote it fair./I once did hold it, as our statists do,/a baseness to write fair, and labour’d much/How to forget that learning; but, sir, now,/It did me yeoman’s service.” Hamlet goes on to describe the letter, quoting what he wrote thus: “An earnest conjuration from the King,/As England was his faithful tributary,/As love between them like the palm might flourish,/As peace should be her wheaten garland wear,/And stand a comma ‘tween their amities,/And many such like as-es of great charge.”)
Hamlet feels no prickings of conscience from sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, for, when Claudius–fearful of his royal person–tells the prince’s two false friends to take Hamlet to England, even though they perhaps don’t know they are to be taking Hamlet to be executed there, they are clearly on the corrupt king’s side. Indeed, they saturate Claudius with boot-licking words of how dependant all of Denmark is on the king’s safety. (Rosencrantz says, ” The single and peculiar life is bound/With all the strength and armour of the mind/To keep itself from noyance; but much more/That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests/The lives of many. The cease of majesty/Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw/What’s near it with it. It is a massy wheel,/Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,/To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things/Are mortis’d and adjoin’d; which when it falls,/Each small annexment, petty consequence,/Attends the boist’rous ruin.”)
Now we must go to an exploration of how none of this useless garrulousness can replace much-needed action. When Hamlet is angry over his mother’s incestuous marriage to his uncle, he says, “break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” Indeed, he must not speak: he must act, and we all know he can’t do that. He can’t even act on his contemplated suicide in the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.
Hamlet isn’t the only one who cannot act, though: neither can Claudius, racked with guilt over having murdered his brother, and incapable of real repentance. For if he repents, he must give up everything–his crown, his queen, and his life. After being executed for murder and treason, he’d have his memory stained also as an incestuous adulterer. All he can do is insincerely pray for forgiveness: more useless words! (See quote 18.)
And what of Ophelia? Did she really actively commit suicide in falling into the brook, or did she merely passively allow herself to be submerged while she, in her madness, distractedly sang the words of her songs? The gravediggers debate whether or not she acted in her drowning, as we discussed above.
And finally, we must come to Hamlet’s own inaction…till the end of the play. He finally does act, but why wait till after so many deaths? He’s not afraid to kill: after all, he reverses the king’s order for his own execution in England so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be killed instead; he also, quite impulsively and thus contrary to his normal sense of caution, kills Polonius.
Indeed, where did this wanton killing of Polonius come from? He claims he thinks it’s the king behind the arras, but why would Claudius hide there, so soon after praying in his own room? Surely Hamlet knew it was probably someone other than the king. Most likely, conflicted Hamlet just lashed out and killed someone, out of a wish to have at least acted in some general sense.
Many theories have been proposed for Hamlet’s delayed revenge, and I will look at some of these, while showing their faults, before proposing my own explanation.
The first is a simple, practical explanation: delaying Hamlet’s revenge is a plot device, intended to lengthen the play to a duration sufficient for the Elizabethan equivalent of a feature film. The prince would have had easy access to Claudius. All he’d need to do is ask for a private moment with the king, then when the two were all alone, Hamlet would pull out his rapier and kill Claudius. Had the prince no inhibitions about getting his revenge, the play would have been over in about a half hour.
Such an explanation shows Shakespeare’s reasons for having Hamlet delay, but it doesn’t provide Hamlet’s reasons for waiting so long. Indeed, Hamlet himself doesn’t know. (Before getting on the boat for England, he says, “Now, whether it be/Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple/Of thinking too precisely on th’ event–/A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom/And ever three parts coward–I do not know/Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’,/Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,/To do’t.”)
Some have suggested that Hamlet, knowing he was no better, felt sorry for Claudius: I don’t see how the prince, spewing such contempt on his uncle, would ever sympathize with him. Consider when he rants at his mother in her bedroom: “Here is your husband, like a mildew’d ear/Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?/Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,/And batten on this moor?”
It is true that Hamlet, in killing Claudius, would be as usurping and regicidal as his uncle was in killing Old Hamlet, and therefore would be no better than Claudius. Such moral hypocrisy would send Hamlet to Hell. This proposed idea would explain Hamlet’s delay, but not his final killing of Claudius.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote that Hamlet knew that his revenge would make no difference in the larger sphere of things. We all live, and we all die: the universe rolls merrily along, as it were, regardless of what petty decisions we make in our all too brief, all too insignificant lives. Hamlet thus sees getting revenge as pointless. Again, Hamlet’s delaying is explained, but his final getting of revenge is left unanswered.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud gives a fascinating theory–the Oedipus Complex. Claudius, in murdering Hamlet’s father and marrying his mother, has acted out an unconscious fantasy of the prince’s. Though Hamlet doesn’t know it, deep down, he wishes he’d killed his father and climbed into bed with Gertrude! (20th century productions so often show Hamlet having a thing for his mother.)
He can’t bring himself to kill Claudius, because he’s always wanted to do what his uncle has done. Again, Hamlet fears moral hypocrisy sending him to Hell. And again, this theory explains the delay, but not the final act of vengeance.
Now I will propose my theory.
I believe that part of what makes Hamlet, like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, one of the greatest tragedies ever written, is its treatment of the subject of regicide, a crime that dates back to prehistoric, pagan times, when the aging king was killed by his younger replacement in a rite of human sacrifice (see such books as Frazer’s Golden Bough for a plethora of examples). Though a horrible thing to do, killing the sacred king was considered necessary for the survival of the community.
These killings were distorted in the ancient memory of oral tradition and transformed into myths of, for example, dying and resurrecting gods (see Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths for many examples). Hamlet, I believe, can also be considered such an adaptation of a crime committed throughout history and lodged in our unconscious minds, ever eager to be given new expression in a myth or play.
Killing a king is considered one of the worst crimes to commit, for it combines murder with treason. Furthermore, Claudius commits fratricide as well as regicide, and Hamlet must also kill a family member, making the crime all the more hideous and unnatural. Yet to leave his father’s murder unavenged would be utterly unfilial. Hamlet must kill Claudius.
Hamlet must examine his true motives for revenge, already an act that’s paralyzingly paradoxical in its extremes of good and evil. Is he killing Claudius for his father, or for himself, so he can be the next king of Denmark?
As long as Hamlet is alive and well, he cannot go through with the revenge and physically do it: he can only plot, talk about it in long-winded speeches (Quote 13), and kill other people, those far from his conscience. It’s often said that he can’t make up his mind, but he has made it up: he just can’t act.
He is psychologically paralyzed by the extreme good of his necessary revenge (revenge for the love of his father, and the morally needed killing of an incestuous regicide) and the extreme evil of his vengeance (Hamlet’s own guilt in committing regicide).
It is only when he knows he’s dying from “the point envenom’d” that he kills Claudius, and when he finally acts, he acts quickly and decisively, totally unlike his hitherto hesitant attitude. Presumably, when he finally acts, he can feel the poison’s beginning effect on his body, and thus knows there’s no doubt he’s really dying.
Because he’s dying, he knows his revenge can’t at all be from selfish motives: he won’t replace Claudius as king; as he hears Fortinbras approaching with his army, he predicts the Norwegian prince will be king instead. Now Hamlet’s revenge is only for his father, so he can do it guiltlessly. The real tragedy of the play, however, is that not only he, but so many others must die alongside Claudius.