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Shakespeares Hamlet is a powerful revenge tragedy that exhibits the influence of the shifting
paradigms of the Elizabethan Era, manifesting in a complex play that explores deep, enduring
issues in a popular framework. Hamlet is, in my opinion, illustrative of the transitioning
times, in which human beings had to orient themselves in an increasingly inscrutable and
enigmatic world. This resulted from the ideas of figures such as Machiavelli, Luther and
Montaigne, who upset the hierarchical notions of virtue, order and salvation that had persisted
since the Middle Ages. Thus, Renaissance humanism, the Protestant Reformation and
Machiavellian Realpolitik are seen to influence the play, challenging medieval notions,
resulting in an intricate portrayal of human experiences in the Elizabethan framework of an
ordered world. Ultimately, Shakespeare, through depicting the debilitating effects of
deception and corruption that lead to the ensuing tragedy, advocates enduring values of order
and honesty.
Shakespeare explores several issues such as the distinction between reality and illusion,
mortality, and duty, which hold much contemporary relevance through their complex
portrayals. Shakespeares masterful employment of language and structure lends the play a
strong unity, which helps Hamlet achieve a universal appeal, and continual relevance through
the ages.
The exposition of Hamlet introduces key issues within the play, which are thenceforth
explored in nuanced and multifarious ways in the course of the tragedy.
Hamlets task of revenge is given in the context of the disjoint of Denmark, arising from a
corruption that has resulted in a pervading moral degradation and disorder. This is illustrated
by the motif of disease introduced within the first few lines; I am sick at heart. In the
Elizabethan context, this disorder arises from Claudius dishonest actions in usurping the
throne; by murdering Old Hamlet, who held the Divine Right of Kings, Claudius damages the
Great Chain of Being. Claudius instead attempts to maintain his power through Machiavellian
Realpolitik, exemplifying the shifting paradigm of power in Elizabethan times. This is
prevalent in Claudius opening speech, with the stylistic unification of opposites and
syntactical balance achieved within his speech, such as with one auspicious and one
dropping eye. Such unctuous speech characterizes Claudius as dissembling and effective in
maintaining a careful balancing act, as Machiavellian ascribes to political rulers. He is able
to naturalise what are contextually unnatural and morally repulsive acts with his smooth,
balanced rhetoric. Claudius devious character thenceforth introduces ideas of honesty, and
the disjunction between outer appearance and inner reality.
Hamlet refuses to be implicated in a court of disguises and moral corruption. This is
illustrated in his opening line, a little more than kin, and less than kind, an aside in which
Hamlet essentially presents himself as the audiences agent on the stage as well as introducing
the antagonism between Hamlet and the royal couple. This pun also illustrates Hamlets sharp
wit and intelligence, characterizing Hamlet as a Renaissance thinker who dissects the signifier

of its superficial meanings to introduce the complexities and nuances of meaning and
appearances, and so being confronted by the varied and fluid signified of multiple meanings
and identities. Likewise, Hamlet attempts to discern characters and their motives, thus made
aware of the multiple identities and certain unknowability of his world.
Hamlets first soliloquy establishes with the audience a genuine connection removed from the
elaborate language of the Castiglionian court. The soliloquy firmly characterizes Hamlet as a
Renaissance scholar through the various Classical allusions he employs, such as references to
Hyperion and Hercules. Hamlet also enters into an existential debate from this point,
reflecting on the shortcomings of life with his irregularly stressed and fragmented diction.
Particularly, he emphasizes his dissatisfaction with the world and human existence itself
through his cumulative listing in How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable. The contemplation
of suicide arising from his perceived shortcomings of the stale world introduces the
significance of mortality and Christianity within the play. With Hamlets existential cry for his
too solid flesh to melt, and the reflection upon the [Everlastings]canon gainst selfslaughter, comes Hamlets deep concern with these philosophical issues, resulting in an
internal paralysis. From this, I believe Coleridge aptly reflects, with the Romantic emphasis
on character, that Hamlets enormous intellectual activity results in a consequent
proportionate aversion to real action.
The soliloquy also establishes Hamlets dysfunctional relationship with both Claudius and
Gertrude. The recurrent images, such as the tainted prelapsarian garden and bestial imagery,
are used to illustrate Hamlets disgust with the royal couples sexuality. The Renaissancerevived Classical allusions are applied to juxtapose the idolized form of his father,
Hyperion, to the morally retrograde Claudius, the lecherous satyr. Furthermore, Hamlet
expresses a powerful reprobation to Gertrudes hasty remarriage and perceived lustful actions,
with the expression Frailty, thy name is woman. Gertrudes actions have resulted in Hamlet
constructing a binary opposition in his view of women; they are, in his eyes, either wholly
pure or wholly corrupt. This illustrates the restrictive nature of the patriarchal society on
women, who are placed in stereotypes that seemingly define their identity, where any
deviation (especially through exhibitions of sexuality) risks their being classified as whore.
Hamlets interactions with the Ghost introduce ideas of filial duty and mortality that further
shape the play. In line with revenge tragedy convention, the Ghost calls upon Hamlet to
revenge his foul and most unnatural murder, and so restore order to an increasingly
disordered world, a task that Hamlet prepares to fulfill. Specifically, the Ghost appeals to
Hamlets filial duty, his nature. In the Christian context, however, this task is, as expressed
by Hartley Coleridge, fraught with preternatural contradictions, for Christian doctrine
emphasizes individual duty to both God and family. As son, Hamlet is bound to avenge his
fathers murder; as a Christian, he is obligated to leave justice to God. Yet as Christian
humanism dictates, Hamlet holds engagement in the affairs of the world as an absolute
obligation, even while he considers his souls safety as paramount. Hence, the pagan symbol
of the Ghost, and the Ghosts medieval injunction of revenge, introduces a conundrum that
Hamlet, as a Christian humanist, must overcome so as to act. The Christian humanist scholar
Hamlets reaction to the Ghost and his subsequent inaction lend to my interpretation that the
play illustrates the impossibilities of living in a world of shifting paradigms, where old

ideologies grapple with new ones, leading to inherent contradictions. I believe these ideas of
duty have been attenuated by the modern context, where both filial and religious piety are of
less significance due to our contemporary values of individualism and secularism

Within the development of Hamlet, Hamlets antic disposition is of key significance. Though
a hallmark of the revenge tragedy form, Shakespeare also explores issues of appearances and
reality through this plot device. This performance of madness allows Hamlet to comment on
the realities of court, especially in regard to the obsequious mannerisms of Elsinores chief
sycophant, Polonius. Using puns and irony, Hamlet exposes Polonius physical failings,
holding an unflattering mirror to his advanced age; [old men] have plentiful lack of wit,
together with most weak hams. From Hamlet undertaking the antic disposition comes
pregnant replies, revealing realities he would otherwise have been unable to.
In a departure from the revenge tragedy form, however, Hamlet exhibits a reluctance to carry
out his task of revenge. There is no clear external obstacle; rather, I agree with Coleridge who
states that Hamlet has thoughts more vivid than his sensations, a psychological condition
that results in an imbalance between thought and action. This is especially clear in his
existentialist debates, particularly to be or not to be. In this soliloquy, Hamlet reflects upon
the meaning of human existence. Yet this humanistic internal debate undertaken by Hamlet in
an attempt to understand human existence falls into existential contemplation of the perpetual
mutability of the world. This is seen when the measured construction of diametric opposites
characterizing the first part of the speech lapses into cumulative rhetorical questions (who
would bearwho would fardels bear). Ultimately, despite Hamlets reasoning capabilities,
he can neither rationalize life nor the afterlife. This acknowledgement of the limitations of
human knowledge recalls Montaignes skeptical strain of humanism, a consideration that
resonates with modern audiences with the continual exploration of the fragmentation of
reality, identity and so existence in a postmodern world.
As a play that explores performance and how we are perceived by the outside world, the motif
of play-acting becomes central in the play. This is especially emphasized by the central role of
the players; the Mousetrap is indeed the play wherein [Hamlet catches] the conscience of the
king. Yet Shakespeare also ties in this conventional revenge tragedy plot device with a selfreflexive statement on the role of theatre in society. The actors are thus chroniclers of the
time, while performances hold the mirror up to nature. Shakespeare values the theatre as a
powerful way to reflect human nature a value that has undergone considerable change and
faced certain attenuation in contemporary society.


Shakespeare features a theatrical parody of the conventional revenge tragedy with the
anticlimactic confrontation between murderer and avenger in the prayer scene. Where the
audience most expects the already delayed action, Hamlet characteristically turns to thought
and reasoning. Despite priming himself for action, as seen in the witching hour soliloquy in
which Hamlet appropriates phrases from other revenge plays such as now could I drink hot
blood, Hamlet stalls when confronted with the praying Claudius. As a philosophical avenger,
Hamlet must consider the political, ethical and religious ramifications of the act,
demonstrating the contextual shift in paradigms. Once more, it is Hamlets internal conflict
with the changing ideologies that renders him inactive, as his tangle of philosophical
considerations once more outweigh action. The prayer scene is furthermore an exploration of
the incongruity between appearance and reality, as both antagonist and protagonist present
outward appearances inconsistent with their inner realities. Through dramatic irony,
Shakespeare highlights this disjunction between seeming and being, as he reveals, through the
character soliloquies, that neither characters thoughts correlate with their appearances.
Claudius is not the repentant sinner; Hamlet is not the bloodthirsty avenger. This deceptive
nature of appearances is emphasized by Claudius image of cosmetic concealment, the
harlots cheek, beautied with plastering art. The resultant delay in the revenge due to
Claudius outward show of religious piety reflects Montaignes notion that we live in a world
of appearances, a world that limits human reason and its ability to perceive the truth from
Shakespeare continues his subversion of the revenge tragedy form with the closet scene,
which provides the confrontation between mother and son as an imitation of revenge, a verbal
mirror for a violent reality. This confrontational scene can be seen as a parallel revenge plot;
T S Eliot expresses this view by identifying the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of
a son towards a guilty mother. Though I dont agree with this idea, I do believe this scene
reflects the strongly sexist and patriarchal values of the play that demand the purity of
women. In fact, there is a reversal of filial roles in this scene, where Hamlet turns to lecturing
his mother. Gertrude also submits to Hamlets dominant patriarchal role, as seen through her
question What shall I do? This mirrors Ophelia and her earlier compliance with Polonius
injunctions; as Leverenz states, Ophelia can only say I shall obey, my lord. Thus Hamlet
illustrates that in Elizabethan patriarchal society, women are defined by their relationships
with men. Any deviation from this, any show of female independence and sexual freedom, is
thus seen as perversive and morally degraded. Hamlet reflects this by linking female sexual
passions to a disease, describing Gertrudes act as something that takes off the rose from
innocent love and sets a blister there. There is also repetition of the garden image, as Hamlet
warns Gertrude not to spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker. By linking
female lust with the general corruption of Denmark itself, Hamlet demonstrates the
patriarchal restrictions on females in Elizabethan times.
The climax of the play, culminating with Polonius death, instigates Laertes revenge sub-plot.
Laertes is presented as a foil to Hamlet, with his decided actions in avenging Polonius given
as a sharp contrast with Hamlets philosophical ponderings and religious considerations.
Shakespeare employs a metaphor to compare Laertes to the ocean that eats not the flats

with more impitious haste, and his language is characterized by traditional revenge hero
conviction. I dare damnation, he declares resolutely, while Hamlet worries over
philosophical matters and dreams. Yet the means by which Laertes seeks revenge
specifically, complying with the Claudius treacherous plot against Hamlet positions the
audience to regard Laertes rashness as irresponsible and immoral. Hence, Shakespeare
positions us to value honesty and moral propriety, values that remain significant in our current
The graveyard scene is another example of Shakespeares adherence to the revenge tragedy
form, in this case the scene culminating in Hamlets anagnorisis. This also involves a deeper
exploration of human mortality, resulting in the shift in understanding of mortal destiny.
Where initially Hamlets contemplations of the afterlife leave him in a state of mental
paralysis, as indicated by disease imagery such as resolution is sicklied oer by the pale cast
of thought, philosophical debate is superseded by humour in this scene. This indicates
Hamlets shift to a Stoic acceptance of mortal destiny, in which he relinquishes his views of
humanitys godlike reason. For instance, he employs irony and whimsy to fantasise on how
even Alexander and Caesar may be reduced to dust stopping a bunghole. Accorded with a
new humility arising from a realization of the leveling power of death, as well as from being
outsmarted by the gravediggers sardonic wit, Hamlet is able to approach his mortal destiny
with a clear resolution. Hamlets anagnorisis transforms him from the existentialist
Renaissance man to a Christian who accepts the notions of destiny and providence. This is
indicated by Hamlets Biblical allusion There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow
and the repeated statement let be. The recognition of human limits (reflective of
Montaignes ideas) and the physicality of death within the graveyard scene continue to
fascinate modern audiences; however, the ideas of Christian providence are of less importance
in todays secular society.
The graveyard scene is a conventional revenge tragedy moment of anagnorisis, in which
Hamlet gains a clearer perception of the realities of human existence. Where once he reflects
Renaissance humanist ideas concerning the sovereignty of human reason, he capitulates to the
notions of mortal destiny and Fate. Hamlet exhibits a shift from the humanistic belief that,
through his individual actions, he can reinstate order and balance to the rotten word, as
indicated by cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right. In accordance with the disease
imagery that denotes the moral corruption of Elsinore, Hamlet presents himself as the doctor
that can cure the out of joint times. Yet in the graveyard scene, when faced with the
physicality of death, Hamlet is made aware of his inevitable mortal destiny, especially when
confronted by the very symbol of death Yoricks skull. This spurs Hamlets capitulation to
Providence and Fate, more medieval notions, with recognition that his godlike reason
cannot dictate the course of action. Such an idea is presented through the Biblical allusion to
the Gospel of St Matthew There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Hence,
the graveyard scene accords Hamlet with a new sense of humility and understanding, when
confronted with the physicality of death and the inevitability of mortal destiny. I believe this
scene continues to resonate with modern audiences, making us aware of our own inevitable


The final scene delivers the catharsis expected of the revenge tragedy form, in which there is
a sacrificial purgation of the corruption caused by Claudius usurpation of the rightful king.
There is thus a restoration of the natural cosmic order, as indicated by the succession of
Fortinbras, who has Hamlets dying voice. This is further reinforced by the restoration of
the rites of burial that were disturbed during the course of the play. Fortinbras orders for the
soldiers music and the rite of war speak loudly for [Hamlet], in contrast to Polonius who
was buried hugger-mugger and Ophelias maimed rites. However, despite the apparent
reinstatement of cosmic order, I believe modern audiences are more attuned to the apparent
loss of the most royal Hamlet, who represented the forward thinking ideologies of
Shakespeares time. With Fortinbras returns the militaristic code that characterized Old
Hamlets rule, with power dictated by military force. For me, the plays ending rather
reinforces the innate tragedy of the human condition; as another Romantic, Goethe, states,
Hamlet is a lovely, pure, noble and highly moral beingwho sinks beneath a load which it
cannot bear and must not renounce. With Hamlet dies the possibility of living in Montaignes
world of appearances, while still maintaining moral integrity.